January 23, 2014Uncategorized

Thomas Apperley & Christopher S. Walsh

Published Online: January 23, 2014
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Editorial: A commitment to remaining open access

When Digital Culture & Education was conceived in 2006, as an output of the Australian Research Council Linkage project ‘Literacy in the digital world of the 21st century: Learning from computer games’, open access publishing was not receiving the attention it does today. Our motivation for publishing DCE as an open access journal was simple.  We wanted to make all articles available to education practitioners—especially classroom teachers—who might not have access to an academic library, and to scholars from institutions who are unable to fund that access. Open access was, for us, a way of disrupting the hegemony of academic publishing (Walsh and Kamler, 2013) to intentionally reach a wider audience, particularly anyone who might find the work published in Digital Culture & Education useful. Since 2006, the discussions and debates around scholarly open access publishing have become considerably more politicised.

Various models of open access are postulated, particularly the ‘gold’ and ‘green’ models. Gold includes many types of journals, including Digital Culture & Education. However, the notion of charging a fee to support ‘gold’ publication has become widely adopted by the scholarly publishing industry; in essence it means that existing publishing systems will continue, with scholars who can afford the fee (or their institutions) being charged to make a book, article or chapter open access (although some publishers will waive fees in certain cases).  For example, Computers and Education charges USD$1800[1] to make an article open access and for Taylor & Francis Open Select and Routledge Open Select, the fee is USD$2,950 (£1,788 / €2,150).[2] The ‘green’ model allows scholars to distribute their work through institutional depositories, in the form of a final draft or proof of the published article. Both of these models suggest open access can be easily accommodated into the academic publishing industry. Indeed, they solve some of the problems around access to research which we were initially concerned with when we founded Digital Culture & Education. But, as we see it, the problems has moved from one of access to research, to one actually shaping who has access to a readership for their research. Neither ‘gold’ open access, when it relies on scholars’ own money, nor ‘green’ open access that is based on membership of scholarly institutions are without problems.

Digital Culture & Education provides access to ‘gold’ open access, without charging any fees. All work is both published and distributed through Digital Culture & Education, avoiding both issues of cost and access to institutions.  We do plan some changes to our current system in order to accommodate scholars who are required to utilise ‘green’ models. From 2014 we will switch to a creative commons licensing, which we hope will greatly simplify the process of uploading articles and reviews to institutional depositories.

The initial funding for DCE’s website came from the Australian Research Council. But it must also be acknowledged that all of the ongoing labour and cost associated with producing an actual issue two or three times a year is voluntarily. The authors, cover artists, peer reviewers, the editorial board, special issue editors, and particularly our copy editor Jesse Ko, have all contributed to the journal without payment. Not only could we not publish any issue without them, we cannot afford to pay them. It is this dedicated and charitable labour that allows Digital Culture & Education to be open access, and we are extremely grateful to all who have contributed over our first five years.

This issue has cover art from Sydney-based artist Jacquelene Drinkall, and contains four articles, an interview and a book review. Joey J. Lee’s article ‘Game mechanics to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes’ examines racial stereotypes in digital games and considers how ‘identity supportive games’ can be created, that promote new understandings of identity. In ‘mLearning solutions for international development – rethinking the thinking’, John Traxler examines how mLearning in international development is shifting from being driven by practitioners, activists and researchers to becoming a tool deployed by agencies, corporations and policymakers, and the methodological and pedagogical impact of this transformation. Ben Abraham’s article ‘Fedora shaming as discursive activism’ is a case study of a unique Tumblr community that focused on critiquing a phenomena among users of OK Cupid – the marked association between users wearing fedora hats in their profile pictures and having particularly sexist subtexts in their profile. Judy Kalman’s article ‘Beyond common explanations: Incorporating digital technology and culture into classrooms in México’ examines the strategies that teachers use to incorporate technology into their classroom practice and curriculum, while dealing with the particular constraints of their institution and the limits of their own expertise.

The issue also includes an interview with Dr. Margaret Kily by Lucy Van. This interview outlines changes taking place in Australian higher education, particularly Kiley’s research on the current introduction of coursework to PhD study in Australia. The issue ends with a review essay of Jussi Parikka’s book What is Media Archaeology? by Benjamin Nicoll.


Walsh, C.S. and Kamler, B. (2013). Teacher research on literacy: Turning around to students and technology. In (Eds). K. Hall, T. Cremin, B. Comber and L. Moll. International Handbook of research in Children’s Literacy, Learning and Culture. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, p. 499-513. DOI: 10.1002/9781118323342.ch36.

[1] See Computers & Education’s guide for authors: http://www.elsevier.com/journals/computers-and-education/0360-1315/guide-for-authors

[2] See Taylor & Francis Online’s Information for funders & institutions: http://www.tandfonline.com/page/openaccess/funders

Joey J. Lee

Published Online: December 5, 2013
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The following paper discusses the design, creation, and evaluation of a new class of digital games, Identity Supportive Games, as a tool to promote new understandings of self-identity and ethnic minority stereotypes.  In particular, aspects of the Asian-American experience, including the effects of Asian stereotypes like the “Model Minority” myth, were targeted.  In this design-based research study, qualitative and quantitative data sources explored the impact of game mechanics within Identity Supportive Games on both Asian-American and Non-Asian participants.  Items investigated include: perceptions of Asian-American stereotypes, the ability to promote reflections and thoughts on self-identities and goals, the learning of facts regarding the Asian-American experience, and new understandings of Asian-American culture.

Keywords: Social issue games, identity, ethnic minorities, stereotypes

In a digital age where 97% of all American teenagers play computer, web, portable, or console games (Lenhart et al., 2008), there is a need to better understand the potential of using video games as a tool to support positive youth identity development in the face of racial and societal stereotypes that can be damaging and limiting in social and psychological ways (e.g., Sue & Sue, 2006; Mok, 1998; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000). To date, very few game-based interventions for addressing cultural identity formation and the mitigation of stereotype threat (Steele, 1997) exist. Instead, stereotypical images and roles are pervasive in the most popular commercial video games, including African-Americans depicted frequently as gang members and athletes (Consalvo, 2010) and women portrayed as damsels in distress or hypersexualised objects (Lee et al., 2006). Digital games often embody values that reinforce stereotypes and stereotypical behaviour (e.g., ethnic minorities that engage in violent and delinquent behaviour in games like Rockstar Games’ popular yet controversial Grand Theft Auto titles) (Flanagan, et al. 2007). In this study, game mechanics were created and tested in two digital mini-games to explore the possibility of mitigating stereotyping of the Asian-American community, providing implications for extending the process to other populations as well.

Focusing on Asian-American culture, the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in America (Humes et al., 2011), is strategic for several reasons. Despite commonly being labelled as a “Model Minority” group that regularly achieves academic success, Asian-American youth often face serious issues and challenges in society that largely go unnoticed and unaddressed. These include: (1) the effects of widespread stereotypes, some of which are overtly negative (e.g., “Asian men are emasculated, passive individuals unfit for leadership positions”) (Mok, 1998; Kim & Yeh, 2002) and other stereotypes that may seem positive initially, but are in fact damaging or limiting (e.g., “Asians are exceptionally smart nerds who are great at math and science”) (Lee and Zhou, 2004); (2) a “toxic shame” culture that masks real problems that need to be addressed, including the stigma of mental illnesses (Yoon & Jepson, 2008); (3) “invisible” Asian groups masked by the Model Minority image who tend to struggle at the bottom of the academic curve yet are denied the assistance they need to improve (Walker-Moffet, 1995); (4) parental, cultural, and societal pressures to succeed and meet sometimes unrealistically high expectations of the “Model Minority” image (Wang & Lin, 2005; Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000), sometimes leading to depression, mental illnesses, and relatively high rates of suicide (Cohen, 2007); and (5) the “caught between two worlds” cultural clash between traditional Eastern and Western values that leads to role confusion and identity crisis (Erikson, 1968). There is a need for a broader awareness of issues and problems facing Asian-Americans today, as well as novel strategies for ethnic minority identity development and self-empowerment.

Digital games can be designed to have intrinsic properties that may be promising for addressing this need. Games can be experiential; they can deliver powerful first-hand learning experiences in ways that are unavailable in real life (Barab et al., 2006). Games can offer direct feedback; they can get players to see immediate consequences to their actions (Chen, 2007). Games are typically a safe place to experiment and fail (Gee, 2007); they permit players to safely try out behaviours and strategies without fear of judgment. Games can naturally afford new perspectives and opportunities for empathy (Bers, 2001; Gee, 2005); they allow players to take on new perspectives and to see the world from this new lens. Finally, games offer the potential for powerful identity play, self-representations and self-exploration (e.g., Kafai, Fields & Cook, 2010; Turkle, 1995); the experiences that occur within these environments can yield powerful insights and reflections about oneself.

This article presents a design-based research study exploring how digital game mechanics can be designed to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes. The overarching research question is: can game mechanics be used to promote new understandings of identity and ethnic minority stereotypes? The paper begins with a discussion of the issues that Asian-Americans face, including the unanticipated consequences of various stereotypes perpetuated by media and society. Next, it presents the opportunity of using digital games and why game mechanics can be utilised to address the need described above. This is followed by the design process, creation, and evaluation of Identity Supportive Games, a new class of Serious Games that targets the central issues related to the Asian-American experience captured by a survey and focus group session. Specifically, the study focuses on the ability of the game mechanics to shift perceptions and clarify misconceptions regarding Asian culture and stereotypes, the effectiveness of the games as an educational tool to improve knowledge of facts related to Asian culture, and the ability of the games to promote reflections and new understandings of self-identity.

Background and Need

Asian stereotypes are frequently perpetuated in media and pop culture, portraying images of Asians in movies and television shows such as Model Minority, nerd, overachiever, studious, mystic warrior, socially awkward, perpetual foreigner, bad leader, hypersexualised female, and effeminate male (e.g., Lee, 1996; Mok, 1998; Lee & Zhou, 2004; Kim & Yeh, 2002).  Yee (1992) has argued that portrayals of Asian-Americans are dualistic in that they tend to alternate from extremely positive (e.g. wise sages, exemplary citizens) to extremely negative (e.g. sadistic executioners, sly villains).  Yee has hypothesised that American attitudes toward Asians carry strong evaluations of Asians as alien competitors of two forms: exemplary and pernicious. He believes that these stereotypes have the power not only to influence attitudes and behaviours toward Asian-Americans, but also to influence the attitudes and behaviour of Asians themselves.

Stereotypes may also lead to subtle or direct forms of racism or discrimination against Asian-Americans that limit workplace opportunities and career advancement.  Negative perceptions of Asians’ capability and likelihood of success in managerial and leadership positions have led to a glass-ceiling effect dubbed the Bamboo Ceiling (Hyun, 2005): Asian-American men with equivalent or superior education and experience levels receive less income and access to resources (Fisher et al., 2000; Lee, 1996) and are excluded from upper managerial jobs on the basis of subjective factors such as ‘lack of leadership potential’ or ‘inferior communication ability’ (Cheng & Thatchenkery, 1997; Wong and Nagasawa, 1991).  A study by the Anti-Defamation League found that compared to other ethnicities, Americans do not want to work for Asian-American CEOs and would feel uncomfortable voting for an Asian-American presidential candidate (ADL, 2001).  Furthermore, the notion that Asian-Americans are hard workers who rarely complain has often led to the exploitation of Asian-American employees (Choi & Chen, 1996).

Stereotypes assigned to Asian-Americans can also create resentment or conflicts among peers.  Fisher et al. (2000) found higher levels of distress from peer discrimination in Chinese and Korean students than in African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites.  In extreme cases, stereotypes and beliefs related to race and ethnicity can lead to violence and racially motivated hate-crimes, such as the case of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American murdered by two White men who lost their jobs.  According to a recent FBI Hate Crime Statistics report, more than 65% of hate crimes were related to race and ethnicity (FBI, 2007).  Stereotypes can lead people to assume characteristics about an individual, even if entirely unfair or untrue.  A better understanding of areas of common ground and cultural differences may help to reduce the presence of negative or inaccurate stereotypes, which may in turn reduce violence or hate crimes.

A review of the social psychological literature has also shown that stereotypes can affect both short-term academic performance and long-term identity.  Steele (1997) describes stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which academic performance is depressed when negative stereotypes about a group are evoked.  This phenomenon, replicated in over 100 studies in the last decade, has a direct and immediate effect on a testing situation that evokes it, as well as a cumulative erosive effect over time that influences both intellectual performance and a longer-term sense of identity (Steele, 1997).  Stereotypes can also lead to increased self-imposed pressure and emotional distress (e.g., Kim & Yeh, 2002).

What about the effects of seemingly beneficial or ‘good’ stereotypes?  Prejudice (in the form of preferential treatment or high expectations) can also work in favour of an Asian-American in certain contexts, but interestingly, even these seemingly positive attributions often cause detrimental effects that are not readily apparent.  For example, the belief that Asian-American students are intelligent and hardworking may cause a teacher to grade more positively.  In the long run, however, harmful side effects often develop.  A student may strive to maintain his or her hardworking image by being obedient and conforming, pigeonholing himself or herself, or else a student who rebels against these stereotype-driven expectations faces the wrath of his teachers for violating their notions or expectations of a ‘good’ Asian (Sue & Sue, 2006).  Furthermore, Asian-Americans who do not perform well academically are often denied the assistance they need to improve (NCAAPIRE, 2008).  While certain Asian-American groups of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese descent have been relatively successful, the Model Minority stereotype masks the fact that many Asians (particularly those from Southeast Asian countries like Laotian, Hmong, Cambodia) actually fall into the highest poverty rate and lowest academic success rate levels (NCAAPIRE, 2008).  Stereotypes can often render these students invisible.

Evidently, damaging consequences are not limited to overtly negative stereotypes, but to seemingly complimentary or positive ones as well.  Research findings suggest that stereotypes can increase anxiety, stress and expectations to succeed, while negatively affecting academic performance (Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000).  Furthermore, in terms of shaping self-concept, Asian-Americans are constantly reminded that they are anything but ‘normal.’  (Wong et al. 1998; Kim, 1997; Oyserman, 2006; Kawai, 2005; Mok, 1998).  Asian-Americans may start to believe these perceptions and internalise stereotypes held about their group as a result of a Reflected Self phenomenon in which they come to see themselves as they believe others see them (Tice & Wallace, 2003).  Finally, Asian-Americans must confront a cultural clash caused by being situated in two completely different worlds in direct conflict: an Asian heritage and its value system colliding with a Western value system.

Consequences of Identity Crisis: Caught Between Two Worlds

Erikson (1968) coined the term identity crisis to describe the most important conflict human beings encounter as they go through eight developmental stages in life.  According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself, struggling between feelings of identity versus role confusion.  Marcia (1968; 1993) extended Erikson’s work, describing identity achievement as the most secure identity status, i.e., commitment to a secure identity.

Asian-Americans face an additional challenge as they go through the developmental process of formulating identity achievement, as the challenge of negotiating between two clashing worldviews further exacerbates identity crisis (Sue & Sue, 2006).  As Lee and Zhou (2004) put it, “native-born Asian-Americans find themselves caught between two vastly different worlds and at ease with neither” (p. 14).  American and Asian cultures generally have contradictory values and standards over several fundamental issues including risk aversion, individualism/collectivism, power distance, and other civil liberties (Hofstede, 1980).  In heavily Confucian-influenced Asian nations, for example, parents typically exert strong, heavy-handed control over children, guiding important choices in their lives, including constraints on possible career choices (Leong & Serafica, 1995).  Emphasis is placed on obedience to authority and elders, obtaining a good education, and giving the family a ‘good’ name, which tends to result in greater passivity and less autonomy in individuals (Sue & Sue, 2006).  Simultaneously, Western values assail Asian-Americans on multiple fronts including mass media, peer circles, and schools.  Emphasis on individual personal freedoms, assertiveness, spontaneity, and risk-taking can be in direct conflict with Asian values of deference and reserve (Hofstede, 1980).

The consequences of identity crisis and being caught in between two vastly different worlds are multifaceted.  Some Asian-Americans struggle to find their role in society.  They must wrestle with their sense of self-worth and identity, and how much to listen to (or reject) various influences pulling in multiple directions: cultural and parental pressures, peers, stereotypes and societal expectations of what niches are appropriate or desirable for Asians, etc. (Wang & Lin, 2005; Leong & Serafica, 1995).  Concurrently, Asian-Americans must deal with pressures to succeed and high expectations to live up to the smart, hard-working “model minority” image (Cheryan & Bodnehausen, 2000; Lee, 1994).  These pressures and other reasons can often lead to a host of self-image and mental problems, including lower self-esteem and a distorted sense of self-worth (Cohen, 2007; Sue & Sue, 2004).

There is a need to allow Asian-Americans to understand, overcome, and take ownership over stereotypes that can adversely shape their self-concepts and social identities.  Along with a need for novel strategies for ethnic minority identity development and self-empowerment, there is also a need for a broader understanding and awareness of issues and problems facing Asian-Americans today.

A possible tool to address issues of identity and stereotypes

A possible approach is to allow exploration of both identity and sociocultural issues is the use of digital games.  In recent years, digital games have gained acceptance as a means to educate, promote new ways of thinking, and change perceptions and opinions (e.g., Bogost, 2007).  The following section discusses how digital games can be designed with mechanics and dynamics that can make them an effective strategy for addressing issues of stereotypes.

Using digital games to promote new cultural understandings

Games are useful in the ways in which they can allow people to reflect on their own identities, fantasies, and hopes in the world (Gee, 2005).  The experiential nature of digital games combined with the emotional investment of identity play offer an opportunity to increase one’s empathy toward a group.  For example, people who are not Asian-American can experience the effects of specific Asian-American stereotypes in a simulated way.  These kinds of games can raise awareness about important issues or persuade individuals to take a particular stance on various issues (Bogost, 2007).

Similarly, role-play elements found in many games are useful for allowing players to take on new perspectives.  Players see the world through unique new lenses as they embody a game’s playable characters—for instance, soldiers in the U.S. Army in a game like America’s Army, doctors who must properly diagnose patients in a virtual Heart Murnur Sim, or possibly (in this context) ethnic minorities who must confront and negotiate cultural stereotypes. Taking on new perspectives while playing realistic game characters is a natural opportunity for people to explore new values and ways of thinking, and to open up new epistemic frames or future learning trajectories (Shaffer, 2005).

The immediate feedback and content that can be delivered in a simulated and experiential way can lead to important forms of cultural learning: myths can be debunked, misunderstandings clarified, and naïve views can be replaced with more sophisticated understandings of Asian culture.  Players may develop a heightened sense of cultural sensitivity as a result of these experiences.

Toward a working game design

It is important to explore how game designs can be used as tools for better understandings of cultural issues, and to go a step beyond that: to determine how technology can support identity development.  The following section discusses the design process of creating two games that promote self-reflection, positive identity support, and new cultural understandings.

A new form of social issue game design, Identity Supportive Games (hereafter called ISGs), was created to target self-reflection, identity development, and new cultural understandings.  This design is based upon studies of identity-based learning (e.g., Lee & Hoadley, 2007) and social psychological literature on possible selves (e.g., Markus & Nurius, 1986), stereotypes (e.g., Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000; Sue et al., 2007), and digital game-based identity play (Turkle, 1995; Gee, 2005)

An ISG is a digital experience that incorporates game mechanics and dynamics that are specifically designed to:

  • Allow young people to reflect upon their self-concept and possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986)
  • Provide support for identity formation and development towards identity-achievement (Phinney, 1993; Marcia, 1966, 1980) by clarifying and improving perceptions of one’s self-concept and goals
  • Allow young people to try on new identities and refine their existing identity via fluid, malleable identity play (Bers, 2001; Turkle, 1995)
  • Allow young people to challenge assumptions and confront negative forces that cause unwanted behaviour (e.g., raising awareness of, and encouraging a person to take ownership over limiting, damaging stereotypes)

In this way, ISGs serve as social simulations designed to target real-world themes and important social issues including ethnic minority discrimination and the consequences of allowing ethnic minority stereotypes to go unchecked.  They provide a relatively safe environment for individuals to explore aspects of their self-concepts and to learn new truths about a specific culture.  Understanding one’s identity, including one’s unique strengths and goals, is important for a person to ultimately develop a positive self-concept about who he or she is.

Game Design, Data Collection and Methodology

The first cycle of a mixed-methods Design-Based Research (DBR) approach (Barab & Squire, 2004; DBRC, 2003) was used in order to capture a rich picture of the design and evaluation process of Identity Supportive Games. This study was broken into two phases: (1) a requirements-gathering phase to help with the brainstorming and initial design of the games, and (2) a play-test and data-gathering phase. For the first phase, a survey, focus group session, and iterative paper prototyping technique was used to determine the requirements and features of the game design. For the second phase, three main data collection strategies were used: (1) a pre- and post-survey given before and after gameplay; (2) real-time feedback in the form of ‘thinkalouds’ and server-side game logs during gameplay, and (3) focused semi-structured interviews.

The purpose of the study was to better understand how mechanics in digital games could play a role in supporting identities and promoting reflection and learning about an ethnic minority culture.  The study includes descriptive work of what participants believe about ethnic stereotypes, how they view themselves in relation to ethnic stereotypes, and how they define their own self–identities.  As a design-based study, it contributes an important first step of investigating how game mechanics can help participants learn (about cultures and about selves) and also offer a window into how technology may help participants move closer towards identity achievement (Phinney, 1993; Phinney, 1990; Marcia, 1966), a complex multistep process.

Phase One: Identifying Content Requirements, Feedback and Brainstorming

As a DBR study, a primary goal was to embody theories into game mechanics and to build new theory.  To identify the content to include in the games, the most pressing issues related to the Asian-American experience were identified.  Informed by a literature review on Asian stereotypes and their consequences, a survey and focus group session was completed to capture existing assumptions, conceptions, and stereotypes related to Asian issues and culture as well as what Asian participants perceived to be the most important aspects of their ethnic and social identity.

The initial survey was administered in an online format to thirty-two Non-Asian undergraduate students who were enrolled in a junior level technology course.  All survey participants were given a gift certificate for ice cream and were entered in a prize drawing to win a gift certificate at an online retailer.

The survey contained five open response questions that allowed the researcher to explore participants’ existing assumptions, conceptions, and stereotypes related to Asian issues and culture.  The first question tested survey respondents’ awareness of diversity in terms of Asian countries in the world: “In your estimation, how many Asian countries are there in the world?”  The correct answer of 47 was rarely obtained; for the thirty-two survey respondents, the mean number of Asian countries was determined to be 23.07 (SD=12.86).  When asked, “What words come to mind when you think of people of Asian descent?” Non-Asian survey respondents listed their conceptions about Asian culture, describing several words that were consistent with existing literature on Asian stereotypes (e.g. Mok, 1998; Kim & Yeh, 2002).   Participants were also asked: “What are common beliefs that people have of the Asian ethnicity?”  “What aspects of Asian and Asian-American culture are positive?” And “What aspects of Asian and Asian-American culture are negative?”

Various themes emerged from the open response items, including Asians as a group that is considered smart, a Model Minority, having abnormal physical characteristics, good at math, science, or technology, foreign, and so on. See Table 1. below for a breakdown of various themes from the survey respondents.

Themes Participants supporting this theme Examples
smart P2, P7, P8, P9, P15, P17, P19, P20, P21, P25, P31 “intelligent,” “very smart,”
lack of awareness of unique Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Korea P2, P4, P17, P18, P20, P23, P24, P30 “I think of China and Japan,” “China, Japan, and Korea”
Model Minority P3, P6, P7, P12, P15, P21, P23, P32 “overachievers,” “hardworking,” “industrious,” “diligence,” “They study more than most people.”
abnormal physical features P3, P7, P8, P12, P16, P22, P26, P27, P31 “squinty eyes,” “very skinny, short,” “slanted eyes,” “undersized penises”
good at math, science, or technology P1, P3, P4, P10, P11, P12, P13, P29 “good at math,” “science,” “tech support,” “good at math and computers,” “math wizards”
strange/”other”/foreign P2, P7, P16, P22, P26, P27, P29, P31 “accent,” “strange,” “immigrants,” “not as willing to assimilate into American culture,” “They eat very weird food”
Parental pressure/respect of authority/elders P3, P4, P9, P16, P26, P32 “strict parents, ” “respect of elders”
martial arts P4, P5, P9, P27, P30 “martial arts,” “samurai”

Table 1. Non-Asian survey responses on their conceptions of Asian people.

The survey data was used to inform a focus group session centred on Asian-American themes and issues, exploring how stereotypes are embedded in life experiences and how they are negotiated in formulating one’s ethnic identity and self-concept.  As part of an Asian-themed social event sponsored by an undergraduate student organisation at a large public university, a group of 11 undergraduate students (8 male, 3 female) participated in a one-hour focus group session. Of these students, 7 self-identified as Asian-American (having mostly grown up in the Eastern cities and suburbs of the United States), 2 as African-American, and 2 Caucasian (one Hispanic male from Guatemala and one non-Hispanic female from Pennsylvania).

Focus group participants were shown a short video of various Asian-American depictions in the media (e.g., actor John Cho’s depiction of Harold from the recent film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and the character of Hideki played by actor Bobby Lee in MadTV’s Average Asian sketch). Afterwards they were prompted to discuss their personal experiences growing up as their race/ethnicity and also their perceptions of any issues facing those of Asian ethnicity.

The most important issues that emerged from the focus group session were: (1) the challenge and negative implications of attempting to meet high expectations or demands of parents, peers, and society; (2) the tension that exists when a person’s self-concept does not align with societal or individual stereotypes that explicitly or implicitly label the person, including seemingly positive labels such as ‘smart’ or ‘good at math’; (3) limited possible selves as a result of stereotypes; and (4) a tendency for Non-Asians view Asians as a form of ‘perpetual foreigner’ that is unable to assimilate; the view that an Asian is an “alien” or “other,” i.e. not mainstream or normal.

From the survey and focus group results, game mechanics were created and embedded into two game prototypes created to incorporate the most important issues identified by the participants: Flying Asian Stereotypes! and A-Culture-Rate.  The games were developed following an iterative paper prototyping design process (Fullerton, 2008).  The following section will discuss details of the two game designs.

Embedding game mechanics into game prototypes

Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game

The Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game was designed as an open-ended ‘sandbox’ platform game intended to promote identity reflection and consideration of the implications of being labelled by stereotypes.  Based upon Markus and Nurius’ (1986) notion of possible selves, the participant, playing as an Asian-American character in the game, must frequently make decisions throughout the game to determine what kind of identities he or she perceives to be realistic, desirable, or undesirable for himself or herself.   These choices, which represent various strategies for identity refinement, affect the avatar’s appearance and abilities within the game.

Basic Rules and Gameplay. The basic gameplay is relatively simple.  Specific stereotypes related to Asian-American identity are reified within the game as projectiles that are thrown towards the character.  The player can choose to dodge or touch the stereotype projectiles, symbolising the avoidance or internalisation of stereotypes.  As stereotypes collide with the character, the player can see the effects of these stereotypes; the character’s appearance changes accordingly and gameplay is affected (e.g., in-game behaviour and how the player is spoken to).  For example, if the player is hit with ‘Parental Pressure’, then the character’s movement becomes slower as a result of less freedom and control, and he or she is constantly told to study harder or that their academic performance is not good enough.  If the player chooses to become a ‘Nerd’, then the character is viewed as nerdy (e.g. avatar takes on thick glasses) and is constantly told remarks (e.g., presented with common microaggressions or microinvalidations (Sue, et al., 2007)) about Asian intelligence.  Other stereotypes and forces within the game, based upon the literature review and from survey and focus group results, include ‘Model Minority,’ ‘bad leaders,’ ‘lacks social skills,’ ‘knows kung fu,’ ‘perpetual foreigner,’ ‘low self-esteem,’ ‘evil gangster,’ ‘bad romantic partner,’ etc. (e.g., Lee, 1996; Mok, 1998; Lee & Zhou, 2004).

As a ‘sandbox’ environment, the game world is open-ended in the sense that there are many ways to play.   There is no predefined win or lose condition; the player can choose to create any identity as he or she wishes.  No one solution is clearly better than the other, so the game is designed intentionally to allow players to reflect upon their self-concept, to explore different kinds of identities, and to decide how stereotypes may or may not play a role in their lives.


Figure 1. Intro screen to Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game.

This first game design had three specific objectives: (1) allow for identity reflection and exploration; (2) educate players of all backgrounds about Asian and Asian-American issues by addressing common misconceptions and presenting facts; and (3) to give a simulated experience of what it is like to be labelled Asian stereotypes and assumptions that may not necessarily be true for the player.

Design of Flying Asian Stereotypes! Experience. Below are sample images from the game.  Figure 2. depicts a simple set of instructions for how to play.  Once the player begins the game, he or she is given a set of choices in the form of several blue ‘Identity Choice’ stars (Figure 3.) that generally represent opposing traits (e.g. social skills vs. shyness) that correspond to stereotypes of Asian and American culture.  Throughout the game, the player is presented with messages associated with the Asian stereotype with which the player has been labelled.  In the screenshot below (Figure 4.), a stereotype (e.g. ‘Nerd’) approaches and the player must decide whether or not to allow each stereotype to label them.    Depending on the stereotypes that have been activated, the player may see spoken messages such as “Do you know Kung Fu?” “You’re Asian? You must be good at math!” “How come you’re so smart?” “You’re a bad romantic partner,” or several other messages associated with each stereotype.


Figure 2.  Instructions for how to play.


Figure 3. Player chooses between Identity Choice stars to construct identities.

Because there is no right or wrong way to play, players are free to explore the environment and to reflect upon their own identity goals as they create various hypothetical identities. Players can also earn ‘happiness points’ by collecting smiley faces, although being hit with low self-esteem or parental pressure can lower one’s happiness score. Five lesser known facts about Asian culture, specifically chosen to debunk common stereotypes regarding Asian culture, were distributed throughout the environment (represented by the green letter ‘F’). The five facts address the following: (1) the innate diversity of Asian countries, comprising 47 countries each with its own unique traditions, customs, history, and values; (2) the perpetual foreigner (unassimilable alien) phenomenon; (3) the unanticipated consequences of the model minority image, increasing pressure and masking the problems and needs of underperforming Asian students (including some members of Southeast Asian groups); (4) the “bamboo ceiling” phenomenon; and (5) relatively high rates of suicide and depression for Asian-American women (see Figure 5. below for an example of an in-game fact).


Figure 4. Player may avoid or touch the ‘Nerd’ stereotype that is moving towards avatar.


Figure 5. Facts about Asian culture.

The game is meant to be educational for both Asian and Non-Asian players.  For Asians, it is meant to promote reflection of one’s identity and the role stereotypes have played in their lives, with the goal of helping them come to terms with the stereotypes.  For Non-Asians, the game offers a new experience of seeing what it may be like to be labelled various Asian stereotypes that may or may not be true for an individual.


Figure 6. A-Culture-Rate title screen.

Design Propositions and Game Mechanics for Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game. Based on previous pilot studies, four specific design propositions were tested in order to generate “theories-in-action” (Sandoval & Bell, 2004) about the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

The following game mechanics, based upon theory, were embedded in the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

  1. Letting people construct and enact identities relevant to ethnic stereotypes in an ISG can impact one’s self-concept positively.
  2. Making stereotypes explicit is good for letting people take ownership of these stereotypes.
  3. Awareness of possible selves via avatar play is good for identity support.
  4. Challenging one’s assumptions is good for learning.

The following game mechanics, based upon theory, were embedded in the Flying Asian Stereotypes! Game:

  1. Create new identities (based upon Possible Selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986) that are realistic, desirable, or undesirable selves, through Identity Choice stars and stereotype projectiles.
  2. Address Sue et al. (2007)’s notion of racial microaggressions (in the form of microinsults and microinvalidations) that are launched at the player.
  3. Gameplay (e.g. ability to move around in the environment quickly) affected by various aspects of Asian-American experience found in the literature, such as parental pressure, high rates of suicide, low self-esteem, etc. (Wang & Lin, 2005; Lee, 1996; Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000).

The following section will describe the design of the second game and present the results of how participants played each game.

The A-Culture-Rate Game

The second game, A-Culture-Rate (Figure 6) was based on the themes (from the focus group session and survey responses) of societal “otherisation” and Asians as perpetual foreigners, unable to assimilate or be perceived as mainstream or normal. The goal of the design was to deliver an experience that conveyed the consequences of otherisation, and getting a person to realise that it is not easy or beneficial to determine how acculturated a person is based upon physical appearance. As with the first game, participants felt that this game should be kept light-hearted and fun in order to make the issues of race and stereotyping more approachable while still being effective.

Basic Rules and Gameplay. The game design used a guessing mechanic that asked participants to guess acculturation scores and biographical information for ten people of Asian descent. Each in-game person was assigned acculturation scores based upon the Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation (SL-ASIA) Scale (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987). The game was intended to let players recognise their biases and stereotypes related to acculturation by letting them guess a person’s acculturation level and their personality traits, and then revealing what the person is truly like (i.e., their true acculturation score and a biography written by the person himself or herself).

Design of A-Culture-Rate Experience. Sample images from the game are shown below. Figure 7 shows the basic gameplay of the game. The player is presented with ten people, one at a time, and he or she determines the acculturation level of the person (based upon the SL-ASIA scale) by clicking on a number from 1 to 5. The player also enters in a yellow box a short description of their assumptions about the person based upon their physical appearance.


Figure 7. A-Culture-Rate gameplay.

Immediately after rating each person, the player is given feedback on the person’s true SL-ASIA acculturation score.  If the player guesses the value correctly, he or she is given 100 points.  If the player guesses incorrectly, the player loses a certain amount of points that corresponds to how close they were.  For example, if a player guesses “5” but the person was actually a “2,” then the player loses 300 points for being off by 3.

At the end of the game, the player is shown each person’s true biography compared to the text that they wrote for each person (e.g., Figure 8.).  Thus, the player is able to clearly see how their assumptions compare with reality.


Figure 8. Feedback allows players to compare their assumptions of people with their actual autobiographies.

Design Propositions for A-Culture-Rate. Specific design propositions were tested in order to generate “theories-in-action” (Sandoval & Bell, 2004) about the A-Culture-Rate Game:

  1. Allowing people to fail and make mistakes can be good for learning.
  2. Immediate feedback allows players to get general a sense that realise their assumptions of another culture may be wrong.
  3. Making assumptions explicit and then challenging them is good for learning about Asian-American culture.

The game design attempted to determine the best way for people to realise how their own assumptions may not be accurate.  Various game mechanics, integrating theory, were embedded in the A-Culture-Rate Game:

  1. Guess acculturation level based upon Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation (SL-ASIA) Scale (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987).
  2. Articulate assumptions about people and combating stereotypes by debunking these assumptions.
  3. Reflect upon one’s ability to guess acculturation level, before and after the game
  4. Viewpoints (a game score) to provide feedback about a player’s ability to accurately rate acculturation level.

Phase Two: Play-test and Data-Gathering

Upon designing and developing the two games, twenty-eight undergraduate students (21 male, 7 female) were recruited from a large public university for user play-testing and data collection. Participants were recruited using a purposive sampling strategy to obtain participants in three categories based on Asian acculturation level: (1) ten high acculturation second generation Asian-Americans, (2) four low acculturation first generation Asian immigrants, and (3) fourteen Non-Asians with minimal Asian experience.  The SL-ASIA instrument (Suinn, 2010; Suinn, 1987) was used to determine the level of Asian acculturation for each participant.  Phase Two consisted of multiple data sources: pre- and post- tests, real-time feedback in the form of think-alouds and server-side game logs during gameplay, and focused semi-structured interviews (see Figure 9. below). This section will discuss the data collected during Phase Two.


Figure 9. Study procedure.

Pre- and post-test items

An online pre- and post-test was designed to capture shifts in three areas: (1) knowledge of Asian culture, (2) perceptions and attitudes towards Asian issues and stereotypes, and (3) perceptions of self-identity in relation to stereotypes.  The knowledge questions were fact and content-based, exploring the accuracy of participants’ knowledge of Asian-American issues and culture. Perceptions/attitudes questions explored dimensions including perceived empathy and self-reported attitudes regarding specific stereotypes.  Self-concept questions investigated perceptions of their identities, self-esteem and pride in one’s ethnicity, and the role of stereotypes (e.g. how much they perceive specific stereotypes as applicable to their lives).

Pre- and post-tests had 95 items.  In terms of format, pre- and post-test questions were broken down into the following manner: thirteen open-response items, twenty-eight 7-point stereotype differential items (i.e., a technique introduced by Gardner et al., (1972)) that explored participants’ level of belief of a stereotype’s truthfulness pertaining to Asian-American men (e.g., rating Asian-American men on the a 7-point scale “not smart—smart”); twenty-eight stereotype differential items that explored one’s self-concept in relation to stereotypes; and twenty-six 7-point Likert scale type items.

In terms of content, questions broke down into five questions that tested factual knowledge about Asian culture (e.g., “How many Asian countries are there in the world?” to test understanding of Asian diversity); 43 questions (28 stereotype differential and 15 Likert scale items) that explored perceptions of Asian culture (e.g., “Asian-Americans are good at computational fields like math, science, or computers”); 33 questions (28 stereotype differential and 5 Likert scale-items) that explored perceptions of self-identity; and 14 miscellaneous questions that addressed perceived impact and aspects of the design.  The variables encountered in the analysis are listed in Table 2. below.

Independent Variables/Covariates Description
Acculturation Level 1=Non-Asian; 2=High Acculturation; 3=Low Acculturation
preQ1 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving knowledge of Asian culture
preQ2 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving

perceptions/attitudes towards Asian culture

preQ3 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving

perceptions/attitudes self-identity

Dependent Variables Description
postQ1 Mean scores of the items on post-test involving knowledge of Asian culture
postQ2 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving perceptions/attitudes towards Asian people/culture
postQ3 Mean scores of the items on pre-test involving self-identity
diff1 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of knowledge of Asian culture (postQ1-preQ1)
diff2 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of perceptions of Asian culture in relation to stereotypes (postQ2-preQ2)
diff3 Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity (postQ3-preQ3)

Table 2. Variable descriptions.

Participants were given pre-tests in paper format.  Completion of the pre-test took approximately 25-30 minutes per person. Within one to two weeks of completing the pre-test, individual participants were invited to play the two games. Participants were instructed to think aloud their thoughts, feelings, reactions, and reasoning process as they played. Using a server-side PHP script and ActionScript 3.0 code, server-side game logs also captured game play behaviour. On average, participants spent about forty minutes playing both games.

Participants were instructed to play Flying Asian Stereotypes! three rounds, each time constructing a different kind of identity.  Each identity construction corresponded to each of the three aspects of possible selves theory; i.e., “ideas corresponding to hopes, fears, standards, goals, and threats” of what a person might become, would like to become, and are afraid of becoming (Markus & Nurius, 1986, p. 954).  The first time, the student played the game as though the avatar was a realistic portrayal of himself or herself; i.e., while constructing an identity within the game, choices were made within the game based upon how he or she saw himself or herself in real life.  The second time, he or she constructed an identity of a person he or she is afraid of becoming (a feared self).  Finally, during the third time, the participant constructed an identity that they would like to become (an ideal self), even if not necessarily who they are in reality.  Following this game, participants played A-Culture-Rate once.

After playing the games, participants were given a post-test (in the form of an online survey) that very closely matched the original items on the pre-test. This post-test took approximately 25-30 minutes per person.  Finally, participants were given semi-structured interviews that explored the content within the games (e.g., “Was anything surprising as you played this game?” or “Did you learn anything from this game?”).  Participants were also asked general questions about the role of stereotypes in their lives, thoughts on self-concept and Asian culture, design feedback, and how to improve usability and user experience.

