Chapter 1 - Introduction

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Wordle of Chapter 1
“It is a common point from which I start; for there again and again I shall return.” (Parmenides)<ref> The quotations from pre-Socratic philosophers introducing each chapter (taken from Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 1957; 1999) are a tribute to Dr. Stephen Makin, an inspirational lecturer in pre-Socratics at the University of Sheffield who, along with his colleagues, inspired me to educate others. The word clouds are created using with the size of the word indicating its frequency in the chapter.</ref>

This thesis will focus on the emerging concept of 'digital literacy'. It will be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, "some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist" (Pinker, 2002, p.202). Borrowing tools from the Pragmatist tradition, I will analyse definitions of literacy in terms of their utility. In addition, I will explore the ambiguous nature of ‘digital literacy’. As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term 'digital literacy', other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, 'literacy'. The question that I will ask, therefore, is whether metaphorical conceptions of literacy (such as 'digital literacy') are 'good in the way of belief'? That is to say, are they are useful conceptual tools?

When dealing with such conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of 'reality' and, indeed, 'truth'. More phenomenological and philosophical depth will be provided later, but it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of 'digital literacy', 'digital competence', 'digital fluency' and so on are of a different order than 'sky', 'chair', and 'lamp'. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of 'digital literacy' that this thesis will discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions. I am more interested in conceptualising digital and new literacies without recourse to particular semiotic domains. As a result, whilst the work of (for example) Lankshear and Knobel around ‘fanfic’ affinity spaces and Merchant around literacy in virtual worlds is interesting, it is not of immediate and particular relevance to this thesis. As I have a rather constraining word limit, I shall have to be ruthless.

In Chapter 8 I consider the ‘digital’ part of ‘digital literacy’ (see sub-section ‘Digital Epicycles’) considering it as the verb instead of the adjective. Throughout the rest of the thesis, however, my focus is primarily upon ‘literacy’ as the verb and ‘digital’ as the adjective. The practical and, dare I say, pragmatic reason for avoiding a detailed discussion of what constitutes the ‘digital’ element of ‘digital literacy’ is that I could not have done the topic justice in the space I have available here.<ref> I can recommend Goodfellow (2011) as a useful introduction to this area.</ref> Going off on a ‘digital’ tangent would have also made the work less practical and accessible for the ‘man on the street’ (or the teacher in the classroom) than it already may be. I intend for this to be a practical, useful thesis.

To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth (i.e. statements are true in so far as they correspond to the external world) and problems relating to solipsism (all that exists is in the mind of the individual), this thesis will employ a Pragmatic methodology that I outline in Chapter 6. The Pragmatic way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James and John Dewey.<ref> See Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club for an excellent overview of the early Pragmatist movement.</ref> Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no 'end to enquiry' and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience” (James, 1995, p.21). 'Truth,' especially when it comes to intangible definitions and somewhat nebulous concepts, becomes a fluid and almost negotiable commodity.

This meshes with the phenomenological account I shall present later; if we socially-construct what we term 'reality', then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual 'realities' and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As William James puts it:

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. (James,1995, p.20)

With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no difference or could make no difference in practice will either be mentioned only in passing or disregarded entirely. Not only do metaphorical uses of literacy need to have some descriptive power, but they must allow for actions that make a difference in practice. Although this is a non-empirical thesis, what follows in subsequent chapters is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers. There are many and varied ways to approach a doctoral thesis and to a great extent I am guided and constrained by both my educational and employment history as well as my central interests. Where definitions and conceptions of 'digital literacy' are tested and found wanting, then I shall propose another way of framing the concept that can be used as a lens for educational provision. This will be explored in Chapter 9.

As my thesis has been available online<ref></ref> since I began to write it, I believe it is important to spell out what I consider to be my original contributions to knowledge knowledge and how I solve some of the problems of this particular research area. Publishing as I go in this way has allowed me to gain valuable feedback from educators and academics around the world but remains an unusual way to write a doctoral thesis. Chapters 5, 6 and 9 are critical in this regard as they contain what I believe to be three original insights. The first and most important of these comes in the form of a ‘matrix of essential elements’ of digital literacies that I set out in Chapter 9. I believe that this structure, which can be contextualised and interpreted by individuals and institutions, builds upon and adds significantly to the all-too-slim body of work attempting to bridge the gap between research into New Literacies and everyday educational practice.

Secondly, Chapter 5 sets out a spectrum of ambiguities upon which various definitions of concepts such as digital literacies can be placed. As I argue in that chapter, and elsewhere in the thesis, ambiguity surrounds us and is not a necessarily negative thing. Positioning definitions of digital and new literacies on a spectrum of ambiguities can lead to varying results. Used strategically this can lead to benefits for communities, institutions and individuals.

The methodology used in this thesis, derived from the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, constitutes the third original contribution of this thesis. Chapter 6, placed at the mid-point of this thesis is pivotal as it constitutes a new way of conceptualising and framing work in the digital and new literacies arena. As I argue, using the work of Pragmatic philosophers such as Peirce, James, Dewey, Quine and Rorty allows us to ask questions such as whether a definition is ‘good in the way of belief’ and understand that concepts are often understood through metaphor or analogy. Definitions, I shall argue, help produce ‘habits of mind’ but these definitions need to be co-created to have power. One of the reasons for locating the methodology chapter mid-way through the thesis is to demonstrate that, to a great extent, academics, theorists and practitioners have been largely asking the right sort of questions but with the wrong conceptual tools and approach.

Although the above three chapters constitute what I believe to be original insights, the remaining chapters are important for developing my overall argument that we should be talking of digital literacies rather than an overarching ‘digital literacy’. In Chapter 2 I show that digital and new literacies are understood in different ways around the world, making the terms problematic. This, however, as I argue in Chapter 3, is not something peculiar to new forms of literacy as traditional (print) literacy is not a straightforward concept. Chapter 4 charts the history and evolution of the term ‘digital literacy’ as in many ways it is inextricably linked with other (new) forms of literacy. After introducing a spectrum of ambiguities in Chapter 5, and giving a rationale for my use of a Pragmatic methodology in Chapter 6, I use Chapters 7 and 8 to apply this methodology to the arena of digital and new literacies. As mentioned earlier, in Chapter 9 I introduce a matrix of digital literacies before, in Chapter 10, concluding.