Why Stories Matter So Much

You may have noticed – or perhaps not – that it’s a very long time since my last blogpost, but I came across this previously unpublished essay which I wrote several years ago then promptly forgot, so I thought I would share with you. It is really a reflection on the history of storytelling.

New Literacies and the Importance of Narrative

“The shortest distance between two people is a story.”

Ancient proverb

 

Think of what happens every time you meet a friend in the street, or in a bar, or when you speak on the telephone. You will almost certainly take it in turn to update the story of your life since the last time you met. The story may be embellished, or you may want to emphasise the more glamorous and exciting parts of it, but essentially you are updating the story of your life’s journey, and it is as much for your own benefit as that of the listener.

Will Eisner, the great American comic book writer puts it more eloquently when he says:

“The telling of a story lies deep in the social behaviour of human groups – ancient and modern. Stories are used to teach behaviour, to discuss morals and values, or to satisfy curiosity. They dramatize social relations and the problems of living, convey ideas or act out fantasies. The telling of a story requires skill.”

It is likely that oral storytelling has been around for as long as there has been human language, as ancient communities were  maintained and strengthened through stories that connected the past with the present and the future. Australian Aborigines did not have written languages until well into the 20th century but their songs, chants, legends, and stories constituted a rich oral literature, and, since the Aboriginal tribes had no common language, these creations were enormously diverse. Long unavailable to or misunderstood by non-Aboriginals, recent studies have suggested that this oral tradition was both subtle and complex.

Additionally, the oral literature of the Aborigines, as with other ancient cultures, is associated with non-verbal performance. Traditional song is very often associated with dance, and storytelling with gesture and mime. Stories are acted out in dramatic fashion; storytellers will traditionally announce who they are, where they come from, and what their relation to the story is, as though they are integral to the story as well as its messenger. They use the common devices of oral literature such as repetition and enumeration and formulaic expression. But they always take care with their songs and stories; they are as careful with imagery and symbolism, with the figures of speech, as they are with other aspects of ceremony.

 

Narrative IN learning/Narrative AS Learning

As teachers – and perhaps especially as English teachers – we are already aware of the importance of narrative, or storytelling, IN learning, but what I would like you to consider in the course of these few pages is the importance of narrative AS learning, the idea that all learning takes place through the creation and analysis of narrative, and that narrative is the vehicle by which we move towards an understanding of the world and attempt to explain it to each other, because after all, what is learning but an attempt to understand the world and all its mysteries?  If you accept this premise then you realise that every time you step into a classroom you are constructing a particular narrative for learning, a narrative which has infinite possibilities, and which will be understood to a greater or lesser degree by those young people for whose learning you have some responsibility. The extent to which they relate to, and understand that narrative, will depend on a number of factors, including the effectiveness of your communication skills, your ability to engage and to motivate them, and their own prior knowledge and experience, as well as cultural and family differences. In developing this understanding, you will also be supporting and nurturing their ability to construct and share their own stories with each other and with the rest of the world, as competently, as  confidently, and as creatively as possible.

The History of ‘Literature’

Before we consider the kinds of narrative and narrative media which are engaging us today, it is worth looking at the ways in which storytelling has developed through the ages, and whether in fact there is a limited number of story ‘types’. In his fascinating study of stories and storytelling, The Seven Basic Plots, the English journalist and author Christopher Booker sets out to examine a theory which had been suggested many times before, that there is a limited number of storylines in all of literature and that every story is a variation on one or more of these themes. Where Booker differs from many who had gone before him however, is that in examining his theory – and in a work that takes him over thirty years to complete – he reads extensively from literature covering several hundred years, and his texts include everything from the Greek classics and Shakespeare to the popular films of the late 20th Century, making very  little distinction between them in terms of quality or significance. In the introduction to this comprehensive study Booker talks about the significance of stories in our everyday lives:

“We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them; listening to them; reading them; watching them being acted out on the television screen or in films or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence….Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, film or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps’. Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything which happens in our lives.”

Had The Seven Basic Plots been published even five years later than it was (it was published in 2004) the author might have added social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as the rapidly increasing number of blogs and bloggers, to his list of news sources,  as one of the consequences of the evolution of Web 2.0 technologies in the first decade of the 21st century was the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘citizen journalism’, whereby news events were being reported in ‘real time’ by anyone who happened to be present and had access to a smartphone and the internet. At the same time a decreasing number  people was content with passively receiving their ‘news’ from what had previously been regarded as reliable – often state-run –  sources, but were choosing instead to turn to turn to the growing army of online commentators for immediate information, and  becoming more likely to comment on or question the information they were receiving.

Having outlined his theory and named his seven plots, Booker devotes a whole chapter – the fourth and final part of the book, entitled Why We Tell Stories – to an examination of the deep psychological need for narrative in our lives:

“One of the deepest human needs met by our faculty for imagining stories is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began and how we came to be in it. There is no culture in the world which does not possess at least one great story to account for how the world came into being, and all such stories have certain things in common.”

To put it simply, according to Booker the overriding desire for sharing stories, common to every culture across the globe and across the centuries, is the desire to find an explanation for the conundrum that is human existence. How did we come to be here, and what is our purpose? At least until the answers to these questions are found, the need for stories and storytelling will never diminish.

More than One Way to Tell a Story

Very few people would dispute that there are some texts which are universally recognised as ‘classics’, some of the works of Shakespeare being obvious examples. What educated person could regard their education as complete without some experience of the works of the greatest writer in the history of the English language, whose lines have entertained, enlightened and moved us to tears for over four hundred years? Yet no other writer in history has had their texts re-worked in so many ways, from stage to film, musical to rap, ballet to opera, film to graphic novel. In 2010 members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, in association with Mudlark, an internet and TV production company, presented a version of the play Romeo and Juliet entitled Such Tweet Sorrow as an improvised real-time series of tweets on the micro-blogging site Twitter, during which the performers engaged with the audience as well as each other, using YouTube to communicate images and video text.

What endures through all of these re-workings are two things: the beauty of the language and engagement with the narrative; but while the poetry and the flowing prose is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s, the story almost always isn’t. Versions of the tale of ‘star-crossed lovers’ for example had been entertaining readers and audiences for centuries before Shakespeare ‘borrowed’ it from Arthur Brooke’s narrative poem – itself translated from the original Italian – and embellished it for the Elizabethan stage to mixed reviews (the diarist Samuel Pepys called it ‘a play of itself the worst that I ever heard in my life”).  

The attraction of the narrative of course isn’t simply that we find it entertaining or ‘dramatic’, but that we are able to recognise in it some universal truths about the world and about ourselves, whether that truth is about age, death, love, lust, family obligations, gender roles, loyalty, or any of the narrative’s numerous other themes. To put it simply, it has many lessons to teach us about the meaning of life.

The narrative of Romeo and Juliet itself dates back at least as far as Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe in the first century AD, a story of forbidden love which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep, but the earliest known version of the Romeo and Juliet tale which we might recognise from the events of  Shakespeare’s play is the story of Mariotto and Gianozza by Masuccio Salernitano, in the 33rd novel of his Il Novellino published in 1476. As Christopher Brooker would have it, Romeo and Juliet ‘unfolds precisely through the five stages of the tragic cycle’ and thereby fulfils the criteria for one of the seven basic plots.