Results and Findings

This study focused on three primary research questions: (1) Do ISGs affect Asian students’ perceptions of self-identities in relationship to stereotypes? (2) Do ISGs promote new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture? Finally, (3) Are ISGs effective in educating players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes? This section will present these findings from the study.

First, pre- and post-tests were analysed for general trends within and between groups.  38 of the Likert-scale items were reverse-coded in order to prepare them for analysis.  After completing analysing the quantitative data, qualitative data was analysed using a maximum variation sampling approach (Patton, 1990).  Open coding and a thematic analysis of interview data was performed.  The following section will discuss in greater detail the findings from this study.

1. ISGs provided new understandings of self.

To investigate the research question: do ISGs affect Asian students’ perceptions of self-identities in relationship to stereotypes? The 33 items on the pre- and post-tests were analysed to see whether the mechanics found within the games shifted perceptions of self-identities in relation to stereotypes.  To consider differences between the three groups, a fixed effects Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) model was applied with mean scores of the items on pre-test involving self-identity as a covariate to reduce the variance.

Descriptive Statistics

Dependent Variable: diff3 – Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity
Group Mean Std. Deviation N
1 -.071 .1316 14
2 .009 .3479 10
3 .250 .1364 4
Total .003 .2503 28
Tests of Between-Subjects Effects

Dependent Variable: diff3 – Difference from pretest to posttest in terms of self-identity

Source Type III Sum of Squares Df Mean Square F Sig. Partial Eta Squared
Corrected Model .897a 5 .179 4.966 .003 .530
Intercept .099 1 .099 2.732 .113 .110
Group .335 2 .167 4.631 .021 .296
preQ3 .077 1 .077 2.123 .159 .088
Group *preQ3 .318 2 .159 4.403 .025 .286
Error .795 22 .036
Total 1.692 28
Corrected Total 1.692 27
a. R Squared = .530 (Adjusted R Squared = .423)

Table 3.  Results of ANCOVA model.

The pre-test scores indicated that high acculturation second generation Asian-Americans (Group 2) had the highest score (M2 = 4.55), followed by Non-Asians (Group 1) (M1=4.44), and then low acculturation first generation Asians (Group 1) with the lowest (M3 = 3.94), which suggests high acculturation Asian-Americans initially had the highest relative awareness of how stereotypes played a role in their self-identities before playing the games.  Upon playing the games, the Estimated Marginal Means EMM table and plot indicated that Group 3 (low acculturation Asians) had the highest change in self-identity (M3 = 0.18), followed by Group 2, or high acculturation Asian-Americans, (M2 = 0.10), and then Group 1, or Non-Asians (M1 = -0.076). Thus, the ANCOVA model, controlling for individual scores on the pre-test, revealed that first generation Asians had the highest change in self-identity, followed by the second generation Asian-Americans (significant interaction effects between acculturation level and pre-test items involving self-identity, F(2,22) = 4.40, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.29).  As expected, Non-Asians had virtually no change in their self-identity.

Dependent Variable:diff3
95% Confidence Interval
Group Mean Std. Error Lower Bound Upper Bound
1 -.076a .051 -.183 .030
2 .103a .065 -.031 .238
3 .180a .195 -.224 .584
a. Covariates appearing in the model are evaluated at the following values: preQ3 = 4.410.

Table 4. Estimated marginal means.

Themes that emerged from semi-structured interviews also supported the finding that players were able to learn new understandings of themselves.  In several instances, players were able to reflect upon self-identities, verbalise goals and possible/future selves; for instance, Qing (names have been changed to pseudonyms), a first generation Asian male, discussed realisations and self-reflections from playing the games:Table 4. Estimated marginal means.

I learned about myself, especially when I played the second game, [creating] who you don’t want to be, and I kind of liked to explore myself.  I don’t want to be pressured by my parents, I don’t want to have low self-esteem, and I don’t want to be shy.  I want to be social. So I think I learned those things from the game.  (Qing, emphasis added)

Asian-American players were able to identify with the stereotypes and issues raised in the game.  For example, Evan, a second generation Asian-American male, described a greater sense of self-empowerment and ownership over stereotypes after playing the games:

Low self-esteem I hate that, really, a lot.  I think I suffer from that too… I do suffer from low self-esteem…Yeah, family pressures are pretty high…I guess it’s more important for me to be independent if I were to take care of my family… [the game experience] gives me more motivation to disprove Asian stereotypes. I’ve always had that motivation, but it makes me want to change things more now.  [Have] more initiative and try to not be defined by my school so much. (Evan, emphasis added)

2. ISGs promoted new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture.

To answer the second research question, do ISGs promote new perceptions and understandings of Asian culture? A paired-samples t-test was conducted on the 43 items on pre- and post-tests to compare perceptions of Asian culture before playing the games vs. after the games. There was a significant increase in the scores from pre-test (Mpre=3.74, SD=0.38) to post-test (Mpost=4.08, SD=0.43) conditions, t(27)=4.39, p < 0.0001. An increase in score indicates a shift away from believing stereotypes are universally true or accurate for Asians. These results suggest that the games help participants understand Asian stereotypes in a more nuanced, less essentialist way, and that they are not universally true (e.g., there may be individual differences).

To test for differences in perceptions of Asian culture between groups, a fixed effects Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA) model was applied with the mean scores of pre-test items involving perceptions of Asian culture as a covariate to reduce the variance.  The ANCOVA model, which examined perceptions of Asian culture in relation to stereotypes, controlling for individual scores on the pre-test, revealed significant interaction effects between Group (level of Asian acculturation) and preQ2 (pre-test items that explored perceptions and understandings of Asian culture), F(2, 22) = 3.91, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.26. Group (level of Asian acculturation) was also found to be significant, F(2,22) = 4.21, p < 0.05, ηp2 = 0.28. To see which group scored higher, the Estimated Marginal Means (EMM) were inspected, which were adjusted to take into account the effect of the covariate (pre-test scores).

The EMM table and plot indicated that lower acculturation first generation Asians (Group 3) had the highest change from pre to post (M3 = 0.69), followed by Non-Asians (Group 1) (M1 = 0.37), and then higher acculturation second generation Asian-Americans (Group 2) (M2 = 0.23). Thus, low acculturation Asians shifted their perception of the accuracy of Asian stereotypes the most, followed by a smaller shift by Non-Asians, and a still smaller shift by higher acculturation second generation Asian-Americans. Originally, in the pre-test, Group 3 held the highest mean value for perceptions of Asian culture in line with stereotypes (M3 = 3.88), followed by Group 1 (M1 = 3.83), and then Group 2 (M2 = 3.55). Because Group 3 had the highest change and Group 1 had the lowest change, this may suggest that prior to gameplay, awareness of existing stereotypes were lowest for low acculturation Asians while high acculturation Asian-Americans were the most aware of the presence of these stereotypes.

Qualitative data from semi-structured interviews also supports the finding that participants gained new perspectives on Asian culture upon playing the games.

Yeah, I learned stuff about the suicide rate. I think I heard things about that before, I never thought about it though. And then the family pressures, I know a little bit about that just from talking to kids that are Asian. And I never really thought about, how it’s a common stereotype that people think Asians are smart, but it talked about the Laos and Cambodians were some of the most disadvantaged Asians, and I never really thought about them as Asian, but they are. It just shows how you don’t really know much unless you do your research. (Roger, Non-Asian male)

The suicide rate was very interesting, something I’d never think of. The other one, the one about Asians being more successful, but how some are actually in poverty, was really interesting…I think given the facts that were presented, yes, I think my stereotypes, what I think of what someone is a typical Asian changed a little bit. (Jake, Non-Asian male)

3. ISGs effectively educated players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes

To answer the third research question, were ISGs effective in educating players about facts regarding Asian culture and stereotypes? A paired-samples t-test was conducted to compare knowledge of Asian culture before playing the two mini-games versus after playing the mini-games. There was a significant improvement in the scores for pre-test (Mpre=3.44, SD=0.82) and post-test (Mpost=5.01, SD=0.81) conditions; t(28)=6.95, p < 0.00001. These results suggest that the mini-games have a positive effect on learning facts regarding Asian culture.  Acculturation level of the participant made no difference in terms of learning.

Evidence from semi-structured interviews also suggests that participants learned facts and surprising items related to Asian culture and stereotypes.  For instance, Sam, a Non-Asian undergraduate male remarked:

I definitely learned from the facts.  The suicide one was a big one for me. I mean, you don’t hear about suicide that much in the news, generally.  Especially regarding the female Asian community.   Especially between 15-24, I would have thought it would not be that big of a deal.  (Sam, Non-Asian male)

Participants gain a better understanding about the inherent diversity in Asian countries.  For instance, in response to the idea that there are several Asian groups, each with their own unique values, cultures, and traditions, Roger stated:

I really thought it was interesting, I think I put [on the pre-test] like 10 countries were Asian, but there were more like 40 something, so I would say I think I just would think of China, in Asia, I didn’t think of all those other countries where it’s not like that. I would say I definitely learned that. (Roger)

User Experience, Redesign and Next Iteration of DBR

Importantly, participants expressed that aspects of identity that could often be serious, such as personal goals, fears and desires were made into a fun, less-intrusive format.  None of the participants indicated that the games were uncomfortable, negative, boring, or uninteresting.  In fact, nearly all participants described the experience as “fun” or “cool,” e.g.:

I think those two games are really good…The games are fun. (Qing)

The A-Culture-Rate Game, I could seriously see people playing this just for fun.  I…like how at the end, you can learn about them. (Amber)

I think this game is pretty cool.  I think it’s well done.  I think it…was a pretty cool learning experience. (Evan)

This finding demonstrates that more serious issues of race, identity and self-concept—including ideal and feared selves—can be explored in a game format in nonthreatening ways that are perceived to be fun and effective for learning.

Discussion and Significance

The purpose of the study was to explore whether game mechanics could be designed within interactive, simulated experiences to help participants understand and support their self-identities, focusing on Asian-American culture as a starting point. The ability to promote reflection of individuals’ self-concepts and goals while overcoming stereotypes can ultimately lead participants closer toward identity achievement and broadening possible selves, important outcomes for a generation of learners who are confronted with difficult pressures, expectations, and limiting social forces during adolescence.

Experiences in digital games can also be a powerful way for a person to learn and better understand the nuances, values, and challenges of another culture – a valuable outcome in today’s increasingly multicultural, interconnected world.  As a relatively safe environment to experiment and receive feedback, it allows individuals to articulate their assumptions and realize misconceptions and biases they may not be aware of.  While playing ISGs, Non-Asian players demonstrated greater empathy and more sophisticated, nuanced understandings of the Asian-American experience and culture, including the implications and unintended repercussions of stereotypes that may seem positive (e.g., the consequences of the Asian “Model Minority” stereotype).  Asian players were able to articulate new understandings about their self-identity, including how stereotypes have played a role in the past and present in terms of goals and choices.  These reflections and understandings are particularly important for helping youth overcome barriers and limiting forces that may pigeonhole their career trajectories, ultimately broadening their possible selves for the future.

This work is important to the field of the game-based learning for several reasons.  First, this study provides preliminary work on how games can be useful as a methodological tool for self-identity research and data collection.  This study demonstrates how game mechanics can be designed to make them well-suited to capture aspects of identity in a less-intrusive way, including identity and role play, and turning goals, fears, and desires into in-game actions into a series of meaningful choices.  Second, it serves as an important example of how games can be used for purposes beyond mere entertainment or content delivery, and instead having greater connections with social phenomena in the real world.  Some researchers have explored or called for a larger discourse on how digital games teach or reinforce aspects of race, gender and/or sexuality (e.g., Kafai, Cook & Fields, 2010; Leonard, 2006; Leonard, 2003; Nakamura, 2001).  This work, instead of reinforcing stereotypes in the ways found in many popular commercial games like Grand Theft Auto (e.g., DeVane & Squire, 2008), attempts to allow players to understand, take ownership over, and combat stereotypes.

More importantly, the study provides a case study for how games can serve as an intervention for learning scientists, and various forms of psychologists: clinical, counselling, social, and developmental.  This work can be easily adapted to explore the consequences of stereotypes and faced by members of other ethnic minority groups, women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, etc.  All people, not just members of minority groups, often are impacted by stereotypes or some form of discrimination; therefore, this work has implications for groups far beyond Asian-Americans.

Several limitations regarding this work need to be discussed, many of which have to do with the nature of design-based research.  As common with other design-based research projects, it is difficult to fully determine what combination of features of the intervention actually contributes to its success.  A vast amount of different forms of data was collected and the presence of multiple variables including contextual factors makes the identification of specific kinds of causality harder to pinpoint.  Triangulation of research data using both quantitative and qualitative methods (e.g., ‘thinkalouds’ and interviews) was one strategy taken to attempt to account for this.  Another limitation to the study is regarding the issue of generalizability.   As a DBR study, generalisation is also difficult to make across contexts, although those who are creating game-based interventions for similar or other historically underrepresented groups can benefit from the lessons learned from this study.  The results of this study prepares the way for future work; future studies, for example, could explore how this kind of games-based approach compares with traditional media (for example, text-based or video-based approaches) in their ability to shift perceptions of one’s identity, empathy, learning and understandings of a culture.

In the design, development, and evaluation of the impact of Identity Supportive Games, the researcher has attempted to demonstrate that digital games can be created to deliver simulated experiences that can get a person to understand one’s self-concept and aspects of a culture that may be different than one’s own.  As educational researchers and practitioners are tasked with preparing youth for a global economy, improved cultural understandings and support for identity development are two of the most important challenges that learning scientists need to address if students are to rise above barriers such as stereotypes and self-imposed constraints on possible selves; only then will students reach their highest potential.


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Lee, J., & Hoadley, C. (2007). Leveraging identity to make learning fun: Possible selves and experiential learning in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). Innovate, 3:6. Retrieved October 14, 2008, from http://innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article%id=348

Lee, J., & Zhou, M. (2004). Asian-American youth: Culture, identity, and ethnicity. New York: Routledge.

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Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in your world, play in ours”: Race, video games, and consuming the other. Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education (Simile), 3:4, 1-19.

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Oyserman, D. (2006). The possible selves of diverse adolescents: Content and function across gender, race and national origin. In C. Dunkel & J. Kerpelman (Eds.), Possible selves: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 17-39). Huntington: Nova.

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Biographical statement

Joey J. Lee, Ph.D. is a Research Professor of Technology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Lee is the Director of the Real-World Impact Games Lab.  He designs, develops and studies innovative game-based approaches to education.  His projects address real-world problems like sustainability, cross-cultural issues, and motivation and engagement for learning.  For more information, visit www.gameprof.com.

Contact: jl3471@tc.columbia.edu


Artist statement for Jacquelene Drinkall, Fukushima Firefox, 2013, digital stills of avatar performance in Blue Mars Lite virtual world

‘Fukushima Firefox’ is a largely solo performance in the 3D social media virtual world Blue Mars Lite, in which Jacquelene Drinkall appears as a humanoid skeleton in a cat/fox fire suit. Blue Mars Lite utilises Google Streetview, which has documented and archived the 2011 Tsunami as ‘Memories for the Future’. With avatar performance artist collaborators Jeremy Owen Turner, Daniel Mounsey, Jo Ellsmere and Joseph DeLappe, Jacquelene went on mission impossible to inspect the undocumented Daiichi nuclear reactor, and met nuclear chemist Allan Barton. During time alone in BML, occasionally bumping into Allan, Jacquelene’s witch avatar morphed into Fukushima Firefox, inspired by awareness of thriving radioactive feral animals in Chernobyl’s dead zone.

Jacquelene Drinkall (Sydney) is a practicing artist and theorist working with telepathy in painting, drawing, photomedia, video, sculpture, installation, performance, virtual world performance, audio, kinetics, interactive design, digital media and art history and theory. She studied at Canberra School of Art, Australian National University (CSA ANU), with a scholarship to study overseas with Marina Abramoviç and Krzysztof Wodicszko at École nationale supérieure des Beaux-art, Paris. Other awards received include ANU’s University Medal in Visual Art, Marten Bequest Travelling Art Scholarship (national award), two AGNSW awards, and a residency awarded by Cite International des Arts, Paris. Her Masters by Research (CSA ANU) and PhD from College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (COFA UNSW) explored telepathy in art – her PhD dissertation is titled Telepathy in Contemporary, Conceptual and Performance Art. More recent awards include COFA Student Association Prize, two NAVA grants, two Artspace Residencies and Firstdraft Depot Residency. This year her work shows at Cementa_13 Art Festival; Bundanon’s Niteworks Festival, ATVP Gallery, twice at Alaska Projects, Olive Cotton Prize, and Blake Prize. Jacquelene has had sixteen solo exhibitions in Canberra, Paris, Bathurst, Sydney, Newcastle, Hobart, Melbourne, and over 45 group exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada and Netherlands. She has created live performances curated by Abramoviç, and at CSA Gallery and Artspace. Her collaborative virtual world performances with Jeremy Owen Turner (Vancouver) have been shown in 8th Shanghai Biennale and Odyssey Contemporary Art and Performance Festival, simultaneously with Museum Sorgdrager, the Netherlands, and Black Bag Media Collective Studio, Canada. Her artwork has been shown on ABC TV, featured in articles in Runway and The Art Life, and discussed in the Sydney Morning Herald. Her recent publications include: ‘Human and Non-Human Telepathic Collaborations Since Fluxus to Now’; ‘Jacquelene Drinkall: Telepathy’; ‘The Art and Flux of Telepathy 2.0 in Second Life’; and ‘Traumaculture and Telepathetic Cyber-Fiction’. Jacquelene is Honorary Research Lecturer at COFA UNSW.

Contact: jacquelene.drinkall@gmail.com

Benjamin Nicoll

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (534 KB)

Parikka, J. (2012). What is media archaeology? Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0745650260, 200 pages, $23 US.

As the title of Jussi Parikka’s book suggests, the primary concern of What is Media Archaeology? (2012) is with explaining the theoretical and practical applications of media archaeology as it has been employed by media researchers, film historians, cultural critics and artists who operate under the banner of this enigmatic discipline. Media archaeology, an emerging sub-field of media research, tends to be understood by scholars as a way to prise media history from the prevailing capitalist and progressivist logic of technological progress. Recent academic work on the subject has also associated media archaeology with an examination of the material technological aspects of different media (Ernst 2013). While these are often recognised as common issues in the scholarly literature, theorists of media archaeology have not reached a consensus on how to define the discipline. This can be viewed as a consequence of struggles between the various positions or methodologies available for undertaking a media archaeological approach (see: Huhtamo & Parikka 2011). What an archaeological approach to media is, what it entails, is a question that has triggered academic debates about media archaeology and how it should be used as a research method (see: Ernst 2013; Huhtamo 2013).

Debates among media archaeologists about how to define the discipline have been fuelled by interactions among fields such as cinema and cultural studies, archive theory, new materialism, ‘German media theory’ and art history, each of which has adopted a particular understanding of media archaeology as a critical method. While this kind of disciplinary interaction has prevented the establishment of a coherent methodology for approaching media in archaeological terms, it can also be considered a positive feature of media archaeology in the sense that it emphasises the significance of experimental and cross-disciplinary research practices. This notion is perhaps most strongly put forward by Siegfried Zielinski in his work Deep Time of the Media (2006). Challenging the perception of technological progress as “continual march” (2006, p. 3), Zielinski qualifies media archaeology above all else as an exercise in critical resistance. Viewed in Zielinski’s way, media archaeology is resistant not only towards mono-medial narratives but also towards the field’s assimilation within a singular disciplinary framework.

Many theorists (Huhtamo 2013; Kluitenberg 2007; and to an extent Ernst 2013) share with Zielinski the view that media archaeology’s central premise is to posit alternative genealogies for the development of technology over time. In so doing, media archaeology aims to sever the narrative threads woven by evolutionist approaches to media history. This, it could be argued, is where the significance of media archaeology resides: in its assertion that to be understood properly media must be viewed from less progressivist and more ‘non-linear’ perspectives. But this approach is also illustrative of another kind of ‘resistance’ media archaeology seems to have inherited: a resistance against the homogenised structure of academic methodologies. Through its insistence on non-linearity and non-conformity, media archaeology has gained a reputation as an anarchic practice with unclear concerns, contexts and applications, which is somewhat in keeping with its iconoclastic approach to historical description. Until now, there has been no singular, clear approach to adopting media archaeology as a theoretical paradigm.

It is in this context that Jussi Parikka’s What is Media Archaeology? emerges as a methodological treatise of sorts, seeking not only to demarcate and ground the discipline, but also to synthesise its disparate voices into a more cohesive theory of digital media culture. The stated aim of Parikka’s book is to provide a pathway through the various theoretical and applied methods of media archaeological research. To this end, Parikka offers a thoroughly well researched and presented introduction to the discipline’s interconnected strands of research. As in his earlier work on the subject, in What is Media Archaeology? Parikka seems somewhat troubled by the possibility of media archaeology’s disenfranchisement at the hands of its early proponents, especially Zielinski, who established anarchic and rebellious patterns for the study of media objects past and present (Huhtamo & Parikka 2011, p. 8). Parikka’s search for a stable media archaeological approach outside the flux of the discipline’s enigmatic formations takes the form of a “cartographic” journey into the “various—at times contradictory and competing—strands of media archaeological investigations” (2012, p. 5). Perhaps the book’s most commendable element is its desire to sort through the “entanglement” of media archaeology’s “past and present” (p. 5), which it achieves by organising key media archaeological themes into a typology of research agendas, each with distinct aims and methods. It is because of this that What is Media Archaeology? will no doubt have a significant impact on future research, as it contributes something that the discipline has been lacking for some time: a refined set of methodological guidelines.

Each of the book’s six main chapters is devoted to a particular topic or idea relating to the media archaeological approach. The chapters focus on: concepts of sense and affect as they relate to film theory and new film history; mediated imaginaries and alternative media histories; new materialism and ‘German media theory’; noise and accidents; theories of the archive; and finally, artistic praxis. Because there is no overarching argument linking one chapter to the next, the book is particularly useful for readers wanting to gain selective insight on specific areas of media archaeological thought. When taken as a whole, What is Media Archaeology? provides a comprehensive introduction to the diverse threads of media archaeological practice. It also does an impressive job of illustrating how these threads link up and connect with fields as diverse as art history, cinema and cultural theory, code studies and psychoanalysis. For readers wanting to conduct more intensive research in any of the subjects covered in What is Media Archaeology?, each chapter contains some thoughtful recommendations for further reading.

As I have suggested, one of the strengths of What is Media Archaeology? is its distillation of media archaeological thought into a concentrated typology of methods. This is perhaps best evidenced in the first half of the book. Parikka begins his mapping of media archaeology in the second chapter, where he highlights the discipline’s “affinities” with new film history and film theory by drawing on such concepts as “attraction”, “tactility” and “affect” as they appear in traditional areas of visual culture analysis (2012, p. 39). He discusses the extensive historical and theoretical presence of media archaeological thought in the historiography of film theory, as well as in media theory from Marshall McLuhan’s time to our own. In Chapter 3, Parikka examines the notion of ‘imagined’ media—that is, “media non-existent, fabulated, or at one point deemed impractical” (p. 43), and describes it as a possible antidote to contemporary media culture’s relentless focus on technological innovation. Predicated on the work of Eric Kluitenberg (2007), who suggests using mediated “imaginaries” as a conceptual tool to tap into the “wider unconscious”, Parikka sets out to develop the idea of imaginary media by questioning its implicit associations with Lacanian thought (2012, p. 46). In the fourth chapter, Parikka discusses media archaeology’s emerging focus on ‘hard’ technological excavation through an analysis that relies on theories and concepts from German media theorist Friedrich Kittler. This chapter interprets some of the key points emerging from ‘new materialism’ and ‘German media theory’ as a response to the more cultural-theoretical perspectives originating from media archaeology’s humanist roots (as seen in the earlier chapters of the book, on sense and affect for example). This line of reflection leads What is Media Archaeology? to partly define its field in terms of an opposition between cultural and material approaches.

Present in Parikka’s discussion of ‘hard media’ in Chapter 4, but also evident in the second chapter on film theory and new film history, is the idea that media archaeology is gradually shifting its emphasis from the immaterial textual aspects of media culture to a more ‘media specific’ reading of the mathematical structures underlying actual hardware and software. This transition resonates more broadly with media studies’ burgeoning interest in technically rigorous ways of understanding the operationality of material technologies, seen in works such as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (2008) and Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s ‘Platform Studies’ book series (see: Montfort and Bogost 2009). Parikka is not the only media archaeologist who has noted a distinction between cultural and material concerns; other authors (Chun 2006; Ernst 2006, 2013; Huhtamo 2013; Parikka 2011) have written portentously of the essential division between ‘new materialism’ and the discursive school of thought. In What is Media Archaeology? Parikka merely reinforces these divisions by further demarcating the borders among approaches. The latter chapters are similarly divided, with a focus on noise, archive dynamics and practical applications of media archaeology as an art method. This structure seems to suggest that media archaeology should be considered a layered methodology with an uncomplicated hierarchy of distinctive applications. This gives rise to a possible tension between Parikka’s aim in the book to provide a ‘proper’ disciplinary hierarchy, and media archaeology’s inherent resistance to assimilation within such a scheme.

Parikka’s conceptualisation of media archaeology as a more hierarchical and less organic scheme is at once the book’s most admirable and problematic theme. As I have shown, the chapter structure of What is Media Archaeology? is based on the assumption that there is an essential separation between the discipline’s multiple spheres. For instance, the so-called ‘German media theory’ and ‘new materialism’ are represented as counterparts to the more poetic, cultural frameworks already established by media archaeologists such as Zielinski and Huhtamo. With no overall consensus about how one should think media archaeologically, the allocation of authors into separate and ‘opposing’ schools of thought (e.g. ‘German’ new materialists, cultural historians), can be seen as an attempt to ‘brand’ the field and make it a more serviceable methodology for academic researchers. Although Parikka does acknowledge the inherent problems associated with placing theorists under the rubric of ‘German media theory’ (2012, p. 66), his analysis seems no less intent on relying on such normalising frameworks.

As noted earlier, part of the reason for this emphasis on structure and hierarchy can be viewed as a response to media archaeology’s more ‘anarchic’ traditions, seen in books like Zielinski’s Deep Time of the Media (2006) and even Eric Kluitenberg’s The Book of Imaginary Media (2007). This kind of anarchism has been described as corrosive to the criteriological doctrines of contemporary media studies (Huhtamo & Parikka 2011, pp. 10-12). Perhaps as a response to this criticism, What is Media Archaeology? takes up the task of condensing the field into a more institutionally palatable theoretical framework. This vision of media archaeology as a simple, hegemonic hierarchy is in tension with the discipline’s formative agenda, which was to privilege disciplinary freedom, non-linearity and experimental research practices. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Parikka dedicates only a few pages to addressing these traditions of media archaeology as they originate in theories such as Zielinski’s (an)archaeology/variantology of the media (Parikka, 2012, pp. 11-12).

Parikka also seems to exhibit a slight preference for the new materialist direction of media archaeology over the more traditional areas of cultural analysis covered in the earlier sections of the book. For example, “the future media archaeologist” may be surprised to read that they should consider beginning their excavations “not by going to an archive filled with documents and books”, but by “open[ing] up a PC from the 1980s, inspect[ing] its circuit board, and start[ing] forensics work on the hard drive” (p. 88). It seems to be taken for granted that material conceptions of media archaeology are threatening to abstract media from their social contexts in the direction of a ‘post-humanist’ trajectory. And of course, there is no denying that this trajectory has much to offer. The various forms of post-humanist thought raise legitimate questions about our understanding of contemporary media culture that cannot be answered using classical forms of humanist inquiry. Yet, as Erkki Huhtamo shows in a recent book on the archaeology of the moving panorama (2013), the cultural and social dimensions that shape our understanding of media and media-in-practice are just as relevant now as they have been in the past.

Despite these issues, What is Media Archaeology? provides a topical and pertinent introduction to the various discussions and debates occurring inside the field of media archaeology today. Parikka’s capacity to critically engage with theorists from across the humanities, as well as his perceptive ability to synthesise their work into a sophisticated and multilayered methodology, brings a solid framework to the discipline of media archaeology. What this book does well, therefore, is provide insight on how to grasp the specificity of media in archaeological terms, through clarification of the principle themes in media archaeological research. In this sense, What is Media Archaeology? should be considered a kind of textbook approach to the archaeological method in media and cultural studies, whose purpose is to guide readers towards methodological schemes suitable for application to their own research initiatives.

Students seeking to use this book as an introduction to media archaeology should be wary of boxing themselves inside or outside any one of the approaches it covers. Media archaeology has a history of resisting disciplinary description and it is important to continue to recognise this tradition as crucial to the discipline’s continued development. With its emphasis on presenting media archaeology in the form of a structured typology of research agendas, What is Media Archaeology? can be viewed as a retreat from this tradition. Yet this retreat is an equally welcome contribution to a field whose basic principles have proved inadequate for the building of a solid theoretical framework. In this context, Parikka’s book is an important step for media archaeology because it sharpens the field into an accessible set of methodologies suitable for any student undertaking a media archaeological approach. This is in stark contrast to the discipline’s origins as a rebellious practice accessible only to those with the tenure necessary to make worthwhile use of its enigmatic premises.


Chun, W.H.K. (2006). Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Ernst, W. (2006). Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space? In T. Keenan and W. H. K. Chun. (eds.). New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (pp. 105-123). New York: Routledge.

Ernst, W. (2013). Digital Memory and the Archive. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Huhtamo, E. (2013). Illusions in Motion. Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Huhtamo, E. and Parikka, J. (2011). Introduction. An Archaeology of Media Archaeology. In E. Huhtamo and J. Parikka (eds.). Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications (pp. 1-21).  Berkley: University of California Press.

Kirschenbaum, M. (2008). Mechanisms. New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Kluitenberg, E. (2007). The Book of Imaginary Media. Excavating the Dream of the Ultimate Communications Medium. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Parikka, J. (2011). Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics. Theory, Culture & Society 28:5, 52-74.

Parikka, J. (2012). What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity Press.

Zielinski, S. (2006). Deep Time of the Media. Towards and Archaeology of Seeing and Hearing by Technical Means [trans. G. Custance]. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Biographical Statement

Benjamin Nicoll is a PhD student in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His thesis combines theoretical positions grounded in media archaeology with methods from platform studies for an analysis of the Neo Geo Advanced Entertainment System.

Contact email: b.nicoll2@student.unimelb.edu.au

Judy Kalman

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (2.3MB)


More and more teachers in Mexico are expected to use digital technologies in their classrooms. However, little guidance is provided for them to transition from pencil and paper practices to the screen. This paper argues that that teachers’ use of digital technology (or lack thereof) is a social construction where multiple processes—the realities of their workplace, their understanding of digital technologies and the Internet, and their longstanding beliefs about teaching and learning—coincide to shape their classroom practices. The author builds her analysis of three teachers learning to use technology in their classrooms in México City on socio cultural theory, most notably notions concerning social interaction and practice. She illustrates teachers’ heterogeneous responses to this new professional demand. She concludes that specific classroom uses of technology are the result of teachers’ particular articulation of the multiple relationships and obstacles encountered in their workplace.

Keywords: Digital literacy, technology, practice, teaching, Mexico, secondary school, socio cultural theory.

Increasingly, educational policy makers endorse the use of digital technology in schools, arguing that computers and the Internet are now part of contemporary life, and that giving all students access to technology is a matter of equity and fairness. In the 2012 New Media Consortium Horizons report, the authors note that: “Increasingly, technology skills are critical to success in almost every arena, and those who are more facile with technology will advance while those without access or skills will not” (Johnson et al. 2012, p. 8).

This ubiquitous view of technology (Kuznetsov & Dahman 2008) is expressed in official documents, curricula, and teaching standards for using technology. In 2009, the Secretaria de Educatión Públicia (SEP, the Federal education authorities in México) stated that:

In a globalised world, the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has become a requirement in the workplace and is necessary for contact with other societies. Schools cannot stand on the side lines of these demands; they must take on increasingly complex and diversified tasks. Teachers need to shape their work accordingly and meet the needs of the times and the demands of modern society, which means developing new competencies ( Martínez , 2009, p. 7).1

It is assumed teachers will somehow naturally make the transition into using these tools and in fact, new curricular guidelines derived from international policy puts teachers under a great deal of pressure to do so.2 However, research has shown otherwise: for more than a decade, studies have presented evidence that both quantifies and qualifies how much equipment is now in schools and how little it is used (Bigum & Lankshear 1997; Cuban 2000; Guerrero 2011; Jara 2008; McFarlane 2003).

Standard reasons for why teachers fail to use technology posit that teachers do not receive sufficient training to learn needed computer skills, schools may not provide the appropriate software for specific subject matters or that some teachers find learning to use the computer too overwhelming (Kalman and Guerrero, 2013). This paper seeks to go beyond these common explanations for understanding why teachers use (or do not use) technology in their classrooms (Acosta 2012; Leu et al. 1998; Martínez, 2009) and construct a more nuanced view of the challenges they face.

The central argument is that is that teachers’ use of digital technology (or lack thereof) is a social construction where multiple processes—the realities of their workplace, their understanding of digital technologies and the Internet, and their long standing beliefs about teaching and learning—coincide to shape their classroom practices. A first premise underlying this article is that teachers articulate the diversity of relationships and processes that come into play in their specific work contexts in their attempts to incorporate technology into their classrooms. A second one is that as a result of their specific articulations, teachers’ trajectories are highly diverse, even when they face similar situations. Because this paper analyses teachers in Mexico, some specificities relating to that context are presented to the reader.

This article has five sections: First, a discussion of some of the tenets of social cultural theory and the notion of social practice. The second section describes the work the Laboratorio de Educación, Tecnología y Sociedad (LETS)3 does with teachers in México City, its premises, and goals. The third section presents empirical evidence through sketches of three teachers working in their classrooms as a way to problematise—in productive ways—what it means to use technology in an educational setting. The fourth section presents a discussion of the teachers’ work and the final one outlines some closing remarks.

Using technology in the classroom from a social practice perspective

In this paper I explore the process of three teachers learning to use technology in their classrooms in México City. The analysis builds on socio cultural theory, most notably notions concerning social interaction and practice (Lave & Wenger 1991).  According to Lave (2011) socio cultural theory is a theory of social practice and as such, different types of relationships between the participants, institutional arrangements, and the distribution of power are central to understanding what happens in the classroom and why (Barton & Hamilton 1998; Street 1995).

In the 1980s, Scribner and Cole (1981) posited that all social practice implies the use of a technology, skill, and social knowledge relevant to that practice. Barton and Hamilton (1998) note that practices are not observable because they include aspects related to people’s beliefs, ideas, and histories as well as visible actions. However, people’s participation in practice becomes visible in specific events where they bring operative knowledge, social knowledge, and an ethos (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011) about their participation. Their ethos includes their beliefs, their values, and priorities. For this article, such an approach allows the researcher to focus on the diverse ways in which teachers use digital technologies and to pay attention to how they relate to the diverse factors that impact their incorporation of technology into their classrooms.

At LETS, a research group in the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE) at the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados in México City (CINVESTAV), we consider information, communication, and design technologies (ICD-T hereafter) a powerful social tool, useful for establishing and maintaining social relationships (Dyson 1996), conveying multimodal meanings (Kress 2003), and representing knowledge. Current technology integrates multiple tools and expressive options that range from basic editorial design such as fonts, distribution of text on a page, and the integration of image and writing, to complex and sophisticated dynamic representations, hypertexts, multimodal compositions, and animations. Furthermore, through the internet, digital culture is created and maintained through online interactions in real time, asynchronic communication, and the development of virtual communities where participation and learning are based on the possibility to consult and be consulted, contribute to a common cause, receive and give copious feedback, develop situated expertise, and establish accreditation from virtual communities (Gee 2003, 2006). In this context, the ethos of collaboration, distributed knowledge (the idea that everyone has something to offer), and participation in collective enterprises are an integral part of digital culture (Jenkins 2006; Lankshear & Knobel 2011). Vital questions arise in our work at LETS regarding how teachers integrate the pedagogical, the operational, institutional aspects ICD-T, and the ethos of digital culture in their teaching. We are concerned with understanding what they do and why they do it (Geertz 1983), and what experiences, knowledge, and know-how might contribute to creating an educational context that goes beyond doing what Lankshear and Knobel (2011, p. 214) refer to as “business as usual” teaching.

De Certeau (1988 p. xi) notes that historically social analysis created the category of the individual, “the basis of which groups are supposed to be formed.” He goes on to note that social analysis has shown, conversely, that individuals are the locus in which multiple relationships, often contradictory and incoherent, interact. Teachers’ exploration and use of technology can be seen as an “errant trajectory” (De Certeau 1988, p. vviii) where they turn to their own means and resources to articulate heterogeneous elements such as official discourse, institutional arrangements, their professional background, deeply rooted teaching traditions, suggestions that arise from their participation in the LETS’ meetings, and their beliefs about teaching and learning, among others.

The analysis of three participating teachers’ efforts to understand and use technology centres on their diverse ways of integrating a plurality of social determinations. Muchaly (2012) proposes that in any teaching event multiple tributary factors flow together to create a specific instance of teachers’ work; she points out that the different ways of teaching are an ensemble of processes, histories, knowledge, and know-how.  In a similar sense, Gee (in Lankshear & Knobel 2011, p. 44) argues that we are “situated selves”:

which can be understood as meaningful coordinations of human and non-human elements. Besides people themselves, the human elements of coordinations include such things as people’s ways of thinking, acting, feeling, moving, dressing, speaking, gesturing, believing, and valuing, and non-human elements include such things as tools, objects, institutions, networks, places, vehicles, machines, physical spaces, buildings, and so on.

Here the goal is to understand the situatedness of these teachers and their efforts to use the computer and Internet in the classroom. Furthermore, I seek to comprehend how their grasp of information, communication and design technologies (ICD-T)4 and digital culture are mediated by their fluency in operating the equipment, their interpretation of official discourse and curricular requirements, their beliefs about their students, their pedagogical stance, and their willingness to take certain risks and try new approaches in their teaching. Sutherland et al. (2009, p. 20) note that for teachers to “fully exploit the potential of new technologies in transforming learning, there is much for them to learn. Incorporating ICT frequently challenges well-established ways of teaching and learning. This sometimes involves painful rethinking”.

Working with teachers

In LETS we organise work groups with teachers where they collaborate with researchers, graduate and under graduate students, and colleagues. The participating teachers are volunteers and, in most cases, they have heard about our groups from other teachers or through a written invitation we send to their school.

We begin each school year with a one-week intensive workshop we call “Installation Week” where we explore different aspects of digital literacies, culture, and practice. Over the school year this is followed up with five to six work sessions held at the DIE-CINVESTAV campus on a weekday (teachers are given permission to attend by their authorities), along with some visits to classrooms.

At LETS teachers explore what we call “universal tools”, i.e. software that one might find on any computer in a cyber cafe (albeit in different versions), online freeware, and communication options. These options imply no expense for the teachers and are tools that their students will also be able to use. We use these tools for different purposes such as selecting and analysing information, communicating with others, and developing learning activities that include the design of cultural objects such as posters, videos, or animated maps. For this reason, in this paper we use ICD-T (rather than the more common ICT—information and communication technology) as a short hand for technology use.

We often offer teachers technical guides designed by LETS regarding a particular tool, or show them how to find resources online. We also provide search options and opportunities for consulting with colleagues and getting to know a given resource. Teachers are invited to discuss their curriculum and plan learning activities for students that involve both online and offline uses of the computer and other resources. They then take these proposals into the classroom, try them, and report their experiences to the group. We collectively analyse what they found successful, any shortcomings, and ideas related to their teaching.

