On Tuesday, August 18th, I’ll be presenting some of my thinking about Critical Digital Participatory Practices to educator colleagues at the Ottawa Catholic School Board. Slides here. Full text will be posted after the presentation for anyone who missed the talk.
Full Text of the talk here:
Thank yous — to Alison Kinahan, and to the OCSB for the opportunity. Thanks to participants for giving me their very precious time this morning — a real gift, given the particularities of this back-to-school moment.
As a settler Canadian, I would also like to acknowledge that this talk has been developed on the traditional unceded territories of the Algonquin people.
I don’t usually start my talks with this emoji…but somehow, today, it feels like the right one. I’m not sure how you feel. To me, the world has felt rather topsy turvy — in part, because Education — a cause to which every person on this call is undoubtedly committed — feels like maybe it’s shifting, changing or taking a turn toward something that is necessary, but not necessarily better for kids, communities, families, teachers. There is a lot of talk about this pandemic moment being the time to “reimagine” education — and it won’t likely surprise you that the loudest voices for this “reimagining” tend to come from tech companies who stand to profit handsomely from this global digital pivot. However, as my colleague Andy Hargreaves wrote recently in a Washington Post OpEd,
When they get back to school, children will not need more of the anytime-anywhere Big Tech strategy. […] Learning in the here and now in school will need more human and less hybrid learning. It will need less technology, or more judicious use of it, than most kids have experienced during covid-19.
My talk, today focuses on the judicious use of tech. My goal is to help you find ways to support your learners in becoming more connected, more critical and more confident users of digital texts and tools, in ways that allow them to become adults who have thinking frameworks that enable them to question the role of digital technologies in their lives.
My talk is inspired by the work of many people, but in particular, it’s inspired by a question posed by Luci Pangrazio in her book entitled Young People’s Literacies in the Digital Age — she asks “How have we arrived at a situation in which we adapt to technology, rather than it being adapted to us?”
I’m going to assert that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can leverage digital tools in ways that are more humanizing and more empowering — but, as a community of educators, we get a lot of mixed messaging about digital technologies and we need opportunities — like this one — to talk about setting priorities that align not just with the surface-level, Ministry mandated directives for “distance learning” or technology use, but also with deeply held understandings of what Education (big E) is for in the first place — which, for me centres on helping children develop critical mindsets that will enable them to participate fully in all aspects of their lives in Canada and around the world.
From my perspective, this moment — as disruptive as it feels to me — may be an opportunity to start a new kind of critical ripple effect. Out of this digital necessity, we could educate a generation of kids and teens to be more critical of digital systems than ever before;
they could graduate ready to reject or change digital systems and structures that we use, but don’t always critique — even though we know digital platforms are used to disinform, to polarize the public, and to predict behaviours in ways that many scholars, including Ezter Hargittai, Cathy O’Neil, and Sara Wachter-Boetcher have shown widen gaps among the most privileged and the most vulnerable in our communities.
The title of my talk is Unpacking the complexities of participatory digital literacies practices for K-12 learners. And to do this unpacking, I’m going to make three assertions about technological systems and the ways that we think about them in education that will lead us to think about how to teach participatory digital literacies practices through a CRITICAL lens. For me, a critical lens helps us to focus on the design of systems, on who benefits from those systems, and on teaching students to become more aware of the ways that digital platforms and networks shape how they think, feel and act.
So, I’m going to do that classic structural thing that English teachers are always trying to teach their students to do. I’m going to tell you my three big assertions, define some things and then present my arguments for each assertion, okay? 🙂
My first assertion is that the digital infrastructures that have been integrated into our systems of schooling over the past 25 years (or so) have fundamentally changed our teaching and learning ecosystems. You might be thinking that this is pretty obvious — but in this part of my talk, I will spend a little time thinking through what has been gained and what has been lost along the way.
Second, I assert that technologies and technological systems are often seen as these impossibly complex, almost impervious, incomprehensible magical black boxes that can really only be known by the techies over in IT or by Silicon Valley computer geniuses — but that when we think this way, we also give away power that can make us — and our students — feel vulnerable. In this part of my talk, I’m going to explore what this means for the choices we make abou using digital tech in our teaching.