As the example of Romeo and Juliet amply demonstrates, there is more than one way to tell a story, but how many are there exactly? In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau made a humorous attempt to answer the question in Exercises in Style, a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Standing on a crowded bus at midday, somewhere in Paris, the narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him. When a seat becomes vacant, the first man takes it. Later, the same man is observed in another part of the city with a friend who is advising him on the style of his overcoat.

Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form through cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives in 99 Ways to Tell a Story. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘Public Service Announcement’ and even ‘Paranoid Religious Tract’.

Experimenting with very short stories in the way that Queneau and Madden have done is a fun and engaging way to teach young  learners about narrative, and because the basic plot has to be as simple as possible, it is an inclusive exercise – everyone can try it. Similar success can also be found in setting young people challenges such as the Six-Word Story (where the writer has to compose a powerful story in only six words), the Six-Picture Story (the same exercise using six randomly selected pictures) and the 50-word mini-saga, in which writers have to compose a story of epic proportions in exactly fifty words, not a word more and not a word less.

Many educators still believe that there is a body of texts which are recognised as being at the core of our educational and cultural development, and which ideally should have been read by every child by the time they leave school, a principle implied by the expression ‘texts recognised as having enduring social and artistic value’ in the Literacy strand of the Australian curriculum. However, if the texts which ‘are chosen because they are judged to have potential for enriching the lives of students’ are to be chosen by the students as well as the teacher, which I believe they should be, then we also have to accept that they will not always fit our own particular definition of ‘literature’, so perhaps that is a definition which is also going to have to change over time, as we broaden our definition of ‘texts’. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in a rapidly-changing media environment, it becomes more difficult to predict which texts will have enduring social and artistic value, and the inclusion of ‘multimodal representations’ and ‘print and digital contexts’ recognises  that the shift from printed to electronic texts is irreversible. How long traditional (i.e. paper) books will survive is a matter of conjecture and, for some, of great concern. David Shields, writer-in-residence at the University of Washington, and author of the award-winning Reality Hunger, is unequivocal:

“The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire texts in to this (the universal) library. The reign of the copy is no match for the bias of technology. All new works will be born digital, and they will flow into the library as you might add more words to a long story. In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. On this screen, now visible to a billion people, the technology of search will transform isolated books with the universal library of all human knowledge.”

Concerns about the shift from print to online and on-screen reading have been voiced since access to the internet became commonplace, and a leading voice of those most concerned is Nicholas Carr, whose influential essay ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ appeared in Atlantic magazine in August 2008. Ironically, its influence was largely thanks to the power of the world wide web, and Google in particular. Carr writes: ‘For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded…But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.’

Carr’s concerns were not new, even in 2008. A year earlier, in the remarkable Proust and the Squid – The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Professor Maryann Wolf compared the current seismic shift from a largely written culture to one dominated by visual images and massive streams of digital information, to a similar cultural upheaval just over two thousand years ago, when Socrates warned that the creation of the Greek alphabet, and subsequently the written word, would have disastrous consequences for learning, as he firmly believed that it was through spoken discourse and the exercise of memory that real learning took place and knowledge was acquired.

Socrates’ concerns had three aspects. First, he contended that oral and written words play very different roles in an individual’s intellectual life. Second, he regarded the fact that the written word reduced the importance of memory as nothing short of catastrophic; and finally he warned that oral language had a unique role in the development of morality and virtue in society. In other words, he felt that writing was just plain bad and likely to lead to corruption, especially of the youth of Athens. (It is interesting to note that at the same time he was seen by the city elders as corrupting the minds of the wealthy aristocrats’ sons with his revolutionary views and unorthodox ethics.) It should also be remembered of course that we wouldn’t know any of this, but for the fact that Socrates’ words were being recorded in writing by that young rascal Plato, who obviously knew a thing or two about the future.

Wolf draws parallels between Socrates’ fears for the consequences of writing, and the effect of these ‘endless streams of digital information’ on the evolution of the reading brain, and like Carr, wonders whether ‘the rapid, almost instantaneous presentation of expansive information threatens the more time-demanding formation of in-depth knowledge.’ However, having examined the evidence in some detail she reaches the more optimistic conclusion that the two are not mutually exclusive, that one will not replace the other, but rather the brain will adapt and learn a new set of skills to add to our intellectual repertoire. In other words, our definition of reading doesn’t so much need to change, as it needs to expand to take account of the changing nature of our texts.

Comics and Picture Books

Maryann Wolf’s ‘culture dominated by visual images’, while undoubtedly accurate, is hardly a new phenomenon. The use of pictures to tell stories is as old as man himself, as evidenced by the discovery of cave paintings in Western Europe dating back up to 35,000 years. From 113 AD, Rome’s Trajan’s Column is an early surviving example of a narrative told through pictures in sequence, while Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek friezes and medieval tapestries such as the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman conquest of England in 1066, combine sequential images and words to tell a story. The invention of the printing press in the 15th Century meant the temporary separation of words and images once more as they required separate printing techniques, but a mass medium had been born and the form could be delivered to a wide audience. As printing techniques developed, due to the technological advances of the industrial revolution, magazines and newspapers were established. By the middle of the 19th Century these publications were including illustrations – soon to be known as ‘cartoons’ – as a means of commenting on political and social issues of the day. Before long, many more artists were experimenting with establishing a sequence of images to create a narrative, and the comic strip was born.

The success of most of the early comic strips, and many of those still popular today, lay in their use of humour, yet still we underestimate the need for humour in our lives and the search for humour in our stories. One of the earliest forms of storytelling which young people learn about is through the medium of jokes, something which many carry through into adulthood but which is often frowned upon as a distraction from the serious business of learning and ‘growing up’. In the telling of jokes we have the perfect context in which to develop young people’s awareness of the key ingredients of successful narratives and the skills required to deliver them effectively.

From its origins in the daily newspaper strips in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century, publishers recognised the popularity and the potential of the comics genre, and comic strips began to appear in booklet form, first as reprints and then as original stories. Their popularity spread rapidly across the globe in a variety of new forms and formats, as readers began to identify with the cartoon characters and look forward eagerly to the next instalment of their adventures. This identification with character is key to the success of comics, as it is with other  narrative media, and lies, according to Will Eisner, in the peculiarly human need to step into another’s shoes, or to imagine oneself in another’s position:

“Perhaps the most basic of human characteristics is empathy. This trait can be used as a major conduit in the delivery of a story. Its exploitation can be counted upon as one of the storyteller’s tools…………..Empathy is a visceral reaction of one human being to the plight of another. The ability to ‘feel’ the pain, fear or joy of someone else enables the storyteller to evoke an emotional contact with the reader. We see ample evidence of this in movie theatre where people weep over the grief of an actor who is pretending, while in an event that is not really happening.”

Eisner recognises here the similarities between the comics genre and film, although as he points out elsewhere in his 1996 study Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, they also have their – fairly obvious – differences. While both comics and film rely on the interplay between words and pictures, film has the additional element of sound and the illusion of real moving action, whereas comics has to generate the same effects from a series of static images on the page.