During the 2012 Installation Week, a group of eighteen language arts, history, and geography teachers, as well as six computer lab resource teachers from public middle schools participated. We developed a sequence around the subject of modern day slavery, a topic that that could be of interest to all participating teachers, and proposed they produce an infographic by the end of the week. In each session we used resources such as Google Maps, Google Docs, and Book Markers, among others as a way of modelling them as possible classroom tools. Our sessions included looking for information and different types of resources (videos, maps, testimonials, reports, policies, images, graphs), designing intermediate products to be used in their infographic, organising revision groups, and putting the final project together.

In each session we created contexts for different types of interactions and activities with the intention to help them achieve more than they could if working alone (Gee 2006; Vygotsky 1978). In some cases we organised full group discussions, small group efforts, or one-on-one dialogues using synchronic communication tools. We collectively looked for information, discussed different ways of registering and representing it, and possible options for sharing it. Teachers were given the opportunity to work hands on with the new tools, interact with colleagues, giving and receiving feedback on their work, and collaborating together on common projects. The purpose was to introduce not only technological resources, but to also insert them into pedagogical contexts and model forms of participation and interaction. We sought to show innovative forms of organisation, analyse classroom relationships, and offer viable alternatives to “business as usual” teaching. In the context of schools in Mexico where the tendency is to insert technology into existing school routines, our workshop has two equally important purposes and priorities: to facilitate the use of digital tools in the classroom while simultaneously creating meaningful learning activities for teachers and their students.

Teaching with technology in Méxican public secondary schools

The teacher portraits presented are part of an on-going study regarding the complexities of using ICD-T in the classroom in Méxican public secondary (years 7-9) schools. As the project is in process, the results presented here are preliminary, we are still holding meetings with the teachers and are visiting their classrooms (through May 2013) as well as processing data (transcribing videos, organising teacher and students products, conducting interviews, charting participation in social media, collecting emails, and creating teacher portfolios).

All of the teachers profiled in this article are graduates of the Escuela Nacional de Maestros (National Teachers’ School in México City) and continued further training for a secondary certificate. Until 1984 teachers in México went from the ninth grade directly into normal school (either the Escuela Nacional de Maestros or one of the schools located in the states). Depending on their age, teachers have a bachelor’s degree in teaching or a normalista degree (a four-year degree in another field).

The teachers discussed here all work in public schools and share similar work conditions and difficulties. Class sizes tend to be large, ranging between 35 and 45 students per group. For the most part, teachers change classrooms from period to period, rather than students circulating. An immediate consequence of such organisation is that any books or materials teachers bring to class have to be packed up and carried with each move. Also, most schools have a computer lab (referred to by the teachers as Red Escolar) where computers are housed. Most labs share a similar use of space; computers are on tables in a horseshoe arrangement with students facing the walls. When there is an overflow of equipment or the room is small, a row of tables may be set up in the middle of the room as well. In some cases, computers are recent laptops with state of the art operating systems, but in many cases the equipment is obsolete. Most of the time there is a combination of new and old technology. Internet connection is generally unreliable and quickly becomes saturated when students are all working at the same time.


Figure 1: Typical distribution of computer lab in public middle school in Mexico City.

The secondary curriculum includes teaching standards for using technology in the classroom based on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and UNESCO guidelines (SEP 2011, p. 65-66). Teachers are expected to develop learning projects for students using technology. It is emphasised that in these projects teachers should:

  • Use tools that promote the comprehension of knowledge and concepts, explore questions and topics of interest
  • Plan and carry out research activities with their students using technology
  • Use communication tools such as email, blogs, online forums
  • Promote collaboration
  • Develop research projects that offer solutions to authentic problems based on real life
  • Use tools such as word processors, data shows, data processors
  • Use social media and participate in learning networks

To teach a class using technology, teachers have to take students to the computer lab, which implies scheduling lab time in advance. While the official policy in México is to promote ICD-T use at this school level, teachers often face several obstacles using the computer room. Meetings scheduled in the lab, administrative tasks assigned to the Technology Resource teacher by the principal, special classes on trending topics such as drug addiction, bullying or obesity, equipment inventories, the lab being used for testing or as storage space are all reasons teachers have given for not being able to use the facilities at their schools. Furthermore, teachers have to mobilise approximately 40 youngsters, moving them from the classroom to the computer lab. This can reduce 50 minute class periods by as much as 15 minutes (Guerrero, 2011). Also, in larger schools, the lab can be in great demand and teachers may have to wait six weeks for their turn.

During our visits in the schools’ computer labs we noticed that the Internet connection was extremely slow and that students were using a rather out dated navigator. During one such visit, I asked the technology resource teacher about this and she explained that:

these machines were donated by the México City Government (GDF, for its initials in Spanish Gobierno del Distrito Federal) and they are set up so that you cannot download any new programs on them. So if we want to use a different navigator, we have to download it every day. Every time you turn the computer off, any new files are erased, even if you save them.

The distribution of equipment by GDF was a wide spread program during the 2006-2012 administration and all computers share this same characteristic, meaning that although the schools have machines, they were all seriously crippled before being installed. The obstacle encountered when downloading programs was most likely installed to keep users from visiting and downloading undesirable materials and software, in the logic of ‘parental guidance’ (or in this case, school guidance). While it may respond to ideas about keeping students on task by restricting their access to web pages and software, it also defeats the purpose of exploring, locating, and selecting information for academic learning.

The brief sketches of three teachers presented here are based on teachers’ narratives and the reporting of their activities in the classroom, the examination of student work, and classroom observations. The sketches are not meant to be an exhaustive recount, but a sampler of situations that teachers have reported and their specific processes for integrating the “sometimes incoherent and often contradictory” elements discussed earlier (De Certeau, 1988, p. xi). The first teacher is Adriana who teaches seventh grade geography. In the national curriculum, the program of study is organised around ‘competencies’, defined as the integration of knowledge, abilities, attitudes, and values. The other two teachers, Hilda and Lucia, teach Spanish (language arts).5 The language arts program in Mexico for grades 7-9 is divided into three domains: literature, study skills, and social participation. The curriculum explicitly advocates a “social practice approach” but upon closer scrutiny it becomes clear that the contents for study are organised around text genres, isolated language skills, and grammar. It is also important to point out that all of the teachers had a working knowledge of using the computer and navigating the Internet.6

The school year is divided into five grading periods of approximately two months each, and teachers are expected to cover all topics listed in their study programs. Recently, at the suggestion of the World Bank (Peon, 2009), students are measured on ‘word per minute’ reading performance in each grading period and this score is included in their report card.  Spanish teachers are responsible for administering these individualised examinations that reduce their classroom time for other activities.

Adriana: “Les permitió pensar un poco” (It allowed them to think a little).

For the last twelve years Adriana has taught geography in a junior high school located in a working-class neighbourhood on the east side of México City. Before coming to LETS, she participated in two in-service courses for using technology in the classroom, one a general course on how to use technology in the classroom and the second on how to use electronic whiteboards. She is familiar with a number of digital tools and an avid smartphone user, sending messages, bringing up Google Maps and email. She also uses the phone’s camera, particularly for taking pictures of geographical elements that can be useful at school. At work she goes to the computer lab with her students as often as once a week, mostly asking students to search for information.

In her teaching she is particularly interested in developing students’ “research capacity”. She believes that for students, technology is a means of communication and is a resource they have at arms’ reach. For using it at work, she is concerned about how to make ICT easy to use and understand because “many software programs are very technical”.

At the beginning of the school year Adriana was not able to use the school computer lab as all equipment was being inventoried. In November her students did a report on different conceptualisations of the origin of the solar system. First she asked students to look up several medieval and renaissance scientists and locate their theories. The idea was for students to organise the theories chronologically and then compare conceptualisations to see if they could identify how theories shifted and changed over time. But this assignment morphed into a report on the biography of each scientist, losing the analytical quality of the original assignment and opened the door for students to simply reproduce the information found in a PowerPoint presentation.

In January she began working with students on the topic of national patrimony [natural resources and cultural sites]. The students had visited several museums and Adriana wanted them develop a tourist pamphlet that combined their experience of going to the museums with information about the exhibits as a sort of invitation to others to visit them. As in the case of the scientists, when the students came to the computer lab, Adriana changed the assignment and told them to write a pamphlet on their National Patrimony. She gave specific instructions, indicating that they should answer the questions:

  • “What is the definition of national patrimony?”
  • “Types of patrimony?”
  • “What is tangible patrimony?”
  • “What is intangible patrimony?”

Other than defining the text genre (pamphlet) and the questions, she did not give any other instructions. As students began to work in small groups, they proceeded in different manners. Some searched ‘pamphlet’ in Google to get an idea about what their final product should look like. Others proceeded to look for definitions and copy and paste them onto a blank screen. One team opened a project in Microsoft Publisher and began to copy and paste information into it. A few students divided a page in their notebook into three columns and copied by hand from the screen.


Figure 2: Students copying from screen into notebooks.


Figure 3: Student’s work, notebook page folded in three; text says: ‘What is patimony? Patrimony is the set of assets inherited by a person’ (Qué es el patrimonio? Patrimonio es el conjunto de vienes eredado por una persona) [Transcription reproduces student’s spelling. Question is written in red, answer in black]

Adriana circled around the room and supervised her students. When she realised that many of them were using Wikipedia, she shouted out to the group, “And don’t use Wikipedia”. As she approached one student, he asked “Why not Wikipedia” and, after waiting several seconds, she answered “the information is not reliable, everybody tampers with it” (“La información no es confinable; todo el mundo le mete mano”).

She continued touring the computer lab. She watched another student for several minutes before going up to his screen, pointing to his work she declared “Esto a mi no me sirve” (literally: “this is useless” or “this is no good to me”). It was not completely clear why she had said that, perhaps it was because all of his text was copied from an unnamed source. Upon reviewing the work her students turned in, she was disappointed to discover that most of it was reproduced directly from the electronic sources (either copy and pasted directly into their pamphlet or copied by hand into their notebooks) even though she often accepted this kind of work in the past. In a chat session with me some days later, she reported that in the classroom, she had given her students a print out of blank PowerPoint screen, and asked them to rethink their work and this time write their own texts. I asked her how she went about supporting their composition process and she replied that one student read out loud to the group from the textbook, and then “poco a poco” (“little by little”) they wrote their own texts. When I asked on how they might have transformed what they read in their textbooks into their own writing she reported that “these screens allowed them to think a little”, underlining the belief that the materials (and not necessarily the activity or her interactions with them) determined the work students produced and suggesting perhaps a belief that the students previously were not thinking.

Hilda: “Dar el tema” (Teaching topics)

Hilda is a young teacher with five years teaching experience. Before beginning her collaboration at LETS, she was already familiar with the computer and Internet, and had taken a computer course at the Centro de Capacitación para el Trabajo Industrial (CECATI). She had a working knowledge of word processing software, spread sheets, and presentation software. She also had Facebook and Microsoft Messenger accounts and noted that she used the computer to download photos from her camera; she uses other devices such as a mobile phone and automatic teller machines. She reported that she uses Facebook for family affairs and sometimes, when she needs help doing something new on the computer, she consults with others or she asks students for help. In her teaching she uses technology to “research the topics”, write lesson plans and periodic “plan de trabajo” (work plan) that she turns into her principal; however, she stated that she rarely takes students to the computer lab. She believes her students are generally not attracted to school and that they are rarely interested in assignments.

Previous to our September 2012 meeting we asked teachers, via email, about the activities they had organised during the first month of school with their students. Hilda noted that she practically did not use technology during the month as it was the end of the grading period and she was caught up in the paper work.

The two activities Hilda reported in the October meeting were a double entry table and a mental map produced by students on the computer, using the Internet for locating information and images. For this period, the topics of study presented in the curriculum includes “myths and legends” as part of the literature strand, and as part of the study habits domain, “presentation of information”. Her reading of the curriculum is quite literal and she believes, as do many do of the teachers with whom we have worked, that her job is to teach each topic, one by one. A standard organisation of a thematic unit at this level is to introduce the topic, present definitions and characteristics, give a reading assignment and ask students to write a summary, an outline or make an oral presentation.

In this case, as in others we have documented (for example, monograph and language diversity), Hilda developed procedures for covering curricular content and combined the content from two different curricular domains. Students created a chart and a conceptual map (a topic required in study domain) about myths and legends (a topic required in literature domain), although it is not clear if they actually read or discussed any works as part of contrasting and comparing. When we asked her for her evaluation of this assignment, she expressed concern that what she asked students to do would somehow distort the curricular mandate. “I am concerned that my [LETS] topic does not coincide [with the curricular topic], [what the students did] is not about looking for information, it refers to the representation of information”. Hilda seems to have fragmented searching for information from recording it, and does not seem to connect recording, representing, and analysing information. This could be due, at least in part, to her understanding of the Spanish curriculum that also explicitly separates these activities.

In the computer lab students completed two assignments: for the first they created the table described above by searching for the characteristics of myths and legends and contrasted them. Second, she asked her students to make a conceptual map of the notions of myths and legends. Hilda believed that these activities could not be organised properly as there were not enough computers in her school for each student to have their own and she believed that students should work individually in the lab.

Below is an example of one student’s work, the information it contains was copied and pasted or closely paraphrased from Yahoo. A translation reflecting student syntax and phrasing in Spanish is included below the original texts.





Pueden ser ficticias o verdaderas

Can be fictious or true

El tiempo y el espacio es muy indefinido en los mitos en las leyendas es definido

Time and space is very undefined in myths and defined in legends

Ambos son de tradición oral

Both are from oral tradition

En el mito es demasiada exagerada la historia y en la leyenda no

In myths the story is exaggerated and in legends not

Lo que relatan era aceptado por la comunidad

What they narrate was accepted by the community

En las leyendas son personajes normales y en el mito son dioses monstruos o gigantes

In legends the characters are normal and in myths they are monsters or gods

Pasó hace bastante tiempo

It happened a long time ago

En el mito trata de explicar la existencia del hombre, las conductas, los fenómenos naturales, las instituciones y en la leyenda no

The myth tries to explain the existence of man, behaviors, natural phenomena, institutions and legends no

Figure 4: Student’s comparison of myths and legends

Most students’ tables are quite similar to the one above. To create the mental map of these same concepts, this particular student read a myth online, copied, pasted, and illustrated it. There is no apparent relationship between the two parts of the assignment, the only common denominator seems to be that they were done on the computer and are part of the curricular construction of the topic. The summarising of the characteristics of myths and legends is independent from the myth they read and the presentation of the myth synthesizes its content but doesn’t illustrate any of its stated characteristics.

In this activity, Hilda ventured for the first time into the computer lab and designed two activities for students. She also faced an organisational problem (students work individually or in pairs or small groups), an issue she contemplated at other times during the school year. Her assignment and her students’ work are characteristic of deep set school practices in Méxican middle schools. Teachers tend to ask closed questions and students find answers online and reproduce them. These types of assignments were common before the advent of computers in schools where students copied by hand or cut out informative texts and illustrations bought at local papelerías (small stationery stores).

While the assignment was common fare, Hilda’s reaction was not. She generally believed that her students were apathetic and reported being very surprised by their engagement and interest in using computers in class. She did not believe that they would be interested, and was pleased when they were.

Another activity that she reported in November was asking students to produce a video instead of a written report for one of their projects. The ‘monograph’ is a topic in the curriculum and is part of study strand. She covered the topic by presenting to her class information regarding “what is a monograph’’, “types of monographs”, and “the characteristics of a monograph”; students then read their text book’s explanation as well, and they were asked to take notes on the same topic. She gave this assignment after a session at LETS where teachers also created a video. Following the suggestions in the curriculum, the students were asked to choose a recent topic from their geography or biology class as the subject of their video. Their work is similar to the legend and myth example, for the most part they created their video by copying information and images and placing them in Movie Maker. But even with these limitations, Hilda is moving in a new direction by considering academic products other than essays, summaries and reports.

During the spring of 2013, LETS held a series of virtual meetings with teachers, and Hilda participated actively in these. One of the most recent changes in her teaching is that she has begun to redefine how she gives assignments to students. This is best illustrated by her attempts to encourage students to propose their own questions for research, after introducing the topic in class. The most difficult situation that she has encountered is that the students’ questions are much broader than the ones she usually asks, and she has had to develop new approaches for classroom discussions and for organising and orienting their work in the computer lab.

In March and April, Hilda tried a different way of organising a thematic unit on indigenous languages of México, a topic in the seventh grade study program. She began by sending an email to her students inviting them to collaborate in a map locating the main language groups in México.


Figure 5: Language groups of Mexico created by Hilda and her students

She then organised her students in pairs—an innovation for her—and assigned them each a language to research, asking them to produce a short video documenting the location, culture, customs, and daily life of the different linguistic communities. She asked her students to write short texts, images, include a map, and their sources of information. Those students who completed the assignment for the most part met her expectations, although not all students turned in a final product. When explaining this assignment, Hilda stressed the idea that they should not copy and paste texts. She found signs of students’ attempts to use information they found in different ways: for example, two girls summarised and articulated information from more than one source, something new in Hilda’s classroom; another student further developed the indigenous language map described above and included the number of speakers of each language group, and a third student wrote phrases such as “According to the 2005 Méxican census there are 49,000 speakers” (De acuerdo al censo mexicano de 2005 cuenta con 49,000 hablantes”) as a way of referring to information he found without copying it. Readers who understand Spanish will note the non-conventional use of “de acuerdo al” instead of “de acuerdo con”, a phrasing that suggests that this is the student’s wording. Each of these student responses reflects Hilda’s effort to redesign assignments and redefine expectations for her students.

Lucia:“¿Cuál es el propósito?” (What is the purpose?)

Lucia is a young teacher with just three years classroom experience. She is an eighth grade language arts teacher at a medium size middle school in the south eastern end of México City. She is technologically savvy, and reported using the computer and Internet before coming to LETS for “for research, for communicating with others, for sending and receiving work”. Before joining us, she had used Microsoft Word and PowerPoint in her teaching, and looked for and selected videos for students to watch. She believes that for students to learn, they need to understand the purpose of their assignments, what she expects them to learn, and what the final product will be. She believes that this approach will help students “appropriate the tools that are necessary for effectively adapting to a society in constant change. (Brindarles las herramientas necesarias para adaptarse  eficazmente a una sociedad en constante cambio).

As part of her activities in LETS, she tried to establish a relationship with another teacher in the group by sending her emails and sharing work with her. She was disappointed that her colleague never answered her. Although Lucía hoped to continue her conversations beyond the group meetings, teacher collaboration, in México, is uncommon and not a widespread practice. In October she presented her use of Google Maps for doing book reports on Latin American authors. Students were first asked to choose five authors and a story from each one. After reading the stories and researching the authors’ lives, students located each one on a map, inserting photos and commentary regarding the stories they read.

When students were about half way through the project, Lucia had to suspend it because the principal had organised a special course on drug addiction that was held in the computer lab and she no longer had access. Since then she has organised activities around writing and recording an audio book, writing a biography using hypertext and, most recently, animated cartoons based on current events. In December 2012, Lucia opened a Facebook page to use with her students and invited their parents to visit it whenever they wanted. She uses this page to post information about assignments and publish students’ work; her students also use it to post comments and ask questions.


Figure 6: Lucía’s Facebook page where she sends her students materials, answers questions, receives comments and publishes their work

At the beginning of 2013, Lucia and her class worked on the curricular topic ‘Biography’. The program of study suggests that students write a biography and list characteristics of this genre. Lucia organised the students into groups and asked them to choose somebody they knew and interview them as the initial activity for this unit. Collectively they decided to ask their interview subjects about their childhood and school years, their jobs and daily activities and the most significant moments in their lives. Once they collected this information she the students wrote the person’s biography: Lucia taught them how to create a hypertext, using PowerPoint as the basis of their text and illustrations. Each group developed one hypertext biography to present to their classmates. This work could not be posted on Facebook because it did not keep the links, so she opted for class presentations of their finished projects. Before starting them, Lucia asked her class, “Based on your experience, what is a biography? What are its characteristics?”  The students articulated definitions on the spot and commented on what they considered to be its most important aspects. They then proceeded to present and comment on their work.


Figure 7: Main page of students’ biography of a local fireman, each topic (description, personal information, education, main events) are hyperlinked to other pages with photographs and texts written by students.

Teachers’ travel and errant trajectories

The descriptions of Hilda, Adriana, and Lucia incorporating technology into their classrooms illustrates how diverse and complex the endeavour is. Their portraits depict teachers’ processes for dealing with a variety of factors that directly affect and influence the decisions they make when trying to learn to do something they already know how to do: teach (Lave 2011). The purpose of this section is to foreground the teachers’ diverse and errant paths, and explore how they dealt with and resolved the variety of factors and unexpected situations that impacted how they worked with their students. While any one teacher’s experience cannot be generalised to others, the common denominator for this and other similar situations of educational change is the heterogeneity of teachers’ responses to demands, and the very different ways teachers turn to their own means and resources—their experience, beliefs, professional background, technological know-how, interactions with others—to make sense and act in specific teaching events (de Certeau 1988; Lave 2011).

In examining these teachers’ participation and processes we have found that:

  • Teachers have different starting points for participating in innovation projects such as this one: they have established classroom routines, years of experience, disciplinary knowledge, relationships with school authorities and co-workers, and technological practices (Jackson 1990; Guerrero 2011; Guerrero and Kalman, 2010;  Warschauer 2002).
  • Despite the official discourse that encourages and demands the use of technology at school, teachers’ work is often waylaid by institutional conditions and the decisions of others (Kalman and Rendón, fourthcoming; MacFarlane 2003).
  • By being a part of the LETS project, using digital technology, and discussing the affordances and limitations of digital culture, teachers often find themselves confronting different and often conflicting beliefs and pedagogical approaches, an experience that may be new to them.
  • There are deeply sedimented teaching traditions that often opaque other options for organising learning.

These sketches also illustrate how teachers make different decisions in order to meet the institutional and social demands of using ICD-T with students. Some teachers glide with relative ease through the operational aspects of technology, and they also deal with complexities and inconveniences as they arise; others struggle to understand how they might reorganise classroom work to take into account the ethos of digital culture, only to find that it opens so many new questions and challenges that they have to continuously rethink their decisions and increase their options; still others simply cling to “business as usual” teaching and use the keyboard and the screen to reiterate their established modus operandi. While all of the teachers discussed in this paper face using technology and incorporating similar elements into their work, their “phrasing” (De Certeau, 1988, p. xviii) seems quite different to us.

The errant trajectories described here include negotiating through policies, inadequate infrastructure, teaching traditions, assignment design issues, finding solutions for unexpected snafus, beliefs, professional background, and integrating some of the ideas and proposals from LETS. Given that this project is in process, there is a certain risk when coming to premature conceptualisations. For the sake of discussion, however, these teachers’ work, learning and participation can be understood through three metaphors, all of them related to travel or the idea of getting from one place to another. As shown in the figure below, trails are not linear or direct but twisting and turning and made up of advancing ones’s path and retracing it.


Figure 8: Errant trajectories: Teaching with technology

Some teachers seem to have a direct itinerary. As they pass through diverse social contexts, appropriate different social practices, and interact in multiple institutional spaces (Gee et al. 1996), they collect souvenirs from different places (technological know-how, new teaching approaches, innovative activities,) and articulate them in a variety of ways with their students. This is not to say that they do not encounter unexpected contingencies or unforeseen obstacles, but they mobilise their resources or find new ones to solve problems and continue with their work (Kress 2003; De Certeau 1988). Just as the traveller might find the unexpected puddle or a detour in the road, these teachers encounter closed computer labs, uncooperative students, computers that do not save work, or days when there is no Internet at school. They make modifications to their activity; they reorganise and redistribute time, or introduce a new option to students (Guerrero 2011; Rendón 2012). Lucia is a seasoned traveller in this sense, despite the reduced number of years she has been teaching.

She is at ease with technology and her work in the classroom suggests that she often rethinks how to teach what she wants to teach, and get around the confines of the curriculum and institutional obstacles she faces.  She uses her technological know-how and understanding of digital culture to organise ambitious products, uses Facebook to communicate with her students and publish their work, and designs assignments where students use multiple forms of representations and develop their own ideas (Matthewman 2004).  Her path seems to transform and surpass the expectations expressed in the official policies into activities rooted in her understanding of digital culture as a context for learning.

Other teachers seem to travel a wandering path, a network of interlinked side roads. Hilda is familiar with technology, uses it in her daily life, but has not used it much in her teaching until now. Incorporating the computer for designing cultural objects (New London Group 1996) and searching the Internet has made her question long held beliefs about her role as the teacher. When she saw her students´ work, she began to realise that most of it was limited to copying and pasting from other electronic sources, and this led her to think more about teaching and learning, about how she gave assignments, and about what she expected students to do (Sutherland et al. 2009). She back tracked over known territory and reconsidered her established way of giving assignments, particularly in the way questions were asked in her classroom. This in turn, brought on new situations and challenges for her.

She also revisited some of the assignments she gave, tried new ways of organising content and student work, and rethought some of her expectations of her students. One observable change in Hilda’s practice is her recognition of different modes of representation as valid for academic work, as seen in her attempts to design activities that are not restricted to writing a paper, creating a table or a conceptual map. Her trail is full of tracks back and forth between issues related to adapting the curriculum, design decisions, her beliefs about her students and taking into account the ideas presented in LETS.

Finally, the third metaphor is the traveller on a scheduled tour. The destination is set, the meals are pre-planned, and the means of transportation worked out. All this traveller has to do is get on the bus on time. There is no time to stroll, no need to deal with the unexpected. Here the teacher uses digital technology for “business as usual” and avoids wandering away from the planned activity even when she experiences bumps in the road or involuntary detours. Adriana seems to be this kind of teacher. Unlike the others, she does not back-up and take a different road to see where it might take her.  She is quite familiar with the computer and uses the Internet for her own purposes, but this knowledge is not shared with her students. What goes on in her class is very much aligned with a traditional view of the classroom, what Rogoff et al. (2003, p. 184) defines as “hierarchical structure, organised with fixed roles in which someone manages others’ participation, acting as a boss”. She does not question her role or her position (and much less her students’) and adheres to the tenets of authoritarian teaching where she tells her students what to do, has the final say, and disqualifies their work without hesitation. Here, Adriana asks the questions, she decides what is useful and what is not, and she is not open to suggestions. She gives assignments that can be resolved by copying a definition, by giving yes/no answers, or by locating diagrams or maps and simply reproducing them. She seems to grasp the formal aspects of using technology (the students, after all, are on the computer) but is not open (yet) to some of the principles of learning in a digital medium. She believes that she is innovating simply by using the computer but despite the affordances the computer and digital culture offer, she makes few changes in her teaching, preserving what she has always done. Adriana does not seem to have any conflicts or doubts; she uses the computers installed in her school for doing the types of activities and evaluating her students as she has always done. Her work is heavily influenced by the teaching traditions present in her context and her professional training regarding how students should learn and how teachers should teach. Despite her technological know how, suggestive ideas about how to rethink classroom teaching coming from participating in digital environments or the LETS sessions do not seem to make a mark on what she does or what she thinks.

Beyond traditional explanations

The premise of this paper is that within our study, the teachers’ efforts’ to incorporate technology into their work are the result of integrating, complex, heterogeneous and often contradictory elements. The argument here is that common explanations such as lack of training opportunities or unavailable materials do not fully explain why some teachers do what they do. Each of these may be a contributing factor but they alone do not allow us to have a deeper understanding of the difficulties teachers face, nor do not they clarify teachers’ decisions and subsequent actions. We have presented portraits of teachers with different stances toward technology and teaching, and we have shown that specific software is not necessary for innovation. All of our teachers have had the same opportunity for professional development through participating in LETS, and yet their responses, as exemplified by the three portraits presented, are quite different.

The analysis in this paper illustrates the intensely contradictory context in which teachers in Mexico find themselves. On one hand they are encouraged—even pressured by official discourse, international and national educational policy and public opinion, to use technology at school, to incorporate the Internet into their teaching and resources, and “expand access to learning, improve quality and ensure inclusion.” (UNESCO 2013).  On the other hand they have to figure out ways to circumvent conditions such as computers that have restricted use, lack of access to the computer lab, time limitations, and a complex, extensive program of study. As shown here, using the computer and the Internet can be an uphill climb for teachers from beginning to end.

They also face integrating their beliefs about learning, about their students and their role as teachers, with what digital culture has to offer.  Despite the physical presence of computers, the research at LETS (Guerrero, 2011; Rendon, 2012; Hernández, forthcoming, Kalman and Guerrero, 2013; Guerrero and Kalman, 2010, Guerrero and Kalman, 2011; Kalman and Hernández, 2013; Kalman y Rendón, fourthcoming; Solis, 2009), and the research of others (Cuban 2000; Lankshear & Knobel 2011; Law 2004; Leu 2002; Rojano 2003; Sutherland et al. 2004) has shown that this is not enough to transform teaching or improve learning in any substantial way. The foundations and basic tenets of traditional schooling seem to stay intact with or without computers or the Internet, unless they are directly addressed, examined and questioned. As Lankshear and Knobel (2011) point out, in the rise and dissemination of new literacies and digital technology, schools are behind the times.

The incorporation of technology in schools greatly depends on how teachers include it in their teaching, and their appropriation of its possibilities beyond operation. It implies a construction not only of technology’s multiple uses and tools, but also an understanding of the values, priorities—the ethos—of digital culture, including the aspects of learning. Teachers’ errant trajectories are the result of their particular articulation of the multiple and heterogeneous elements encountered and the obstacles they meet when working toward incorporating technology into their classrooms. This reminds us of how a successful transformation of teaching practice can, and often does, generate new problems to be resolved and reminded us of how professional development itself is rarely a smooth path. Policy and professional development, to be effective, will have to take teachers’ errant trajectories into account. It will have to provide multiple occasions for modelling new practices, teachers’ learning, and opportunities to try different approaches to teaching while allowing them to reflect with others.


1 All translations in the text are mine, rather than literal transcriptions they are written to “sound” as native like as possible.

2 The role of international agencies in the shaping of national policies in Mexico is beyond the scope of this paper, and requires a discussion of its own. However, it should be noted that international agencies such as UNESCO, World Bank and OECD and regional ones such as OEI and CEPAL share similar policies regarding the incorporation of technology into education. They promote the idea of a globalised world connected through the Internet and knowledge as the new and most coveted commodity for economic development, political stability, and democratisation. They see the incorporation of technology into schools as an important step towards reaching marginalised groups in remote areas, improving educational outcomes, and educating the workforce, eventually leading to market competitiveness and prosperity. The distribution of equipment is promoted as a ‘must do’ to insure closing the so called digital divide. These elements are present in Mexican policies and political speeches (see, for example President Calderon´s remarks in 2010 (http://spanish.china.org.cn/international/txt/2010-05/01/content_19949553.htm). For a look at international policies, consult OECD, (2010); Sunkel (2006); Jara, (2007) Unesco (2012); for a more critical discussion Warschauer, (2002) and Collins and Blot (2002).

3 The research reported in this paper is supported by the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología in Mexico through the research grant 157675 for the ongoing project “Los profesores y las TIC: la apropiación de conocimiento en la práctica”. My sincerest gratitude to Wendy Piza and Victor Rendón of LETS for their assistance with the data presented in this paper and their discussion of earlier formulations.  The work done in LETS is intensely collective, when referring to collaborative ideas, I use the first person plural we, when discussing my ideas and decisions in writing this paper, I use the singular I. Also, thanks to Enna Carvajal for her constructive critique of earlier versions.

4 In research literature and other publications, digital technology and connectivity are often summarised as Information and Communication Technology and referred to as ICT. However, this leaves out a very important part of digital culture, namely the multiple tools, platforms, virtual spaces and resources that people use to make their own designs in a variety of representative modes. Furthermore, the “C” is often forgotten, leaving out the powerful tools for exchange that connectivity offers. For this reason, we are suggesting here to broaden the term to Information, Communication and Design Technology (ICD-T) as a way of putting the technology user back in the picture. See Buckingham, 2007.

5 All names are pseudonyms.

6 Although an important number of teachers who collaborate with LETS may begin without a working knowledge of computer use or wide spread practices (email for example), for the purpose of this paper, I chose teachers’ whose working knowledge is comparable.


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Biographical statement

Judy Kalman is a professor at the Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas (DIE) of the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados del IPN (CINVESTAV) in Mexico City. Her work centers on the social construction of literacy, everyday literacy use, and reading and writing in school settings; more recently she has extended her research agenda to include digital literacies.  She has authored articles in Spanish, English and Portuguese in academic research journals as well as practitioner-oriented publications. She has also collaborated with the Secretaría de Educación Pública in Mexico on programs designed for creating learning opportunities for adult learners, evaluating new curricular proposals, and writing materials for the language arts programs for students in rural secondary schools.  In 2002 she was the recipient for the International Literacy Research given by the UNESCO Institute of Education for her literacy work with unschooled and under schooled women. She is a member of the Mexican Academy of Science since 2004. Her current work is centered on literacy and ICT technologies in and out of school. In 2008 she co-founded the Laboratorio de Educación, Tecnología y Sociedad where she is currently its director at the CINVESTAV South campus.

Contact: judymx@gmail.com

Ben Abraham

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (464 KB)


This article examines the Tumblr site Fedoras of OK Cupid which emerged in 2012 amidst a growing trend in feminists and other activists online that used shaming as an activist strategy. Fedoras of OK Cupid displays images and excerpts from men who wear fedora hats in their OK Cupid dating profile pictures, often highlighting worrying or even downright dangerous attitudes towards women revealed by their profiles. To understand this practice this articles draws on work identifying feminist discursive activism in online communities, to examine the Tumblr site in the context of reintegrative shaming in order to evaluate the practice of deploying shame for activist ends. While shame is often seen as having stigmatising effects, the author of the Fedoras of OK Cupid Tumblr illustrates how the process of reintegrative shaming may work in the context of online activism by offering earnest commentary on negative attitudes while also offering the possibility of social reintegration.

Keywords: Discursive Activism, Feminism, Internet Activism, Internet Communities, Reintegrative Shame, Shaming, Social Media, Tumblr

In the following paper I present new research into a genre of feminist activism conducted on the social media site Tumblr, involving the curious choice to shame wearers of a certain type of hat. This choice might seem bizarre at first, but Fedoras of OK Cupid (FOOKC)1 belongs to an emerging form of feminist discursive activism that seeks to attach affective shame to the tropes and cultural objects associated with sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours. Foundational research into online feminist activist communities has been done by Francis Shaw, who contextualises her research into “feminist discursive activism” within a larger challenge to theories of online publics and the problematic utopian ideals of participation. Much of the activism Shaw discusses is found across social media networks, a trend which FOOKC continues, however the site adds an extra dimension to the tactics it employs by involving the use of shame.

But there is a question hanging over such utilisation of shame, articulated best by Jill Locke who argues that a history of shaming women has been the norm, and that this history entreats feminists to strive to minimise shame rather than propagate it (or, by implication utilise it for any kind of purposive ends). An important contribution, and perhaps justification, for this question of shame is made by Elspeth Probyn, who argues for an adaption of the work of pioneering criminologist John Brathwaite’s conception of shame, as potentially either ‘stigmatizing’ or ‘reintegrative’, performing a kind of socialising function. The latter use of shaming, which Braithwaite found to be an incredibly useful alternative to more traditional forms of punishment (provided certain conditions are met) which I argue offers an important possible tactic for feminists, and it is possible to see this at work in FOOKC. Reintegrative shame works through a community (in this case, a community of feminist activists) to challenge deleterious norms—goals similar to that of discursive activism’s in challenging dominant discourses and norms, and exposing them to those more oriented towards feminist approaches.

Fedoras of OK Cupid

In October of 2012 in a piece of cultural criticism for the popular website Boing Boing, journalist and critic Leigh Alexander (2012) attempted to explain ‘Why the Fedora Grosses Out Geekdom.’ Inspired by a popular new Tumblr that had gone viral called Fedoras of OK Cupid (http://fedorasofokcupid.tumblr.com), Alexander explained that the fedora hat is at the crest of a series of cultural waves with some worrisome characteristics. Through no fault of its own, the fedora hat has become a symbol closely associated with a particular kind of young, socially awkward “geek” male, frequently aligned with some of the more openly misogynistic regions of the of the internet.

The conceit is extremely simple: the author (who goes by the pseudonym “misandristcutie”) trawls the popular dating site OK Cupid for pictures of men in fedora hats and posts them to the site, often including excerpts from their dating profile highlighting some undesirable, frequently sexist, and occasionally downright worrying aspect of their stated views and attitudes. These frequently include responses to OK Cupid’s hundreds of profiling questions, as well as sometimes elaborate comments that the profile owners have left to elucidate their responses to questions like “Do you feel there are any circumstances under which a person is obligated to have sex with you?” or their responses to whether “no means no” (The common answer: “A No is just a Yes that needs a little convincing!”). These images displayed on the Tumblr are often accompanied by some form of commentary or reaction, frequently expressions of fear, dismay, etc, expressed by misandristcutie herself at some aspect or another of the profile.

The site’s success in garnering viral attention tapped into a widely shared reaction to wearers of the hat, and through the sheer persuasiveness of its plentiful examples of fedora wearers who exhibit ‘red flag’ attitudes, suggests to readers of FOOKC the existence of (for lack of a better term) something akin to a fedora culture. The site points towards a troubling correlation between wearers of the hat and holders of regressive, sexist or dangerous attitudes towards women. Towards the beginning of the site’s somewhat controversial existence, however, it was common enough for the posts to limit themselves to criticisms of the appearance of the fedora, as the fully developed critique of the fedora-cultural complex took time to emerge. While the tone of the site has remained constant (it has always maintained that fedoras ‘look bad’), it took time and the appearance of similar site Nice Guys of OK Cupid2 to clarify and deepen the criticism to more than just one based on appearance. The now-defunct site, which existed from late 2012 to January 2013 oriented itself explicitly towards an activist and educational role, highlighting the disparity between the self-professed “nice guy” statements of young men on dating sites with their regressive and often sexist attitudes, all while downplaying and attempting to mitigate the ‘individual’ nature of the problem by obscuring identifying information and so on. Nice Guys of OK Cupid also used the same ‘image and caption’ technique, as did other lesser-known fedora-focussed tumblrs’ that appeared around the same time including Fedoras: Forever Alone, and Should You Wear That Fedora (the unspoken answer being, no you should not).

How the fedora came to be associated with a very distinct ‘type’ of young male with such negative or regressive attitudes towards women is likely to be related to an increased awareness and popularity of Pick Up Artists (PUAs) and their strategies, following Neil Strauss’ The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-up Artists (2005) and its numerous cultural spin-offs, including a VH1 television series The Pickup Artist (2007-2008). The quintessential image of the PUA is the swaggering, middle-class white, often geeky male, between 18 and 30, who imitates the dress code and flair of a pimp (in PUA terminology called ‘peacocking’) and ‘negs’ (a form of calculated, back-handed compliment) his way into the bed of the many women who would otherwise be uninterested, or ‘out-of-his-league’. ‘Negging’ and the PUA ethos in general represents a resurgent strain of misogyny that views women as fair game for psychological and emotional manipulation, since they are seen as the gatekeepers to sex, which the PUA attitude views itself as entitled to. Consideration for the women targeted by these tactics is never entered into beyond a functional will they or won’t they sleep with me calculation. Highly ranked in Google searches for ‘pickup artist style guide’ is a 2009 post on a Pick Up Artist forum in which the author gives the following “peacock tip”:

If you wear a hat, make it memorable, easy to spot, and something to work with your style. This is usually easier than it sounds. Try the fedora…it portrays you’re [sic] a stylish man that knows what he’s doing, and it’s a great lock-in prop (Smith, 2008).