My third assertion is about solutions. I assert that one way to work toward a future where citizens use digital tools in humanizing, critical ways, that work for THEM, includes an intentional focus on instructional practices that centralize — rather than avoid — digital collaboration, digital design, creation and participation.
Before we move on, I need to define what I mean by digital literacies, by digital literacies practices and by critical digital participation practices.
Okay — so digital literacies. For me, digital literacies are all of the skills, practices, mindsets and ways of thinking needed to make meaning with digital texts, from digital texts, and in digitally mediated environments. My colleague Megan Cotnam-Kappel and I have used this image to orient participants in our Digital Equity research project. And you can see that for us, digital literacies are integrated, and include digital reading, writing and participation. And you can see from this image that for us, participation includes practices such as collaboration, discussions and sharing of work in digital environments.
And finally, this idea of critical digital participation practices — what do I mean by critical digital participation practices? Well, these are meaning-maknig activities that informed by knowledge of how digital systems are designed, organized by the values that they advance, and the interests they serve.
In effect — it’s helping kids to understand the design of the medium so that they also understand the message.
Writing about the participants in her research study, Luci Pangrazio (2019) writes that…
And as she notes, education about the use of digital media in schools usually focuses on cybersafety — and the orientation in these educational programs is typically rooted in fear.
She also found that the narrative of the digital native has made young people feel like they ought to know — which puts them in the position of not wanting to say they don’t know things…AND it has led educators to feel as though the kids “know more than they do” so…
One teacher in our study, when asked about participatory practices said…
Just to cue your own background knowledge and get you thinking…here are some questions to hold in mind as I present my three assertions.
My first assertion is that the digital infrastructures that have been integrated into our systems of schooling over the past 25 years (or so) have fundamentally changed our teaching and learning ecosystems. Had the pandemic happened in 1995, we would have been mailing packets of information to kids and using the TV à la Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street to connect with learners.
So, this is not a new idea — Neil Postman has written about this extensively (e.g., Technolpoly (1992; 1998) And in March, Punya Mishra blogged about Postmans’s ideas in relation to online learning.
So as we, Educators, move toward more critical understandings of digital systems, I think it is important for us to ask what is gained, and what is displaced through tech-driven change? When I think about “ecosystems” or ecologies, I am reminded of the metaphor of the mangrove that Andy Clark uses in a book called Being there which explores human cognition and the way it develops.
If you’ve ever seen a mangrove tree or a mangrove forest, you know that there are these big visible roots that grow down into the soil — and that these forests grow at the water’s edge — in warm, tropical places — not Ottawa. The thing about mangroves is that the trees actually sprout from seed that float along the water and sprout. And they actually create NEW soil because they trap sediment that is also floating by in the water. Over time, they actually grow into these huge forests with SOIL that has been created by the trees — the soil wasn’t there before and the water that sustained the development of the trees in the first place gets, well, displaced. Do you see where I’m going with this metaphor? So, tech in education is maybe like the mangrove that sprouts and changes the local ecosystem — the mangrove forests eventually displace the water in which they first sprouted.
But the water is still there, right? And I think that is an important thing to hold in mind as we think about critical responses to tech change.
In this table I juxtapose some of the gains and the displacements of this moment…
What is gained?
Certainly, this shift toward digital systems has meant that we can provide some continuity of schooling for learners. When all of the required infrastructure is in place, these systems do allow us to communicate in ways that transcend the barriers of time and geography. We can still teach students who live around the city or around the world without having to meet in the physical classroom at a particular time — and we know that, when done well, with plenty of human supports and training in place — online learning can be effective for middle- and high-school learners for sure (e.g., Barbour…Ferdig Cavanagh, Borup et al. ) So there are possibilities and gains, for sure.