Comics and picture books have long been associated with storytelling, and some of the comics of my own youth in the 1960s consisted of  a combination of comic strips and text-only narratives. In many ways they were a bridge between early reading and the ‘serious’ reading of adolescence and adulthood, but since comics were apparently easy to read and consisted predominantly of drawings, for a long time they were regarded as inferior and  a serious threat to literacy. Eisner believes that this reputation was partly justified, as for decades many writers in the comics genre pandered to the lowest common denominator in terms of the intellectual demands of their content, but it would be interesting to consider a philosophical question here – whether reading ANYTHING ever made a person less literate than they were before they read it.

By the end of the 20th Century comics had become something of a niche market, as they found themselves competing with more sophisticated media, though paradoxically the evolution of the graphic novel  had also revived the genre to the point where it became accepted as a literary medium worthy of discussion and study. When Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, the first graphic novel ever to do so, the comics genre had truly arrived back in the mainstream. By now, however, the moving image, in the form of television or film was becoming all-pervasive.

Moving Image Education

Most young people have watched countless hours of film and television before they enter pre-school education, and already they have set about building  – in their heads –  a rich audio-visual library. Unfortunately, it is most often a library, to extend the metaphor, in which the texts are simply piled up in a disorderly heap in the middle of the floor. The viewing is almost always unregulated, and rarely do they have any understanding  that what they are watching and listen to is a sophisticated piece of work, something which has been painstakingly constructed and edited, not simply the result of pointing a camera at real-life events. Since it is unlikely that children are going to be taught to ‘read’ moving image texts at home any time soon, it seems that as teachers responsible for the development of literacy, we have a moral obligation not only to use moving image texts in our classrooms, but to teach film literacy as part of the mainstream curriculum. In order to do this, teachers themselves need to be familiar with some basic concepts relating to films and filmmaking, including a vocabulary which allows them to discuss – and possibly create – moving image texts with their students.

Living in a predominantly visual age, surrounded by moving image texts, it would be almost perverse to ignore the power these texts shape and influence our daily lives. Yet teachers still feel it difficult to justify to themselves and others why they should spend time watching films in the classroom when they should be concentrating on raising traditional literacy standards – despite the fact that it has long been recognised that working with moving image texts can improve those very skills. Digital Beginnings, an extensive study carried out by Jackie Marsh and colleagues at Sheffield University in 2005 reported that in England “the introduction of popular culture, media and/or new technologies into the communications, language and literacy curriculum has a positive effect on the motivation and engagement of children in learning”, that “practitioners report that it has a positive impact on children’s progress in speaking and listening….”, that “parents feel that media education should be included in the school curriculum” and  that “many think this should be so from when children are very young.”

Film is already commonly used in lessons of course, but often it does not extend beyond showing ‘the film of the book’ in order to supplement the study of the printed text, or it is used as an end-of-term reward for hard work or good behaviour. While there is nothing desperately wrong with this in principle, it reinforces the notion that film is not a ‘real text’ in the way that, for example, the novel is. Another of the traps into which even the most enthusiastic teachers often fall when introducing moving image texts into the classroom, is the temptation to focus on the current popular box office hit or full-length classic, since these are the texts with which children are already familiar, when in fact, as with printed texts, the key to success is to begin with short films.

A full-length feature film is a hugely complex piece of work and can be quite daunting to a teacher and students hoping to engage in critical analysis. On the other hand, there are many advantages to using short films in the classroom: a short film can be played in its entirety within one lesson while longer films lose their impact by being viewed over a number of lessons or by being screened only in extract form; the short running time of the films makes it possible for repeated viewings, allowing teachers and pupils to become quickly familiar with the texts and to explore them in more detail; short films, like short stories, are not governed by the same conventions as longer films, and often provoke stronger responses from their audience. Film and print, while different in many ways, are also very closely allied, so that the study of film can be used as a vehicle to improve the traditional literacies of reading, writing, talking and listening, and, importantly, film is an inclusive medium, often accessible to pupils who are more visual learners and who otherwise may feel that they have little to contribute.

Born Digital

Despite the ubiquitous nature of film and television, it is the novel which has been the mainstay of narrative in English classrooms for over a century, reflecting its significance as the main vehicle for literary prose fiction, and the close reading of a novel still has a central place in the examination syllabus of most formal educational establishments. So what is to become of the novel in the 21st century? The good news is that the development of new technologies, specifically in the form of electronic ‘readers’, has generated a revival in reading in general, and novels in particular. Where once it was common to carry a novel in your bag, it is now possible to carry around a library in your pocket.

At the same time, the availability of new media platforms and free computer applications has encouraged writers to develop new literary forms, of which the digital novel Inanimate Alice is a prime example.  Written  (interestingly, as many of the earliest novels were written) as a series of episodes, it tells the story of a young girl’s journey, both physical and metaphorical, as she develops through adolescence into adulthood. Over four increasingly complex and interactive episodes  – six more episodes are in development – we accompany Alice from the age of eight in China, where her father works in the oil industry and has just mysteriously disappeared, to her maturity at twenty-something as the ultimate games designer on a mission to save the world. In the words of her creator Ian Harper, Alice was ‘born digital’. In other words, it has never appeared in print, nor is it an e-book in the now commonly accepted understanding of the term, but a new concept in reading which combines elements of the written word, digital still photography, moving image, drawing, painting, puzzles, music, sound effects and elements of computer gaming. Unlike many computer game, however, it does have the linear progression of a book, and the reader ‘turns the page’ – by clicking on a double arrow icon which appears on screen – when he or she is ready to move on.

In educational terms, Inanimate Alice provides a hugely rich context for learners and teachers, with as many opportunities to stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect of the most academic student, as it does to engage reluctant readers at the other end of the educational spectrum. Put simply, from a literacy teacher’s point of view, the text can be used in a number of different ways, in a range of subject contexts, and on a number of different levels, with students from junior school through to university undergraduates. The immediate effect on most young people when introduced to the text is that they want to create their own episode, peopled by their own characters and in their own setting.

The creation of this new kind of digital text – and surely more will follow – would appear  to signal a further merging of traditional narrative genres and the arrival of a new form of storytelling for the digital age. If comics and film were multi-modal, then according to Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, new texts like Inanimate Alice are the early arrivals in the world of ‘transmedia storytelling’, which Jenkins describes as ‘storytelling by a number of decentralised authors who share and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media.’ In considering the shift which new technologies have brought to the way we think of our relationship with media, and how the skills we acquire initially through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process and connect with other people around the world, he dismisses talk of a ‘digital revolution’, and prefers that we think instead of a ‘digital evolution’.  In this new age of transmedia texts, popular storytelling increasingly takes place across different media platforms and passive consumers have been replaced by active  participants or ‘players’:

“Welcome to convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways. Convergence culture is the future, but it is taking shape now. Consumers will be more powerful within convergence culture – but only if they recognise and use that power as both consumers and citizens, as full participants in our culture.”