FOOKC picks up on this connection, and as Leigh Alexander notes, draws humour from the emerging consensus that FOOKC taps into: ‘that the fedora-wearers think they look much more suave than they do.’ (Alexander, 2012). It’s a form of cultural push-back that, as we shall see in a moment, may have a deliberate activist impulse underneath its fedora-shaming surface. Alexander also crucially locates the meaning of this type of site within a larger phenomenon, describing the cultural storm into which the Fedora has entered as one in which:

…a peculiar subculture of love-entitled male nerds whose social inexperience and awkwardness manifests in a world rocked by a gender revolution—a tectonic shift in the makeup of formerly cloistered, rule-bound clubs (Alexander, 2012).

To get a sense of the consensus into which FOOKC is tapping and the explicitness of her criticisms of the fedora, it’s necessary to look at a number of the “questions” that other Tumblr users and anonymous readers have sent into the site. This is the primary method of feedback and communication with readers, and the following comments illustrate an awareness of negative connotations associated with fedora culture (all comment are as written, with their particular spellings and capitalisations retained).

For example, fellow Tumblr user “wretchedoftheearth” left the following comment for FOOKC: ‘I have yet to have someone who likes fedoras, frequents reddit, and is a brony3 message me and not be horrible.’ (FOOKC, 2012b) FOOKC’s owner misandristcutie posted this question to the tumblr adding only a simple ‘yes thank you’ by way of agreement (FOOKC, 2012b). Another comment FOOKC responded to asks, “omg what is it with these guys calling themselves ‘gentlemen’ or ‘classy’ because they own a fedora?? I can smell the benevolent sexism from here” to which misandristcutie offered the following telling insight: “trade secret: i find a good amount of fedoras from searching keywords and ‘gentleman’ is a goldmine” (FOOKC, 2012c). A similar comment expressed bemusement at the fedora type: “It’s funny how many people think they’re chivalrous, yet wear hats from the 1900’s. I’d like to see one woman want to live out those years.” (FOOKC, 2012j)

Here we see catch a glimpse of the impulse behind FOOKC, thought one only made explicit by a reader, in a process of communal clarification of purpose that was repeated when, a few months into FOOKC’s existence, Nice Guys of OK Cupid gained an even greater level of attention in the media. The activist impulse lies in forging a connection between fedoras and the sexist attitudes held during historical periods, and by claiming it is not incidental but central to the fedora culture and why women are turned off by it. This is a challenge to the construction of the fedora as ‘cool’ or ‘suave’, and an attempt to shame those who wear them.

This is the primary method in which FOOKC conducts its shaming – by holding fedora culture up to the light of a fairly critical and engaged community. Specifically by highlighting the appearance (the fedora) and the statements of men on OK Cupid and judging them, often in collaboration with a community of likeminded readers and commenters. In the following sections I will position this shaming as a novel form of what Frances Shaw calls feminist discursive activism, before discuss the question of the appropriateness of shame’s utility.

Shaming as feminist discursive activism

The question of how to ‘do’ activism online post-slacktivism critiques is an open and ongoing one. Frances Shaw’s research into the Australian feminist activist blogosphere provides important insight into the areas fruitful and productive activism is taking place online, and she pairs her observations with a number of pertinent critiques of the dominant social research paradigms of the past several years. In two papers, The Politics of Blogs: Theories of Discursive Activism Online (Shaw, 2012a) and Hottest 100 Women; Cross-platform Discursive Activism in Feminist Blogging Networks (Shaw, 2012c), she makes persuasive claims regarding online practices that demonstrate a need to revise theories of deliberative democracy, as well as arguing for a turn towards conceptions of social movements (especially feminist activist blog networks) as counterpublics. According to Shaw (2012a: 42), a more agonistic understanding of online discussion that can incorporate and account for inequalities is needed and these critiques form the basis of her argument for a discursive activism, which she describes as:

…speech or texts that seek to challenge opposing discourses by exposing power relations within these discourses, denaturalising what appears natural (Fine, 1992: 221) and demonstrating the flawed assumptions and situatedness of mainstream social discourse.

From her research into the strategies employed by the Australian feminist blogosphere, Shaw suggests that public sphere theory suffers from a lack of awareness of ‘the inevitability of power relations and inequality in social life’ (Shaw, 2012a: 43). This lack is only exacerbated online, as according to Shaw, ‘internet researchers must exclude from analysis debate that takes place in non-universal, or non-heterogeneous publics’ (2012a: 43) or else fail to meet the criteria for deliberative democracy. Shaw’s crucial objection is that, whilst desirable, the normative openness of deliberative democracy fails to reflect conditions as we find them actually existing online, and indeed the unequal power relations reflected in who is listened to online is a major concern, and discursive target, for feminist activists.

Somewhat more practically explanatory than her published papers are the results of her PhD research, which detail the techniques of discursive activism themselves. Presented most accessibly as a talk delivered on 27th of August 2013 at the University of Sydney’s Online Media Group meeting, Shaw detailed a number of activities and strategies that the feminist blogsphere had developed to combat certain types of commonly encountered arguments. Many of these techniques have been widely taken up outside the Australian feminist blogosphere, and there is a strong sense of cross-pollination across international lines (Shaw, 2012b). Shaw lists five strategies which she found the Australian feminist blogosphere to be employing: “Play Bingo”, “Disemvowelling”, “Splaining”, “Concern Troll”, and “Fauxpology”. Each strategy involves some form of subversion, or the creation of new terminology that reveals the ideological or normative content of mainstream discourses. The first two, ‘Play Bingo’ and ‘Disemvowelling’ are extra-discursive strategies that target discourses, while the latter three are specific words or phrase coined in order to give a name to repeated tropes or tactics frequently employed by those arguing for sexist or bigoted positions. For the sake of brevity, I will only describe the first tactic “playing bingo”, however, each performs a unique discursive activity that highlights or challenges some otherwise hidden feature of sexism in mainstream discourses. Importantly, though Shaw does not discuss it explicitly, these tactics frequently also invoke tacit or explicit shaming strategies, and are often most effective when they involve the participation of a whole community, having less effect when employed individually. ‘Playing Bingo’ illustrates this point.

To “Play Bingo” means to metaphorically tick off squares on a bingo card image (often in a comment thread, or on social media) that was created beforehand featuring common or stock phrases, rhetorical devices or techniques typically employed in the defence of sexist, misogynistic or bigoted positions. Shaw gives examples of phrases included on such cards: ‘Patriarchy hurts men too’, ‘We gave you the vote now shut up’, ‘You’re being silly and overemotional’, ‘You’ve just got a victim mentality’, and ‘Is it that time of the month’ (Shaw, 2012b). The purpose of this activity, is twofold: embodied in the prior creation of the card is a ‘pre-empting’ of the clichéd, repeated sentiments of the sexist interlocutor, and which goes some way to demonstrating its unoriginality. It sends the message that your argument for a sexist or bigoted position is neither novel nor as clever as you think it is. In this way the feminist discursive activist makes a powerful rhetorical case for the opponent’s lack of originality, and the wearying banality of these arguments – so repetitive are they that they have ossified into a bingo card, ready to be mocked and discounted.

The importance of this type of discursive activism as communal is not to be overlooked. As in many of Shaw’s examples of discursive activism, for the proprietor of FOOKC her work building a community, presumably largely composed of feminists, is an important element of the activism she engages in. Again, comments in the form of ‘ask’ questions reveal this aspect: “You are a treasure and and [sic] your blog is a delight. These men are nightmarish and shameful and I can’t even with any of it” (FOOKC, 2012i) was one such comment, FOOKC replying, “you are just a peach!! i hope you have a lovely evening or whatever time it is where you are” (2012i). Similar sentiments crop up, with an “i luv u” (FOOKC, 2012g) comment (“luv u 2” comes the reply), and “no questions, just adulation: pages like this are pretty much the saving grace of Tumblr.” (FOOKC, 2012h) Misandristcutie herself here replies with a beatific, “bless u have a great day” (FOOKC, 2012h). Recognition, expressions of love, and expressions of solidarity form a large part of the positive comments FOOKC receives, and contributes without doubt to the sense of fun, solidarity and inclusiveness, contrasting strongly with the language she uses to describe the profiles of the men in fedoras, frequently described as ‘scary’ or ‘creepy’.

The importance of the communal dimension might not entirely be evident. Partially, it serves to enable some of the social dimensions of Shaw’s discursive activism – Playing Bingo for instance doesn’t carry the same persuasive force if done on one’s own, and the solidarity extended amongst activist communities seems to be an important component. But further, it constitutes an important pre-requisite for what John Braithwaite describes as reintegrative shame, which will be discussed in a moment.

There is also evidence that the Tumblr site’s efforts are having some real impact, with a number of so-called ‘testimonials’ of the effects of fedora shaming. One anonymous question asker left the following comment:

Oh hey I made the site. I’d like to confirm with you that I removed my fedora from my household months ago. Just never got around to up-dating the old page. <3 you guys for spreading the truth, ashamed I ever wore one in the first place. (FOOKC, 2012k)

FOOKC’s response was characteristically enthusiastic: “!!! testimonials r so inspiring” (FOOKC, 2012k). It is a gesture of enthusiasm for having achieved some level of influence, as well as an extension of acceptance and beneficence. The tumblr author is ‘inspired’ and her language is a clear departure from her usually dry commentary on the site. Like the previous commenter’s testimonial, another former-Fedora wearer featured on the site wrote in simply, “I’m one of the recently-posted fedoras. Happy to say I’ve seen the light.” (FOOKC, 2012f) FOOKC replied with a jubilant “hallelujah”. It is plain that misandristcutie derives more fun engaging with her fans and like-minded readers than from shaming Fedora culture. But to reach such an effective place from which to exercise a form of cultural criticism of the trappings and tropes of PUA culture, ‘nice guy’ culture, and the sexism of OK Cupid users, the site relies on the persuasive force of shaming.

Shame’s Reintegrative or Stigmatizing Potential

But there is a moral question hanging over this use of ‘shaming’ worth examining in some detail, namely whether it is appropriate to use shaming as an activist strategy. Shaming tactics appear to be reaching a critical mainstream awareness, with a July 2013 Wired editorial arguing somewhat hyperbolically that, “Shaming, it seems, has become a core competency of the Internet, and it’s one that can destroy both lives and livelihoods” (Hudson 2013). Discussing the unfortunate result of the incident at Pycon 2013 in which Adria Richards Twitter shamed two men making inappropriate jokes at the conference. In classic Wired fashion the editorial foregoes consideration of the power disparities involved based on historical, gender, or racial factors instead focussing solely on the more technical power resulting from one party possessing a large network of followers on twitter, in this case, Richards herself. Her actions at Pycon join other instances of shaming that Hudson’s editorial mentions, identifying what appears to be a growing movement among women and minorities cultivating more agonistic activist strategies online, everywhere from Twitter to Tumblr, as we shall see in a moment, and even surprisingly in the online gaming service Xbox Live with its player culture that is notoriously hostile to women and minorities (Gray 2013).

Most critical in her appraisal of the use of shaming is Jill Locke (2007), who brings a deliberative democracy perspective to the issue of the deployment of shame, asking valuable questions about its appropriateness. She begins by noting that shaming tactics, particularly those involved with protest and activist movements, have a

…long and proud tradition within feminist, gay and lesbian, civil rights, and labor politics. From muckrakers to lefty bloggers to progressive marchers, shaming occupies a well-established place in the activist’s toolkit (Locke 2007, p. 146).

Condensing a wealth of somewhat divergent scholarship on the issue of shame, and particularly shame as experienced by women, Locke cautions against shame’s unilateral utility, for “complicating this…is the extent to which shame has been deployed against [feminist activist] concerns” (Locke 2007, p. 147). For Locke, all forms of shame appear implicated by this history of hegemonic-deployment, and she cites a number of occasions in which shame was used to undermine progressive goals, such as by supporters of the (US) Defense Against Marriage Act, during certain state level bans on same-sex-marriage and notes that it’s often deployed by anti-welfare and anti-gay activists. (Locke 2007, p 147)

Here it is worth elaborating the theory of shame proposed by the criminologist John Braithwaite, as explained by Elspeth Probyn (2005, p. 88):

The core idea in Braithwaite’s articulation of shaming is that shame can be either reintegrative or stigmatizing. It all depends on the context in which shaming takes place. Braithwaite took the idea originally from a New Zealand legal initiative that had been based on Maori traditions. It is argued that within close communities, shaming the offender works better than other more formal sanctions, because individuals care about what their family and friends think about them.

Braithwaite’s conception of both the positive potential of reintegrative shaming and the dangers of stigmatizing shame comes from a pragmatic position on human behavior and criminality that is rare in a climate of extremes. His approach has a clarity and surprising lucidity to it, as according to Braithwaite (1989, p. 71), “people comply with the law most of the time not through fear of punishment, or even fear of shaming, but because criminal behaviour is simply abhorrent to them.” Braithwaite also maintains there is a powerful connection between shame and socialisation or moral conduct, citing the moral-symbolic content of shame as a powerful socialising force in an individual’s development (1989, p. 72). This is a critical point about the effect of shaming:

Shaming is more pregnant with symbolic content than punishment. Punishment is a denial of confidence in the morality of the offender by reducing norm compliance to a crude cost-benefit calculation; shaming can be a reaffirmation of the morality of the offender by expressing personal disappointment that the offender should do something so out of character, and, if the shaming is reintegrative, by expressing personal satisfaction in seeing the character of the offender restored (Braithwaite 1989, pp. 72-3).

Braithwaite maintains that, when possible, shaming is actually a better mechanism for maintaining a moral order than punishment. So powerful is the effect of shaming on maintaining this order that Braithwaite (1989, p. 74) observes it in action in Japanese ceremonies that perform reintegrative shame: “the moral order derives a very special kind of credibility when even he who has breached it openly comes out and affirms the evil of the breach.” This echoes the above comment from a former ‘fedora wearer’ who was ‘happy’ to have sworn off wearing the cultural indicator of sexism, only too happy to have ‘seen the light’.

The reintegration occurs via apology, and what Goffman (1971, p. 113) calls disassociation, in which one splits from and repudiates the former offending self. However Braithwaite (1989, p. 76) acknowledges that “…shaming can be both reintegrative and disintegrative, and… …much turns on this distinction.” Indeed, Braithwaite emphasises the importance of the offer of forgiveness and the possibility of reintegration in avoiding stigmatising shame, dependent on a context of respect. Probyn (2005, pp. 88-9), quoting Braithwaite (2000, pp. 281), summarises the conditions for reintegrative shame, noting that:

The capacity for interdependency is crucial to a good outcome of shaming, as is a context of respect. In this way, “reintegrative shaming communicates disapproval within a continuum of respect for the offender: the offender is treated as a good person who has done a bad deed.”

Misandristcutie’s criticisms of the fedora wearers, it should be noted, rarely extend to necessary judgments of character—usually instead receiving relational descriptions and emotive reactions, such as finding their appearance ‘scary’ etc. This perhaps holds open the door to reintegration, in which the ‘offending’ Fedora wearer repudiates the trappings of a dangerous culture. I want to suggest that it may be this very important and contingent extension of forgiveness which is what Locke is recognising and reacting to, with the alternative being a stigmatising shame precisely the kind of shaming that feminist activists would be most likely subject to. Especially since the moral regimes of these anti-gay, anti-welfare and anti-feminist cultures cannot countenance, cannot reintegrate, the existence or presence of women without ‘repudiating’ their feminist beliefs. Adding to the case for the utility of a feminist reintegrative shame, Probyn (2005, pp. 87-8) notes that:

…it makes a certain sense that the subordinated may have more nuanced skills at shaming than the privileged. The common sense of this proposition is evidence in shaming slogans used by queers and feminists: from the queer epithet ‘breeders,’ directed at straights (and indeed the appellation ‘straight’), to the more complex equations familiar to feminism, such as ‘porn is the theory, rape the practise’ and ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’

It is worth taking on Locke’s appropriate concern for the shamed, as the generosity of her attitude of care represents an important component of the context of respect so important to establishing Braithwaite’s ‘reintegrative shame,’ rather than the often toxic and exclusionary ‘stigmatizing shame’.


It’s worth emphasising that, in light of the above, the impetus behind the shaming FOOKC does not seem to be one of retaliation, adding credence to the theory that the shaming may be reintegrative. When asked whether anyone ever writes in with angry comments or asks for their image to be removed from the site, FOOKC replied, “never had a request to be taken down but i’d certainly honor their wishes if they asked!! ofc it would be sad cuz i treasure my nerds” (FOOKC, 2012a). While this response could be interpreted as condescension, in the context of her other comments it reads to me as earnest, if cloaked in the particular typo-strewn mode of writing prevalent on Tumblr which tends to mimic slang, orality and play (Danet, 2001: 6), as well as earlier forms of ‘text speak’. Eschewing capitalisation, this mode of writing seems to prefer personalisation and immediacy over carefully crafted and cultivated expressions (fitting with theories around microblogging in general as orienting towards ‘real time’). (Grace, et al., 2010; Bruns, 2012; Sakaki et al., 2010) In the context of the blog and the rest of FOOKC’s comments, I read misandristcutie’s comments about ‘treasuring’ her nerds as sincere, as an expression of care, and an extension of the possibility of reintegration.

Similarly, when informed (again, via anonymous question) that someone had been visiting the profiles of the people FOOKC had featured, expressing that they seemed ‘like solidly decent people’, and asked whether FOOKC thought the blog was bullying, FOOKC replied (again, in the particular Tumblr speak) “i don’t mean 2 hurt anyone i just want 2 laugh at bad hats” (FOOKC, 2012d). This comment, posted in the period towards the beginning of FOOKC’s existence and perhaps before the full critique of fedora culture was worked out (led in part by the more explicitly activist educational work of Nice Guys of OK Cupid as mentioned above) perhaps explains the retreat into insistence on “laughing at bad hats.” I understand her comment as possibly being an expression of not quite understanding her own project in FOOKC, resulting in a poor apologia for the shaming of their wearers, but one that retreats from personal commentary (and stigmatising shame) nonetheless. It can be read as an attempt to objectify the shaming, so that the object itself becomes the target of shame, and not the people themselves, but the difficulty and contingency of expressing this argument is great, requiring a more complex articulation than simply wanting to laugh at bad hats.

The relative failure of this explanation also serves as a reminder of the human cost of shaming, with the experience of those shamed likely to be at least unpleasant—notwithstanding the above commenter who ultimately agreed with the critique and was “Happy to say I’ve seen the light” (FOOKC, 2012f). Indeed for those reintegrated into the community, there appears to be significant benefits as we shall see below. Misandristcutie’s withdrawal into “just wanting to laugh at bad hats,” as well as her other comments regarding “treasuring [her] nerds” seem to reflect the same kind of concern Jill Locke (2007) extended to the victims of shame above, even those ordinarily considered the enemies of or hostile to feminism. It is difficult to see how one could criticise fedora culture to the same extent without holding up individuals as examples. Even Nice Guys of OK Cupid, with its brand of activist criticisms of the ‘nice guy’ trope closely aligned with fedora culture, attracted only the mildest of criticism (likely due to its more successful orientation towards shaming behaviour) from, for example, Laurie Penny, who added that,

…there has to be an answer to these guys that isn’t just pointing and laughing. Calling out rapists and online predators is a more than legitimate strategy for dealing with abuse. But how are we supposed to handle common-or-garden sexist dickwaddery when it puts photos on the internet and asks to be loved… (Penny, 2012)

Even Penny (2012), however, could not resist ending on a conciliatory note, wondering whether she herself ‘should stop being such a Nice Girl’ in light of the dubious obligation impressed upon women to ‘be understanding’ with these often problematic men. What I am suggesting here is that, whether deserved or not, reintegrative shaming as described by Braithwaite might be a partial ‘answer’ to what Penny is seeking, with the potential for hugely important and transformative reintegration for the shamed men, as the following comment demonstrates. Shortly after the comment mentioned earlier that questioned whether FOOKC was bullying the young men featured on the site, another anonymous commenter, presumably male, wrote in the following, responding to the allegation:

the blog isn’t bullying its a fucking mass intervention. i used to dress like an awful shitty nerd with mutton chops and a soul patch in college, then one time at a party i got taken to task by a sassy designer dude that was big into fashion. it stung a little at the time, but i took his advice and now i look like and actually am a guy that manages to get laid on occasion, so I owe you and the rest of the world’s fashion police a debt of gratitude, much respect (FOOKC, 2012e).

This comment makes something like a claim for the long-term benefit or transformative value for the shamed, and his expression is coming from one that, presumably, is now reintegrated into the broader feminist community. As the success of FOOKC, as well as the size and vocal nature of communities around the site makes clear, there is a significant population of young women who these OK Cupid users could be dating if only they weren’t scaring them away with fedoras and dangerous attitudes. Through projects like FOOKC and even Nice Guys of OK Cupid, these generous activist communities have also demonstrated that they are invested in the project of men not being sexist, and in dropping both the ‘benevolent sexism’ as one commenter described it earlier and the cultural markers associated with fedora culture. The form that this activism takes is discursive—by challenging the ‘geek mainstream’ constructions of fedoras as cool, fashionable headwear, and encouraging men to ditch these cultural trappings through shaming, with the extended offer of a reintegration into more feminist friendly communities.


In this paper I have looked at the Tumblr site Fedoras of OK Cupid and its engagement in shaming tactics, consolidating a growing consensus that fedoras are not cool, based largely on the frequently deleterious, dangerous or regressive attitudes of their wearers. I have articulated this practise within existing social movement research into discursive activism, cultivating both a community to exercise this activism, which largely takes the form of shaming. This novel addition to identified discursive activist tactics carries with it a question of whether shame is a legitimate activist tactic, or whether it is irredeemably tainted by its problematic history of deployment against women as a method of oppression and control. I have argued that criminologist John Braithwaite’s conception of reintegrative shame provides a useful theoretical frame for understanding ‘good’ forms of shame that extend the possibility of reintegration and socialisation. Misandristcutie’s  ‘treasuring’ of her nerds and similar statements position the targets of her criticism and shaming as possible candidates for reintegration into the broader feminist community, in line with Braithwaite’s explanation. I claim that members of the community paint a picture of the benefits of reintegration, and of taking these feminist’s concerns seriously, adding credence to the notion of legitimate shaming deployed by feminist discursive activists.


1 http://fedorasofokcupid.tumblr.com

2 http://niceguysofokcupid.tumblr.com

3 The term ‘brony’ is the name adopted by the subculture of male fans of the My Little Pony television show—a portmanteau of ‘bro’ and ‘pony’.


Alexander, L. (2012, October 12). ‘Why the fedora grosses out geekdom’. Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2012/10/02/why-the-fedora-grosses-out-gee.html

Braithwaite, J. (1989). Crime, shame, and reintegration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braithwaite, J. (2000). Shame and Criminal Justice. Canadian Journal of Criminology 42:3, 281-298.

Bruns, A. (2012). ‘Gatekeeping, Gatewatching, Real-Time Feedback: New Challenges for Journalism.’ Guest lecture presented at the University of Helsinki.

Danet, B. (2001). Cyberpl@y : communicating online. Oxford: Berg.

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Fedoras of OK Cupid, (2012h). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fedorasofokc.tumblr.com/post/32763805834/no-questions-just-adulation-pages-like-this-are

Fedoras of OK Cupid, (2012i). Retrieved November 3, 2013, from http://fedorasofokc.tumblr.com/post/32775729096/you-are-a-treasure-and-and-your-blog-is-a-delight

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Biographical Statement

Ben Abraham is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney researching internet communities and the political and philosophical issues around the responsibility of non-human actors.  His writing has been published online at Gamasutra, Kotaku Australia, and in print with KillScreen Magazine and the ‘Halo and Philosophy’ anthology.

Website: http://iam.benabraham.net

Email: benjamin.j.abraham@gmail.com

John Traxler

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (333 KB)


There are now many accounts of mLearning projects and pilots, and perhaps solutions, for International Development. This paper does not add to these but questions the ways in which researchers and policymakers talk, think and reason about them. The issues being addressed here are not research issues but are the relationships, in the field of learning for international development, of these accounts to the wider contexts in which this research takes place. Rather than assuming that evidence, sampling, evaluation and hypotheses, for example, are of internal, academic or methodological interest, this paper tries to explore their wider context, itself not methodologically straightforward. These are however important issues because learning with mobiles in international development has started to move from practitioners, activists and researchers to agencies, corporations and policymakers. This is a transformation methodologically, ethically, culturally and pedagogically as new drivers, constraints and goals come into play.

Keywords: Digital literacy, technology, practice, teaching, Mexico, secondary school, socio cultural theory.

Part one: The time is right

Agency Interest

It is important to explore the place of mobiles to support and deliver learning in international development now because there has been increasing interest amongst the wider world of agencies, corporates and ministries, alongside a discernible shift in activity away from Western Europe. This introduces new pressures and drivers into a research community that had previously evolved in a relatively stable and conventional research ecosystem.

Prior to this, it might be plausible to characterise much of the mobile learning research community as relatively small, an appendage of the e-learning research community, working within the same paradigm and attempting to deliver on the same objectives. This community had established that it could enhance, enrich and challenge existing ideas about education but only on a small scale and within resource rich environments (Kinshuk, Huang & Spector, 2013; Berge & Muilenburg, 2013; Parsons, 2011). A smaller community, mostly outside Western Europe, used mobiles to extend access to education in the face of the challenges of infrastructure, resources, distance and environment – something of simplification (Traxler 2013) but nevertheless a useful caricature of the status quo ante.

To trace a time line of the change that took place, in about October 2010, the Development Fund of the GSMA, now subsumed into the GSMA Mobiles for Development programme, the trade association for the MNOs (mobile network operators) globally, published mLearning: A Platform for Educational Opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (GSMA 2010) intended to brief the MNOs about possible business opportunities. In February 2011, the massive World Mobile Congress in Barcelona sponsored its first awards – now in their third year – for learning and attracted an impressive field from organisations working in international development. In August 2011, USAID, United States Agency for International Development, convened the first m4Ed4Dev symposium in Washington D.C. as a prelude to launching the mEducation Alliance in early 2012. In November 2011, one of the WISE debates focused on mobiles, education and the hard-to-reach.  WISE is the World Innovation Summit for Education, an annual educational convention funded by the Qatar Foundation. In December 2011, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in Paris convened its First Mobile Learning Week, consisting of both closed sessions and open sessions. These sessions focussed, regionally and globally, on policy issues and teacher development, the latter often seen as a crucial place to break into the educational cycle and promote education for all (EFA). In March of 2012 there was a further International Symposium in Washington organised by UNESCO, hosted by CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, and drawing together major practitioners and stakeholders.

At about this time, a UNESCO initiative funded by Nokia, commissioned regional reviews that would capture the global state of mobile learning. This was not specifically in relation to international development and indeed had to take whatever evidence it could find. The objective was however to support UNESCO priorities which continue to include Africa and the empowerment of women and girls. The reviews had pretensions to being rigorous, systematic and comprehensive but were largely produced by consultants from secondary sources and informal contacts.

The next mEducation Alliance Symposium, in September 2012, entitled Partnering For Scale And Impact, illustrated the growing emphasis and direction of both corporate and agency priorities. The second UNESCO event, another Symposium, included in its Mobile Learning Week, in Paris in February of 2013, continued to align with wider objectives within the development community, shared with USAID, and focused on three particular EFA goals as they relate to mobile learning, namely:

  • Improving levels of adult and youth literacy: how mobile technologies can support literacy development and increase reading opportunities
  • Improving the quality of education: how mobile technologies can support teachers and their professional development
  • Achieving gender parity and equality in education: how mobile technologies can support equal access to and achievement in basic education of good quality for all, in particular for women and girls.

How each of these goals was seen as related to their respective mobile objective reveals something of the bias behind agency thinking.

Significantly, the Symposium sought contributions on Mobiles for Literacy, Mobiles for Quality of Education and Mobiles for Gender Equality. The UNESCO initiative, supported by Nokia, now had several components, namely, Policy Research and Advocacy, Teacher Support and Development and Mobile Learning Technology Concept Development and has started to convene panels and publish on all these three components. Workshops on Developing Literacy through Mobile Phones – Empowering Women and Girls were another UNESCO activity.

There have also significant reports to the World Bank, eTransform Africa Final Report (World Bank 2011a), and to the World Economic Forum, Accelerating the Adoption of mLearning: A Call for Collective and Collaborative Action (WEF 2012) along with second one from GSMA (2012), their Transforming learning through mEducation produced by McKinsey & Company, in Mumbai, and the eLearning Africa 2013 Report (Isaacs 2013), show mobiles surfacing as the obvious delivery mechanism across the continent. The emergent UNESCO Policy Guidelines understandably reflect the world in which UNESCO operates. They perhaps unsurprisingly were aligned to UNESCO’s member-state audiences of ministry policy-makers and presented mobile learning as a conception that could work best within the confines of national formal initial education systems with much uncritical talk of system strengthening. Subsequent publications addressed literacy for women and girls (UNESCO 2013), youth workforce development (USAID 2013a) and reading (USAID 2013b).

Increasingly learning with mobiles will be influenced by these organisations and agencies, by their conceptions and their priorities. UNESCO for example say, “Mobile learning, or “m-learning”, offers modern ways to support learning process through mobile devices, such as handheld and tablet computers, MP3 players, smartphones and mobile phones.” whilst the USAID position is, “the identification and applications of mobile technologies that can be effectively leveraged to address pressing educational issues including: literacy, appropriate educational content development and dissemination, system strengthening (such as education data for decision making), accessibility for learners with disabilities, professional development for educators, and workforce development.”, from the mEducation Alliance mission statement (http://www.meducationalliance.org/page/mission). These definitions are at odds with the current ideas of the mobile learning research communities that have moved away from techno-centric definitions towards conceptions of mobile learning that focus on the mobility of the learner, on the capacity of learners to cross contexts, and on conceptions of learning aligned to mobile societies (Traxler 2008a).

There is however a further tension within the agencies’ positions. In their policy and publications, they maintain the un-resolved tension between the conception of mobiles as the instruments of reform and improvement, as technologies for ministries, educators, schools and colleges to enhance the management, content and delivery of their (existing) curriculum, and the conception of mobiles as the instruments of dramatic social, economic and political change, of some educational Arab Springs that sweeps away those same ministries, institutions and officials of education rather than reforming and improving them. To put it another way, there is a notion in many parts of the world that the (formal) education system is broken, that this is part of a crisis, which I refer to later, and no longer aligned to or adequate for the various different societies that we live in. The ubiquity of mobiles and how they change our relationships to learning, knowing and understanding; to community, relationships and identity; to ethics, norms and expectations; to employment, economies and economics; to creativity and expression is only part of that (Traxler 2010a). This contrasts with a notion that learning with mobiles is essentially just the latest opportunity for institutional or corporate e-learning and can thus be co-opted into existing educational systems. These arguments are characteristic of a technology that inhabits the bottom-of-the-pyramid and the development context in ways that would never be true of other ICTs such as TVs and PCs.

American and Corporate Interest

Meanwhile, the past two or three years have seen much greater interest and activity around learning with mobiles in North America, especially in the USA, and this is gradually shifting the intellectual and commercial centre of gravity away from its roots in Western Europe, particularly the UK, and in South Africa.  It is also changing the nature of what is understood to be the most effective pedagogies for mobiles. Historically, the Western European interest (Kukulska-Hulme et al 2011) has been on informal and contextual learning underpinned by a substantial engagement with theory, for example Actor Network Theory (Bell 2010), Conversational Theory (Laurillard, 2002, 2007), Activity Theory (Uden 2007, Wali et al 2008) or socio-technical systems ideas generally, inherited often from the earlier theorising of e-learning. Sadly, these have never engaged very convincingly with theories of international development, for example, the Capability Approach (Kleine 2009). These foundations of mobile learning have been encapsulated in the mLearn, IADIS and WMUTE conference series, the International Association for Mobile Learning and the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning. mLearn started in 2002, the others shortly after. Now, corporate training, the connected classroom, edutainment and drill-and-test packages are an increasing part of the picture; they too represent changes in the conception of mobile learning. These changes had been predicted and accelerated by successive recent Horizon Reports (http://www.nmc.org/horizon-project/horizon-reports) and are illustrated by looking at the contributions to the annual mLearnCon conference, started in 2010, and by the growth of SIGML: Mobile Learning Special Interest Group, started about the same time within ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education, the premier US membership association for educators and education leaders working in e-learning). As well as their educational significance, they point to growing confidence in viable business models for at least some aspects of learning with mobiles. One particular spin, echoing earlier discussion in the UK and in Africa but not reflected in the research literature, is the notion of bring-your-own-device as a strategy combining choice with sustainability, though not without problems in terms of infrastructure, equity and quality (UNESCO 2011; CoSN 2011, Traxler 2010b). Incidentally, this approach also represents the only viable general strategy for most of the global South. My session at eLearning Africa in Dakar in 2009 (http://www.elearning-africa.com/conference_past.php) was entitled, ‘African Learners – Institutions and Organisations Should Leave Them to Their Own Devices?’

Another consequence of the growing US involvement in learning with mobiles and the rise of the so-called apps economy (Genachowski, 2010) is that learning with mobiles to longer needs research or researchers to work with practitioners and policy makers. “Education? – there’s an app for it”, people now say, everyone understands it. Culture and pedagogy no longer seem to be components of learning with mobiles as commerce and common-sense take their place. In the wider practitioner and policy communities of the developed world, everyone owns and understands a powerful mobile and its affordances, for learning and anything else, are clearly just common-sense, no longer requiring specialist research input. Everyone, including those outside formal education organisations, has a theory of education and a theory of learning with mobiles, perhaps several, perhaps not ones that are proven or particularly complex or rational, perhaps only something like content is king and so the role for the research community is increasingly marginal. This is an important issue because as we use mobiles to take learning to communities and cultures unlike any of our own, we will encounter their local theories of learning, theories embedded in their traditions and their culture. These express their ideas about what to learn, where, when, why and how to learn, who learn from; the nature of their educational heritage and identity. The more diverse our global ecology of learning and its theories the richer the opportunities we offer to other cultures and communities and the more responsively we can engage.

There is however a considerable concern that whilst these new players are attracted to supporting learning with mobiles, that their priorities and values differ from those of the older players and that understandably scale, sustainability and impact now feature much more obviously. In this new ecology of learning with mobiles, these factors mean that some forms of mobile learning will now thrive whilst others will perish. This account may hint at which ones these are likely to be.

Two rather different developments have been firstly MobiMOOC, a MOOC, a ‘massive online open course’ devoted to mobile learning, run for the second time in September 2012 and attracting in excess of 600 participants each iteration (de Waard et al 2012) using a robust and flexible mixture of open source and free technologies, and the drafting of mobile learning curriculum framework intended to facilitate the adoption within teacher training institutions (Botha et al 2012), now informing the development of a handful of masters courses.

The impact of impact

That scale, sustainability and impact feature strongly in the new agenda means that agencies and corporations are hoping to learn something about from the previous ten years of activity and experimentation that will inform their activities for the next ten years. This perhaps overstates the changed environment; the past is not yet over and the future began some while ago and the present is a phase of blurred transition. Nevertheless, the agencies and corporations are looking for something to build on.

Many of the ways in which we think about examples from the history of mobile learning, and many other kinds of small-scale educational and social interventions, are, however, deeply problematic and risk leading to false conclusions. There is, for example, a simplistic filter that says some interventions took place in developing countries and are relevant, others took place in developed countries and are not, sometimes excused or explained by a trickle-down model of diffusion. This risks overlooking the experiences and evidence using mobiles to address other aspects of educational disadvantage, disenfranchisement and exclusion in the developed world over ten or more years and privileges a specific perspective, a characteristically modernist form of analysis that I return to later.

There are a variety of issues related to the developed world, for example, disadvantage, disenfranchisement and exclusion; technology and education; mobile learning; they are all subject to specific discourses and disciplines, to specific arguments and analyses that seem different from those used in the developing worlds. Can these be broadened and connected?  Can we look at learning with mobiles through the same intellectual lenses and with the same methods, theories and values irrespective of location or context, not letting conceptions about developed vs developing prejudice how we think and act, or the dichotomy of mature and emergent economies or East and West. We return later briefly to this as symptomatic of a modernist world-view. There are however also more systemic technical problems.

Funding and Reporting

In reviewing the recent UNESCO outputs and other global secondary sources, several things are apparent. The reported activities of the mobile learning community do not often include examples from the commercial and corporate world, from corporate social responsibility projects or agency-funded programmes, certainly seldom in the peer-reviewed research literature; they do not often include examples from the work of consultants, for whom publication was not a priority, an expectation, a duty or a right. The reported accounts do not include anything Russian, Arabic or Chinese, nor much in French or Spanish or Portuguese; they do not include literature from Central Asia or Latin America. North American contributions were infrequent until recently. Any conference proceedings, research journals or press coverage would probably confirm the impression that accounts of failures are massively out-numbered by accounts of successes. (The prevalence of papers analysing critical success factors (for example, Cochrane 2010) and the absence of any that analyse critical failure factors bear this out.)  Furthermore, accounts of learning with mobiles are easy to find but only if they defined themselves as mobile learning. In looking at this multiply skewed body of evidence, examples and experiences, managers and policymakers can necessarily only arrive at skewed understandings.

Readers should look at how these various reported examples came to be funded in the first place. They could only happen if, and for as long as, they were funded. This funding support generally came from departments, donors and agencies with a development or capacity building or humanitarian agenda. Rightly or wrongly, these departments, donors and agencies provided funding opportunities for mobile learning researchers to demonstrate that their work could make a development impact, broadly defined or narrowly defined. In any review of the capacity of mobile devices to address social or educational disadvantage, we cannot ignore the extent to which the visions, values, performance indicators and preferences of the funding departments, donors and agencies have skewed the outcomes and impact of the work so far and the lessons we learn. There is therefore the likelihood that funding perpetuates funding, that the process is self-referential and circular, that what we are likely to see is what has been cynically characterised as a version of policy-based evidence formulation. However, evidence-based policy formulation is, in the words of Ian Gibson’s MP Chair of the Committee Science And Technology Committee remark (Hansard, 2004) in the UK Parliament increasingly derided as policy-based evidence formulation, and some in the social research community (Sanderson, 2004) have asked, “Has evidence-based policy any evidence base?”

Evidence and Evaluation

A major component in the cycle of policy and research is evidence and this comes from evaluation activities, sometimes called M&E, monitoring and evaluation. Evaluation of education, and certainly of mobile learning, should however be recognised as notoriously difficult to evaluate. It is possible to measure changes in attributes or behaviour but this does not mean these are educationally meaningful or remotely life-changing. In the case of learning with mobiles, learning as part of moving around the real world, it is difficult to observe, difficult to measure and difficult to explain meaningful educational change (in terms of the myriad causes and effects in people’s real world lives), much more so than any sedentary e-learning or class-room learning. In general, evaluation has proven to be imperfect (Traxler & Kukulska-Hulme 2006). In practical terms, working with leading edge mobile technology has meant that technical problems push evaluation off the end of the schedule or off the end of the budget. Mobile technology and its appropriation by users grow so rapidly and so unpredictably that a structured, thorough and comprehensive evaluation might provide a rigorous account of an environment that now no longer exists. There are difficulties deploying adequate and appropriate expertise within the confines of individual short-term technically innovative projects or within the confines of theory-driven research projects. The resources and time scales are inadequate. There are difficulties framing individual research projects with sufficient coherence in terms of ethos, methods and planning to make this possible. These are situated however, at the centre of wider contextual concerns. As I have said, the ways that projects are funded, organised and reported are all problematic but actually our biggest challenges are not rigour and trustworthiness within individual projects but the inference, abstraction and reasoning above, outside and across projects, that happens in order that policy makers can obtain some big picture.