But we also know that some things are lost, don’t we? The loss of immediacy limits our ability, as teachers, to use all of our senses, in the moment to understand our learners’ needs. This constrains assessment and it can also constrain the building of meaningful relationships. And it also means that for us to regain the connectedness that undergirds teaching and learning we need to develop new ways of being and doing — and so do our learners.
As participants in these socio-technical systems, we have to ask ourselves — are we using these technologies in ways that serve US and our learners? So often, we get caught up in a focus on the tech itself — in how to post this to the LMS or how to share that document, or in wondering about whether our activities align with policy. These concerns keep us so busy that we may not step back to think about our learners and THEIR needs or about our human needs as educators to also feel connected to the activity.
And so, in this calculus of gain vs. loss in the midst of ecological shift, I think we can set boundaries, and participate within technical systems in ways that preserve the productive practices that are most important in our disciplinary work. If, for example, we have to use synchronous videoconferencing because some new policy demands it, then as teachers, we can use our professional judgement to set the terms.
We will only use that time to amplify student voices and perspectives OR to read aloud to our young learners so that they have access to a range of narrative structures, to an extensive vocabulary and to modelled reading, to prosody that supports reading comprehension OR that we will only use synchronous videoconferencing to meet with small groups to brainstorm ideas or to talk about their needs. And all the while we can MODEL these practices and establish participatory norms for our learners so that they see how to use these tools in ways that SERVE them and that respect their humanity and the humanity of their classmates.
And this leads me to my second assertion —
Often, we don’t teach students to participate, collaborate, discuss, share their ideas using digital systems because we are uncertain of the risks. The systems and perhaps the policies around these systems are black boxes — we receive the policy directive and are asked to follow it, but the logic undergirding the policy is made less clear to us — so we do what we’re asked but we don’t always know why. We use certain technologies and not others — which is fine — but to fully exercise our professional judgement, we also need information that allows us to know why certain technologies ARE actually better choices than other ones.
Often, we know enough to be justifiably skeptical but because we’re uncertain about how the technology actually works, we have justifiable doubts that diminish our ability to exercise critical judgment. And so, sometimes, we just avoid the problem altogether. Because it’s safer.
As educators, we have a duty to protect children and teens from risk…so we tend to opt for the “zero tolerance of risk” option (Pangrazio, 2019, p. 144) but this means that we also limit critical digital literacies learning opportunities that, IF integrated at scale, would equip learners to question systems and come to know more about how to be, act, and respond in participatory digital environments — even when things get a bit sticky. And this where research by Sonia Livingstone and her colleagues at the EU Kids Online project helps me to think through the problem.
Livingstone’s work — online activities are not entirely “individual” concerns — rather, her work shows us that online activities are, like pretty much everything else about child development, situated in layers of multidimensional factors. At the centre of this model, though, we see that risks and opportunities are part of the same box…and that they are connected to practices and skills…
I’d like to suggest that as an educational community we don’t need to accept technologies as mysterious black boxes that are allowed to frame our pedagogical practices without being questioned and critiqued.
As a community, we could ask the same decision-makers who make policies about technology-enabled learning to also provide easy-to-use risk-reward tables — that they develop in consultation with corporations, the OCT and legal counsel — for the digital tools we are asked to use in our instruction so that we can make pedagogical decisions in full knowledge of privacy information, and in full knowledge of pros and cons for our learners. Organizations such as Common Sense Media do some of this work for us in their reviews of digital tools — and our provincial OSSAPAC is meant to review digital resources and software tools. BUT their work is black-boxed. The information provided is limited. Can we use this tool — sure. We get the license — but is there information available to us about what is happening “under the screen” so to speak? Are we informed about how the tool works or why the tools has been approved or what concerns were raised during the review process? Not really. So, the mystery of the tech is actually preserved through these incomplete processes of review. And to me, this is no longer okay — because assertion 1 — the ecologies are changing and so too must our expectations for digital transparency.
My third assertion is that if we’d like a future where citizens know how to use digital tools in humanizing, critical ways, that work for THEM, then today, we must focus — with intention — on instructional practices that centralize digital collaboration, digital creation and participation IN VIEW of information ABOUT the way that digital tools shape our conversations.