In the chapter entitled Why Heather Can Write, Jenkins examines the phenomenon known as ‘fan fiction’, and the ways in which it exemplifies the new media landscape. On fan fiction websites like Fiction Alley for example, the largest of a number of websites dedicated to fans of Harry Potter, young writers come together to write, collaborate and share stories about their favourite characters, and sometimes to invent new characters of their own. New writers are mentored by an army of unpaid volunteers known a ‘beta readers’ – a term derived from the world of technology where ‘beta’ means ‘in development’ – and criticism, while it is always positive and constructive, is also focused and direct, dealing with issues of grammar and style as well as plotlines. The beta readers are also contributing authors, and what all the writers have in common is that they are looking to improve their work, not simply to have it praised. This relationship between learner and mentor, based on the trust of peers on what is effectively a shared journey is, by definition, quite different from the formal teacher-pupil relationship found in school and allows the young writers to experiment with their craft within the safe confines of a pre-existing fictional world. For many of the writers who contribute to the fan community, the journey begins by simply reading the efforts of others, before they are comfortable enough to submit their own stories. Once they are committed however, the feedback provides the incentive for them to develop and improve. They quickly come to regard themselves as real ‘authors’.

Critics of fan fiction argue that it is unoriginal and imitative, but as Jenkins points out, this kind of ‘apprenticeship’ model is common in other cultural spheres, and historically young artists learned their craft by initially imitating the great masters, sometimes contributing to their work, before establishing styles, techniques and content of their own. Whether the same conditions for writing can be created within a formal school setting, is a different matter. Again, as Jenkins points out:

“Schools have less flexibility to support writers at very different stages of their development. Even the most progressive schools set limits on what students can write compared to the freedom they enjoy on their own. Certainly, teens may receive harsh critical responses to their more controversial stories when they publish them online, but the teens themselves are deciding what risks they want to take and facing the consequences of those decisions.”

Armed with this knowledge, it might be tempting for teachers either to write off fan fiction entirely as inferior or worthless (despite its massive popularity), or to encourage their students wholeheartedly to become involved, but the growth in such online communities and the collaborative nature of this new form of storytelling creates a challenge for those teachers who have always regarded it as an individual pursuit. One thing seems clear, and that is that unless teachers are able to provide young writers with a real and critical audience – possibly through blogging and online forums such as wiki-spaces – they may well decide that telling their stories elsewhere is a more fruitful alternative.

Although much of what I have written has been about the importance of narrative fiction, I believe that everything which holds true for fiction is equally true for non-fiction. Learning through narrative applies no matter the subject. Take the example of a friend of mine whose responsibility is to teach geography. The topic is ‘Landscape’ and he wants his students to come to a better understanding of how landscapes are formed. He has tried everything to make the topic interesting, but in his own words it’s the dullest part of the course. Then he is inspired. He asks his students to think of themselves as a river, and to tell the story of their lives from birth to death, or their journey from source to sea (employing Eisner’s central notion of empathy). The stories are written, digitally recorded using their own devices, and finally uploaded to the class wiki as a series of podcasts.  The topic is transformed and learning is much more successful, a good example of the effectiveness of learning through narrative.

Definitions of Literacy and New Meaning of Text

Given this new media landscape, and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the focus of the English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.

According to James Paul Gee, Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional concept of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s notion of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”. In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? Perhaps we should begin by looking at the stated aims of the ‘Literacy’ strand of  Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s  English curriculum:

to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”

This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading.  However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed text The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:

“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”

There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives  they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent  attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure that their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that these were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.

Games-Based Learning

Just as a key feature of Henry Jenkins’ convergence culture is participation, Kane argues that not only should we regard new media consumers as ‘players’ but that we need to re-examine the purpose of education to reflect the realities of a post-industrial age:

“We need a new way to look at the complexity of the educational experience – one that regards the apparent ‘messiness’ and ‘imprecision’ of play as a deep resource for understanding, rather than something which has to be squeezed out of curricula tailored to deliver better performance statistics for short-termist politicians. I suggest that scholars might unite around a new notion of literacy – a ‘multi-literacy that ties together the deep humanism of the teaching profession with the ludic realities that face their pupils in the new century.”

If play is as fundamental to human nature as Kane suggests, then games-based learning may be the natural new home for learning through narrative – computer games designers are increasingly alert to the fact that in addition to the problem-solving characteristic which marked the early video and arcade games, a strong narrative element is necessary if a game is going to be commercially viable.

In Scotland, where research has already shown the positive impact of games-based learning through the work of Derek Robertson and others at Education Scotland, games like Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Pheonix Wright and Hotel Dusk Room 215 have been used successfully in the development of literacy in schools. There, the new Curriculum for Excellence, which re-defines ‘texts’ as ‘the medium through which ideas and experiences, opinions and information can be communicated’, ensures that teachers have the freedom to interpret the word ‘text’ more widely and gives them the opportunity to use a broader range of contexts within which to develop the literacy skills of their pupils. In many classes, even in lower primary school, youngsters are learning how to construct games using programmes like Scratch and Kodu. So not only do the games provide what Howard Gardner would describe as an “entry point” to learning, and a context in which traditional literacy skills may be developed, they are of course perfectly valid texts in themselves.

Tom Chatfield, gaming expert and author of Fun Inc., Why Games are the 21st Century’s Most Serious Business, contends that ‘narrative immersion’ is central to the appeal of gaming, and in language which sounds strikingly like that of the Quest, the third of Christopher  Booker’s seven basic plots, Chatfield suggests that it’s in the desire to become whoever we want to be, and the need for a happy ending, that the secret of the perfect gaming recipe can be found:

“It’s a strange, poetic idea, and yet it gets to the heart of something quite radical about gaming as a medium: its hold on the human imagination, and its ability to make you into a hero of any number of astounding – or modest – stories. The appeal is the sense of wonder that is conjured, but also the need for a kind of security: for, like any myth, the well-designed game always works out in the end, and will always remain there should you feel the urge to return.”

In education, as in life, we will always find new ways to create and to share our stories, but the need for storytelling itself is timeless. Every time you enter the classroom you have choices to make about the texts you use and the contexts for learning, but remember that you are co-constructing a ‘narrative for learning’ – be sure to consider all the options at your disposal.

 

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Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

Digital Narrative Changes Gear

“My name is Alice. I’m nineteen years old, I have a boyfriend and I work at a remote gas station just outside the city. I’m up against the clock to deliver my latest college assignment before the deadline, but as usual things aren’t exactly going to plan. I’m surrounded by clutter and paperwork, bombarded by alerts and text messages. The last thing I need is a mysterious customer turning up in a gas-guzzling sports car…”

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The new-look Inanimate Alice website

Fans of Inanimate Alice, the popular digital novel for young adults, will be delighted that the much-awaited Episode 6 is due for imminent release. Building on the life experiences of the young protagonist Alice Field, Episode 6 takes the series to a new level, both in terms of the narrative and digital storytelling itself, moving from 2-D to a 3-D gaming platform and what is described as a ‘fully immersive’ experience for readers. Alice is now aged 19, and working in a remote gas station on the outskirts of town to pay for her studies at the local college, where she is …………well……….creating her own story. And this time around readers get to see under the bonnet and inside the engine of the story via Alice’s development blog, where she talks to the reader about scripting, 3D audio, video game graphics, spatial narratives and more.(http://devblog.inanimatealice.info/). This is a feature which started with the beautifully-crafted ‘Development Journal’ to accompany Episode 5: Hometown 2, and is especially interesting for students who are developing their own digital stories. Here is how the story-makers for the Bradfield Company describe what they are trying to achieve:-

“With Episode 6, I’ve been exploring Alice’s drive to become a games designer using the sort of technology and approach I could very much imagine Alice herself getting excited about. This episode feels like an immersive game – you literally are in Alice’s shoes. It’s quite multi-layered. As she gets older, the issues Alice has to deal with as her story unfolds get more complicated, and the more ambitious, adventurous and (hopefully) accomplished she becomes with new media.”