Generalising and Transferring

Generalising and transferring are complex. We, in parts of the mobile learning community, try, for example, to engage with policy makers with briefings and case studies that build on individual research project evidence and conclusions. When in earlier work, we looked back at these, several things are apparent (Traxler & Wishart 2011, Traxler & Belshaw, 2011). Firstly, that they often round up predictable experts from within the community, people known to be good (English) speakers or writers describing successful projects in an accessible fashion with good graphics. Secondly, failure often goes unreported, unpublished, and unacknowledged (except at the small, but fortunately growing, number of events round the world, some called FAILfaires that celebrate failure as a mark of innovation and confidence), and the impression is that careers and reputations are not built on failures however interesting or thought provoking (World Bank 2011b). Katrin Verclas of MobileActive says, “We have to report to donors and donors do not like to look bad, and so we don’t like to look bad as nonprofits. And so we have a tendency to highlight our successes and never talk about our failures.” (Voice of America, 2010). Thirdly, many projects are destined to be successful and are reported accordingly. Funders, agencies, ministries, officials, researchers and others will have all invested much prestige and resource giving projects the necessary momentum and visibility, and failure becomes unthinkable and inconceivable. The staff at high-profile successes can become unwittingly very well rehearsed and media-savvy in their accounts and explanations of success, and pre-occupied with fund-raising, losing sight of the practicalities and day-to-day issues. Furthermore, mobile learning is plagued by unflattering comparisons with apparent successes in cognate fields, for example the hole-in-the-wall, eBay, mPESA or the Grameen Bank. Can we expect safe inferences and understanding to grow out of these examples?

Analysis within projects can be skewed too by the history and assumptions brought to them. If you are a technologist or a teacher, everything, the problems and the solutions, looks like technology or teaching. This mind-set not only constrains the downstream as we analyse data and present evidence, but also the upstream as we isolate and eliminate confounding variables and site our interventions across the remaining problem-space to generate the appearance of generality and transferability.

These issues interact with the life cycle of projects from funding onwards. Funders, that is donors, agencies and ministries, make choices about the spread of projects, projects then may themselves make choices about siting of their interventions; later both projects and funders will make choices about how they sample and report their respective activities.  They are all caught in a pay-off between depth and breadth. On the one hand, they can focus on one aspect, one dimension and seek data and outcomes that are as rigorous and trustworthy as possible but may lack wider relevance. On the other hand, they could try sites and samples spread across a range of dimensions or variables, spreading themselves thin in terms of the trustworthiness of their data and outcomes but hoping for wider relevance and greater generality.

These are some of the reasons why it is now timely to question the ways in which those of us working with mobiles for learning think about earlier examples of learning with mobiles in development

To summarise, so far, we could ask:

  • What do examples of small-scale successes tell us about large-scale programmes?
  • How relevant, trustworthy and credible are the inferences and outcomes of earlier examples?
  • How do earlier subsidised examples with provided devices inform future sustainable programmes with users’ devices?
  • How does funding and policy skew the choosing, siting, sampling, evaluation and reporting of examples?
  • What is the impact of project evidence and outputs from earlier examples on corporate and government policy, priorities and resources?

The underlying challenges

As I have said, there are major flaws in how we report and reason about the experiences, the outcomes, the relationships and the environment around our work learning with mobiles in international development. This happens at a number of levels for a number of reasons. It can be explained within what might be called a common-sense view of the world and remedied by technical and tactical fixes, by greater transparency, by greater resources and by greater rigour. Some of these flaws are explained as the workings of multi-causality or excused as unexpected consequences or what might be called unexpected causes – by which I mean, for example, the bias and distortion introduced into fieldwork and monitoring by senior officials reluctant to leave the capital, by junior officials maximising their per diems and by consultants maximising their air-miles?

A more comprehensive account would put these into a broader intellectual framework, the transition from modernism to something else. Modernism is the rational and objective worldview, embedded in the people, history and culture of Western Europe. It subsequently fragmented within academic philosophical circles and has then been problematised by various authors characterised as postmodern. It is however still the prevalent ideology in countries and institutions around the world that have been influenced by European ideas. Post-modernism’s positions are complex and confused but one of them, for example, characterises our societies as moving into liquid modernity (Bauman, 2000) – apocryphally paraphrased as permanent beta – and not just the developed and Western societies of the global North.

Modernism might be characterised as the faith that history and humanity are going somewhere, somewhere good; that language and other symbols can describe reality (and that reality as an objective, shared, consistent and unambiguous source of all our experiences actually exists); that cause and effect are simple and stable and also that right and wrong are equally simple and stable; and that reason, science, technology and education are agents of benign change and improvement.

These are modernism’s foundational grand narratives (Lyotard 1999). Other derivative ones might include Darwinian evolution, Marxist accounts of history, Freudian psychoanalysis, the scientific method as a mechanism for establishing truth and the ideal of the nation-state and its bureaucracies. I argue that International development is one of modernism’s lesser grand (sic) narratives. It is a tacit and simplified article of faith, one that justifies European interventions and attitudes in other cultures, especially Africa, from the seventeenth century onwards, and in an attenuated globalised form, this faith accounts for all those universities in the global South aspiring to recognition by the global North and privileging Western styles of knowledge and learning as the only credible forms. Post-modernism can only rigorously be defined as whatever comes after modernity. Mobility, specifically the mobility and connectedness afforded by mobile technology, changes or challenges so many aspects of different cultures, particularly the solidity of our knowledge, identities, cultures and institutions, as to take us beyond the certainties of modernism (Traxler 2008b). We should retrace our steps and ask if the issues we have outlined earlier are the various consequences of misplaced modernist expectations, the expectations that history can teach us something, that examples are examples of something.

As I implied earlier, it is probably a modernist fallacy to think that evidence is a credible and rational basis for policy formulation; it is an act of faith since clearly there can be no evidence for evidence. Thinking there was would be circular.

There is a related issue. The world is now increasingly characterised by challenges, disturbances and discontinuities that threaten the dominant and crudely modernist, notions of stability, progress and growth. These are major challenges to research communities, including the development studies research community and the mobile learning research community, challenges to these communities to stay relevant, responsive, rigorous and useful.

In various public forums outside and across the research communities, there is the notion there is an emergent global crisis, a notion developed at a recent Alpine Rendezvous workshop, TEL: the Crisis and the Response and a debate at ALT-C. These are also documented and discussed in:

http://ignatiawebs.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/preparing-for-debate-alt-c-online.html; and


This is manifest as economic and resource crises, including long-term radical increases in economic inequality within nations; youth unemployment across Europe; sovereign debt defaults and banking failures; as environmental and demographic crises, in particular, as eroded refugee rights and military occupations; nation-state population growth and its implications for agriculture, infrastructure and transport; as crises of accountability, expressed in the failure of traditional representative democracy systems especially in the context of global markets; the growth of computerised share-dealing; the emergence of new private sector actors in public services; the growth of mass participatory movements, the rise of unelected extremist minorities challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state and its institutions; as crises of socio-technical disruptions and instability, amplified by a reliance on non-human intelligence and large-scale systems of systems in finance, logistics and healthcare, the development of a data-rich culture;  the increasing concentration and centralisation of internet discourse in the walled gardens of social networks; the proliferation of complex digital divides; of  the dehumanisation crisis, expressed in the replacement of human flourishing with consumption; the replacement of the idea of the person with the idea of the system, the replacement of human contact with mediated exchange; the commodification of the person, education and the arts. The notion of crisis is manifest specifically in the current context in learning with technology, in for example the dependency of educational institutions on computers for research, teaching, study and knowledge transfer; the use of computers to industrialise education; the globalisation and corporatisation of learning threatening marginal communities; learning driven by skills and employability in an increasingly turbulent future and the extent to which the mobile learning research communities question, support, stimulate, challenge and provoke their host education sectors.

Learning with mobiles in international development is at the intersection of technology and learning and it, as we said earlier in describing modernism, encapsulates many of the ideals, problems and potential of both. It is possible however that they could ameliorate some of their consequences or amplify and exaggerate others. There is however a possibility that in exploring the examples of the past and seeking some sort of narrow academic rigour, relevance and transferability, that we are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic or fiddling while Rome burns, that these are no longer relevant or adequate for the following reasons.

Learning with mobiles is based in communities nurtured within the institutions and organisations of formal education in the recent decades of relative stability and prosperity in the developed nations of Asia-Pacific, North America and Western Europe; learning with mobiles in development contexts has inherited of much of these sensibilities and aspirations. There are no longer safe or reliable.


This paper has attempted to reconceptualise the role of mobile learning in international development, firstly by exploring its changed role in moving from a small-scale educational largely European activity operating within a conventional research environment to a more global, corporate and American activity reinterpreting or misreading its earlier achievements and methods, and secondly by placing this transition alongside other global transitions that leave behind the settled understandings of the world. This is a problematic undertaking intended merely to encourage greater scrutiny and perhaps scepticism of our work with mLearning in international development.


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Biographical statement

John Traxler is Professor of Mobile Learning, the world’s first and a full UK professor since September 2009 and Director of the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton. He is a Founding Director and current Vice-President of the International Association for Mobile Learning, Executive Committee Member of the USAID mEducation Alliance, Associate Editor of the International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning and of Interactive Learning Environments. He is on the Research Board of the Association of Learning Technology, the Editorial Board of Research in Learning Technology and IT in International Development.

John has co-written a guide to mobile learning in developing countries for the Commonwealth of Learning and is co-editor of the definitive book, Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers, with Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme. They are now working a second book, Mobile Learning: the Next Generation, due to be published in 2014. He is co-authoring a book, Key Issues in Mobile Learning: Research and Practice, with Professors Norbert Pachler and John Cook, and Mobilizing Mathematics: Case Studies of Mobile Learning being used in Mathematics Education with Dr Helen Crompton.

Contact: john.traxler@wlv.ac.uk, @johntraxler

Lucy Van

Published Online: November 15, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (347 MB)

Graduate Student Advocate Dr Lucy Van speaks with Higher Education Policy Researcher Dr Margaret Kiley about the recent introduction of coursework in Australian doctoral education.

The provision of a coursework component in PhD programs is customary in the United States, Canada and Europe. Graduate students in Australia will have noticed that over the past eighteen months more universities are introducing formal coursework into the Australian PhD; until recently there has traditionally been little, if any coursework in the doctoral experience. Dr Margaret Kiley, Higher Education policy researcher at the Australian National University, leads a project investigating what’s happening with coursework in Australian PhDs. Working in conjunction with the Australian Deans and Directors of Graduate Research (DDOGS), the project examines the factors that are leading to the implementation of formal coursework in the Australian PhD, and addresses some of the support and structural issues surrounding these developments. The project also aims to provide principles for doctoral programs for the consideration of Australian Deans developing coursework in the PhD.

Lucy Van (LV): Your project responds to the recent introduction of coursework in Australian PhDs. As you’re dealing with a relatively new phenomenon, it must have been challenging to define the parameters of the research—as far as I have seen your project is the first to be looking at this issue. Is there any consensus on what ‘coursework’ actually is?

Margaret Kiley (MK): The project looks at the universities and faculties that for various reasons were suddenly trying to introduce coursework into the PhD. But when you actually spoke to those involved with the introduction of coursework and asked what that was, there was an amazing variety of understandings of what ‘coursework’ might be. For example, you’ve got people who think coursework is about research methods, those who would call coursework ‘research processes’—all the things to do with how to do research. For others coursework is actually disciplinary knowledge: advanced disciplinary knowledge. And those two of course are quite different. But they have the same term, ‘coursework.’ And then you have some really interesting interpretations even of the word ‘coursework,’ where staff at a university might say, ‘well we don’t want that. We don’t want our students having to go to a weekly lecture and have to sit an exam.’ So there’s one concept of coursework as weekly lectures and exams. Now we have this very interesting discussion about what actually does this word even include or relate to. Everyone has this view of it and don’t really realise that there are three or four other views of the same word.

(LV): Some new PhD students might have come across differing hurdle requirements, where in some cases they might need 50% to pass, and in other cases they might need 75%. Those different hurdles seem to signify different attitudes to what the purpose of that coursework is—is it meant to be something to bridge a gap or actually something that enhances or adds value to the degree?

(MK): On the one side of the continuum you’ve got this notion—you’ve used the word bridging, I use the word ‘foundation’ or ‘compensatory.’ ‘You’re taking students who for various reasons don’t have a really strong background in something, either in the discipline or in the research processes so all that you want is for everyone to have a really solid base to start with and you want to make sure that everyone’s at the same starting point, so you do something in the first semester’, something along those lines. That’s certainly one way and there are interesting examples around of universities doing that. Then a second way is to think, ‘well look, we want to value add, and offer third year entrepreneurship, or leadership, or those kinds of things.’

I don’t think one is better than the other or more correct or anything—there are just different perceptions and different reasons. So I’ve been thinking about this with basically what I call a straight out curriculum model—which says you normally start with your learning outcomes—what is it that you actually want from doctoral candidates maybe after they graduate? What content is it that facilitates these processes? Or do we want to think about employability skills, or ethics, or preparing future academics? And of course for different students it’s different things. I think if you’re a young physicist you probably want different things from if you’re a forty-five year old person in the School of Education who’s already worked twenty-five years! So it starts to raise all those issues about individual students and needs.

We could actually have any number of models. We could have a model that says in the first twelve months we want every candidate to enrol in and undertake research processes work, which would be about how to do the literature review, research methods, how to write, how to present, and that in fact the successful completion of all of that would be embodied in doing the confirmation seminar, for example.

Another example might be where you have one or two university courses or at least faculty courses, and a number of individual courses—so people can gain knowledge in an area they lack expertise, even if it is not directly related to their specific research topic. There might be someone that comes into a PhD program with a really strong background in communication because they’ve worked for twenty years as a teacher—they might not need to do a communications course but they might need to do something different, which they could elect to do. That’s a different model.

And the other idea that’s getting quite a bit of traction is a learning plan. So it’s not so much formal coursework and courses, but more that you formalise or structure the learning of each student throughout candidature so you would start on that obviously from day one. There is one example here at the ANU that’s been implemented, and we’re looking at another example at one of the Perth universities.

Generally, the model of the learning plan goes like this. In the first month someone would sit down with the candidate, either the supervisor, or someone from the graduate school, and get the candidate to think back to their learning background, where are their strengths, where are their weaknesses? The candidate would be informed about the doctoral qualities that the University think are really important, that you have to have some understanding of communication, ethics and so on.

(LV): Are these the kinds of outcomes that these particular universities have felt that the traditional supervisor-candidate model wasn’t able to achieve?

(MK): I had a number of recent graduates say words along the lines of, ‘I wish someone had made me…I wish my supervisor had made me do so and so.’ Well, you know, if your supervisor had gone to make you, you probably would have refused anyway. Or you would have been really grumpy about it. Like, ‘what a waste of time.’ So you’ve got this interesting situation where you’ve got doctoral students who wish they’d been made to do something. There are probably some things that really are good for candidates to experience—and so that’s just one consideration. But the other consideration is—I think sometimes supervisors and candidates don’t know the range of opportunities available for students. You get so caught up in your day to day life both as a candidate and as a supervisor—so sometimes it’s hard to go back and go to the big picture—you’re always thinking of timelines and finishing. So it wasn’t so much as deficit but a way of perhaps opening up a broader set of horizons and saying that there’s more to a PhD then just getting that thesis on a bookshelf. It’s about this other knowledge and skills. Planning out the sorts of experiences that would be really useful for the candidate—for those who want to go into an academic career, maybe it’s teaching. And so the plan would give you an opportunity to look at the individual trajectory of candidates and to design something accordingly.

(LV): What about the design of the project itself? How does having these competing notions of coursework affect your research?

(MK): I thought it would be really easy to do when I was setting this up, that everyone would be having four courses, and this and that—and it’s just not showing up. So there are six universities involved in the project, in conjunction with the Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Research. We’ve just started a student survey, in a couple of those universities, to see how those students go, what experiences they had, what they’ve learned, what they wish they had learned. These are current students. We would love to do it with exiting students, although it’s quite early at this stage. I’m working with people who are really keen to do this. Some of them are doing extra things outside the project, so we’ll garner all sorts of information.

(LV): When you say you’re working with people that are ‘really keen’ do you mean that these particular institutions are very ‘pro’ coursework?

(MK): Not necessarily, no. We chose a range of perspectives. The project deliberately includes different kinds of universities—so larger GO8s and then smaller regionals. And then look at universities that have a very different approach to this. Across the sector there are all sorts of models. There are a couple of institutions now that have what they call four year PhDs. And when you enrol you are told it’s a four year PhD, and the first year is coursework, and it includes both research processes and disciplinary knowledge. Then you do your three year research project. So that’s one model. Then you’ve got the Macquarie Model, where they have their M-Res and then their three year PhD, a really interesting model. So it’s fascinating to see how different universities are positioning themselves, partly because of their student cohort. So the sort of students that the University of Melbourne gets and the way that the University of Melbourne runs would be quite different from the way, for example, the University of Ballarat does. And not for any reason that one’s better or one’s worse, just different. And so even in the Melbourne area if you think of the University of Melbourne, RMIT and Victoria University, all within a square mile of one another, all have very different cultures. There’s a great deal of interest—there’s some fantastic stuff happening in Australian universities at the moment. And what’s so interesting about it, I think, is its variation. I’m not finding ‘one model’—I’m finding lots of different models.

(LV): What about inside an institution? In addition to what you’re saying about this variation between institutions, within an institution you can see faculties doing very different things from other faculties—have you looked at that?

(MK): That is an interesting one. I’ve done some work with a couple of universities on that and it is—that’s absolutely true. It’s a really interesting issue. Margot Pearson, back in the 90s, did a great report on the diversity of higher degree by research students in Australia and back then she was talking about the percentage of part-timers on campus, the older students and so on. And this is becoming more obvious, you know. We have 40% of our students in Australia part time. We have, over in Education, the average age at forty-five for a student starting a PhD in Education. And so you’ve got these different disciplines picking up on that and saying ‘our students don’t need this, that and the other, they don’t need career workshops because they’ve already got a career—what they need is ‘a, b and c’ not ‘x, y and z.’ And then others from some discipline areas are taking candidates who don’t necessarily have that discipline background. An area like Environment’s a really good example of this. You can do Environmental Studies and you can have a background in Science, or in Social Science, in many things. And so, often those people, they do need something quite different—in terms of discipline based coursework—from someone who’s come through a straight Chemistry PhD or a straight History PhD. So that’s an example of where the discipline differences are really showing up.

(LV): At a governance level, are these differences something that concerns universities? Would universities not want to standardise an overall doctoral student experience?

(MK): I think it really is tricky. The larger the university—so I’m thinking of the University of Melbourne and ANU and the University of Sydney and places like that, where there is so much variation and probably enough numbers, there’s strength in an area to do their own thing. In a smaller university where there are disciplines with only 15 or 20 PhD students and seven or eight supervisors, it’d be very hard for to go it alone. Whereas if you’ve got, you know, 370 supervisors, or something, then you can probably set up a program that’s self-sustaining. So I think size has something to do with it. I haven’t got any data on that—that’s just me thinking that. But it makes sense doesn’t it? I mean, there’d be parts of Melbourne University, some faculties there that would be larger than some smaller universities. And you must have somewhere in the order of three to four thousand PhDs at the University of Melbourne. You’re going to have pockets of strengths that perhaps don’t exist in some of the smaller universities. So one of the attractions of having something somewhat more university or centrally-based is that you can work with greater numbers. At the ANU we have seven colleges, and they’re quite independent of one another really, because we don’t have a graduate school, so each college is doing its own thing with regards to coursework. And the college that I’m in is one example where we actually did introduce four formal award coursework courses, where the courses have numbers, and you enrol, and you get a result and all that sort of thing. And they are related to research processes. But that’s just one college. And at the moment most of that structure is relying on individual staff to do that teaching, without any additional workload or whatever. It’s just, you know, people do it. But if you’re a much tinier university you wouldn’t have that workload capacity. So workload’s an issue too.

(LV): I wonder if, relatedly, both university staff and candidates are concerned about timely completions.

(MK): Yes, the other issue which comes up all the time in discussion is, ‘will this either add to the time of candidature or, if we’re going to do this, we have to shorten the actual thesis?’ So perhaps people are thinking about a dissertation of less breadth and with less actual numbers of words. I think what we’re finding is that if the coursework is research processes work, then it probably would even help shorten the time to completion. Whereas if you’re going to do disciplinary knowledge, there can be a feeling that it adds to candidature. However there are some places like the University of Melbourne, ANU and the University of Sydney where the graduates in some areas are going to be competing on an international stage with big companies—say with Economics, KPMG, and so on. These graduates need that broad knowledge to be competitive on an international stage, the argument is ‘you need to be able to talk the talk.’ You can’t just go out and say, ‘I’m an expert in one tiny area’ and so they’re saying because of the way our graduates go out and get jobs they need broad background. Even when it’s discipline specific there’s still the big picture there.

(LV): Is there a sense then that this wasn’t taking place in the traditional model, on an informal level?  Is this kind of coursework filling a gap for something that wasn’t there or is it formalising something that’s always been there?

(MK): Well, in some areas like Economics it’s been there for twenty or more years, it’s nothing new. So others have perhaps started to think, wow—it probably is the way the world is going, that more and more of our students will be getting those sorts of jobs. Perhaps 15-20 years ago it wasn’t quite the case, you might be more likely to stay in Australia unless you were really, really outstanding, so…

(LV): I was just thinking about the function of informal reading groups, discussions at the university bar, those kinds of collegial things. Are certain forms of coursework seeking to formalise what people were doing anyway by their own motivation? Is this about recognising the value of these activities and making sure that everyone is offered that opportunity?

(MK): I think that’s a really good point that you’ve made there, I think that it’s about recognising the value and it’s also recognising that not all candidates necessarily see these things as important. For example, I might see it as important that candidates meet informally to chat over their experiences, but I can understand why some candidates might feel this is wasting time as it is not directly related to their research project. And, if you’re a part-time student, how do you build in those collegial chit chats over coffee and a drink if you work full time and you fly in for an hour after work to talk to your supervisor and then by seven o’clock you have to go home and cook dinner? I agree, I think a lot of students, a lot of capable students have done this anyway. But this is recognising the importance of those things. You know, you can’t force a student to have coffee, but you could have something like a writing retreat, where a School might say well, there’s this writing retreat where we’ll go away for a week, and if you’ve got kids and so on, we’re going to have to find a way of someone looking after the kids for a week because that’s part of our requirement here, that everyone goes on a writing retreat. It may be that Schools are able to help candidates with some funding for child care or some internal arrangements. And it’s not about writing—well, it is—but it’s also about getting to know your colleagues and your discipline and other important skills in other ways. My guess is that by the time the project’s ended—which will be next year—there’s going to be a phrase that I’ll have, which I think will be something like ‘a structured approach to doctoral education.’ This will say that in some cases it’s a really good idea to have formal coursework that’s research methods, and in some disciplines it’s important to have coursework that’s on disciplinary knowledge, because of the discipline that it is. And for others it’ll be important that they have these sorts of learning plans. And perhaps, I would like to think, everyone would have a learning plan, and the learning plan would include formal coursework and then informal, or less formal things. And the one thing we think about is—not just in the first year of our candidature—I’m very keen, for us to keep thinking about what happens in the middle of candidature, which is usually a time when students really feel miserable. I mean the first year everyone’s usually pretty good, pretty high, fairly enthusiastic. The second year is, ‘I hate this, it’s stupid, boring, I want to pull out.’ We know that. So to me it would be a good time to have some other structured coursework. I know that sounds really awful, ‘forcing’ students to have to do it—but again, you know if candidates are going to be miserable and flat, and rather than letting them get like that, you might intervene with some courses and support. And then towards the end, maybe preparing them for futures, whether it is how to write research grants, how to apply for jobs—all of this could be incorporated into coursework.

(LV): Is there anywhere in your study where you address any concerns about the introduction of coursework, some concerns members of staff or students might have expressed—are there any trends in that area, where there’s a sense of resistance?

(MK): No, the negative trends are about as varied as the positive trends. There is concern about the time an overall feeling that ‘we don’t have enough time.’ But then, some said, we don’t mind adding time because it’s really important for our students to have these experiences. So it varies. For example for the discipline specific information respondents say students really, really need this in order to be competitive in the workplace is valued, so there’s a call that that’s the way it’s got to be.  For example, where departments talk about the disciplinary knowledge as part of the PhD they really value it as they believe it helps candidate to be more competitive in the workplace, whereas, in other disciplines they value other experiences, maybe something like teaching When we get the survey data back from the candidates that’s when we’ll know about their concerns. We have done some focus group work with candidates and recent post-docs, and I think their main concern was—they were keen to make sure that early on they had a really clear idea of all the possibilities. They felt that there were things that sounded terrific that they’d never known about. That was the really interesting idea. And I guess what happens is that at induction you tell students everything and they kind of forget about it in the whirl of their day to day life.  And then six months later you have someone ask ‘haven’t you done such and such?’—and they think ‘oh gosh, I forgot, did you tell me about that?’ The other concern is certainly workload for staff. That if we suddenly introduce coursework—who’s going to teach it? Who is qualified to teach it?

And then there’s the other side of the coin. If the students have this really sound basis of research design then that actually could make your life even easier as a supervisor. So there often seems to be a trade-off, depending on how you view the world. And which discipline you come from. So where supervisors have been very used to having their own students and doing their own thing one-on-one, the more humanities-based model, I think for some of them—some—the idea of having courses and so on really is very attractive, because it lessens the load for them. Others feel that it’s taking away from their one-on-one students. So there are no trends, there are differences. I couldn’t say the major concern is this or that. Whereas years and years ago we introduced something at the University of Adelaide in the first semester. And everyone kept saying, ‘oh this will add so much time’ and it didn’t, it literally sped it up. Because they had all this good stuff at the beginning.

I think the idea is thinking, ‘what is it we want from our PhD graduates?’ Do we want them to have this sort of a broader knowledge, a broad set of skills, not just for their jobs but for their life? And therefore are there additional things that seem appropriate to learn and therefore be taught in a PhD? They don’t have to be taught in formal lectures—as I said, they could be writing retreats, all sorts of things. What is it we want our graduates to be able to do? George Walker who headed up the Carnegie Initiative on the doctorate in the USA, he posed the following questions: what do we want our graduates to know, what habits of mind do we want them to have—you know, will they be very ethical? Will they see that their work is about contributing to society? And what skills will they have? What you want from physicists is different from what you want from artists, or musicians.

(LV): Your project talks about Australia, Australian institutions, and this relatively recent phenomenon of coursework, despite certain areas such as Economics having it for quite a while. So is Australia being forward thinking in a way in this introduction, even though it’s a very varied introduction, or is it following an international trend?

(MK): I think it’s more following the trend. When I first started looking at this I had reactions saying, ‘oh yeah, you want to introduce the US model.’ In the US they’ve always had coursework but their coursework on the whole has been discipline knowledge. The US model is really different. We’re not saying we’re having the US model at all. Interestingly enough, when I talk to groups of staff that have done their PhD in the US—there are quite a few here at the ANU—they’re thinking of that model, and we have to say, no, no, no, we’re not saying this is a US model, we’re talking about an Australian model. And I think I was very strong on that deliberately, not to imply we’re taking someone else’s model and imposing it but looking at what might work for Australia given our circumstances and our students, and our universities and so on. But there have been examples all around—probably many countries other than New Zealand, New Zealand’s very similar to us—where there have been either formal coursework or formal courses that haven’t existed in Australia up until now.

(LV): Who are the stakeholders in this project? Is the purpose of the project to facilitate the implementation of formal courses? Or is it an objective enquiry?

(MK): It’s ended up being two things but it was designed originally to look at what was happening, using the six universities as a basis for more intensive work, with all the actual different things with graduate studies, and come up with various models, a series of questions on the ways that universities might structure them—not saying they have to follow them—but that these are the sorts of questions you need to address. For example, is it about the discipline, or is it about the research process? If so, why? Those kinds of questions. What has happened as a result—because of the other kind of work that I do in an advisory role—I’m actually doing some work with two groups about how they want to go about implementing some programmes. I’m doing some implementation training, working in a couple of places—linked with, but separate from the project. But it’s a fantastic opportunity for me because I’m getting these really on the ground things with students and academic and admin staff, the three together, so we get to all work together and talk about what they want. And we’ve had post-docs involved too.

(LV): So you’ve had four groups then—current students, academic staff, admin staff and post-docs?

(MK): Yes but all together—one place we’ve had the students separately for a focus group but in the other places we’ve had groups, let’s just say, a group from one discipline—a couple of supervisors, maybe the convener, a couple of PhD students and one post-doc. And they all sit and talk about—what do they think about the outcomes, what do they think would work best, so on and so forth. So it’s very joint in that way. So students have been involved right from the beginning. And also I think as I said, post-docs are really important, especially recent post-docs, because they’re the ones who can look back on what happened and say, ‘ohh, yeah but I really wish I’d had that.’ ‘I wish they’d made me do it.’ And so I’ve included some of them as well, and that’s been terrific.

Graduate students who would like to find out more about ‘Coursework in Australian doctoral education: what’s happening, why, and future direction?’ can contact the project manager Karen Bell: Karen.Bell@anu.edu.au

Biographical Statement

Lucy Van works as an advocate at the Graduate Student Association at the University of Melbourne, where she undertakes individual casework and also conducts research into policy issues affecting graduate students. She is also an editor for Mascara Literary Review and is on the editorial board for Peril: Asian Australian Arts and Culture Magazine. She completed her PhD at the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Contact: l.van@gsa.unimelb.edu.au

Call for papers:

Networking to build the HIVe: Innovative uses of communication technology for HIV programming with gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations

This special themed issue of the open-access international peer-reviewed journal Digital Culture & Education (DCE), will showcase the diverse ways gay men, other men who have sex with men (MSM), and transgender (TG) communities use the internet and communication technology (ICT) for HIV prevention, treatment, care and advocacy. These articles will be published in DCE to provide an open online resource for frontline and community-based workers to access social science prevention practices and community-based biomedical research that are normally inaccessible in academic journals that require a subscription.

The goal of this call for papers is to share community-based organisations’ effective practices in using ICT – i.e. mobile or electronic health applications, social media, chat rooms, mobile phones and other uses – in HIV-related services.

The aim is to provide a robust forum where community-based organisations can share their HIV prevention and care work globally and learn from one another. An additional aim is to launch the DCE special issue at the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, Australia next July.

This call is open to two groups of community-based partners. One group is USAID and amfAR community-based grantees who have used or are currently using ICT in HIV prevention, treatment, care, stigma and discrimination reduction, advocacy and/or other sectors. The second group is from the Technological Consultation, “Innovative uses of communication technology for HIV programming with men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender populations” held in Washington D.C. in May 2013. Hosted by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the event was co-sponsored by USAID/PEPFAR, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Both groups of community-based partners have an equal opportunity to participate in this call.

No prior academic writing experience is required. Targeted writing mentorship and editorial assistance and help (in English, French, and Spanish) will be provided by a team of committed academic researchers to support each community-based group to produce a high-quality publishable manuscript. The manuscript will showcase their interventions and build an evidence for future investment in community-led responses.

If your organisation is implementing, collaborating with or supporting gay men, other MSM and/or TG community-based groups to use ICT in HIV programs and services and are interested in participating, please send an email to editor@digitalcultureandeducation.com by August 15, 2013.


Cameron Wolf, Sr. HIV/AIDS Advisor for Key Populations, USAID;

Kent Klindera, Director, GMT Initiative, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research; &

Christopher S. Walsh, Editor Digital Culture & Education & Co-Founder The HIVe

Darrin Adams, Senior Technical Advisor, HIV, Futures Group

Craig Bellamy

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (211 KB)

Matthew K. Gold (ed.). (2012). Debates in the digital humanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816677955.516 pages. USD 34.95.

Matthew K Gold has brought together a number of leading figures in Debates in the Digital Humanities in a broad-ranging collection of articles that attempt to outline the contested, eclectic, and progressing landscape of computing in the humanities.  At first glance the premise of the book may seem odd to those new to the field; the very idea that there are high-level academic debates about the construction and application of computing technology within humanities research. However, apart from the distinctive culture of building and coding digital tools, these often heated debates largely constitute the field of the digital humanities and reveal its growing maturity. Gold’s book is a commendable attempt to delineate the discursive nature of computational tools within the humanities, rather than reconstitute a formulaic, passive and instrumental understanding of computing.

In Gold’s introduction and framing of the book, largely focusing upon North American issues, he does perhaps overstate the so-called rise of the digital humanities. The field is perhaps not advancing any more quickly than any other field in the humanities and often the ‘determinist’ and overly optimistic lens in which computing is viewed clouds other realities.  A sophisticated, contextual and applied understanding of computing is far from the norm in humanities education and the field is not so much ‘rising’ but merely broadening to encompass all sorts of computing in education, and unfortunately, much of this is not really research nor humanities focused.  Patrik Svensson discusses this in his article ‘Beyond the Big Tent’ where he reflects upon the boundary-making in the community and the highly contested and different modes of engagement with computing in the humanities.

Gold has divided the book into six sections which serve to introduce some of the more established understandings of the landscape of the field. The sections are; defining, theorising, critiquing, practising, teaching, and envisioning a future for the digital humanities.

Contributions in defining the digital humanities section discuss the values of the field, its boundaries, its institutionalisation, and the tensions between ‘making and interpreting digital’ objects. The ‘defining the digital humanities’ debates is perhaps as old as the field itself, and as it is one if the boundary-making debates of the community, it is not going to be settled quickly. Still, the contributors in this section do take the worn-out ‘defining’ debate forward somewhat.

The contributors in the theorising the digital humanities section concentrate on the debates surrounding theory and practice; again an important discussion within a field that has software development at its core. Joanna Drucker warns of some of the dangers of software tool use in humanities research if humanistic contexts are not well understood. As many software tools used in the humanities are developed for scientific enquiry, there are dangers that the knowledge they represent may be understood empirically and through ‘fixed frames of reference’ and ‘standard metrics’. She concludes by arguing that it is not that the digital humanities needs ‘theory’, but it cannot be humanistic without the theoretical, conceptual, and relativist readings of technology provided by humanities.

The section on teaching the digital humanities demarcates one of the newer and somewhat neglected debates in the field. Indeed Luke Waltzer stresses in his article ‘Digital Humanities and the Ugly Stepchildren’ of American Higher Education’ that this is because the field has aligned itself to the traditional ‘output’ structures of the academy that value research over teaching . He goes on to state that because the field has an overdependence on projects and grants and short-term contracted work , there is little time for ‘hard to measure areas like curriculum and pedagogy’.  Indeed, the debates in section reflect some of the larger tensions within the humanities as a whole and the role of teaching of learning within it. And these tensions are not eased by the new complexities of computing.

The teaching section, as with the others in this extensive book, contain numerous shorter blog-post, but dare I say I am not convinced of the value of including then in an edited collection, even one about the digital humanities. Perhaps a better approach would have been to include them in the online version where fresh and novel applications could have been attempted.  However, the actual review of the book was completed online through an open peer-to-peer review process, so perhaps some of this momentum will carry into the online version and create precedents for other books of this kind.

The book is a valuable contribution to the digital humanities in terms of outlining the debates in the field, even if the debates outlined are almost exclusively theoretical with very little reference to the important technical milestones in the field.  To many researchers in the humanities, technology is often viewed empirically as ‘a thing’, an object that exists in a functionally, utilitarian context free of the other debates that constitute humanities research.  However, once computing technology impacts upon the outputs and significance of humanities research—and the way that it is done—there is a need to understand computing not just as ‘ a thing’, but also as a part of the way we construct and advance knowledge.  As an introduction to some of the debates that surround computing in the humanities, especially for someone that may be new to these debates, this collection is an excellent example of how critical, interpretive humanities scholars are advancing computing within their own discursive structures.

Biographical Statement

Criag Bellamy is a Research Fellow in Computing and Information Systems, at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He is the Secretary of the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities.

Email: craig.bellamy@unimelb.edu.au

Levent Uzun, Ugar R. Cetinavci, Sedat Korkmaz & Umut Salihoglu

Published Online: June 1, 2013
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The present study reports on the findings related to the effect of playing a vocabulary learning and practicing game in elementary English classes at university level, and the attitudes and beliefs of the subjects about playing games with the purpose of learning the foreign language. The subjects were 70 first year university students from two different departments at the faculty of education. A vocabulary quiz that was prepared in accordance with the curriculum and the course book was applied as pre and post test. The results revealed that the experimental group subjects have doubled the vocabulary improvement rate of the control group subjects. The findings demonstrated that there was a slight difference between the performance of the female and male students in favour of the female subjects. The findings revealed positive thoughts and beliefs related to the game they played during their course, and using games in language classes. We have concluded that there is a need for more language games that might concentrate on the different aspects of learning a foreign language, and that the educational philosophies, methodologies, and techniques as well as the language curriculums should be rearranged and modified to meet the needs and interests of the new age learners.

Keywords: language learning, material development, motivation, vocabulary game, VocaWord.

Technology and education are not distant phenomenon, and gaming in education should be also installed as an additional concept for the sake of enjoyable foreign language education. Knowing a foreign language, and even more than one if possible, is regarded as a very important qualification, since languages are powerful tools to help people communicate, do business, establish connections, follow recent developments and so on. Yet learning a foreign language is not an easy task for many people, particularly when little time, money, and energy can be allocated for this specific purpose. Moreover, the task becomes evens harder when teachers do not possess the same vision, habits, interests, and strategies as their students. Prensky (2001:2) emphasised that the single biggest problem facing education today is that ‘digital immigrant’ instructors, who speak an out-dated language, are struggling to teach a population – ‘digital natives’ – that speak a much different language. Yet, interest in using technology artefacts as supportive tools for language learning is growing both from the perspective of the teachers and the students (Liu et al., 2003). The growth of the technology market, the uptake of the Internet and new aids to language education has combined to create an innovative and promising field, namely computer assisted language learning (CALL). CALL is a relatively new field, and illuminates generational divides between teachers and students.

Although foreign/second language (FL/SL) learning and teaching have been quite popular topics within language education environments for a very long time, little attention has been devoted to ‘gaming’ or to the use of games in language education. The common trend has been in favour of doing research and writing books on teaching methodology, skills, vocabulary, student and teacher beliefs and perceptions, testing, and so on. However, the emergence of new technological equipment, environments, and software has created a new generation of learners, namely ‘digital natives’ (Prensky, 2001), also called the ‘net gen’ (Tapscott, 1998) that is fond of the Internet and digital media. New technology has diversified not only educational sources and materials but also learning habits and strategies.

The new generation of learners have grown to question the necessity of schools, the efficacy of standard books and materials, the sufficiency of teaching methods and approaches, and the content that is taught. People have noticed that they can learn on their own. Moreover, they have realised how much and how well they can learn outside of common environments, in other words, out of schools. The discussion of ‘formal’ versus ‘informal’ and ‘individual’ versus ‘social’ learning have been hot topics within the educational environments (Wong and Looi, 2010). The ‘anyone, any time, anywhere learning’ as well as ‘lifelong learning’ concepts have been emphasised and underlined recently, almost at any platform related to education (Gu et al., 2011; Sharples, 2000; Patten et al., 2006). Many researchers point to the serious incompatibility that exists between the learners and teachers of our time (Thorpe & Edmunds, 2011; Melville, 2009; Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005). Prensky (2003) has indicated that today’s teachers, trainers, and educators are not as effective as they need to be, and that digital environments and educational games might help motivate students.