These participatory practices enable learners to gain new insights into how digital tools work and don’t work. Back to Livingstone, we can open opportunities to develop practices and skills and the critical perspectives help us to mitigate — or at least be more aware of — the risks. So it’s about engagement WITH CRITIQUE.
In real terms, what can we do to support the development of this much needed critical orientation?
Well, in our study we asked teachers around the province about the instructional practices that they would recommend, and four practices were recommended over and over again. Modelling, role play, practice and discussion.
And what about at different ages? How do we do this?
For our youngest learners, critique begins in helping children learn to express agreement and disagreement in respectful ways; to participate in collaborative digital games where they might interact with classmates, and then to discuss, with guided support from you, about how the game sets the rules for them, framed their conversations, and how they feel about that. Constraint is always part of technical systems — but children could learn, from an earlier age to notice the ways that the games shape their activities and to wonder why the game was designed that way.
For our junior-level learners, who –teachers told us — are often just learning to use keyboards to type (slowly!) and whose digital lives are often expanding to social media platforms such as TikTok or to interactive gaming environments such as Roblox or Fortnite, lessons on critical digital participatory practices are important.
Activities might include scenario-based role play that encourages students to actively question the culture of a digital media environment, or that helps them to formulate responses to sticky situations, to test these out in class, and to discuss how their words, actions, their choice of emoji affect others. Teachers could also make their own thinking thinking visible by noticing the way that digital tools force certain responses, or by wondering aloud, as they compose a digital message, about how their message will be received.
SLIDE 26 —
Children and teens at any age can learn to create digital products.
Although I’m moving into strategies for older learners here, there are certainly ways to adapt these next ideas for younger learns too. Digital design opens up new ways to notice the mechanisms at work beneath the screen, inside of the technical systems we use, and to notice how these systems shape and constrain thinking.
As an example, During this COVID summer my nine year old became a masterful creator of TikTok videos (that she was only allowed to share with a small group of friends she knows in person) and through that creative, multimodal play, she learned about transitions, audio and video layers, sound effects and filters. Her use of the app became a great conversation starter about risk vs. reward with social media platforms — and it also helped her to see how video creators use certain tools to elicit a certain emotional responses. That is powerful knowledge. Because she tried to elicit surprise, or to impress people, or to include her dog in her videos in ways that made people say “awww” she came to see how videos act on HER. And after two months of using the app every day, she decided to delete it — in part because she had figured out the formula, got a bit bored and well, she and her friends moved on to another interactive gaming environment.
Interestingly, this app has been in the news recently because of concerns about whether the app is gathering information about user location and from users’ clipboards — which could expose sensitive information and of course, because of questions about whether the company that owns the app would be ever be required to divulge user information to the Chinese government (Wired, July 2020). Most of the grade 4-6 teachers we interviewed told us that their students were using TikTok at home. The popularity of this app means that students might be receptive to critical conversations about how it works, how people use it, and whose interests are served when we upload content to the platform. By developing charts with students that outline the pros and the cons of TikTok we could help them to develop new vocabularies and critical frameworks for evaluating other digital tools too.
Our adolescent learners need multiple and diverse opportunities to practice participating in digitally mediated conversations for a range of academic purposes over time — and in ways that push them to question how out-of-school digital activities might be framing their in-school digital practices. They need to write collaboratively, they need to negotiate with peers and teachers; they need to co-construct mind-maps, use video conferencing applications to discuss, reflect, and to wonder. They need to hear their ideas held up in the presence of others and receive respectful commentary (Kuhn…) AND they need to have difficult conversations about how their literacies practices — their words, the timing of their responses, their choice of emoji — impact others?
We also understand that students need more information about how the Internet works — about the corporate interests that drive the design of platforms and systems — to become critical digital participants — they need to know about algorithms, metrics, personal data, profiles, online communities, data storage, security and privacy (Pangrazio, p. 156).