Andy Campbell, Director of Digital Media at One Development Trust (and Inanimate Alice developer)

“The challenge with Alice, traditionally a linear narrative, has been to build up her storytelling strengths (add more emotional arcs and depth, create three-dimensional characters) while responding to the user’s actions with a greater measure of agency (meaning, your choices have real consequences). The episode is in Unity 3D, which introduced a range of new interfaces and a free-roam environment with a first-person point of view. Instead of “playing as Alice,” my idea is to play as a “friend of Alice”—going along on her adventures, interacting with her, and occasionally making choices and taking actions that she might not like. The trick is, fans of Alice know that the user never actually sees her. In past episodes, her presence is most prominently featured in the form of narrative statements—simple text on the screen, aimed at her audience in an indirect but personal way. We’ll see how that plays out in this new format.”

Lorri Hopping, Game Developer, writer and narrative designer on Episode 6: The last Gas Station

If you can’t wait for the official release of Episode 6, you can watch the trailer and sign up for early access on Alice’s website at http://www.inanimatealice.com which will also give you free access to the Development Journal referred to earlier and some sneak previews of Episode 6 screenshots. I also have it on good authority that plans are underway for a special Teachers’ Edition of IA some time in the New Year, which will bring all of the educational resources from Episodes 1-5 into one neat package for use in the classroom.

In the meantime don’t forget that you can already access these episodes and some fantastic resources absolutely free by going to the website and clicking on Education. The Create link will take you to a gallery of content created by students of all ages from around the world, as well as the ‘featured classroom’ of Kristal Doolin, young ‘Teacher of the Year’ who talks about how Inanimate Alice transformed the way her students developed their literacy skills.

Finally, for a comprehensive overview of the learning opportunities afforded by using Inanimate Alice in the classroom, I would suggest you check out this article by Robert Stumbles, an educator with over 15 years experience teaching in schools in Australia and Japan. Fantastic stuff. Enjoy!

Found In Translation

One of the highlights of last week’s Scottish Film and Learning Festival was Rob Smith’s presentation ‘Using Film in the Classroom‘, which you can hear (though unfortunately not see) on the Radio EduTalk website by clicking here, and I would suggest that one of the reasons Rob’s workshops and Literacy Shed website are so popular, is that he is thoroughly convincing when he argues that using film in the classroom is the key to unlocking creativity, especially when it comes to the quality of children’s writing. And that is the point. Reading or watching film is often seen as an alternative to using printed texts, which leads to a polarised debate about the relative merits of films and books. ‘Books allow you to use your own imagination, while in a film the director has done all the work for you’, the argument goes, ‘and surely the only way to improve writing skills is by studying WRITTEN texts?’

If you listen to Rob, you will discover the fallacy of both statements, and if you accept that using books and using film in the classroom are not mutually exclusive, you will have made the problem disappear. Keep in mind also that there are many ways to create texts, and the written word is only one of them. Which is why one of my Ten Tools For Reading Film is the grandly titled ‘Generic Translation’, an approach which allows teachers and students to experiment with media and come to understand the possibilities each of them presents. Take this example of a short animation, based on the Charles Bukowski poem ‘The Man With The Beautiful Eyes’. What better way to develop an understanding of metaphor than by studying the printed text and the animation side-by-side.

You will find more detailed suggestions on how to use this film in the classroom, as well as many others, at the Moving Image Education website by clicking here.

To listen to more talks from the Scottish Film and Learning Festival see previous post.

Time To Get Into Film

Into-Film

See. Think. Make. Imagine.

It may be too late for Christmas, but one of the best professional development offers for teachers in the UK at the moment comes absolutely free, and it will still be available in the New Year. Into Film‘s recently expanded catalogue of teacher training covers all ages and stages, from nursery education to media studies, from beginners to seasoned film critics. I have written often on the blog about the potential of film (and specifically short films) to impact on literacy development in young people, and how, very often, it is only the teacher’s fear of what they regard as a lack of specialist subject knowledge that holds them back from using it more often. Now the solution is to hand.

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“Film is a powerful tool to engage young people, capture their imaginations and bring the written word to life. Our programme places film at the heart of education to engage and challenge students and bring texts to life. Our training demonstrates the benefits of using film as text to develop learners’ critical thinking, analytical and contextualisation skills. These skills are equally applicable to and transferable between film and literary texts. As film is both visual and auditory, learners develop skills of description, deduction and inference, as well as the ability to decode texts and translate images and sound into words.”

Into Film website

cinemaRecently I spent a couple of days working with fellow Into Film CPD providers on the new resources at the London Connected Learning Centre in Lambeth, and I have to say I came away truly inspired. Whether you are looking to use practical filmmaking to develop creative skills, to deliver aspects of the curriculum through the medium of film, or to develop a better understanding of the language and grammar of film itself, there really is something here for everyone.

 “The CPD session last month was extremely beneficial to me from both a teaching and learning perspective. I have already started implementing some of the videos into my own teaching practice…It genuinely was one of the most useful and practical courses I have been on for a very long time.”

Daniel Cooper, Assistant Head, Ysgol Park Waundew

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*Accessing the Into Film CPD is very simple. Generally speaking there should be a minimum of 15 trainees in a group, though exceptions can be made for those in small schools or more rural areas. Senior Leadership Teams, Heads of Department, Youth and Community group leaders, library staff, and local authorities can book free bespoke training events, with sessions ranging in length from 30 minutes to a full day. Literacy CPD and Filmmaking CPD strands may be delivered separately or as a complete package, and an Into Film CPD Practitioner will work with your event organiser to customise a session or sessions which are appropriate to the immediate needs of the group.If you are an individual teacher who would like to attend Into Film CPD training, but are unable to convince enough of your colleagues at this stage, you should visit http://www.intofilm.org/cpd-events where you will find a growing number of centrally-organised events taking place across the UK.

Why Not Start A Film Club?

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Into Film will also support teachers who want to set up and run film clubs in their own schools. To ensure that children and young people get the best educational and social experience from their clubs, Into Film also provide film club leaders with comprehensive training and support. Leaders are introduced to Into Film’s expertly curated film catalogue, then given advice and support on programming films which are appropriate for audience and purpose. Additional advice and resources are available should schools wish to develop filmmaking as part of their offering to young learners.

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*If you are in the South or South-West of Scotland, and wish to have free Film Literacy training in your school or local authority, please feel free to contact me directly. Contact details can be found at the top of the blog under ‘About’ or use the Comments section of this blogpost and I will contact you.

Related Posts:-

Film Shorts as Literacy Texts

Literacy, Film and the Scottish Survey

Ten Tools For Reading Film

Everyone Needs Positive Feedback #edcmooc

neverOne final reflection on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (for now). Last week I wrote about what was required to complete the course. While it is not over-demanding, the possibility of failure is not something any of us welcomes, so it was with a sense of relief as well as satisfaction that I read the very positive comments on my final submission this morning, and discovered that I had secured a Grade 1 Pass (the only alternative being a Grade 0 Fail!).