Our personal observation is that many institutions and persons today have noticed the rich and flexible solutions that technology serves, and have taken advantage of these to enhance learning. There are many university programs today that are run online (distance education). There are also plenty of online websites and materials for FL learning. Curriculum developers need to take the conditions of the era as well as the other words, learning should not be a strict duty but a kind of hobby undertaken willingly. A strict adherence to traditional environments and curriculums seems to be doomed, but is unfortunately the case in many schools in many countries at present. Although teachers are aware of multiple intelligences, classes seem to be thought of as identical individuals, and student preferences are not taken into account. One of the most common excuses for this tendency is that it is hard to unite the interests and preferences of each individual in the classroom at the same time, which indeed might be refined by the use of technology and educational games.

Games offer to unify these different interests and needs. In other words, because every person likes playing games, taking advantage of this and letting people learn while enjoying themselves would be a good idea. Web 2.0 tools and mobile devices seem to provide promising potentials for FL learning and for education overall. In what follows we provide an overview of each corner of the ‘technology-learning-gaming’ triangle, with specific focus on FL learning and education. Throughout this paper ‘digital game’ (DG) will be used to talk about the games that can be played on any technological platform such as computers, mobile phones etc regardless of the game type or software itself. On the other hand, ‘non-digital game’ should be understood as any board-, card-, or other type of game that can be played in physical environments but not on virtual, digital, or online environments.

Review of the literature

The most recent literature on education, digital/game-based learning (D/GBL) and mobile learning (ML) has concentrated mostly on the advantages and/or disadvantages of games in education (Franciosi, 2011; Becker, 2007; Nakata, 2008; Neville, 2009; Prensky, 2003; Rankin et al., 2006; Squire et al., 2005; Huizenga et al., 2009; Nash and Williamson Shaffer, 2011; Liao et al., 2011; Funk et al., 1999; Johnson, Vilhjalmsson, and Marsella, 2005); the game designing and application principles (Kiili, 2005; Gros, 2007; Ravenscroft and McAlister, 2006; Gu et al., 2011; Kickmeier-Rust and Albert, 2010; Squire, 2006; Rosas et al., 2003; Moreno-Ger et al., 2008; Lindström et al., 2011; Orkin and Roy, 2007); and the effect of mobile/technology, artificial intelligence and information and communication technologies on learning (Kukulska-Hulme, 2009; Neville et al., 2009; Saljö, 2010; Collins and Halversont, 2010; Bennett and Matont, 2010; Thorpe and Edmundst, 2011; Wong and Looi, 2010; Chu and Tsai, 2009; Hoff et al., 2009; Steels, 2001; Facer and Sandford, 2010; Godwin-Jones, 2005; Richards, 2005); while some other studies investigated the features of good games or the individual and gender differences in gaming and online interaction (Hong et al., 2009; Papastergiou, 2009; Inglis et al., 2011; Van den Beemt et al., 2011). Almost all studies emphasise the unique and experiential learning opportunities that the use of technology and games provide to people. Prensky (2001) emphasised that CGs may create a new learning culture which better suits learners’ habits and interests.

Games and technology as tools for motivation

The first thing that is most often stated about games is ‘motivation’.  There is a two-way motivational relation between games and players. Games are highly motivating means (Franciosi, 2011; Ersöz, 2000; Batson and Feinberg, 2006; Yee, 2006). Games in general and more recently DGs seem to motivate people by creating a challenging, interesting, and demanding atmosphere where people get the chance to interact, to fulfil their needs. Since playing games stands as a basic and natural action of human beings that is carried out intrinsically and willingly, it should be possible to determine that the motivation it creates must be also reinforced by the motivation of individuals towards playing games. That is why games cannot be underestimated as they are excellent tools for education, although they have been neglected by educators (Squire, 2006). Motivation is of great importance for successful learning, but an individual learner’s motivation might change over time due to external factors (Ellis, 2001:36). Yet, the situation seems to be a little bit different when it comes to games, because the motivation is internal and bilateral there, and most probably that’s why it lasts longer than other types of motivation.

Franciosi (2011) explained that technology and games seem to create an intrinsic motivation (a concept that is examined by the principles of ‘Flow Theory’), so people involve themselves in them not because they have to, but because they want to.  Kickmeier-Rust and Albert (2010) reminded that a significant number of young people spend many hours a week playing computer games, and suggested that taking advantage of the motivational potential of games for educational purposes might open new horizons. Again, Prensky (2003) declared that the amount of time a youth spends by playing computer games in today’s world is estimated at 10,000 hours by the time they are 21. However, others have argued that although VGs might provide motivation for learning, GBL might not necessarily result in positive learning outcomes (Rankin et al., 2006). So, it seems that there is need for more research on how, when, and to what degree games contribute not only to the motivation of learners but also to their knowledge and education. To sum up, there is a lot of evidence and support in the literature that games are motivational tools, and that they should be taken more seriously by educators; although there is also some doubt whether the motivation that the games provide would necessarily lead to beneficial learning results.

Games and technology for learner-centred education

Games are ‘learner-centred’ (Neville et al., 2009), which is a feature that is valued and encouraged by most educators. Gaming creates an environment where the learners learn without the interference of the teacher, which provides them with more time for practice, and creates anxiety-free conditions as they are left on their own and not judged. Gros (2007) stated that DGs are user-centred and they can promote challenges, co-operation, engagement, and the improvement of problem solving strategies. Facer et al. (2004) indicated that mobile assisted language learning (MALL) prompts a pedagogical shift from didactic teacher-centred environments to participatory student-centred ones. This should mean that MALL is informal in nature and allows room for individuals to acquire information, as they like and need. Any gaming platform that people can reach online and on the move such as Web 2.0, Second Life, IMVU, or other virtual role-playing environments directly bring the players into the spotlight, so that first-hand experiences and information is exchanged and practiced by individuals. Nevertheless, as Bennett and Matont (2010) discussed, not all young people share the same ‘technology-expert’ profile, and thus, self-centred environments might create lack of motivation and distrust to individual work, implying that formal education would provide a safer environment for students.

FL learning, technology, and games

The FL learning field has always been interested in using technology such as tape recorders, audio and video materials, overhead projectors, televisions, and computers. However, all of these products of technology have been used in the similar way and for the same purposes: to carry out the teaching action in the way the authorities have shown. But today individuals are not so much hooked to the formal learning procedures and rules, since information has become increasingly widespread, everywhere and at anytime. Technological artefacts are much more flexible than formal platforms. Therefore, although the traditional approach has been to ask for direct information and memorisation, the new generation mostly seeks guidance related to where and how they can find the information they need. Today’s digital society appears to prefer virtual worlds to the real or traditional world. Moulder (2004) summarised the situation by presenting the rhetorical question of an elementary school student: “Why should I read about ancient Rome when I can build it?!”. In order to comprehend the matter, teachers need to be involved in the same virtual environments with their students. It would be very natural to expect that for a teacher who has never played DGs, integrating technology and gaming in his/her classes would be a very hard and meaningless task. And actually, teachers often lack the skills and knowledge to integrate technology effectively into their classrooms (Becker, 2007). So while games for language education do exist, they reflect the shortcomings of existing approaches to technology in the field of FL education.

Altogether, research on FL learning and education through technology and games has gained increasing interest and accelerated during the past decade. Recently conducted studies show that there is a shift towards better understanding the new generation learners, and meeting their interests and needs. Kukulska-Hulme (2009) have noticed the potential of mobile phones and other portable devices and carried out a study to discuss the use of these means for language learning as well as the nuances between formal and informal learning, and teaching and learning practices. She concluded that mobility can lead to new perspectives and practices, and that there is an affinity between mobile learning and GBL. In the same way, Wong and Looi (2010) conducted two case studies to find out the impact of MALL in learning English prepositions and Chinese idioms. They determined that MALL has the potential to create unique language learning experiences that would attract and satisfy the new generation learners. In another work, Neville et al. (2009) designed a study where they attempted to teach L2 vocabulary, reading, and culture to university students through interactive fiction games, and observed positive contributions towards subjects’ learning.

Franciosi (2011) explored the relationship between DGBL and task-based language teaching to determine the design features of the two approaches and to present the similarities and differences that might have significant implications for language education. Similarly, Nakata (2008) compared the effect of learning L2 vocabulary by means of word lists, word cards, and computers. Findings suggested that incorporating technology by working with computers created superior results and received higher praise from the learners when compared to other two types of learning. These pieces of evidence support Neville’s (2009) claim that the combination of technology and games would be invaluable for the field of SL acquisition. Again, Rankin et al. (2006) investigated the benefits of a massive multiplayer online role-playing game as a pedagogical learning tool for intermediate and advanced learners of English as a SL, and revealed that the vocabulary of the students who played the game increased by 40%, while the conversational skills and chatting messages increased by 100%.

There are few games developed and proposed for education and more specifically for SL/FL learning and practise. The existing commercial games used for FL education such as Scrabble and Taboo, or the educational games such as ‘Spell it’, ‘Word puzzles’, ‘Hangman’ and so on have been used for a long time. Nevertheless, there is no investigation and evidence in the literature related to the effect and benefit of these specific games for language learners. We have also observed that educational faculties and the programmes that train FL teachers do not provide students with sufficient knowledge and skills to use games in their classrooms. There are courses in the programs such as ‘Language Teaching Materials Adaptation and Development’ and ‘Teaching Technologies and Material Design’, but the content and products of these courses seem to be not very effective for three reasons: the practical applications at schools have not changed over the past decade; the materials developed in the departments seem to be either old fashioned or impractical to carry around to classrooms; and they are hard to adapt to different platforms and settings.

In the present study our initial motivation was to develop a game that could be used in all language classrooms, in any foreign language, and with students of every linguistic proficiency level. We also tried to design the game in such a way that it would be relatively easy to transfer it to online and digital environments.  The present study reports the findings related to the application of the printed version of the VocaWord game that was introduced by Uzun (2009). A quantitative approach was adopted for data collection regarding the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects, and qualitative methods were employed to elicit their beliefs and observe their attitudes about using/playing the game in their English classes. The present study aimed at finding answers to the following questions:

  1. Is there a positive relation between playing the VocaWord game and the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects? And, if there is a positive effect, to what degree did playing the game improve subjects’ repertoire of English words?
  2. Are there any gender related issues regarding the game playing process and the success level of the students?
  3. What are the attitudes and beliefs of the subjects related to playing games in the English classes?


In the following, the components of our educational game (see Appendix 1) and the implementation procedures will be described and explained. The vocabulary learning and practising game that we present here is the empirical, modified and upgraded version of the work proposed and introduced by Uzun (2009).

VocaWord is the name of our game. VocaWord was designed as a board game that is played quite similarly to one of the world’s most famous games, Monopoly. The main difference of our game is that it focuses on learning and practising vocabulary in a FL. As there is a significant consensus in the SL/FL literature that knowing the most frequent 2000 words in a language would be a vital possession (Nation, 2001:16; Meara, 1995; Laufer and Nation, 1999; Hancioglu and Eldridge, 2007), originally the game was intended to integrate the most frequent English words so that players would both learn unknown words and practise the words that they already know. However, the content in this version was modified to meet the course content and the curricular goals. It should be indicated that the game suggested here can be used as a supplementary material in SL/FL education immediately after the learners reach a basic beginner level, and also it can be played in any given language by just replacing the letters on the board and the words on the cards accordingly with the alphabet of that language. Lists of the most frequently used words of many languages already exist, but there is a need to prepare the lists of all languages to fully enhance VocaWord.

It should be declared that the current version of the game (i.e. printed VocaWord), which was used in the present study, could be implemented in a virtual environment once it is programmed by any suitable computing language and transformed to an online or digital game to be played on computers and/or mobile phones. This would suit the tendencies and habits of the FL learners in our age of technology.

The components of the game

VocaWord consists of a board, 4 card packs, and the dice. In the following, each of the components will be described and the rules of the game will be explained.

The board

The board contains 32 spaces, 24 of which contain letters of the alphabet, and 8 of which (4 translation card spaces and 4 lexical competence card spaces) direct players to pick the card on the top of the relevant pack. Players go over these spaces and collect letters with which they form words and collect points, or pick cards from the specified card packs and follow the instructions. Instructions and rules for players to follow (when they are not sure what to do during the game) are written on the board as well.

The card packs and the dice

Four card packs were prepared in accordance with the curriculum and the course book. We extracted all the vocabulary (see Appendix 2) from the six units (Units 7-12) of the course book (Oxford Headway Elementary, Third Edition) and wrote them on the ‘translation cards’ with their L1 equivalents on the other side (one word on each card). When players land on the translation cards spaces, they have to pick a card from this pack and say the L1 equivalent of the written word. They do not need a teacher around for correction or approval, as the other side of the picked card provides immediate feedback for all the players around the board. The ‘lexical competence’ cards contain a certain number of the words from the mentioned units of the course book and simple exercises similar to the ones in the workbook of the students.

These exercises are ‘fill in the blanks’, ‘matching’, ‘find the synonym/antonym’ etc. The cards are placed on a separate box and the players cannot see the L1 side during the game. The other two card packs are given to students either as a reward (1 cards) where players receive some additional letters or a JOKER to form words and receive points later on, or as a punishment (2 cards) where players are asked to give back from the letters that they have collected while going over the board or are directed to pick a card from the lexical competence pack. There are 235 translation cards,80 lexical competence cards, 56 1 cards, and 32 2cards. Students do not keep any of the cards during the game; they instead return the picked card to the bottom of the pack so that the same words and exercises are circulated and practised during the game. This – practising the words – is the aim of the course book and workbook used.

The rules of the game

The main rules of the game are printed on the underside of the board so that all players can have a look during the game. The game can be played with two or more people, either as individuals or in pairs/groups.The ideal situation would involve four players, each sitting on one side of the square board. Each player rolls the dice and moves their token according to the number thrown on the dice. If the player lands on a letter space, they note down the letters and collect them to form words later on. Words are awarded points based on their length. A word of 1-3 letters is worth 3 points, 4-5 letters 5 points, 6 letters 7 points, and a word of 7 or more letters receives 10 points. (Both the number of the letters given on the spaces and the points given to formed words can be changed as needed). If the player lands on a translation space, they must take a card from the translation pack and provide the correct L1 translation of the word on the card. If they respond correctly, they receive one card from the cards 1 pack as a reward, but if they do not they must pick a card from cards 2 and follow the instructions on it. After this, the next player throws the dice and the game goes on in the same way. The winner is the player with the highest score at the end of a predetermined time, for example 30 minutes, or the first to reach a certain score, for example 30 points.

Prior to applying the game, we piloted it with a group of students and modified the rules and the cards in accordance with the feedback of the learners, so that the game became more motivating, challenging and exciting.

The testing tool

Once the game rules and components were consolidated, we prepared a vocabulary quiz (see Appendix 3) to apply as a pre-test and post-test to the subjects. The vocabulary quiz consisted of four parts. In the first part, there were 13 pictures that had to be matched with the provided words. In the second part, there were 10 sentences with a gap and twelve words (2 surplus words were provided to increase the difficulty) where the students were required to fill in the gaps with the appropriate words. In the third part, there were 11 L2 words and seventeen L1 words (6 surplus words were provided to increase the difficulty) where the students were asked to match the words. In the last part, there were 14 L2 words where the students were asked to write their L1 equivalents. The total number of the items was 48 (8 words from each of the six units of the course book).  All the items were prepared in such a way that they would be similar to the exercises in the course book and the workbook of the students. Likewise, all the words that were required in the items were from the list that we derived from Units 7 to 12 of the syllabus. In order to check the usability of the testing tool, we piloted it with the same students that we piloted the game with (N= 8).


We selected two first year classes from different departments (the Mathematics Teaching Department and the Department of Psychological Counselling and Guidance) in the Faculty of Education, and randomly assigned them as the control group and the experimental group. The Control group (N= 34) consisted of 14 male and 20 female students, and the Experimental group (N= 36) consisted of 14 male and 22 female students. 9 subgroups (with one board each) were formed for each session of play, which changed weekly to allow different people to play together. The age of the subjects ranged between 18 and 19. Our observation was that although the subjects were similar, there were minor nuances related to both their socioeconomic background and linguistic ability. Nevertheless, since we believe that social sciences cannot fully assure laboratory-alike conditions, and since we actually observe that our classrooms are certainly never homogeneous, we decided to carry out our study within the natural and usual conditions that existed.


The application of the pre-test and post-test as well as the interview session, implementation procedures of the game, qualitative observations, and the data analyses will be explained in the following and further in this paper.

The Application of the testing tool

The testing tool was applied as a pre-test a week before the implementation period of the game, during the usual hours of the classes, while the post-test was applied a week after the game implementation. Students were allowed as much time as they needed to complete the vocabulary quiz both during the pre-test and post-test. Both sessions took no longer than 40 minutes. Additionally, we interviewed the students to elicit their opinions about the game and how they felt during the application sessions that were held in the classes. We asked the following question after the post-test: What do you think about the gaming sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?

The Implementation of the game

Prior to applying the game with learners in the classroom setting, we asked a group of volunteer students (N= 8) to help us in the piloting of the game. These students were not from the same class and department of the subjects that were in the control or experimental groups. We explained the game to the eight students (randomly assigned two groups of four persons) and asked them to start playing the game. The students played the game for about an hour, for two days. Their opinions and feedback were obtained and evaluated both during the piloting and after the gaming sessions, and the necessary modifications were carried out. With the experimental group we did the same thing, which was explaining the rules of the game and demonstrating how the game would be played.

The game was played during the last hour of the weekly 3-hour class for a period of 6 weeks. The nine sub-groups in the experimental group played the game each week, and it was recorded that each player made at least 50 turns each week. Each student was able to form some words with the collected letters, and each student had to pick from the translation cards or lexical competence cards at least 20 times each week. The researchers carried out both the application of the testing tool and the gaming sessions were monitored and recorded by the instructor of the course, and the interviews.

Analyses of the Testing and Interview

For the analyses of the pre-test and post-test results, we gave 1 point to each correctly done item, and the total evaluation was done out of 48 (the highest possible score). We calculated the scores for each student from both tests, and also compared the results according to the genders. For the purposes of triangulation, we planned an interview session with the students in the experimental group (5-7 minutes with each student) to better understand their opinions about the game and the game playing procedure. The interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, read several times by the researchers, and content and coding analyses were carried out. Students’ views were grouped and the significant utterances, focused on the game itself and its playing procedures, were underlined during the analyses. In the results and discussion part, the same, very similar, or repeated thoughts were given only once represented in one student’s words.

Results and Discussion

According to the quantitative results derived from the examination of the pre-test, no significant differences existed between the subjects in the control group (mean score 28.32) and the experimental group (mean score 27.61). As a result of the treatment based on the game played, there was noticeable progress related to the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects, with superiority of those in the experimental group (see Table 1).

Student Gender Control Group effect Experimental Group effect
Pre-test Post-test Pre-test Post-test
Student 1 M 31 34 +3 25 35 +10
Student 2 M 29 34 +5 21 36 +15
Student 3 M 29 35 +6 30 37 +7
Student 4 M 7 19 +12 34 45 +11
Student 5 M 34 36 +2 27 38 +11
Student 6 M 17 19 +2 34 38 +4
Student 7 M 18 24 +6 38 41 +3
Student 8 M 10 20 +10 32 39 +7
Student 9 M 38 44 +6 23 33 +10
Student 10 M 33 39 +6 23 35 +12
Student 11 M 33 41 +8 38 47 +9
Student 12 M 29 34 +5 32 36 +4
Student 13 M 22 29 +7 14 28 +14
Student 14 M 32 36 +4 37 45 +8
Student 15 F 36 39 +3 32 43 +11
Student 16 F 25 30 +5 32 38 +6
Student 17 F 33 36 +3 35 39 +4
Student 18 F 39 42 +3 25 32 +7
Student 19 F 35 40 +5 25 35 +10
Student 20 F 29 37 +8 23 32 +9
Student 21 F 35 37 +2 29 40 +11
Student 22 F 21 25 +4 11 20 +9
Student 23 F 36 40 +4 36 45 +9
Student 24 F 26 34 +8 25 37 +12
Student 25 F 34 38 +4 31 40 +9
Student 26 F 31 34 +3 36 46 +19
Student 27 F 24 29 +5 27 46 +19
Student 28 F 37 42 +5 24 41 +17
Student 29 F 14 21 +7 24 40 +16
Student 30 F 35 40 +5 27 41 +14
Student 31 F 34 37 +3 19 34 +15
Student 32 F 34 36 +2 21 38 +17
Student 33 F 25 31 +6 31 38 +7
Student 34 F 18 22 +4 21 33 +12
Student 35 F - - - 34 43 +9
Student 36 F - - - 18 35 +17
Total Mean 28,32 33,35 +5,02 27,61 38,02 +10,66

Table 1. The pre-test and post-test scores of the subjects

The results presented in Table 1 demonstrate that the experimental group (+10.66) subjects doubled the total vocabulary knowledge improvement of the control group (+5.02), which suggested that playing VocaWord in the classes contributed positively to the L2 vocabulary acquisition of the students. This finding answered our first research question: Is there a positive relation between playing the VocaWord game and the vocabulary knowledge of the subjects? And, if there is a positive effect, to what degree did playing the game improve the subjects’ repertoire of English words?

In relation to our second research question: Are there any gender related issues regarding the game playing process and the success level of the students? We partially found the answer here by calculating the vocabulary acquisition means for both genders in the experimental group (see Table 2), and partially in the interview analysis procedure. It was determined that there was not a huge gap between the vocabulary acquisition means of the female (11.77) and male (8.92) subjects, a result suggesting that both genders benefited from the game similarly. Yet, we observed that there was a superiority of approximately +3 words in favour of the female students. According to this observation, it might be possible to comment that VocaWord benefited the female subjects more. The interview analyses revealed a similar positive attitude from both genders towards the application of the game sessions in classroom.

Female Gender Male Gender
+11 Student 1 +10 Student 1
+6 Student 2 +15 Student 2
+4 Student 3 +7 Student 3
+7 Student 4 +11 Student 4
+10 Student 5 +11 Student 5
+9 Student 6 +4 Student 6
+11 Student 7 +3 Student 7
+9 Student 8 +7 Student 8
+9 Student 9 +10 Student 9
+12 Student 10 +12 Student 10
+9 Student 11 +9 Student 11
+19 Student 12 +4 Student 12
+19 Student 13 +14 Student 13
+17 Student 14 +8 Student 14
+16 Student 15
+14 Student 16
+15 Student 17
+17 Student 18
+7 Student 19
+12 Student 20
+19 Student 21
+17 Student 22
+11.72 Mean Effect +8.92 Mean `effect

Table 2. Mean effect results for genders in relation to vocabulary acquisition

The qualitative observations revealed that the students in the experimental group were more motivated during the classes. The interview sessions showed that the students in the experimental group were friendlier towards the instructor, and more comfortable and relaxed during the formal examinations. During the interviews, the subjects in the experimental group indicated that the English course has become much more exciting, refreshing, and comfortable after the implementation of the gaming sessions. They also articulated that playing with their classmates improved their social relationship and self-confidence, will for collaboration and group work. The students mentioned that they learned new words from one another, and even words that were not in their course book or workbook. Some sample responses of the students related to the question “What do you think about the game playing sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?” are presented in Table 3 below. The same or very similar responses of each student were not repeated in the table.

Student 1 I liked the game. It created a competitive environment.
Student 2 I felt enjoyed. The mechanical content of the course has been reduced.
Student 3 We were extra motivated as we knew that we would play the game.
Student 4 I liked forming groups with my friends and learning from each other.
Student 5 We felt privileged in this course compared to the other courses.
Student 6 I really enjoyed my English classes.
Student 7 It contributed to my preparation for the examinations.
Student 8 I became eager and encouraged to use the words in real life.
Student 9 It would be great if I could play the game at home too.
Student 10 We would like to play this game online or on mobile phones.
Student 11 Everything was wonderful.
Student 12 I attended the classes with pleasure.
Student 13 I had the chance to make closer friendship with my classmates.
Student 14 We socialised while enjoying ourselves and learning English words.
Student 15 I had very good time during the classes.
Student 16 I wish I could buy this game to play it at home with my family.
Student 17 I was the winner in most of the sessions, so I enjoyed myself.
Student 18 I feel that my vocabulary knowledge has improved.
Student 19 We would like to play the game more often and for longer time.
Student 20 VocaWord is definitely a promising and helpful game for FL learning.
Student 21 Other classes that didn’t play a game during the courses were jealous.
Student 22 It would be great to play the game on my computer.
Student 23 I would like to try it with the Russian language.
Student 24 The game was easy to play.
Student 25 The rules of the game were simple and the content was meaningful.
Student 26 We had an alternative to practice our word knowledge.
Student 27 It would be better if different exercises and challenges were provided.
Student 28 I could feel more comfortable if I played with my closest friends.
Student 29 It was nice to see how much vocabulary I knew.
Student 30 The game looks very professional and well designed.
Student 31 Is it possible to make a similar game for grammar and other skills?
Student 32 My spelling has improved.
Student 33 We could play better and more popular games.
Student 34 We could play at the beginning of the lessons rather than in the end.
Student 35 Nobody complaint about playing game instead of doing formal exercises.
Student 36 Some of the people in the class have richer repertoire of vocabulary.

Table 3. Responses of the students to the question What do you think about the gaming sessions that were held during the classes and how did you feel?

The opinions of the experimental group subjects demonstrate that there was a general satisfaction and contentment in relation with the application of game playing in classroom despite some minor concerns about the content of the game, classmate issues, and the procedure of the application. The italic sentences imply some of the critical reaction or thoughts of the students.

Qualitative observations

In the present study, the product-oriented quantitative data is provided through the pre and post vocabulary tests that aimed to reveal the effects of the VocaWord game on the subjects’ repertoire of English words. The interview sessions following the post-test were a component of the qualitative dimension of the study to better understand the students’ opinions about the game and the game playing procedure. To further support that dimension and ensure more triangulation; four randomly selected groups in four different weeks, who were videotaped for another study, were observed to shed light on the process itself and inform the quantitative products data. Another motivation was to cross-validate what the subjects had reported in the interview sessions.

It is a fact that it is not possible to observe everything (Patton, 1987) in participant observation while videotaping allows repeated viewing. However, as the analysis of the observations had to have some particular focal points in this study, “sensitizing concepts” (Patton, 1987: 82) were determined to ease the task and have some observational foci for when viewing and analysing the records. While determining those sensitising concepts, the characteristics that the relevant literature attributes to beneficial pedagogical games and the aims that the researchers had set while developing the game were considered.

Below is the list of the observational foci, which were specifically attended to during the views of the records and used for interpretation in the analyses.

  • whether it caused any procedural difficulties and/or hesitations while being played
  • whether it is played with sustained motivation
  • whether it was entertaining for both girls and boys
  • whether it seemed to serve to further socialisation among the students

The recorded four sessions were viewed in two sittings on two different days rewinding and fast-forwarding the videos whenever needed. During the sittings, an academic that specialised in educational sciences accompanied the four researchers. In consideration of the observational foci mentioned above; the recordings were viewed, notes taken, discussed and interpreted until the conclusions were drawn by consensus among the five researchers.

First of all, it was determined with almost no doubt that the playing of the game did not cause any procedural difficulties for the students. We believe that this is because the game has a lot in common with some well-known board games like Monopoly and information about the rules and the instructions to follow (when players are not sure what to do during the game) are written on the board.

Regarding student motivation: it was observed that no obvious lack of motivation or boredom, which is likely to be caused by a one-dimensional, mechanic and monotonous way of learning, arose. Some students seemed more enthusiastic, but the others never failed or were late to do what they were supposed to do in the course of the game because of not being motivated enough by the game and thinking about something else. None of them were observed to be trying to evade his or her turn without doing the best to come up with the elicited action. Corresponding with this, the game did not seem to function differently with boys and girls in terms of being entertaining and motivating. The agreement was that it kept all its players alert and motivated till the end in a fun atmosphere.

Lastly, whether the game served to further socialisation among the students was the point where the consensus was the least clear among the researchers. More from the students’ lives is needed to make a definitive judgment on it. However, the comfortable atmosphere in which almost all the students frequently swapped good-natured banter was deemed to be promising for the game.

Quantitative statistical analyses

Table 4. Are there any significant differences between the groups considering the pre-test results?

Group N S df t p
Control-Pre-test 34 28,32 8,23 68 0,396 0.693
Experimental-Pre-test 36 27,61 6,77

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group seemed to perform very similarly in the pre-test (M:28,32; SD:8,23) compared to the students in the experimental group (M: 27,61; SD: 6,77). An independent samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both groups in the pre-test was not statistically significant t(68)= -0,396 , p> 0.05. Therefore, it can be claimed that there were not any significant differences in the students’ vocabulary knowledge levels in the pre-test.

Table 5. Are there any significant differences between the groups considering the post-test results?

Group N S df t p
Control-Post-test 34 33,35 7,16 68 -3,07 0.03
Experimental-Post-test 36 38,02 5,49

The analysis of descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group seemed to perform less successfully in the post-test (M:33,35; SD:7,16) than their counterparts in the experimental group (M: 38,02; SD: 5,49). An independent samples T test was carried out to see whether the differences between the students’ test results in both groups in the post-test.  The results reveal that the difference between the group scores t(68)= -3,07, p< 0.05 was  statistically significant with a medium effect size d=0.73. Therefore, it can be claimed that the students in the experimental group scored statistically higher scores in the post-test in comparison to the students in the control group.

Table 6.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test and post-test results in the control group?

Test N S df


Pre-test 34 28,32 8,23 33 -12,59 0.00
Post-test 34 33,35 7,16

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the control group performed lower success levels in the pre-test (M:28,32; SD:8,23) compared to their scores in the post-test (M: 33,35; SD: 7,16). A paired samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both tests differed at a statistically significant level t(33)= -12,59, p> 0.01 with a very large effect size d=2,32.

Table 7.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test and post-test results in the experimental group?

Test N S df t p
Pre-test 36 27,61 6,77 35 -15,42 0.00
Post-test 36 38,02 5,49

The descriptive statistics showed that the students in the experimental group performed less successfully in the pre-test (M:27,61; SD:6,77) compared to their scores in the post-test (M:38,02; SD:5,49). A paired samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both tests differed at a statistically significant level t(35)= -15,423, p> 0.01 with a very large effect size d=2,57.

Table 8.Are there any significant differences between the pre-test results of male and female participants in the control group?

Pre-test N S df t p
Male 14 25,85 9,49 32 -1,489 0.146
Female 20 30,05 6,95

The analyses showed that the female students in the control group scored slightly higher in the pre-test (M:30,05; SD:6,95) compared to the male students in the same control group (M: 25,85; SD: 9,49). An independent samples T test indicated that the difference between the students’ test results in both groups in the pre-test was not statistically significant t(32)= -1,489 , p> 0.05. Therefore, it can be claimed that there were not any significant differences in the students’ gender with regards to their vocabulary knowledge levels in the pre-test.


To sum up, we provided an overview related to technology/computers, digital/video/computer/online/mobile games, learning/education, and specifically SL/FL acquisition and discussed the present situation of education. We developed a FL vocabulary game, tested it with real students in real classroom settings, and proposed an example for further material development studies hoping that new and more improved language learning games will be created and distributed. Our observation was that language classes can benefit signifigantly from even traditional games, thus digital tools would certainly bring additional power once opportunities become easier to employ and launch. We also hope that language teaching/learning research suggests new methods and techniques for teachers to better serve the emerging type of learners in the future.


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Biographical Statements

Levent Uzun is currently a PhD candidate, and researcher in the English Language Teaching Department at Uludağ University, Bursa, Turkey. His research interests include philosophy of education, CALL, educational technologies and distance education, educational materials development, vocabulary acquisition, and intercultural communication.

Uğur Recep Cetinavci is a lecturer at Uludağ University, Faculty of Education, English Language Teaching Department, Bursa, Turkey. He studied English language and literature at Ankara University. He worked as an English teacher at a state high school and a military vocational school.

Sedat Korkmaz has been a lecturer at Uludağ University Faculty of Education, English Language Teaching Department since 2010. He received his BA from Middle East Technical University, Ankara in 2000. He is currently a postgraduate student in Çanakkale University Faculty of Education ELT Department.

Umut Muharrem Salihoglu worked for the Turkish Ministry of National Education as an English language teacher for three years. He holds an M.A. in English language teaching. He is a research assistant at Uludağ University in the English Language Teaching Department in Bursa, Turkey. Currently, he is a PhD candidate.


To view the appendices, please see the .pdf of this article http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/DCE_1065_Uzun.pdf

Luciana Pangrazio

Published Online: June 1, 2013
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This article presents findings from a recent study into the ways young people are engaging with the social networking site Facebook. It draws on a qualitative, small-scale study with six 13 and 14 year old girls who have been using Facebook daily for two years. It aimed to explore the nature of their critical understanding of the medium in ways that have been obscured by research and popular discussion that assume a simple dichotomy between ‘digital natives’ and others. In order to analyse results, Foucault’s theory of discursive formation is used as a framework through which the motivations behind the behaviours presented might be understood. Results suggest that there are a number of factors that make critical engagement difficult in this context. First, coupling the highly visual nature of the medium with an essentially ‘invisible audience’ made participants anxious about ‘fitting in’ to the discourse, which ultimately limited the scope of their use. Second, because social networking is strongly linked with identity presentation critiquing the medium would require an analysis of personal identity. Finally, to critique the site requires the individual to stand ‘outside’ the discourse (Gee, 1991), which essentially counters the reason for using Facebook. The article concludes by making some suggestions for future educational programs that aim to develop critical engagement with social media.

Keywords: critical engagement, digital native, discursive formation, education, identity Facebook, qualitative study, young people.

Many assumptions have been made about young people and their use of technology. Words and phrases like “digital native”, “tech savvy”, and “millennium generation” are often used to describe young people, assuming a categorical classification hierarchy of dependence, mastery, and awareness of technology. The problem with characterising the relationship in such a way is that it may not only be inaccurate, but it may mean that educators, and society more generally, ignore whether young people are approaching social networking sites, like Facebook, with effective critical skills. Building on Jenkins’ (2006, p. 3) idea of the “transparency problem”, this study aimed to discover whether young people can “see clearly the ways that the media shape their perceptions of the world” through analysis of their ability to critically engage with the social networking site Facebook.

This article begins by examining the appropriateness of critical engagement for social media and how this might be applied to young people’s use of Facebook. It then discusses the theories of identity that are relevant to this context in order to understand the crucial nexus of critical engagement, social networking, and identity for young people today. Foucault’s theory of discursive formation is used as a theoretical lens through which to understand the reported behaviours and explain why critical engagement might be difficult in this context. While a study of this size is limited in scope, it is able to offer a snapshot into how young people are using the medium and how their identity is implicated in this process. The key questions guiding this research are: How are these young people using Facebook? Is there any evidence of a critical engagement with the medium? And, how does this social networking site influence their sense of self and their engagement with others?

Critical engagement and social media in the postmodern context

Critical engagement refers to an active and questioning approach to texts, with its roots firmly planted in critiquing the dominant discourses of society. Critical literacy, pioneered by Paulo Freire (1970), argues the significance of the social context of teaching literacy. It therefore has the potential to examine, analyse, and deconstruct discourses and social structures so that the individual becomes an “agent” capable of change (Barton, 2007). Traditional concepts of critical literacy, therefore, focus on how individuals are ‘positioned’ and act within the dominant discourses of society. Adopting a critical approach to social networking sites is not only valuable in helping young people see the competing discourses that surround their use, but also how it may influence the presentation of their identity and their relationships with others. However, with the advent of the Internet the literal perception of what is understood as ‘text’ has changed. As a result, a traditional model of critical literacy, which is primarily directed at print based texts, is no longer appropriate.

There are two key features of digital texts that are relevant to this discussion. First, the multimodality (Kress, 2003) of digital texts requires the reader to interpret and make meaning from multiple modes of information. When using social media, for example, information can take the form of images, writing, music, gestures, speech, icons and more. Unlike printed text, digital texts require the ‘user’ to interpret information that is “spread across” (2003, p. 35) several modes. Kress writes that the book was “ordered by the logic of writing”, whereas the “screen is ordered by the logic of image” (2003, p. 9). Writing may appear on the screen, but it will be subordinated by the image. For this reason Kress argues that the theoretical framework has therefore changed from linguistics to semiotics. The second major feature is the participatory culture of the internet (Jenkins, 2006) that gives rise to interactivity between participants and, therefore, multiple authorship and collaboration. In this way, social media lacks the “fixity and boundedness of traditional print text” (Burnett & Merchant 2011, p. 46) and therefore gives rise more readily to multiple meanings. Essentially both these features undermine the stable structures that enabled critique to take place.

A theoretical framework for understanding identity in the context of social media

There are several theories of identity that pertain to the research. First, it is important to note that identity is a social rather than an individual construction (Moje & Luke, 2009). However, even though identities are socially constructed they are still ‘lived’ by the individual. Second, Moje and Luke also describe identity as “fluid” in that “it is no longer conceptualized as a stable entity that one develops throughout adolescence and achieves at some point in (healthy) adulthood” (2009, p. 418). This is a counterpoint to Erikson’s (1959) concept of identity as something that can be “achieved”, and perhaps more appropriate given the postmodern context. Finally, identity can also be thought of as “recognised” (Moje & Luke, 2009, p. 419) by others. James Gee (2000) defines this aspect of identity:

Being recognized as a certain “kind of person,” in a given context, is what I mean here by “identity.” In this sense of the term, all people have multiple identities connected not to their “internal states” but to their performances in society. (2000, p. 99)

Gee goes on to acknowledge the presence of a “core” identity “that holds more uniformly, for ourselves and others, across contexts” (2000, p. 100), however, suggests that the definition of identity as “recognized” is more useful as an analytic tool in theorising and researching education. When an individual uses social media these three aspects of identity are at work. The individual presents an identity that can be easily recognised through photos, affiliations and interests; feedback and interaction from other users helps to socially construct identity and there is no requirement to have a fixed sense of who you are, instead identity is about a series of experimentations.

Social networking and identity

Research has shown that social media is strongly linked with the presentation and formation of identity (Boyd, 2007; Ito et al., 2008; Greenhow & Robelia, 2009; Dowdall, 2009) Further to this, it can also be a place where role conflict can be worked through. Selwyn (2009), for example, discovered that for the University students in his study, the Facebook wall was a place where they could become familiar with the “identity politics” of being a student. It became a space where the issues that arise from University staff, academic conventions and expectations could be reported and reflected upon. Ellison, Steinfield and Lampe (2007) also link Facebook usage with “psychological well being” (2007, p. 1143) because it was able to build social capital (Bourdieu, 1977) in its participants. However, particular aspects of identity are reinforced in this context, perhaps at the expense of others. Kress (2003), for example, writes that the “screen is the site of the image – it is the contemporary canvas” (2003, 9). It is plain to see this on social networking sites, like Facebook, as the photo or visual representations of self are of great import. Boyd (2007) outlines four properties that separate unmediated publics from networked publics:

Persistence: in that “networked communications are recorded for posterity”;

Searchability: in that “identity is established through text [so] search and discovery tools help people find like minds”;

Replicability: in that “networked public expressions can be copied from one place to another verbatim such that there is no way to distinguish the ‘original’ from the copy”;

Invisible audiences: in that “it is virtually impossible to ascertain all those who might run across our expressions in networked publics” (2007, p. 9).

As Boyd acknowledges these “properties affect the potential audience and the context in which the expression is received” (2007, p. 7). While many users may find these qualities liberating, for others such unstable parameters for expression and reception may become an issue, particularly if issues of self-esteem are at play. Furthermore, how do such contexts intersect with unmediated or offline identities? At the very least, it requires the individual to be many things at once; to mediate and perpetuate their identity for the variety of audiences and discourses they experience (Beck & Beck- Gernsheim, 2002).