And — I would argue that to become critical, social-justice oriented digital participants they also need to learn — in school — to use these tools. I think there at least three ways that we can prepare students to know more about systems. First, we can open possibilities for students to tell their own stories — using video, audio, or other forms of multimodal composition — in ways that disrupt problematic discourses that are perpetuated via digital media if not challenged (Watt, 2019) — here I think about Dr. Diane Watt’s incredible scholarship with a group of young, muslim, Somali-Canadian women here in Ottawa who create youtube videos in which they use humour to challenge inaccurate beliefs about who they are and what their lives include. To me, this is a brilliant example of how we can prepare young people to sort of take back digital spaces and places in ways that honour and respect their humanity;
Second, I think we can enter into conversations that help students recognize the ways that digital networks are used to misinform and amplify harmful messaging.
I recently learned about the Global Disinformation Index — a tool that uses four analytical pillars to predict the trustworthiness of news sources online. I don’t have data to confirm this…BUT…I hypothesize that introducing teens to this tool could help teens to also use similar lines of questioning in their own consumption of information or before they share information. This could be a conversation starter in media studies classes, but also in history and world studies classes.
Finally, I think that we can bring students into meaningful discussions of how to participate in digital spaces critically and in ways that advance social-justice causes that they feel passionate about.
A great example of this is the way that the K-Pop community — and particularly BTS fans — recently supported BlackLivesMatter Protesters. As we know, after the brutal death of George Floyd — the world erupted in protest — again — and this time with very clear calls to #DefundThePolice. Many police services have requested that the public send in videos of persons causing “trouble” or “inciting unrest” which — of course — means that they were looking for #BlackLivesMatter protestors who are calling for police departments to be defunded because of the way that black communities have been subjected disproportionately to violence by systems of law enforcement. So what did KPop fans do? Well, they edited short video clips of their favourite KPop stars, and started sending them in to these snitch lines — which gave protestors more time to mobilize, and caused a bit of chaos in police services as their servers crashed. This same community has also flooded #maga and #bluelivesmatter channels with photos of KPop stars. Which is pretty clever. Subversive, right? But definitely an informed, critical digital participatory practice. And one that could be used in discussions with our students as a way to open up meaningful debate about the risks and the rewards of these types of critical participatory practices.
I’d like to end my talk by sharing insights from a brilliant study conducted by my uOttawa colleague Megan Cotnam-Kappel and her co-author Carrie James from Harvard University and that I would be happy to share with anyone who would like to read the full text version of the work.
In this study, these researchers interviewed young people who self-identified as politically engaged and who use social media in various ways to advance points of view and to engage in dialogue using a range of strategies. These young people identified certain participatory strategies such good — telling a personal story, asking questions, using a respectful tone, using verifiable evidence to support claims, or using humour or a light tone to get their points across. On the flip, taking a disrespectful tone, or using personal attacks were seen as not-so-good strategies. These young people also developed a range of strategies for getting out of sticky unproductive conversations — like not engaging with personal attacks, and avoiding emotionally charged conversations. The young people in their study also shared concerns about their critical digital literacies practices in social media spaces — for example, they worried about the real impact of their voices in very crowded networks; they also wonder about whether they can every expect to change really change anyone’s mind or whether they just talk to the people in their networks who already agree with them — reflecting, in my view, these students’ awareness of the ways that algorithms systematically organize posts using assumptions of “relevance” and as Eli Pariser told us a decade ago — creating filter bubbles.
James and Cotnam-Kappel offer a range of ideas for educators looking to support students in their development of critical digital participatory practices.
They encourage educators to create situations where students can…
Again, the voice of a teacher from our research helps us to situate the importance of critical digital participatory practices for our learners today.
There might be calls to “reimagine” education right now, but systems have already been changing. Maybe what’s most important is to re-center on the things that can be displaced in hurried techno-centric realities.
I think we can focus on the human.
I think we ask for greater transparencies that divulge the inner-workings of digital technologies so that we feel more informed and more able to design teaching in view of both risks and opportunities.
I think that we can teach participation using a CRITICAL lens So that they feel equipped to change systems in ways that work better for THEM, rather than the other way around.