I suspect that it is this aspect of the massive, open and online course which will attract most scepticism, if not outright cynicism, the fact that success and failure are based largely on the observations of your peers and not the course tutors. Yet in a way that is what I find most attractive about it. While the ultimate responsibility for learning remains with the learner, there is a great sense in which the whole endeavour is a collaborative effort. Every participant is reaching for a better understanding of the topic, not for the right answer. This piece of advice on the MOOC site sums it up perfectly:-

Giving and receiving constructive feedback
“Explaining your understanding of someone’s work to them will help them to refine their own understanding and will also help you refine your own – it’s a reciprocal process. This is the purpose of this peer feedback exercise.

Of course this formal exercise should not be the only opportunity that you take to interact with your fellow students during and after this course. This process is formal, and anonymous. You should seek to create your own opportunities for collaboration and discussion – in the discussion forum, and in self-organised and emergent groups in which you can cultivate relationships, pursue common interests, and engage in more intimate discussions.

You should be both supportive and critical in what you write. What might that mean in practice? The notion of being supportive is probably the easiest to understand. You are all in this together. This course – learning in general – is not a ‘zero-sum game’ where only one person can win and others must lose. When the group works together everyone benefits. Receiving feedback on our work provides valuable guidance and stimulus to further thought. Giving feedback on the work of others helps us to clarify our own thinking through the act of framing it in the process of communication. To be supportive will also imply courtesy and sensitivity in the way in which we express our views. We can more productively assimilate and work with a comment when the other gives it and we receive it in a context of politeness and trust.

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The notion of criticality is more difficult to grasp, not least because our everyday usage of the word tends to carry the implication of negative criticism – focusing on, and pointing out, what is wrong. However, it is perfectly possible to be positively critical as well. One may point out a strength in some work, and then build on this by giving advice as to how to enhance that strength. ‘I like what you have done there. It made me think of ….. You might consider incorporating …..’. Or it may be that you see a strength that the creator has not made as explicit as they might have done. Encouragement may then be offered to the creator to go further with what they have started. A positive criticality may involve seeking to empathise with the creator, and how he or she might take the next steps. It may be about articulating sincerely held questions about a piece of work, and about the creator’s intentions in its production.”

When I embarked on this 5-week course, one of my aims was to examine how the principles of the MOOC might be applied in school settings, within the context of compulsory education. Sharing the responsibility for learning, including greater use of peer assessment and feedback, and removing ourselves from that ‘zero-sum game’ might not be a bad place to start.

The E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC is offered by the University of Edinburgh via Coursera. If you are interested in taking part in a MOOC you may also want to have a look at the FutureLearn website where you will find courses run by some of the UK’s top universities.

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Assessing The Past, Predicting The Future #edcmooc

Flying MachinesThis is the final week of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC, so it is a time to look back and to look forward. What have I learned over the past five weeks, not only about the topic, but about the nature of the MOOC itself, and are MOOCs the way forward for education, or simply the latest fad? First, the reflection. I have really enjoyed engaging with the course materials and with the other course participants, through the discussion forums, Twitter conversations, Google Hangouts and other channels, but then I have become used to this way of learning over the past five or six years, so I was reasonably comfortable with it from the start. It could also be said that since I am no longer looking for full-time employment I have no more need for paper qualifications, and therefore my approach to the course, and to learning in general, has changed.

However, it would be easy to infer from all of the above that because of the very nature of the MOOC – free entry, high dropout rate, no formal qualification – that it is more ‘casual’ than traditional college or university courses. Not a bit of it. The course is highly-structured, deadlines are quite rigid, materials are well chosen and challenging, and tutor support is of the highest order. The standard of teaching is of a very high quality, at least on this MOOC, but unlike that in many conventional settings, it is highly focused and responsive to the needs of individual learners; feedback is more or less instant. There are no group lectures, but an introductory video to each block of study sets out clearly the themes and expectations for the week ahead. Whether these things are true of all MOOCs I have no idea, but for two very different takes on online learning I would recommend that you read this article, All Hail MOOCs. Just Don’t Ask If They actually Work, from Time magazine September 2013, and this post from the Learning with ‘e’s blog, The persistence of distance(learning) by Steve Wheeler.

“But what about assessment?”, I hear you ask, because while the internet has opened up the possibility of learning in all sorts of new ways, assessment still dominates much of our thinking and much of our conversation when it comes to education. Bear in mind that the course is only five weeks long, with a recommended study time of 5-7 hours per week, but since you asked, to ‘complete the course’ we have to submit a ‘digital artefact’ and evaluate the work of at least three other participants in the course, using agreed criteria – real peer assessment in action! The following notes are from the course guidance on the final assignment.

What do you mean by digital artefact?
We mean something that is designed to be experienced on and through the medbotium of the web. It will have the following characteristics:

  • it will contain a mixture of two or more of: text, image, sound, video, links.
  • it will be easy to access and view online.
  • it will be stable enough to be assessed for at least two weeks.

Try to have fun with this and use it as a chance to think broadly and creatively: anything goes in terms of the form of this assignment. As long as you keep the assessment criteria in mind you can be as experimental as you wish.

(Have FUN with this assessment? Doesn’t sound like an exam to me.)

Why do you want me to make a digital artefact?
Text is the dominant mode of expressing academic knowledge, but digital environments are multimodal by nature – they contain a mixture of text, images, sound, hyperlinks and so on. To express ourselves well on the web, we need to be able to communicate in ways that are ‘born digital’ – that work with, not against, the possibilities of the medium. This can be challenging when what we want to communicate is complex, especially for those who are used to more traditional forms of academic writing. Nevertheless, there are fantastic possibilities in digital environments for rethinking what it means to make an academic argument, to express understanding of complex concepts, and to interpret and evaluate digital work. In EDCMOOC, we have an opportunity to explore and experiment in a supportive and relatively low-stakes context. That’s why we want you to make an assignment that makes the most of the web – a digital artefact.

What topic should I choose?
There is a lot of flexibility in this assignment. You can choose to focus on the theme of ‘utopias and dystopias’, or on the theme of ‘being human’. You should use your artefact to express a question, an idea, a problem, a hope, a worry or a provocation that the course has raised for you. Consider how you can express something of your own context as an educator, student and/or technologist. What has the impact of this course been on your understanding of e- learning?

Actually, I am proposing to submit this series of blogposts as my digital artefact, but just for a bit of fun, I thought I would also try creating a short video clip which reflects a couple of the themes of the past month or so. The clip was created in iMovie, using the Trailer feature which allows you to choose which genre of film you are going to release (and makes things easier for beginners like me). It is also a very useful tool in the classroom if you are introducing young people to filmmaking, Thanks to a fortuitous tweet from one of my PLN, Kenny Pieper, I found these great templates for Planning a Better iMovie Trailer, which means you can spend some time working out what text to include – a good exercise in précis, since the more words you include the harder it is to read – and select your images in an appropriate sequence.

commonsThe images I used are from the Creative Commons, except the first three, which appear courtesy of my friends at Dreaming Methods and Inanimate Alice. The little running man was filmed on my phone at a street crossing in Girona, simply because it made me smile. I cropped it in iMovie itself using the cropping tool before inserting into the clip. The reason for creating the trailer was to encourage me to learn something about iMovie, which I had never used, and to express one or two of the course themes in a short timeframe.