This small-scale research project aimed to examine how a small group of experienced users were interacting with the social networking site Facebook; and the kinds of critical and uncritical understandings they had of it. It examined more closely the kinds of interactions and understandings being developed through the templates it provided, in order to construct a more nuanced and complex picture of how young people use social networking sites, beyond simple dichotomies and assumptions. It offers a discursive understanding of social networking practises that are not afforded in quantitative research. It involved an initial whole class discussion, peer administered interviews, observations of the participant’s Facebook page and a follow up interview where points from the peer administered interview were clarified and explained in greater detail. The interviews took place over a period of six weeks.

The study considered critical engagement to mean several key things. First, it meant knowledge of the conventions of social networking sites and an awareness of how they structure information and interaction in a particular way. In practical terms this might mean knowing how to adjust privacy settings and limiting the amount of personal or private information that is posted. It might also mean knowing the difference between an online friend and an offline friend, and not becoming friends with strangers or unfamiliar people. Using social networking sites critically might also mean demonstrating behaviour that is appropriate for the medium. No doubt what is deemed appropriate would vary across age and cultural groups, however, certain behaviours would be universally considered inappropriate. For example, most groups would consider engaging in offensive or mean behaviour online inappropriate. It might also mean avoiding posting provocative photos or posts and, as a corollary of this, being aware of the digital ‘fingerprint’ that will stay with them into the future.  Finally, given the pre-eminence of photos on the site young people could become overwhelmed by the pressure that such a visual medium places on them. Critical engagement might therefore mean understanding, and then possibly resisting, the pressure that social networking sites like Facebook place on the user in relation to posting photos, posts and having a lot of friends. One aspect of the study investigated whether the site encouraged or directed particular behaviour in users and if they accepted or resist this ‘positioning’.

The study involved six volunteer female students who ranged from 13-14 years old and came from a Government school for girls in Melbourne’s Eastern suburbs. This Government school has one of the highest numbers of parents/guardians educated to a tertiary level (DEECD, 2011), and is located in an affluent suburb. They have ready access to technology and, we could presume, parents who have expectations about their education that may well extend to a critical engagement with social networking sites. The six participants’ names have been changed to protect their privacy and are presented here as Phillipa, Nina, Nadia, Cassie, Sally and Felicity. They all use Facebook daily and most signed up two years ago, when they were 11 or 12 years old.

The participants were also involved in the research process and helped to construct the interview questions and carry out the interviews on each other.  There were two reasons for this. First, the aim was to deliver an insider’s (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003) perspective on social networking use, not only through the answers to the interview questions, but also through the questions and ideas that the participants added to the set of interview questions. Given that the research was to take place in a school, the aim in adopting this approach was to overcome the ‘deep grammar of school’ which ‘institutionalizes the privileging of the newcomer/ outsider mindset over the insider mindset’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003, p. 33) In this way, the research could be likened to social and cultural anthropology which “attempts to understand alien belief systems ‘from inside’” (Hammersley, 2002, p. 66).

Second, involving the participants in the research process aimed to lessen the power imbalance between researcher/teacher and participant. In this context, such power imbalance may skew results. Rather than participants “telling it like it is”, they may feel pressure to respond in a particular way if the researcher is an authority figure, like a teacher or university researcher. Collaborating with student researchers was one way to breakdown this hierarchy; the ‘subjects’ were positioned as active ‘participants’ working with the researcher toward a common goal (Herring, 2008, p. 87). The participants in this study were actively involved in designing the interview questions and collecting data with their designated partner, however, given some of the sensitive information that was put forth during interviews, they were not involved in the analysis of results.


When the data from the student interviews, follow-up interviews, online observations and class discussion were analysed, three main themes emerged: (1) For these participants the main purpose behind their Facebook use was to produce and present a social identity or image that could be recognised by others and, in this context, photos were the main way this was achieved; (2) Anxiety resulted from judgments and bullying that was reported, which impacted how they used and engaged with the ‘templates’ and functions of the site; and (3) Participants often contradicted what they reported in interviews with their social networking behaviours, demonstrating that enacting a critical practice in this context is difficult. Because participants often felt restricted by what they could and could not do on the site, Foucault’s notion of a discursive formation was used to help understand how this discourse positioned users of the site. Through this theoretical lens we can see how Facebook encourages and privileges some behaviours over others, making it difficult for young people to find the ‘space’ to critically engage with the site. An analysis of these themes provides some insight into the complexity of the critical engagement required for a social networking site like Facebook.

Presentation of identity – the purpose of Facebook

For these participants Facebook was predominately used for presenting an identity and maintaining and extending friendships. None of the participants, for example, mentioned embedding videos, linking to blogs or other Web 2.0 technologies, or even organising social events through Facebook – they simply re/present themselves through photos and status updates. For example, when Nadia was asked whether she used Facebook to organise events she replied: “Not really then you have email…or phone or whatever”. It seemed that there was quite a specific purpose behind their use, and that this was quite limited. When asked what cues they use to understand a Facebook friend’s identity, all the participants explained that photos and ‘friends’ were most important. While this seems an obvious observation, it is important to note that photos were more important than status updates and wall posts. This fits in with Kress’s (2003) assertion that on screen, image subordinates writing by dominating all “displayed communications” (2003, p. 9). According to the participants, not only do they need to carefully select which photos they upload, but they also need to monitor and review photos of themself that their Facebook ‘friends’ upload. To Sally, photos are important because, “people can judge you even if they don’t know you”, or in Nadia’s words they “help[s] to know who that person is”.

The participants also expressed concern about what sort of photos to put up, commenting that their ‘friends’ judge photos. For example, Sally said now she knows “what photos to put up and what photos not to put up”. Felicity mentions several times that the photos of her on Facebook “are really, really ugly” and “bad” and that she is often “being weird” in them. She attributes this to her “being caught off guard” and hopes that we “never see them”. When asked if there were any inappropriate photos of her on Facebook she equates appropriateness with attractiveness: “Define inappropriate … because I just have really, really ugly bad photos on”. She has 74 photos and images uploaded onto the site. Similarly, Phillipa feels “self-conscious” when people are looking at her photos wondering whether they will like them. She says that it is also important to consider what potential friends might think: “if people are looking to add you as a friend they would look at them to see what kind of things you do”.

In this instance, boyd’s (2007) notion of Searchability is evident, where the capacity to search for and choose friends based on what they do and who they are friends with gives a greater sense of control in the presentation of identity. However, there is a negative side to this, as looks often determined whether a potential friendship was made. Felicity explains:

Well I have a few friends and they go around looking up different people and if they find someone who they think is hot or who looks good they add them, so it looks like they are more cool. Because mostly people would assume that pretty people are the cool people.

In this way, a friends’ list becomes a ‘resource’ that is worth displaying to others.  Even though Felicity acknowledges that the assumptions made are questionable she accepts it as what happens on Facebook:

You would try to add the more pretty and good-looking people I guess. It’s just what you do. I don’t try to do that, but sometimes it slips up a bit.

Sally, Felicity, Phillipa and Nina all acknowledged that photos can be an inaccurate representation of who a person is and in this way are engaging critically with the site. Phillipa explains:

People will put photos on because they think it will make them look cooler, but then that’s not actually what they’re like they just do it because they think it makes them look good.

Despite expressing doubt over the ‘truthfulness’ of photos, all participants relied on them to represent their own identity and understand others’ identities; in many respects they have little choice given the dominance of the image in this context. Only two of the participants mentioned status updates as relevant to understanding a person’s identity on Facebook. For the participants, the highly visual nature of the medium shaped how they represented their identity and perceived others. In this context, recognition of identity was key, so that identity is continually re/presented in response to feedback from others. Given the highly visual nature of the site, Facebook can be thought of as a room of mirrors, images of an identity are projected on Facebook, but are also bounced back to reflect an identity constructed by others. It is essential that photos are used to represent an identity, but then there is little control over how these will be interpreted. While boyd (2007) argues that in some sense “people have more control online” (2007, p. 12), the participant’s comments reveal the complexity of the context. While they may have more control over what is presented to the world (the photos, comments and conversations that are uploaded into the site), the participants expressed concern over who their audience was, how they would be received and whether their interactions were appropriate or “fit in” to the discourse. In this instance, their anxiety seemed to arise from a perceived lack of control, which was ultimately related to how their identity was “recognised” (Gee, 2000) by others.


Representing an identity through such a visual medium seemed to be a source of anxiety for all the participants, to the point where behaviours were limited and only some templates used. Nina attributes this to the judgements people make on Facebook:

I think people are really judgemental on like Facebook and stuff because of the photos and the statuses and, if say your friend tagged you in a photo where you looked really bad and people might judge you and be like “She’s really weird”.

It is interesting to note that several participants equated an “inappropriate” photo as one in which they looked “ugly”. It seems that the visual representation of self on Facebook is of utmost importance, perhaps even more important than how you appear face to face.

Status updates were also a source of anxiety for Sally and Phillipa. Both were “worried” about what to write because they felt they might be judged; as a result they rarely post statuses. Nadia on the other hand thinks that communicating on Facebook can be easier because you can “sound really smart”. Such pressure pushes some people to lie. Phillipa mentioned that she has observed people lie about what school they go to. In one extreme case she said a ‘friend’ had written information that suggested they attended a private school, when in reality they were a student at a government school. Nina also mentioned that some people tell “white lies”:

Some people tell white lies to get attention and to make themselves seem cooler or to get sympathy… I think they are made by people who are insecure…reassurance that’s really what people look for.

On Facebook, positive comments and ‘likes’ from ‘friends’ in response to posts were essential reassurance for their quality and, more generally, the participant’s online identity.

All the participants describe judgement, meanness and often bullying taking place on Facebook. It is clear that the participants know that this is wrong, but according to Nina “it’s easier to be mean to people…online”. Sally explains the phenomenon:

In real life they will be like “oh it’s really bad” but actually online they kind of have a different identity and like “ha ha ha that’s so funny” and go along with it, but not really do something about it.

Nadia also thinks people tend to go along with it: “If someone says something mean or whatever and people are like ‘ha ha so funny’ it’s not because the other person feels like …I don’t know”. Felicity admits that while she is “not usually mean on Facebook it comes out once or twice” and this, she believes, is because “you have a screen in front of you and no one there”. Cassie admitted that while she does not try to be “deliberately” mean online, “people can get the wrong idea”. Misinterpreting information and people seems to be a common occurrence on Facebook. By extension, when interpretation becomes “slippery”, participants expressed a tendency to read things in a more negative way. While this also takes place in an unmediated exchange, considering the way identity is constructed in a digital environment does provide a helpful way of making sense of this trend.

In many ways the manner in which an individual and their identity is presented has fundamentally shifted with the advent of social networking sites, and digital technology more generally. Mark Poster (2006) writes that “digital machines” are not an addition, tool or prosthesis but “an intimate mixing of human and machine that constitutes an interface outside the subject-object binary” (2006, p. 48). In this theory, humans are no longer considered separate from their digital tools. Such complex couplings between humans and machines have far reaching implications. Poster writes, “Since the digital self also absorbs the affordances and constraints of the Internet, we can say that the positions of speech that are made in this medium are greatly expanded from what we have known before” (2006, p. 42). While a small-scale study of this nature has limitations in its scope, traces of Poster’s idea are evident. In some instances, the social networking site was thought of as a tool to communicate with others, but at other times it configured interactions and relationships in a new way; enabling the participants to forget that there was a real person or ‘subject’ behind the tool or ‘object’. While the majority of the participants knew that this was wrong, there was a resignation about being able to change behaviours. Sentiments like “that’s just what happens” and “I don’t mean to but…” were often expressed. Add to this the pressure from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He explains that Facebook “…has always tried to push the envelope. And at times that means stretching people and getting them to be comfortable with things they aren’t comfortable with yet. A lot of this is just social norms catching up with what technology is capable of” (Thomson, 2008). Indeed, if the digital self does imbibe the affordances of the internet, which is evident from this study, then a critical engagement with Facebook or social networking sites more generally, is akin to isolating and analysing how identity has been constructed in and around this context.


One thing that was apparent from the interviews was that what participants said they were doing on Facebook and what they actually practised online were two different things. For example, in the interviews most reported that photos can be an inaccurate representation of people’s identity and that an online friend is different to an offline friend. However, these sentiments were often contradicted later in the interview or by the online behaviour that they recounted. Phillipa, for example, acknowledged that a lot of people find Facebook can become a “competition to see who has more friends”, but she sees herself as able to resist the “pressure”:

For some people I think there would be [pressure], but I don’t really care whether people think I should have friends or not because it’s not really their opinion that should matter.

However, later she elaborates on the complex network of pressures at play that are sometimes difficult to negotiate:

Sometimes there is pressure like if you’ve got a lot of like mutual friends with them …then you might think maybe I should friend them because then I can be like “Oh yeah I know this person I’ve got them on Facebook”. But then sometimes you just don’t because you think: “Why would I even want to have you? Why would I want you to see all my things? I only add people who I am comfortable with seeing what I have put up.

Most of the participants shared this belief indicating that it was important to say that they ‘knew’ their Facebook friends even though their actions might suggest otherwise. Cassie, for example, says that she doesn’t normally add strangers as ‘friends’. However, later in the interview she says that she became friends with an older man who she didn’t know:

This guy was like a creepy paedophile. And then he was like being weird and then he’s like I want to meet you … and I’m like de-friend.

As a result of this experience she is “really careful” and doesn’t “just add people for the sake of it”.

The majority of the participants knew what they should and should not be doing on Facebook: they know photos were not always an accurate representation of identity; they know that they should not judge others online; they know not to ‘friend’ strangers. In essence, this was the cybersafety message. However, this message was at odds with pressures to adopt other behaviours, like having lots of “pretty, cool” friends and posting glamorous, often provocative photos; essentially what participants admitted gave them “status” on Facebook. For example, in the follow up interview, Sally suggested that some of her classmates would not have told the truth in the peer administered interview: “Some people would say they don’t have provocative photos, but they do”. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) define social capital as “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships” (1992, p. 14). The reported behaviours and contradictions suggest that for these participants the drive for social capital overshadows the educational and moral lessons these participants had learnt about social networking. This might explain why participants say one thing (the thing they think is ‘right’), but do another. It also points to the fact that the critical digital programs offered by the school have not been practically and consistently realised in the participant’s out of school engagement with social media.

Formations of a Facebook identity

The participants, and the class more broadly, expressed the point that particular behaviours were encouraged on Facebook, as there was pressure to look attractive, post exciting status updates and also to be extroverted. For example, Cassie says, “I think there is more pressure to be extroverted online because you have to make more like – more for people to like you”.  Similarly, Nadia thinks “there is really no point in having it [Facebook]” if you are really shy and introverted. Other participants acknowledge this point, but in relation to others, not themselves. Phillipa explains this:

For some people I think there would be [pressure], but I don’t really care whether people think I should have friends or not because it’s not really their opinion that should matter.

When asked whether they thought Facebook could do things any better, all the participants answered no; in Nadia’s words “everything is on there”. Two of the participants suggested that they have adapted their behaviour to suit the perceived expectations of Facebook. Nina explains:

I think at the start I was quite introverted and sort of conservative, but as I’ve become more confident and more comfortable with the networking site and in myself, I’ve become more extroverted.

While there were moments where the participants were critical of behaviours that took place on Facebook, they all maintained that they were the same person online as they were offline.

All the participants mentioned that there was a particular way to do things on Facebook, an unwritten set of rules, what Nina called “cybersense”. While it may have helped participants “type onself into being” (Sunden, 2003, p. 3), it seemed that Facebook and its set of values underwrote the “being” that was constructed. At one point during the class discussion, Nadia announced “MySpace is so grade 6”, as if there was only one possible choice for social networking now – Facebook. Despite moments of critical engagement, each participant appeared committed to accruing friends, posting photos where they looked ‘good’ and writing interesting status updates; essentially things that improved social status on Facebook. Applying Foucault’s discursive formation as a theoretical lens is appropriate here in that it emphasises how the workings of texts, institutions and social practices can align in certain ways and set limits to how people and things can be recognised (Gee, 2000).

A discursive formation can be approximated to a discipline (like political science, literature or medicine) or “divisions or groupings with which we have become so familiar” (Foucault, 2002, p. 24). Using medical science as an example, Foucault explains that from the 19th century practitioners began to “presuppose the same way of looking at things” and that medicine was organised by a “certain style” and “series of descriptive statements” (2002, p. 37). O’Farrell (2005) explains discursive formations are “a bit like the grammar of a language [and] allow certain statements to be made” (2005, p. 79). In this way discursive formations provide a “space in which various objects emerge and are continuously transformed” (Foucault, 2002, p. 36). A key point is that discursive formations create systems of knowledge and lead to a particular way of engaging with the world, which Foucault terms discursive practice. When social networking sites are viewed as a discursive formation, attention is drawn to the fact that they have the potential to ‘position’ the user. Once positioned, however, individuals have the ability to assume or resist the position and it is here that critical engagement comes into play. In light of the results, while it may have been possible for the participants to see the behaviours that were encouraged by Facebook, it was very difficult for the participants to see how Facebook positioned them, let alone resist it.

In Archaeology of Knowledge (2002) one of Foucault’s concerns was our reluctance to question the way a discursive formation like Facebook shapes our perception of the world. He believed that we should interrogate why discursive formations result in some statements and practices emerging into our everyday lives and not others. Through both subtle and overt means, Facebook encourages an identity that is extroverted, outgoing and even sometimes narcissistic; most importantly, one that would be approved by their peer group. The pursuit of such an identity made it difficult for the participants to critically engage with the site, as they become immersed in the social reality of Facebook. While the participants may have had some degree of critical awareness of the site, they were unable to maintain this critical approach as they set out to achieve the ‘ideal’ self, set out in their personal profile. Often this meant pursuing what was considered valuable in this context– lots of friends and a rich and exciting social life. However, bringing a critical practice to Facebook, or any other social networking site for that matter, equates to critiquing selfhood, and this is no easy task, particularly for a young person who has had little time to form their identity. Further to this, to critique this discursive formation would essentially mean seeing yourself as ‘outside’ it, and for many of the participants this ‘space’ for reflection or language for critique had not been discovered.

Toward a critical engagement with social networking sites

This paper has explored the complexity of social networking sites as a text for analysis, and the social and personal discourses that take place in and around Facebook. It has shown that critical engagement is important in this context because it is so closely linked to identity formation and presentation for young people today. It has explicated the factors that make it difficult for young people to critically engage with sites like Facebook so they may broach the “transparency problem” (Jenkins, 2006) of social media. While critical literacy approaches to use of social media have been put forth (Dowdall, 2009; Hartley, 2010), the role of identity does not figure as a central point for analysis. However, Burnett and Merchant’s (2011) ‘Tri-partite Model’ is of particular significance for this study.

Building on Greenhow and Robelia’s (2009) idea of “advantageous online community practices” (2009, p. 136), Burnett and Merchant offer a conceptual model that highlights the inter-relationship between identity, practice and networks, but argue that these three concepts take place around, through and outside social media. In this way, the model is able to shift the focus from the objects to be critiqued to how the ‘user’ engages with these, integrating identity with critical practice. They write:

Critical practice in this context may be less about digital technology as an abstract force (one that considers how it might structure our thoughts and actions) and more about an interrogation and evaluation of what we and others are actually doing on and off-line. (2009, p. 51)

With this model there is a shift in the locus of practice that is more suitable for networked, collaborative texts like social media. Finally, it should be noted that social networking is a popular pursuit, so any critical practice needs to balance learner interest with more serious pedagogical aims (Burnett & Merchant, 2011). As Buckingham (2003) writes, undermining or ‘spoiling’ enjoyable literacy practices with a ‘correct’ reading of texts is likely to have negative results. Consequently, any sort of critical practice associated with social networking sites needs to be mindful of the connection to, and possible objectification of identity.

To engage critically with Facebook might also mean giving young people the ‘space’ to reflect upon their use. This might be further developed through a ‘meta-discourse’ to identify and evaluate the behaviours and interactions that take place in and around the context in order to encourage what Gee (1991, p. 9) calls “Powerful Literacy”. As Gee explains we cannot expect young people to acquire these skills, they need to be learnt. In this instance, the myth of the digital native as transformed by new technology and, therefore, not needing any education or resources to negotiate social media is inaccurate and potentially damaging. Further to this, the results from this study demonstrate that even a basic literacy was lacking for some of the participants interviewed. For example, several participants did not have adequate privacy settings and would often ‘friend’ strangers.

Final comments

What the research here shows is something of how young people who are very much at home with Facebook are not simply skilled users (“digital natives”) but a group being formed in a context which impacts on their identify formation, and not always positively. While many participants could clearly articulate the cybersafety messages, understood a number of things about how Facebook worked, what kinds of representations were prioritised, and also knew what was moral and ethical behaviour, it was difficult for them to maintain this approach when using such an immersive and pervasive medium. The impact a medium such as Facebook has on the self-esteem and personal development in people so young also needs to be considered. For many participants the anxiety associated with presenting an identity that was Facebook ‘appropriate’ and that would be accepted by their peers was palpable. Many of the participants spoke of bullying and judgemental behaviour that seemed elevated on Facebook.

Poster’s notion of a “digital self” who absorbs the affordances of the Internet is a useful way to understand how the behaviours online might be shaped more by the technology than the individual and their moral code. In this way, while it may have been possible for participants to reflect on how Facebook was shaping their view of others, it was more difficult for them to see how it shaped their view of themselves. Abandoning use of the site did not seem to be an option for the participants. This research has uncovered some of the challenges young people face when asked to critically engage with Facebook. These challenges are due to a range of factors: the structure of the site and the privileging of images (photos) over writing in this context; the fact that when viewed as a discursive formation (Foucault, 2002) certain behaviours and language are encouraged over others and left the participants feeling anxious; and that to critique the site is to stand ‘outside’ the discourse, which essentially counters the very purpose of being on there in the first place.

While this research does point to schools playing a more significant role in educating for critical use of social networking sites, the fact that Facebook is banned in many Australian schools, makes this an unlikely prospect in the near future. Lankshear and Knobel (2003) argue that education should not be focused on learning or schools, but instead “human lives seen as trajectories through multiple social practices in various social institutions” (2003, p. 48). For meaningful learning to take place then, the skills taught in schools need to have traction beyond the school setting and this may well involve education around social networking sites. What is needed is a robust program that couples pertinent information with opportunities for young people to reflect on their use of social networking sites, so they have the time, space and confidence to see how the site is shaping their interactions with others. Here Burnett and Merchant’s (2011) ‘Tri-partite’ model may be of use in developing a critical literacy that incorporates a reflection on how identity fits into the picture without alienating or objectifying young people in the process. The purpose of this research has not been to undermine young people’s use of social networking sites, but to demystify some of the ambiguity around common understandings of their use. To encourage confident, enquiring agents in the world, then not only does more discussion and education around critical engagement with social networking sites need to take place, but we also need to continue to investigate and attempt to understand the complex and dynamic nature of the digital worlds young people inhabit.


The author would like to thank the anonymous referees for their comments on earlier drafts of the work and The University of Melbourne for the grant to write this paper. Special mention should also be made to Dr Nick Reynolds and Professor Lyn Yates at The University of Melbourne for their guidance and constructive comments on the work.


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Biographical Statement

Luciana Pangrazio completed a Masters in Education at The University of Melbourne in 2011. She has just started a PhD at Monash University researching the areas of critical literacy and digital media.

Email: luciana.pangrazio@monash.edu

Rafo Santo

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (379 KB)


This article highlights an emerging set of literate media practices that are simultaneously critical and participatory in nature. These practices, themselves natural responses to a shifting new media landscape, have echoes of existing media literacy paradigms, though are not fully encapsulated by them. Through an analysis of public reactions to Facebook privacy policy and feature changes that took place in the Spring of 2010, the article shows how what the author calls hacker literacies are currently being practised in situ. Hacker literacies, which draw their name from the practice of computer programmers that take existing code and reconfigure it according to their own values and for their own purposes, are unique in that they are not only empowered by participatory technologies, but empowered in relation to these technologies as well. Reactions to changes in Facebook during this time period illustrate the ways that the users of new media did not take for granted the design of these new modes of participation nor the intentions and interests of their creators. Their understanding of the malleability of this sociotechnical space and consequent actions resulted in its reformulation, a type of process the author argues will be crucial if there is to be a more fluid and equal distribution of media power in the digital age.

Keywords: critical literacy, empowerment, Facebook, Hacker literacies, media literacy, new literacies, participatory culture, privacy, sociotechnical spaces.

What it means to be literate with communications media has always been a moving target (Hannon, 2000) – media shift and flux, as do the social practices that surround and shape them. In the 21st century, this is undoubtedly truer than at any point in the history of human communication. As a result, documenting and creating frameworks for understanding new literate practices with media is of increasing importance.

The “first wave” of these literacy frameworks, critical media literary, arrived after the flourishing of broadcast media including print, radio, television and film in the 20th Century. While these media offered societal benefit including new forms of popular culture and broadly accessible political news, they also presented risks associated with a centralised media system including political bias, propagation of problematic stereotypes, and ownership by corporate interests disinclined to address certain important societal issues. To some degree, critical media literacy emerged in response to instances of exploitation of these media by vested interests and the promotion of questionable cultural norms often found in their content. Recognising that broadcast media have commercial, ideological and political implications (Thoman, 2003), it advocates practices that empower citizens and consumers in relation to the messages of mass media, asking viewers to question the intent, assumptions and biases of media producers (Alvermann et al., 1999; Buckingham, 2003; Kellner & Share, 2005; National Association for Media Literacy (NAMLE), n.d.).

In the 21st Century, the advent of the Internet and the broader participatory culture surrounding it heralded a number of “second wave” media literacy frameworks, most prominently the new literacies studies (Coiro et al., 2008; Gee, 2007; Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel 2006; 2007), the notion of multiliteracies that focus on design (New London Group, 1996; Salen, 2007) and new media literacies (Jenkins et al., 2006). In this paper I refer to these complementary frameworks collectively as “participatory media literacies.”  Participatory media literacies recognise that distinct and empowering forms of engagement that have been present historically have new emphasis and importance in the world of new media (blogs, wikis, video games, social networks, virtual worlds, mobile media, etc.), and propose that a new set of skills should focus on how people can leverage and participate culturally through new media, allowing them to move beyond consuming culture to become producers of it as well.

In practice, while critical media literacy would focus on preparing a person to ask how a cable news programme might contain political bias, participatory media literacies would aim to equip them with the ability to engage in authentic blogging practices within a broader online community so that they could spread their own political views and contribute to a larger civic ecology. Both of these paradigms are crucial, and there remains an enormous amount of work to be done to engage youth, not to mention the broader public, in practices they have identified as important.

bodies of literature such as these is necessarily an imperfect project – implicated are not just areas immediately at hand such as media literacy, digital literacy, new literacies, and new media literacies but also affiliated fields such as new literacy studies (Brandt & Clinton, 2002; Hull & Schultz, 2001; Street, 1993), critical literacy and pedagogy (Janks, 2000; Luke, 2004; Morrell, 2002) and situated cognition (Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989; Greeno, 1997; Kolodner, 2006), to name a few (for an overview of the relationship between many of these fields see Gee, 2009).

Even within just the critical media literacy and participatory literacies space there is a great diversity of practices and perspectives, not all of which fit neatly within the characterisation I offer above. For example, as new media technologies have emerged, many affiliated with critical media literacy have come to see the process of media production, as opposed to solely critical reading, as deeply implicated in its project (Avila & Zacher-Pandya, 2012; Buckingham, 2003; Janks, 2000). At the same time, these kinds of field level characterisations, though imperfect, have similarly been used before to make large trends visible (see: Gee, 2009; Westbrook, 2011) and allow us a degree of perspective needed to build upon them and explore new areas of conversation.

For example, the current conversation concerning empowerment through technology has seldom incorporated ideas about empowerment in relation to technology, a notion that science and technology studies explores (Lievrouw, 2003; Croeser, 2012) but one largely absent in the literacy space. Too rarely are questions asked about what agendas are implicit in the very design of new participatory digital tools, the sort of question critical media literacy would ask about a media message and that has similarly been asked by technology scholars such as Langdon Winner for many years (Winner, 1986). Rarer still is the recognition that participatory media literacies can be used to advocate for substantive changes to the design or norms of these sociotechnical spaces and tools when they fail to align with a person’s values.

This state of affairs is one that leaves youth and adults alike vulnerable to emerging forms of risk and media manipulation that are already coming to characterise the digital age. Privacy issues and the nature of access to personal information by third parties have become central to discussions around new media (boyd & Hargittai, 2010; Wall Street Journal, 2010), individuals in the design field are coming to a greater understanding of how software is norming sociality in ways users are largely unaware of (Mackay, 1991; Lenhart et al. 2010), and questions are arising about ways that participation in corporate online spaces might be understood from the perspective of exploitation of labor (Sholz & Liu, 2010; Peterson, 2008). These issues, to name only a few, are growing problems in our increasingly technologically mediated society. And these trends may worsen unless our conceptions of what it means to be literate with media shift.

Drawing from many of the strengths of the critical media literacy and participatory media literacies traditions, there lies the potential to address this problem by engaging young people in a “third wave” media and digital literacy framework I refer to as hacker literacies (Santo, 2011; 2012). Hacker literacies, a synthesis of existing practices and mindsets, are characterised by empowerment in relation to participatory technologies such that the design and norms of sociotechnical spaces and the intentions of their creators are not taken for granted, but rather are seen as malleable avenues for expression of the individual user’s, as opposed to solely the designer’s, values and agendas. In short, hacker literacies take critical reading and rewriting practices that prior media literacy paradigms have advocated for in relation to messages and asks that we apply these to the emerging technologies that increasingly mediate our participation in the world.

In this study, I examine reactions to a series of privacy-related changes made to the popular social network site Facebook in the Spring of 2010. I argue that these reactions themselves constitute examples of hacker literate practices and can point out some of the tensions and opportunities that arise as these practices are enacted in situ. Through an analysis of over 250 posted reactions to articles relating to Facebook’s actions on popular news sites, I document the varied ways in which people did not take for granted the design of Facebook nor the intentions of its creators, the forms of advocacy and action that emerged from understandings of Facebook’s malleability as a platform, and the ways that new media facilitated a sharing and seeking of resources to respond to the situation.

Overall, the data reveals a complex constellation of empowered technological literacies that include skills, beliefs and values that governed people’s relationships to a popular participatory media space, practices I argue are likely to become needed in order to promote a more fluid and equal distribution of media power in the digital age.

Defining hacker literacies

Prior to grounding this concept empirically in lived practices, a project the central section of this paper will address, it is first necessary to first briefly situate and then clearly define hacker literacies.

At their core, I believe that the critical media literacy and participatory media literacies movements have a common inclination that drives them: people should be actively engaged in processes of making meaning of and through the media that surround them. Born of this common space as well, hacker literacies can be characterised as contributing to a ‘third wave’ of media literacy scholarship that aims to bring critical perspectives into the new media space, in addition to drawing on established traditions in critical literacies (Janks, 2000). Karen Wohlwend and Cynthia Lewis (2010) argue for a critical engagement within online participatory cultures that examines how the desire to belong in emerging online affinity spaces or fan groups interacts with agency in those spaces. A recent edited volume by Julianna Avila and Jessica Zacher-Pandya (2012) highlights many cases of how educators are working at the intersection of critical and digital literacies.

Hacker literacies builds off these as well as both older and more recent calls for increased understanding of the implicit biases of designed technologies. Constructionist learning theorist Seymour Papert argued as early as 1980 that educators were getting it wrong about the role of technology in education as he discussed the LOGO learning environment: “In most contemporary educational situations where children come into contact with computers the computer is used to put the child through the paces, to provide feedback and to dispense information. The computer is programming the child. In the LOGO environment the relationship is reversed: The child, even at preschool ages, is in control: The child programs the computer” (Papert, 1980). Papert argued through not only his writings but through development of projects like LOGO that taught computer programming that youth should not take for granted the design of technology and the need to understand its malleability.

More recently, public intellectuals have picked up on this insight that people, and especially youth, must understand how technology is formulated and designed if they wish to avoid or push back against the bias of its designers. In his book Program or Be Programmed, popular writer Douglas Rushkoff (2011) states that “As technologies come to characterize the way that we live and work, the people programming them take on an increasingly important role in shaping our would and how it works. After that, it’s the digital technologies themselves that will be shaping our world, both with and without our explicit cooperation. (p.8)”

Where I diverge from both Papert and Rushkoff is in the narrowness of their proposed solution to the truth pointed to in the above quote – both argue that people need to learn computer programming, a highly technical response and really just one of many available social, legal and technical tools that can be used to respond to and “rewrite” technologies that are misaligned with a person’s values.

In putting forth this construct of hacker literacies, I take inspiration from these thinkers as well as from many within the critical media literacy and participatory media literacies traditions. I define the term in this way: empowered participatory practices, grounded in critical mind-sets, that aim to resist, reconfigure and/or reformulate the sociotechnical spaces and tools that mediate social, cultural, and political participation.

These “critical mind-sets” include perceiving how values are at play in the design of these spaces and tools; understanding how those designs impact the users of those spaces and tools; and developing empowered outlooks, ones that assume that change is possible, in relation to those designs rooted in an understanding of their malleability. Critical mindsets, in short, are about critical “reading” of sociotechnical spaces and tools.

“Empowered participatory practices” include making transparent for others the values at play in and effects of sociotechnical designs, voicing alternative values for these designs, advocating and taking part in alternative designs when spaces and tools are misaligned with one’s values, and engaging in processes aimed at changing those digital spaces and tools whether on the social, legal, or technological level via social, legal or technological means. Empowered participatory practices, then, are about critical “re-writing” of sociotechnical spaces and tools.

Context of Investigation and Methods

This study largely aims to take the notion of hacker literacies out of a theoretical space in order to operationalise and ground it in an authentic context where it is practiced. What is referred to by some as “The Facebook Privacy Debacle of 2010” (Beale, 2010) was selected because it offered a natural example of the kinds of mindsets and practices outlined above, was participated in by a large numbers of Facebook users with a range of cultural and technological backgrounds, and finally because the situation ultimately resulted in changes being made to Facebook as a result of user, media and governmental responses (Sengupta, 2011; Zuckerberg, 2010).

While Facebook has a long history of tensions with users around privacy issues (boyd & Hargittai, 2010), the particular situation that occurred in the Spring of 2010 resulted in what was arguably the greatest negative reaction up to that point both among users as well as the press and governmental actors. In late April of that year, Facebook announced at their annual F8 conference features known as Instant Personalization and Social Plugins, both of which aimed to leverage a user’s personal connections within Facebook to extend into their usage of third party websites, such as the now ubiquitous “Like” buttons (McCarthy, 2010) strewn across the web. A lack of clarity in terms of what user information was shared with third parties in this process was the antecedent to an extended public backlash that included Facebook’s user-base, government actors including Senators and regulators at the Federal Trade Commission, activist groups such as MoveOn.org and a range of journalists from both technology oriented and mainstream news sources.

This study focused its analysis on the comments posted by individuals on nine news articles or blog posts written in the Spring of 2010 that addressed privacy issues associated with Facebook’s actions during that period. 280 comments made by 242 individuals in the comment sections of these articles and blog posts were selected and analysed.  Six of the articles came from two mainstream news sources, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and the remaining three came from two prominent technology reporting sites, TechCrunch and Mashable. Equal numbers of comments, 140 from each category, were sampled from the mainstream news sources and the technology sites, with greater comment counts on each article accounting for fewer articles being sampled from the technology reporting sites. Little is known about the demographic makeup of this particular sample, although it is safe to assume that those who posted on the technology-related news sites were more likely to be avid users of social media and more likely to be connected to technology development and business, as those are the two foci of those sites.

Data were not selected with the intention of garnering a representative sample of all Facebook users, but were rather chosen for the likelihood that the literacy practices at the focus of the research would be present in some form. The goal here is not to say that all or even a significant portion of Facebook users displayed hacker literacies in reaction to Facebook’s actions at that time, but rather to show the shape of those literacies as they were instantiated in context.

The data were analysed both at the discourse and content levels, with the unit of analysis being the full comment posted. In order to gain insight into the tone of the conversation, discourse was analysed for stance (Hodsdon-Champeon, 2010) taken by commenters towards Facebook as either a company, service, or sociotechnical space, with all comments evaluated as either positive (+), negative (-), mixed (±) or neutral (~) towards Facebook.

On the content level, a coding scheme was derived based on the definition of hacker literacies outlined earlier. Three broad themes emerged in the codes. The first is Perception of Embedded Values in Design, concerned with the ways that individuals pointed to the effects of the design and policy changes and the values these connected to. This is akin to “critical reading”. The second is Advocating and Taking Action through Empowered Outlooks, in which users recognised the malleability of the sociotechnical space and advocated either for changes to the design of Facebook or other actions in response. The third category, New Media as Means of Change, captured the ways that individuals participating in these comment threads used that new media space and others as a means of sharing, seeking and enacting strategies to deal with the changes Facebook had made. These latter two codes are concerned with the nature of “critical rewriting” of Facebook.

A subset consisting of 40 of the comments was coded by a colleague and revealed reliability at 81.75% accuracy.

Findings & Discussion

Perception of Embedded Values in Design

They are not redefining privacy, they are debasing the language of privacy. George Orwell understood this principle completely: newspeak.

-Anonymous Poster, posting on Mashable.com

And what’s the point of a social network where you have your friends if you don’t post anything fearing it can be public without previous warning?”

-I’m Dario, posting on Mashable.com

If tinkering and changing the formulation of sociotechnical spaces and new media tools is at the core of hacker literacies, seeing that a space or tool isn’t currently meeting one’s expectations is an important precursor to that. Central to these sorts of perceptions is a sometimes explicit, although often tacit, understanding that technology is always an embodiment of values, that these values play out in designs, and that those designs impact the experience of the users of technology.

In his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace Lawrence Lessig (1999) argued that much like the legal code constrains and affords behaviour, computer code similarly functions to structure the ways that we interact in the online world. This led to his popular dictum “Code is Law”. More than a decade earlier though very much in the same spirit, Langdon Winner (1986) argued that all technology is imbued with politics.

The above quote referencing George Orwell, posted in the comments on Mashable, is an example of how in reactions to Facebook’s decisions people very much understood Lessig and Winner’s insights in explicit ways. At the same time, many of the reactions indicated a more practical, and personal, orientation – people suddenly felt like Facebook was less useful for them, as the second quote above referencing a disinclination to post information indicates. Another poster wrote:

By making a connection on FB, I’m invading that connection’s privacy: revealing that connection’s identity to the world, making the person behind that connection searchable.

-fjpoblam, posting on Techcrunch.com

Beyond considering Facebook less useful and being disinclined to use it, this individual pointed to specific design implications that could result in personal and professional issues arising through the simple, and central, act of adding someone as a “friend” after the new privacy settings were implemented. This evidences a form of thinking in which a person links the particular designs of a tool or space to the kinds of behaviours that are now possible, or not, and the implications this has for the user – a cornerstone of how critical reading of technology takes place in hacker literate practice.

In another case, a poster named Melliodora wrote about an incident in which his Facebook profile photograph was used in an advertisement for a major beer company without his consent, and he was portrayed, in his words, as “having no class and no style” in that advertisement. Apparently a person he was “friends” with on Facebook entered a contest that allowed the company to access Melliodora’s, as a “friend” of this person, profile pictures, and presumably other people’s photographs as well.  Regardless of the legality of the picture’s usage, it is clear that Melliodora felt taken advantage of as a result of the design of Facebook’s privacy settings.