One of these was what seemed to be the view of many technological determinists, that increasing technological advances will inevitably lead to a dystopian future, and the other was the fascinating idea that our use of metaphor tends to shape as well as reflect our view of the world. The green man on the ‘information highway’ is a very simple metaphor for the feeling that many people have when trying to navigate the world wide web – that they are in a very busy and potentially dangerous place – and he may also represent those ‘eco-warriors’ amongst us who are concerned that advances in technology are not made at the expense of the sustainability of the planet. I hope you find it interesting and amusing, and please feel free to evaluate it using the agreed criteria below.

Assessment criteria

These are the elements peer markers will be asked to consider as they engage with your artefact. You should make sure you know how your work will be judged by reading these criteria carefully before you begin.

  1. The artefact addresses one or more themes clearly relevant to the course
  2. The artefact demonstrates an understanding of one or more key concept from the course
  3. The artefact has something to say about education
  4. The choice of media is appropriate for the message
  5. The artefact stimulates a reaction in you, as its audience, e.g. emotion, thinking, action

So what of the future of MOOCs themselves? What I liked about taking part in the MOOC was the collaborative aspect of the learning – the sharing of ideas, the conversations around the key topics, and to some extent the random nature of some of the interactions. We were advised from the start that it would be impossible to contribute to every forum, to respond to every text, and to keep track of everything which was going on. This is an aspect of MOOCs which I imagine many people will find difficult. Similarly, if everything is conducted online, you could argue that the ‘human element’ is lost, and that there is no substitute for meeting people face-to-face, but one of the advantages of MOOCs is that they bring together (virtually) people from all over the world. The fact that the MOOC is free is important, allowing access to people regardless of their means, but what I find particularly appealing is this key message – when the focus of education is on the taking part, everyone’s a winner.

Redefining The Human #edcmooc

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Creative Commons Image by digitalbob8.

From ‘reasserting the human’, this week we move on to looking at ‘redefining the human’ in the final block of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. Last week I wrote about how current educational theories and practices are largely based on differing versions of humanist philosophy. Now we are being asked to consider a rather different perspective on ‘being human’ in the digital age: the notion that we are already posthuman, and that ‘human being’ is a variously constructed social category, not a pre-determined and fixed entity with universal characteristics. Instrumental posthumanists, for example, treat the human body and human life as things that can and ought to be optimised by technologies. Pacemakers, cosmetic surgery, prostheses, exercise equipment that provides biofeedback data, genetically modified food, diet supplements and Google glass, for example, are all posthuman technologies that are already widely used in the ‘developed’ world, which begs the question, to what extent can we continue to enhance the human body and mind before we redefine what it is to be ‘human’, and what are the implications for education?

At the same time, where instrumental posthumanism is merely the integration of post-industrial technologies with humanist values, critical posthumanist theories challenge the very values and assumptions on which humanism is based, and though varied in nature, share the view that humanism is a limiting and most often oppressive ideology that needs careful examination. Humanism often includes the belief that ‘technology’ is the opposite of ‘natural humanity.’ Critical posthumanists do not see these as opposed: the human body is just as ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical’ as the digital device on which you’re reading this post. The brain and the heart rely on electricity, just as DNA is a kind of programming. Critical posthumanism holds that technology is itself neither good nor bad, helpful nor hurtful. It is the contexts in which it is used, the conditions under which it is produced, etc., that make it a positive or negative thing.

In True Skin, this short science-fiction film by Stephan Zlotescu, synthetic enhancement has become the norm, and the boundary between human and machine has been erased (think Pop-On Body Spares for humans). At the end of the film, the protagonist, when facing death – at least the death of his current body – takes advantage of an internet service which backs up all of his memories, which can then be inserted into his future (new) self. Sound familiar? It’s that old two-way ‘computer as human brain, human brain as computer’ metaphor (see previous post MOOCs and Metaphors).

What this notion says about the nature of mind, memory and learning, and the ways in which technological mediation is positioned in relation to it, is a theme which is also picked up in this week’s reading assignments, in particular in an article in Atlantic magazine in 2008 by Nicholas Carr, entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid?,  a defining polemic which became the water cooler around which critics of the internet gathered to bemoan the demise of critical thinking;-

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancers? #edcmooc

Humanity-2.0I’m not quite on my knees looking for the answer, but the second (and final) block of study on the E-Learning and Popular Culture MOOC kicked off this week with a challenging look at what it is to be ‘human’, how that definition has shifted throughout the ages, the ways in which it is perceived to be under threat from the advance of technology, and the implications for the future of education. To listen, as we have done, to Professor Steve Fuller’s wonderfully erudite and idiosyncratic take on the history of ‘being human’ and to reflect on whether the ‘humanist project’ as it is described is still worth pursuing, click on this Tedx Warwick lecture from 2009. Believe me, you will be a better person for it.

In the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Nimrod Aloni tells us that the term ‘Humanistic Education’ is generally used to designate a variety of educational theories and practices that are committed to the world-view and ethical code of Humanism; that is, positing the enhancement of human development, well-being, and dignity as the ultimate end of all human thought and action – beyond religious, ideological, or national ideals and values. Historically, humanistic education can be traced back to the times of classical Athens with its central notion of Paideia, a few centuries later to the times of ancient Rome with it central notion of Humanitas, then the Renaissance’s Humanists, and in the early 19th century it was the German educator Neithammer who coined the concept of Humanism as indicating liberal education toward full humanity. Today, you will often hear this expressed in terms such as, ‘the need to educate the whole child‘. UNESCO, in its Education For The 21st Century, talks about being ‘committed to a holistic and humanistic vision of quality education worldwide, the realisation of everyone’s right to education, and the belief that education plays a fundamental role in human, social and economic development.’

The question before us now is this: does technology enable or inhibit such an ideal? There is no doubt that it is new technologies which allow us to connect and to network, and to provide access for many of those people who would otherwise be isolated from mainstream educational institutions – otherwise there would be no such thing as the MOOC – but for some, losing other ‘human’ attributes as a result of our over-dependence on machines is too heavy a price to pay. For my generation, this topic first arose as a serious concern with the introduction of electronic calculators in schools, and the debate shows no signs of abating. Consider this, from a 2004 article called ‘The Human Touch‘ by Dr Lowell Monke, an assistant professor of education at the University of Wittenberg:-

“A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree–by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these first hand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations–muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this. Here we encounter the ambiguity of technology: its propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others. McLuhan called this process amplification and amputation. He used the microphone as an example. The microphone can literally amplify one’s voice, but in doing so it reduces the speaker’s need to exercise his own lung power. Thus one’s inner capacities may atrophy.

heartThis phenomenon is of particular concern with children, who are in the process of developing all kinds of inner capacities. Examples abound of technology’s circumventing the developmental process: the student who uses a spell checker instead of learning to spell, the student who uses a calculator instead of learning to add–young people sacrificing internal growth for external power.

Often, however, this process is not so easily identified. An example is the widespread use of computers in pre-schools and elementary schools to improve sagging literacy skills. What could be wrong with that? Quite a bit, if we consider the prerequisites to reading and writing. We know that face-to-face conversation is a crucial element in the development of both oral and written communication skills. On the one hand, conversation forces children to generate their own images, which provide connections to the language they hear and eventually will read. This is one reason why reading to children and telling them stories is so important. Television and computers, on the other hand, generally require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images.”

I wonder how Monke would respond to this recent television advertisement to promote an Indian mobile communications company, which plays with the concept of a born-digital baby.

I believe that Monke is setting up a false dichotomy here, and that developing children need a balance in their lives between technology-enhanced learning and healthy physical activity, wherever possible in an outdoor environment. Nor do I accept that television and computers ‘require nothing more than the passive acceptance of prefabricated images’. What they require is that the viewer has the literacy skills necessary to understand how, why, when, where and by whom the images were created, and most importantly the purpose for which they were designed – in other words, that they learn to become digitally literate. However, in the interests of fairness, I will leave the final word on the matter (for now) to Monke, who is ready for the ‘all about balance’ argument;

“The response that I often hear to this criticism–that we just need to balance computer use in school with more ‘hands-on’ activities (and maybe a little character education)–sounds reasonable. Certainly schools should help young people develop balanced lives. But the call for balance within schools ignores the massive commitment of resources required to make computers work at all and the resultant need to keep them constantly in use to justify that expense. Furthermore, that view of balance completely discounts the enormous imbalance of children’s lives outside of school. Children typically spend nearly half their waking life outside of school sitting in front of screens. Their world is saturated with the artificial, the abstract, the mechanical. Whereas the intellectual focus of schools in the rural society of the 19th century compensated for a childhood steeped in nature and concrete activity, balance today requires a reversal of roles, with schools compensating for the overly abstract, symbolic, and artificial environment that children experience outside of school.”

Footnote:

It would appear, from what I have learned this week, that in a recent blogpost, The Power To Make A Difference, I was espousing Aloni’s fourth form of humanistic education, that which is most often identified with Radical Education or Critical Pedagogy and with the counter-hegemonic pedagogical theories of Freire, Apple, Giroux, Simon, and Kozol. From this vantage point, to consider educational issues independent of the larger cultural, social, and economic context involves either serious ignorance or cynical, if not criminal, deception. Poverty, crime, homelessness, drug addiction, wars, ecological crises, suicide, illiteracy, discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, technocratic consciousness, and the disintegration of communities and families, to name some of our most pressing problems, are facts of life that effect directly the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of the great majority of children in our culture. Hence, radical educators argue, ‘pedagogy should become more political and the political more pedagogical’. This implies three major changes in our educational system. It requires:

  • that educational discourse, policy, and practice would deal directly with the notions of power, struggle, class, gender, resistance, social justice, and possibility;
  • that teachers would aim to emancipate and empower their students towards the kind of critical consciousness and assertive point of view that allows people to gain control over their lives; and
  • that teachers, in the words of Giroux, ‘would struggle collectively as transformative intellectuals. . . to make public schools democratic public spheres where all children, regardless of race, class, gender, and age, can learn what it means to be able to participate fully in the ongoing struggle to make democracy the medium through which they extend the potential and possibilities of what it means to be human and to live in a just society.’

 

Week Two. MOOCs And Metaphors #edcmooc

future citiesThis week on the MOOC we are being asked to look at and consider utopian and dystopian visions of the future through a different lens – the ways in which metaphor influences and shapes our views of technology, and specifically the world wide web. The course materials take the same format as before: a selection of short films (in this case two adverts for future educational technology products and two fictional representations of a technology and communications-enhanced world in which the ‘Internet of Things‘ becomes increasingly pervasive and digital communication is ubiquitous), core reading materials and extended reading on the present and future roles of MOOCs in education. Participants, of whom there are now apparently something in the region of 8,000, are encouraged to respond to a number of reflective questions on their personal blogs, via Twitter, and on the online discussion forums.

To begin to understand how attitudes to the Internet are shaped and embedded in the collective consciousness through the metaphors we use, Rebecca Johnston, a PhD student at Texas Tech University, conducted a micro-study of newspaper and magazine editorials in the US with the term ‘Internet’ in their titles in the period September-November 2008, and concluded that those which occurred repeatedly fell into one of four categories – those of physical space, physical speed, salvation and destruction – the latter two coinciding naturally with notions of utopia and dystopia respectively. Most of them, however, related to images of destruction:

“Multiple metaphors compared the Internet to nature, usually comparing the Internet to phenomenon (sic) that caused destruction and death in nature. In these articles, Web sites were flooded, experienced a wave of hits, eroded revenue, acted like fast–flowing waters, and had comments poured on them. These metaphors all related to water, a moving, powerful, life–giving force. However, these metaphors particularly emphasised water’s ability to break elements down and cause destruction (erosion and floods)…Multiple metaphors gave the Internet negative human traits, emotions, and practices, painting the Internet as a villain or an enemy…

As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as ‘the Web’, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).”

softwareThe last point is a fascinating one. The suggestion here is that not only is there a preponderance of ‘internet as extended or collective human brain’ metaphors, but that in fact the metaphor works the other way as well. Often, we will see or hear the human brain defined in computing or technological terms, with references to ‘software’, ‘hardware’, ‘hard-wired’ and so on. This kind of thinking has been around for a long time. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian story ‘There Will Come soft Rains‘, first published in 1950 and reflecting the Cold War tensions of the era, memorably features a fully-automated house which continues to function for a while after its occupants have been wiped out in a nuclear disaster, the ‘computer brain’ (appropriately located in the attic at the top of the house) finally imploding in the ultimate metaphor of destruction by technology.

It is also true that much of the metaphorical language we use to describe technology is related to the human body, bodily functions, and in many cases the breakdown of these functions. A very good example can be found in the 2009 short thriller ‘Virus‘ by Simon Hynd, a clever exploration of the relationship between the physical and the technological spaces, with a fairly obvious metaphor in the title.

Under the heading ‘Perspectives on Education’, further reading assignments this week are designed to address the potential development of MOOCs themselves, with a focus on literacy and assessment, raising two major questions about the future of this kind of learning – how are online courses changing the nature and definition of ‘literacy’ and what does effective assessment look like in this relatively unexplored context? Consider first of all this arguably utopian view of new literacies from Bonnie Stewart of the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada:

“The studies in new literacies (Barton, 1994) established the use of the plural ‘literacies’ rather than the singular ‘literacy’ in order to push beyond the binary of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ that still shapes our cultural threshold-based conceptions surrounding literacy (Belshaw 2012). Lankshear and Knobel (2007) frame new literacies as follows:

The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a ‘new’ literacy. This is what Gee (1996) calls ‘literacies as social practices’…

It is particularly in the shifting of teacher and student roles that I suggest MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new, participatory literacies. First, in all MOOCs that enable voluntary, open, free registration, learners set some of their own terms for participation in a way that differs from conventional higher education offerings. The fact that a learner need not qualify nor complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course creates a very different relationship to course requirements and to the instructor, and alters learners’ agency over the terms of their experiences. This decentered, fluid notion of what a course is corresponds with the participatory ethos outlined by Lankshear and Knobel (2007).”

oxford

The idea that ‘a learner need not complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course’ – allied to the fact that only around 10% of learners who enrol in larger MOOCs actually complete the course (Balfour 2013), would no doubt have traditionalists working themselves into a lather, as it brings into question not only the nature of assessment in learning, but the very definition of ‘success’, a topic which excites me greatly and which I will return to in the very near future.