Others moved towards an even more explicit and collectively oriented interpretation of the new designs put forth by Facebook, and inferred specific principles that the company was operating under when it made them:

Facebook is not an altruistic, community-building website; it’s a private, for-profit company that wants to make more money by exploiting the personal information it has access to.

-Colleen, posting on The New York Times

This reaction evidences an orientation that is beyond a consideration of how one individual is adversely affected by any specific feature – it assumes a larger profit-oriented principle governing the design decisions Facebook made based on an exploitative relationship with its user-base, contrasting this with ‘altruistic, community building’ values.

On the level of design principles, some posters even went so far as to articulate themselves what they saw as alternative values that Facebook should adhere to in its designs:

This is a democracy – give people choices before making their private lives public – automatically.

-Ali Eorse, posting on The New York Times

The majority of FB, Flickr, and Yahoo users just don’t know enough to be vigilant about checking their setting – and they shouldn’t have to be.

-Nina Gerwin, posting on Techcrunch.com

It’s about striving to protect a user’s information rather than providing API access to it. If Facebook is a circus, we want a Walled Garden.

-Jimi’s Brain, posting on Techcrunch.com

In some respects, the varied perceptions within the data of design effects and embedded values move up a trajectory of critical understanding of Facebook. On one end, individuals are seeing how a new design is inconvenient or changes behaviour in undesired ways. From there, understandings develop about how a new design might have negative unintended consequences, or even allow exploitation on the personal level. Notions then emerge of what a person sees as the values and intentions behind these new designs. Finally, once at the level of values, alternatives to what is seen as the current reality can be voiced, evidencing a move from critical mindsets to empowered participatory practices.

This last step, the voicing of alternative values, is central to hacker literacies as it stems from an implicit understanding that these spaces are indeed malleable. If people do not believe that something can be changed, there would be no inclination to suggest that alternative values guide its design. Having such an empowered view forms the basis for engagement in advocacy for new formulations of a space, something we have long seen in critical literacy practices that now is making itself visible in situ in sociotechnical spaces.

Advocating and Taking Action through Empowered Outlooks

The notion that a sociotechnical space is malleable forms the bedrock of an empowered outlook that sees possibility for action on occasions when these spaces are misaligned with what a person values. This notion of possibility and empowerment draws centrally from Freire and Macedo’s (1987) idea of “reading the word and the world”, which was primarily concerned with shifting people’s understanding of the world as inevitable or having a “way that it is” to understandings that emphasise the socially determined nature of reality, and the agency that is implicit in that worldview.

Three categories advocacy and action based in such an agentive worldview were revealed in the analysis. The first was oriented towards individual actions that one can take in response to Facebook’s behaviour. This often took the form of calls to refrain from posting certain information on one’s personal profile, suggestions of deleting one’s account, and calls for others to take personal responsibility, as evidenced by this individual’s comment:

If users are concerned with privacy they need to make an effort to educate themselves on the new policy.

-Richard Soper, posting on Mashable.com

The sentiment of this comment, which persisted through all of the reactions across the four news sources, very much aligned with libertarian notions of political engagement, wherein the individual citizen, given freedom and choice, can determine her own destiny according to her values, and avoid things that are undesirable or create her own means of response to them.

A second category of advocacy and action was aimed at creating alternative models that Facebook might follow in order to become better aligned with what their users might want, such as this suggestion for how Facebook should reconfigure its privacy settings:

I’d like to see Facebook adopt a much more simple model: – Share with my Friends.  – Share with Friends of my Friends. – Share with everybody.  If you want to go crazy granular on settings under those buckets, great. But at least at a high level I can choose one of 3 things and feel mostly comfortable. That’s enough for most users.

-Chad Whitney, posting on Mashable.com

Most common was the suggestion that Facebook should adopt an “opt-in” model when making changes to the kinds of information that can be shared. Rather than defaulting users into settings that made their information more rather than less public, a practice that Facebook has a engaged in on numerous occasions (boyd & Hargittai, 2010), many suggested that Facebook make these possibilities available for people to choose to opt into if they so desired.

These sorts of design suggestions evidence a different notion of agency and understanding of the possibilities for reconfiguring sociotechnical spaces than those individuals that suggested that users simply educate themselves on the new policies or just leave Facebook. One can imagine these suggestions emerging from the experiences of individuals that had encountered a wide range of changes to Facebook prior to this one. They evidenced an understanding that Facebook was completely capable of implementing new designs, and via their suggestions these individuals in some respects positioned themselves as advisers to Facebook’s architects, or as advocates exerting public pressure for specific policy decisions and self-regulation on the part of Facebook.

Finally, numerous individuals voiced the need for collective action to explicitly exert pressure on Facebook to change how it operated. Many of these had less implicit trust in Facebook’s either ability or desire to self-regulate than those that suggested alternative policies and designs. Common in this category were calls for governmental regulation, mass exodus from Facebook, and suggestions that users collectively join sites deemed more respectful of privacy. The individual below advocated for a group action that displayed a deep understanding of the underlying market logic on which Facebook operates:

We are taking the fight to Facebook. We know how the info game is played, so every week we’re going to change a detail on our Facebook profiles en masse to throw off their marketing data.

-Amy Stein, posting on Mashable.com

The collective actions more often seemed to align with traditional notions of community organisation and civil disobedience, to desires for regulation of powerful entities and to treating Facebook like a traditional utility such as electricity or telephones with all of the attendant implications for consumer rights.

These varied responses, on the level of individual action, policy and design recommendation and collective action serve to complicate what hacker literacies look like when enacted in practice. There is clearly not only one response here that qualifies as empowered. Rather, underlying the differences in these responses were a range of value systems, understandings of what it means to be empowered and decisions about what an appropriate reaction to the situation was. At the core of each of them though is a notion that there is something that can be done in the face of a sociotechnical space that is misaligned with one’s values, an idea central in distinguishing hacker literate practices as ones that are not only critical but also participatory.

New Media as Means of Change

A unique property of hacker literacies is linked to the technological space in which they have formed, that being the fluidity with which the technological tools and spaces move back and forth from being in the role of norming behaviours of users through their designs to being themselves the means to change those very designs. In the context of this investigation, we saw examples of people first understanding that Facebook was norming their behaviour in some way, but then others that used Facebook as the very means of changing the platform. In the example noted in the previous section of a woman that advocated large groups of people changing profile information to “throw off their marketing data”, a link to a page that had been set up on Facebook to coordinate these efforts was shared. Others again shared more individualistic approaches to using Facebook as a means of resistance:

In my profile all my “about me” fields now contain: “As protest to Facebook’s constant change in privacy rules, I have removed this field.”

-Dude, posting on Techcrunch.com

Facebook, though, was far from the only new media tool that individuals were employing to share, seek or enact responsive strategies. Some shared custom tools that had been created to make transparent which information was currently being publicly shared, potentially inadvertently, by a Facebook user:

Lots of tools emerging now to turn the balance of power back to consumers. Here’s ours, for FF and Chrome users who want to change settings to “Friends Only” and keep them there – http://onebuttonrule.com/ Gets to *all* settings, works *automatically* to react to Facebook’s changes.

-Ginsu, posting on Mashable.com

During the month that followed Facebook’s F8 announcement, tools like this spread widely on the web. Reclaim Privacy, a tool recommended by a user commenting on Techcrunch, provided an open source and itself completely transparent way to provide awareness of Facebook user privacy settings. The designers of this tool were quite explicit in wanting to create a technical response to Facebook’s changes that embodied the values that they saw missing in Facebook itself:

Our privacy policy is not long:

we never see your Facebook data

we never share your personal information

Simple. After the scanner is downloaded from reclaimprivacy.org, it operates entirely between your own browser and Facebook.

-ReclaimPrivacy.org, retrieved May 2011

At the time of this writing, the Reclaim Privacy tool had been shared using Facebook’s own “share page” feature over 270,000 times (ReclaimPrivacy.org, retrieved November 2012).

On analysis it also became clear that the comment sections analysed on these four news sources were themselves spaces where people were leveraging new media to seek and share response strategies. Given the confusion that ensued after Facebook’s announcement, the media sources and the larger ecology of information around them, including these comments, became an important space to clarify that confusion, share resources and information and mobilize efforts like those that have been mentioned. 16% of all posts analysed either shared or sought information and strategies to deal with the changes that Facebook had made.

Stance & Notions of Responsibility

It was not unexpected that the most predominant stance towards Facebook, characterising 55% of all responses, was negative, with neutral responses or those that did not reference Facebook at all at 32%. However, significant differences emerge when we contrast the stance of comments on The New York Times and The Washington Post with those on Mashable and TechCrunch. Figure 1 shows that over 75% of comments in the mainstream news sources were negative towards Facebook, as compared to just above 40% on the technology focused sites.

A number of explanations are possible here. One would be that posters on the more mainstream news sites were more likely to be less technically savvy, and as a result, more frustrated, than those on the technology sites. Another is the possibility that posters on the technology sites were more connected to the development of and business around social media, and were as a result more sympathetic to Facebook’s position.

A final explanation stems from the particular cultural outlooks often found in the technology world. Many of the positive stances towards Facebook in the technology reporting sources were not necessarily praising the site, but rather defending it from what some saw as unfair blame. The following comments from one poster illustrate what was a clear, if minority, voice:

…if you dont like what facebook has done with its privacy policy then dont use facebook anymore.

I just dont get whats so bad about facebooks privacy settings. For one, if you dont want something seen, you can make it private fairly easy. Also, if you dont want it to be seen by other people, then DONT PUT IT ON THE INTERNET!

-Richard Soper, posting on Mashable.com


Figure 1: Stance Towards Facebook

These responses and others that were less forceful again showed the ways that notions of personal responsibility, as opposed to collective responsibility that would implicate Facebook or governmental regulators, characterised parts of the discourse. This is not to say that all the comments that had individualistic orientations were positive or even neutral in their stances towards Facebook – many of them were quite negative, such as those that advocated simply deleting one’s account in response. Rather, the divergent stances of the participants in mainstream and technology news sources allow another avenue of insight into this larger tension, on display in many of the other areas of the results, of collective versus individualistic responses to Facebook’s actions.

This tension is important as it relates to how we understand the way criticality is conceived in hacker literacies. What I argue for in this paradigm is not a particular response driven by a particular set of values; rather, the underlying value of hacker literacies is of seeing sociotechnical spaces and new media tools as themselves imbued with values and as inherently malleable to whatever values people bring to the technology. Implicit in this is an understanding that seeking to promote critical mindsets does not mean imposing one’s particular ideological stance on others, but rather giving them the tools (or revealing the tools they already have) to engage intentionally in the world.


There are a number of promising trends one can point to with regards to hacker literacies. The first relates to existing voices within academia, journalism and parental discourses that exhibit modes of thought associated with critical digital participation.  The second has to do with contemporary movements associated with technology culture itself.

If we look at current journalistic, blogging, and parental discourses, one might contrive a fragmented conversation already in existence that highlights many of the modes of thought associated with hacker literacies. On the far end of the spectrum, media theorists in academia and technology watchers close to industry have been publicly writing and blogging for some time about what social practices and values various participatory technology platforms promote through their features. Examples of this include media scholar Danah Boyd and the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. And in both technology focused and more mainstream news outlets, there exist robust conversations regarding issues relevant to this paradigm, as the research in this study shows. More recently, Common Sense Media, a parent media education organisation, launched a campaign based on the idea that “every kid needs to be digitally literate by 8th grade,” to quote their chief executive officer, James Steyer (Common Sense Media, 2011).  Indeed, in the critical media literacy space we might view newspaper ombudsmen and media watchdog groups as having occupied a similar role as individuals like Boyd or organisations like Common Sense Media during the development of that movement.  All of these stakeholders have the potential to help create a culture that regularly asks what kind of social practices and values media participation promotes and whether those line up with those of the user and the culture at large.

The other place that we can look to with a degree of optimism is technology culture itself. There exist many practices that make places like Silicon Valley potentially more amenable to hacker literacies than the traditional media industry associated with print, television, radio and film. In general, the diverse ecology of the Internet has made web developers and their associated investors much more attuned to user experience and desires as a key factor in determining features and functionality. With a potential competitor a click away, participatory web sites are often in “perpetual beta,” an environment where untested features are regularly rolled out and users are treated as “co-developers” (O’Reilly, 2005).  On a technical level the features are relatively easy to change, and so on a social level a culture of responsiveness to user desires has developed.  At the same time, we cannot conflate wanting a better widget on the part of the user as wanting a participatory experience that embodies that values they want to live by, as so often more base desires for ease and function overshadow living according to more deeply held values.

Another positive trend within technology culture are numerous movements focused on positioning both youth and adults in positions of power in relation to technology through a celebration of “tinkering”, design and protection of the open web. Most prominent is the increasingly mainstream “Maker” movement, exemplified by Make Magazine and Maker Faires that take place around the globe and which celebrate “do it yourself” (DIY) attitudes with regards to technology. The movement is well characterised by an associated popular motto: “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.” DIY practices might involve reconfiguring existing devices to serve new functions, repurposing parts from multiple existing technologies to create entirely novel inventions, or simply taking raw materials as the basis for both analog and technological creations.

Similarly, the Webmaker initiative, launched two years ago by prominent technology organisation Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox browser, promotes hacker literate practices among both youth and adult populations globally through engagement in web design. Finally, the nature of the web as a designed technological space vulnerable to undesirable reformulations was brought to mainstream consciousness in the highly visible fight around and ultimately defeat of the SOPA and PIPA legislation in early 2012, an instance which has signalled a more coherent mainstream digital liberties movement (Croeser, 2012).

It’s my hope that the positive trends identified with regards to the development of a culture that engages in hacker literacies come to prove more resilient than the challenges, and I believe that educators, academics, technologists, parents, and youth all have a role in making that hope come to pass, as do bloggers, fan fiction writers, makers, gamers, and cultural participants of all sorts. As vested and powerful interests move from dominant role in the realm of mainstream media and advertising into new digital and technological spaces, stakeholders from many sectors will have a role to play.

While I believe the sorts of participatory cultures associated with digital technologies cannot, by virtue of their many to many structure, be dominated by a single vested interest completely, without incorporating critical practices into participatory ones, people may find themselves living in a technologically mediated culture dictated by interests other than their own.


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Biographical Statement

Rafi Santo is the co-director of the Hive Research Lab and a doctoral candidate in the Learning Sciences at Indiana University. His research interests focus on the intersection of new media, educational design and interest driven learning. Santo’s current work involves using ethnographic and design-based research approaches to understand development and diffusion of learning innovations within regional educational networks, promoting systems thinking through digital design, and empowering youth in relation to new media through hacker literacies.


Website: www.empathetics.org

Twitter: @empathetics

A.J. Bartlett

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (365 KB)


This essay addresses the question of change as it is expressed in debates on the introduction and use of new digital technologies in contemporary education. It sets out some of the terms of this debate, concerning MOOCs in particular, and puts into question the very conception of change they presume. The essay advocates a distinction between education, which marks the subjective capacity of all for thought, and pedagogy, which, the essay argues, teaches subjective incapacity for all. The case is made that without a formal conception of change MOOCs will only strengthen the contemporary pedagogical project of difference as repetition. In conclusion, the essay attempts to sketch a conception of real change such that a new orientation to the debate is proposed.

Keywords: change, education, MOOC, subject,

The contemporary “debate” concerning the educational effects or affects of digital technology on education attracts philosophical attention. This is not because philosophy is some instrument of censure or tribunal of value ruling sovereign over all discourse. There are three reasons:

  1. These debates deploy rhetoric and aver conceptual elaborations that are themselves drawn from philosophy
  2. Insofar as these debates make general claims as to the novelty or inventive aspects of these technologies over and above their technical application and effect, philosophy, ever concerned by the new, by how it comes to be and its consequences, is compelled to take note
  3. Since Plato at least, education and the subject of education have been intrinsic matters for philosophy. Being intrinsic to philosophy means that education is linked, as a matter of course, to truths. The link between truths and subjectivity is what matters, for truths orient the subject of education to its situation in a way distinct from that which the knowledge of education prescribes. This is the invariant aspect of education, the basis of real change.

What follows is partly intervention, partly analysis. Based on the “simple” contention that the production of a truth, in a situation, is what education names, this essay argues that a) educational change must be thought differently from the regimes of change dominant today and b) be directed specifically against the forms of knowledge these regimes presume to be the knowledge of education. We are thinking here of the collection of educational discourses familiar to everybody today, which range from constructivism to neoliberal reformism, and which regularly make certain claims about educational knowledge, as about how best to harness its effects. The key point is that these regimes, if apparently quite diverse in their presentation, are nonetheless united at the level of their knowledge-operations and subjective effects. The contention is that these regimes, insofar as they condition the contemporary conception of education, produce what we call a subjective incapacity—and not, as these regimes necessarily claim, new capacities. This incapacity can be defined as: that form of the subject whose very knowledge of itself as subject is the condition of its non-knowledge of its own subjection. Each act of this subject, correlated to the knowledge of the world for which such a subject exists is an act of the (re)production or better, the preservation of this incapacity. This incapacity, entirely co-terminus with the form of a world for which modification is its rule, ultimately, is the material form of the impossibility of real change. The object of this intervention is the concept of change which predicates debates over the role of digital technology in education. The analysis will argue that this concept of change is inherently un-educative precisely because it is no change at all.

Currently Dominant Regimes of Educational Knowledge With Respect to New Media

Today, there is a major public anxiety over education, prevalent across the globe, whose intensity—both rhetorical and reformist—is ratcheted up at any indication that education might escape the tight rein of established knowledge. Policy documents from Australia, the UK, Europe and the USA are practically unanimous that as the key feature and facilitator of developments in the ‘new knowledge economy’ education must be ‘constantly’ reformed to meet the demands of the ‘rapidly changing global economy’ (Gonski, 2012: WISE, 2011; WB, 2002). Over the course of the last several decades of global capitalist educational reform major figures such as Pinar (1975), Bowles and Gintis (1976), Althusser (1977), Bourdieu (1979), Foucault (1977), Giroux and Aranowitz (1986), Illich (1971), Freire (2005), among many others have elaborated various critiques of these reforms and their predicates, establishing strong theoretical positions and proposing reforms in turn. Some of these proposals, suitably repurposed, have been registered and even appropriated by governmental policy (New Basics, 2001; UNESCO, 2011; WB, 2002). A critique of this critique is overdue: if for no other reason than to rescue it from the inclusive clutches of the state.

The rapid evolution of new media technology has extended and intensified these already intense debates about the future of global educational change (Bulut, 2011; Jorgensen, 2007; Scholz, 2013). A recent study notes that in the ‘[i]nformation age … learning itself is the most dramatic medium of […] change’ (Davidson et al., 2009). While another asserts that digital technology, in the form of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC), will usher in a ‘historic transformation’ both in the way education is delivered and in the way it is conceived. The ‘four V’s’ of the Web—the sheer amount of data out there (volume), offered in so many different modes of delivery (variety), available anytime and anywhere (velocity), and at different levels of data depth, accessible differentially from novice learners to expert researchers (variability)—constitute a ‘disruption’ of all existing systems of education (Butin, 2012).1 Although critics point to the links between the changes wrought by Internet technologies to educational engagement and ‘participation’ and global commercial interests—centred especially on the mining of individuals’ data (Dolby, 2004; Scholz et al., 2013)—the backing and involvement of elite educational institutions is, it is said, ‘legitimising’ these changes, thereby ensuring their impact on the future of education (Hill, 2012). What these debates suggest is a tension in contemporary discourse on educational change between ‘education as change’ and thus as an inherently unstable site, and ‘changes to education’ as the effort to stabilise change itself (Long &Seimans, 2011; Peters, 2011; Roche, 2013). This crucial distinction, bearing on our conceptual double—education and subject—will be elaborated further below.

One of the key features revealing this tension is the language used to describe the impact of new technologies and economic priorities on education. Digital technology is said to usher in an “historic transformation” in not only the way education is delivered but also in the way it is conceived such that there is the potential for ‘a fundamentally new paradigm’ (Butin, 2012). Moreover, the ‘technological revolution’ currently taking place in online education which, it is said, has the capacity not only to enable information input at a single site to reach anyone on the planet instantly, but allows for the sharing of information, work and data across borders and cultures is, it is claimed, by virtue of its educational effect, ‘a social revolution’ (Downes, 2005). ‘New organizations are being created to offer new kinds of degrees, in a manner and at a price that could completely disrupt the enduring college business model’ (Butin, 2012). The discourse of the ‘knowledge economy’ has already marked this modal complex of policy, economy and technology and is similarly tasked to produce ‘flexible’, ‘adaptable’, ‘entrepreneurial’ and moral subjects: ‘lifelong learners, adapting continuously to changed opportunities, work practises, business models and forms of economic and social organization’ (Bartlett, 2011a; New Basics, 2001; WB, 2002;). Thus in conformity with, rather than in opposition, key figures in digital media and online learning speak constantly of the potential of internet technologies ‘to [change] just about everything about how we think about […] education’ given that it is now possible to create ‘a never-tiring, self-regulating, self-improving system that supports learning through formative on-demand feedback’ (Butin, 2012; Long &Seimans, 2011).

Much of this discourse today concentrates in the discussions of MOOCs.‘A MOOC’, one expert claims, ‘integrates the connectivity of social networking, the facilitation of an acknowledged expert in a field of study, and a collection of freely accessible online resources.  It is a ‘course’ that is ‘open, participatory, distributed’ – life-long networked learning. It is ‘not a school or just a course,’ but an ‘event’: by which one ‘connects and collaborates’—‘engaging   in the learning process itself’ but ‘in a structured way’. Choice, this expert says, retroactively confirmed via ‘participation’, is built in. It is ‘a key feature all the way through…. And even success is your choice ‘just like real life’(Cormier, 2010a).

These events of ‘rhizomatic community engagement’ (Cormier, 2010b) – undefined by experts but strangely recognisable to ‘educators’ alone—are said to be effecting a ‘campus tsunami’, a ‘historic transformation’ and an ‘education revolution’ (Blint, 2012;Boxall, 2011). That MOOCs, conceived as an event, are said to build on ‘established distance learning models’ but remain distinct in terms of access and by the forms of participation required to make them work, brings to the surface a division well known in contemporary continental philosophy between events and consequences; of thinking at the same time continuity and discontinuity. At stake in this is the possibility of the new itself—that is, for the emergence of something that is not simply a repetition of the old in different guise—and, in our reading, finally of any possible subject not constituted in some way by the ‘continuities’ of known knowledge.  This means that the very form of the relation between ‘event’ and ‘consequences’ impacts decisively on what one even understands by education. If the MOOC is both event and real change at once, ostensibly sufficient in itself to change the ‘educational paradigm’, we have no subject except as pure emergence. If these two are distinct, it is because there is a subject unsupported by whatever discourse of continuity is in effect. Concomitantly—and this is an internal debating point not an opposition to this educational event/revolution—questions concerning the ‘educational legitimacy’ of MOOCs, the conditions for their possible credentialing, have been solved, it is argued, by the coming on board of so-called “elite institutions” (Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Edinburgh, Melbourne etc.), who ‘are publicly extolling the value and quality potential of online education, and are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars’ (Hill, 2012). Credentialing is key to the capacity of these ‘partnerships’ between entities like Coursera, Udacity and edX and these institutions to charge fees for these ‘post-courses’ courses. However, this is not where the money really is.

While ‘change’ is subscribed to by (almost) all participants in the education-technology debate for some pre-eminent figures in the world of techno-pedagogy such as Long and Seimans (2011) and Blint,(2012)who see the changes MOOCs announce as more a matter of process, the potential transformative power of MOOCs is far from being fully exploited. For these thinkers the ‘analytics’ (data mining capacity) made available by MOOCs, specifically by the participants in these so-called ‘post-courses’, have been underexploited, and the educational potential they possess are being wasted. Analytics means, essentially, that every keystroke, ‘tweet, status update, page read online’ can be analysed to ensure that every ‘learner’ is targeted ‘with resources relevant to his or her profile, learning goals, and the knowledge domain the learner is attempting to master’ (Long &Seimans, 2011).3 ‘The idea is simple yet potentially transformative: … Continued growth in the amount of data creates an environment in which new or novel approaches are required to understand the patterns of value that exist within the data’ (Long &Seimans, 2011). All this, of course, under the coincident network rubric of openness, sharing, connectedness, togetherness and community.

Placing the Burden of Change in the Learner who is not a Subject

This discourse of innovation, transformation and change, rooted in the learner, note—in a manner not clearly determined but no doubt ideologically prescient—resonates throughout the blogs, discussion boards, online journals, academic articles, policy documents and book-length research projects devoted to the topic.  One commentator sums it like this:

This approach to learning means that learning content is created and distributed in a very different manner. Rather than being composed, organized and packaged, e-learning content is syndicated, much like a blog post or podcast. It is aggregated by students, using their own personal RSS reader or some similar application. From there, it is remixed and repurposed with the student’s own individual application in mind, the finished product being fed forward to become fodder for some other student’s reading and use (Downes 2005).

For Downes, with all the innocence of one unfamiliar with educational history, this means two things: that learning ‘is becoming a creative activity’ and that the ‘venue’ is not an ‘application’ but a platform.   What this means, then, is that the notion of the medium is (supposedly) finished—platform and learner are synthesised—and subjectivity, other than as incapacity, becomes null and void. Because this ‘self-recursive stream of numbers’ effectively renders all creativity, precisely media, as inexistent, ‘consigned to disappear’ as Kittler tellingly remarks, ‘into the black-holes and boxes that, as artificial intelligences, are bidding us farewell on their way to nameless high commands’ (Kittler 1999; xxxix). To be clear, the problem here is the subjective weakness of these ‘new’ technologies and not their overweening power. This weakness is precisely expressed in their filial subservience to the prevailing discourses on education, the very ‘object’ they suppose they are overcoming. We constantly reencounter this structure, whereby declared radicality in fact simply rehearses the most archaic aspects of what it purports to supersede. Boris Groys pointedly articulates this problem against emergence theories in terms of an inability to grasp the key distinction between what is truly new and what is different. ‘Difference’ he points out, citing Kiekergarrd, ‘is recognised as such only because we already have the capability to recognise and identify this difference as difference. So no difference can ever be new—because if it were really new it could not be recognised as difference’ (Groys 2002).

Certainly, the rhetoric concerning these new technologies is such that we would expect that a real discontinuity or something truly new has been established between what passed as education before—and thus its subjects—and the ‘revolution’ or ‘paradigm shift’ now coming to pass.4 Yet this rhetorical exuberance seems, as in ancient times, to go hand in hand with a casual and inconsistent use of terms and a concomitant conceptual free for all. Especially revealing, and a key aspect of the (re)production of this ‘subjective incapacity’, is the interchangeability and conflation of the terms used to promote the extent of its innovative capacity: change, reform, transformation, revolution, disruption, paradigm shift, and so on, are used as synonyms and often without reflection on their use (BER, 2011; Boxall, 2102; Butin, 2012; Friedman, 2012; Long &Seimans, 2011). While there is little doubt that ‘changes are occurring,’ it is clearly the case that certain changes may secure existing practices rather than re-form them, while certain reforms may serve to strengthen set paradigms; equally, a ‘disruption’ cannot itself be equated with a revolution. In effect, certain discourses of change may act as limits to rather than an extension of educational change. This is precisely what is meant by modification—as we will see.

Between Globalisation and Universalism

Unguarded assumptions concerning the subject of education abound—in both senses: education as the subject under debate and thus considered as an object and the subject with which education is concerned. I say the subject and not subjects because it is the subject which is precisely in question. What implicit, unthought theory of the subject are these debates working with or, more accurately here, what (theory of the) subject are these debates assuming? The continually invoked notion of ‘participation’ is one example: is the subject the outcome of participation? Is there a subject who participates or is participation, as in Plato, a subjective process in itself? And of course this only begs the question of just what it is one participates in. No doubt ‘education’ is what one is meant to be participating in, but this again begs the question, if not of ‘what it is’ then at least of which form of education is at stake. Is it the same form as prior to the digital revolution of all paradigms, or do they have in mind some other education? This applies, by the way, to those on ‘both sides’ of the claims for this new affective education—those who see it as coincident with the logic of capital, lets call it, and those who see it as emancipatory of it in some way.5 In reality, however, at the level of the subject of education – thus what it is and what it affects—it appears little has changed at all. What we certainly have is a new technique but the problem of a new technique—as Plato argued—is that it assumes the knowledge of the thing for which it is a technique. In other words, what type of the subject can technology produce? Is it ‘new’? Long and Seimans sum up this ‘all change’ succinctly.

Something must change. For decades, calls have been made for reform in the efficiency and quality of higher education. Now, with the Internet, mobile technologies, and open education, these calls are gaining a new level of urgency. Compounding this technological and social change, prominent investors and businesspeople are questioning the time and monetary value of higher education (Long &Seimans, 2011).

We note that in each case we have referenced here, the address of the claims is always to all. These revolutionary changes issuing from some centre or other will as a matter of course affect everyone insofar as education is a global enterprise. And where such change is resisted—which is always also cast as a sign of barbarity, backwardness or even evil—it will be what education is for them too, one day soon. This is the case, even if the use of terms like ‘community’ is not without certain conceptual problems (as post-colonialist studies have exemplarily argued), notably to do with modalities of exclusion. Since at least Marx, that other great thinker of the nexus of technology, knowledge and capital, we know that there are at last two ways to think the ‘all’ addressed by such discourses: in terms of globalisation and in terms of universalism. We can express this for our purposes this way: globalisation is the expression of what can be done with this for all (the subject of the address); universalism is the expression of what this for all can do (as subject).

Education Considered as Transmission, Subjectivity and Transformation

Under this distinction, let’s say, then, that there are three fundamental aspects to education, whether globalising or universalist: transmission, subjectivity and transformation. These—the means, form and address of a discourse; the material affect of participation (however understood); the name of the educational effect (again however understood)—one way or another, as we have seen, are recognised by all ‘participants’ in the debate and by us who are not. These will act as the interlinked points by which we proceed to see what truth there is to the claims made for these digital technologies with regard to education. The discourse on MOOCs, as noted, certainly touches on each aspect and in turn conditions the form of their relation specific to it. But what is this change inscribed at the centre of this debate? What can change be in a world where change has established itself as the norm?Where the rapidly changing conditions of everyday life are supposed  beyond anyone’s control and where education is nominated as the facilitator not of these changes per se but as what provides subjects capable of adapting to or being flexible before this change?. Subjects, thus, capable (only?) of reproducing such ‘change’ as the ground of their subjectivity. These subjects are subject to the absolute un-changeability of the form of change that there is.

In this sense, the much heralded move from ‘application’ to ‘platform’ does not at all challenge this subjective incapacity recognised in the ‘old ways’ but does ‘smooth over’ or plane-ify the contradiction that makes any thought of the subject possible. If all is platform or ‘plane of consistency’ over which content travels indiscriminately then there is no point—we have no doubt ‘violently imposed’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 510), what Badiou calls a ‘pointless’ or ‘atonal world’:

it is clear that atonic worlds are simply worlds which are so ramified and nuanced—or so quiescent and homogeneous—that no instance of the Two, and consequently no figure of decision, is capable of evaluating them. The modern apologia for the ‘complexity’ of the world, invariably seasoned with praise for the democratic movement, is really nothing but a desire for generalized atony (Badiou, 2007, p. 420)

Groy’s marks something similar when he says, ‘innovation has become a ritual’ (Groys, 2011a). Referring specifically to internet technologies he continues that ‘all the processes of renewal and innovation etc. have become extra-human, extra-psychological, extra-individual, and are functioning according to the circumvention of individual and collective practices of remembering’. Moreover, ‘It’s just like these [post-modern academic grant] applications in which non-innovation [is] offered as innovation’ (Groys, 2011a).6 In other words it is the pointless reproduction of pointless worlds, entirely possible because there is nothing not-it to interrupt the flow of ‘the conservative succession of instants’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 509). For Badiou, and for Groys too, however, the new is for all this not impossible, or rather it is the impossibility inscribed at the heart of the platform itself that must be affirmed, held to, and the consequences drawn. Badiou enigmatically says: ‘Every human animal can tell itself that it is ruled out that it will encounter always and everywhere atonicity…’ (2007, p. 514).

This is the double paradox of discourses of change today, to which the technological, for all its intensity and audacity, reveals itself to be only an addition and not at all something new, something subtractive of or withdrawn from the contemporary knowledge of education. On the one hand it belongs to a paradigmatic logic of ends—the end of history; the end of capitalism and parliamentary democracy as the apex of possible worlds—which is to say, there is now ‘nothing new under the sun’. And yet, grounded by this unchangeable horizon, which is of course, as ever, off limits to thought—inaccessible, ineffable, atavistically infinite or forever ‘emergent’—there is nothing but change. If modularity (Nash, 2013) is the name of the present void of the (educated) subject, modification is the transcendental condition of such a world. The cartoon character Homer Simpson provides us with a clear image of this state of the situation when, criticising some new commodity invention to difficult for him to master, he asks: ‘why didn’t they just take an existing product and put a clock in it?’ One can ask this question, slightly reframed, of the ‘reformers’ or change agents: Have you not just taken an existing product, education, and stuck a (digital) clock in it?

The instrumentalisation of education considered as instrument.

Without at all having to leave aside the commodity form of education—which is as intrinsic to this reform debate as it is symptomatic of its ignorance of education—the underlying assumption of this whole reform debate is that it knows already what education is. Paradoxically, in the midst of all this change, education—such as it is known—is unchangeable. What will and must in fact continually change—and thus difference is mistaken for the new—is the technique for its manipulation or instrumentalisation relevant to the demands of a logic extrinsic to it. Hence claims like: ‘Analytics in education must be transformative, altering existing teaching, learning, and assessment processes, academic work, and administration’ (Long & Seimans, 2011).Thus, if instrumentalised, no matter the technique, it is instrumentalised for something else, for something else beyond education itself. This something else, then, must presume to mark the limits of education itself? Which is to say, it takes the form of a known knowledge: a knowledge off limits to education. But there is another, further twist, for this knowledge of education, which in order to maintain itself must constantly alter its techniques in order to appear as the current knowledge of education, is constrained by an altogether immanent aspect of education: that it is fundamentally about change itself. In other words, the knowledge of education as a technique changes in order that the intrinsic capacity of education for change is made impossible, and from within the debates on education itself.

The current debates about education are themselves being instrumentalised by the knowledge of education they presume, defer to and support in their efforts to instrumentalise education—theory, policy and practice—in support of that knowledge. We have an instrumentalisation of an instrumentalisation. And this doubling takes place in order precisely to forestall the transformative effects of education as such—known to be troublesome for all states throughout history. Such effects are the immanent truths of any possible concept of education and, for all that, to adopt a notion of Groys, are as such withdrawn from the market or the logic of capital, which provides the temporal horizon of our contemporary knowledge. Education is something like a site relative to capitalist knowledge; it marks a divested point, an emptiness in the territory of capital. It remains over, and this indeed with regard to any ‘state knowledge’ (capitalism is simply the state of our situation), ‘for the purpose of creating something that was meant for eternity and not for time’ (Groys, 2011b).

Appropriately, this contradiction, to use some old language, or disjunction, to appropriate some more recent, is not new—it is part of the history of education itself. Plato elaborates this for us in the struggle against the dominant market technique of his day, sophistry, which already offered the youth or ‘learner’ the knowledge necessary to know that the interests of the state were in their interest or, to make its individual way in the world as it is. This is the mark of an educated subject to this day—even if, following Rancière (1991) here, we should properly call this pedagogy and reserve the name education for that form which divests itself of this state pedagogy as the mode of its becoming true. That this disjunction, the effect of education’s intrinsic withdrawal, is a constant of debates on education should be pause for thought, especially amongst knowledgeable commentators on education.

Can real change really be thought: the thinking that cannot not be done.

Against this contemporary return and repetition of the sophistic motif, a twofold question must be posed: What is understood by change and what type of subject is conceived, supposed and created with regard to this technological conception of educational change? Of course these two questions are themselves somewhat supplementary to the question we invoked at the level of the concept: what is education?  This question, which cannot be answered with regard to technique alone, is always foreclosed in debate precisely because to even pose it supposes a distinct orientation to the knowledge of education. In other words it supposes the existence of a point outside knowledge other than on knowledge’s terms. We have elaborated a book-length response to the question ‘what is education’ (Bartlett, 2011)? It maintains that it is demonstrable—it has a trajectory, consequences and an orientation that can be traced and established as consistent under varying conditions and relative to distinct situation.  Thus we can say what it is and hence we can recognise when it is not. This cannot be elaborated here.

However, the key to the demonstration is the intrinsic link between education and truths. Alain Badiou observed with all irony back in 1988 that, ‘truth is a new word in Europe’; but of course it is always what is at stake in education: that there is something other than known knowledge, that it invests the situation with new forms of transmission and that some subjects form or are transformed on the basis of it. In his 2004 essay on the relation of Art (which produces the truths of the ‘art-world’) and Philosophy (the discourse of their composition with the truths of politics, love and science) Badiou makes the declaration, ‘the only education is an education by truths’.  He continues: the ‘entire insistent problem is that there be truths’ (2004, p. 13-4). Without them, without their exceptionality to the normal course of things—assumptions, laws, beliefs, knowledge as such (Badiou, 2007, p.1) —education will be only a matter of received or established or dominant opinion; battered this way and that depending on the dictates or determinations of what norms or knowledge prevail outside it, but within the ‘class struggle in theory’ that is educational reform today.7 It is this link between education and truths that means that education can be conceptualised, and with regard to what Badiou calls real change—as distinct from ‘modifications’ or ‘facts’.

In the short space left we will reductively sketch out Badiou’s typology of change within which the discussed claims to change can be situated. From his earliest work in the 1960’s Badiou has been committed to conceptualising the form of real change; which is to say, ‘can there be something new in the situation’ (Badiou, 2005b, p. 253)? But of course, as he says, to think the new in situation we need to think the old. We have done some of that above. In his Logics of Worlds, a text from 2005 that builds on his formal reconfiguration of ontology in 1988’s Being and Event, Badiou sets out a formal onto-logically rigorous typology of change and links it explicitly to a type of subject. Its very useful to any thinking of education for three reasons which we will take one at a time.

The truth/knowledge couple

Badiou’s typology of change refers to a dynamic reconfiguration of the distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’. Badiou opens Logics of Worlds by wondering what it is we think about our situation today, especially when we are not ‘monitoring’ ourselves (a suitably pedagogical term)(Badiou, 2007, p. 1). In other words, he asks ‘what is our natural belief’ – ‘in keeping’, he says, ‘with the rule of an inculcated nature’. He contends that ‘natural belief is condensed in a single statement: There are only bodies and languages’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 1). This is the axiom of ‘democratic materialism,’ which is for him the name of the knowledge of the world today – it is the knowledge that fashions us as individuals. Against this, Badiou proposes a counter axiom: ‘there are bodies and languages except that there are truths’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 4). Truths are exceptions to the inculcated, pedagogical rule of democratic materialism and as such, they are not reducible to or recoupable by knowledge—sensory, experiential or linguistic. The modes of change constitutive of the knowledge of ‘bodies and languages’ are irreducible to the form of change that has done with this knowledge itself. This latter form of change is exceptional to knowledge tout court. The key thing to note here is that what we called education or rather the change that is properly effective as education is the latter and not the former. The former are changes to education and not educational change. Changes to education are such that a) it treats it as an object of known knowledge and b) that works to forestall the real changes that (a non-democratic materialist) education announces and produces as a matter of course. A truth for Badiou is a generic, subjective and transformative procedure, while knowledge acts upon truths as a stabilising and reformist force. In other words, truths are dynamic and subjective interventions within situations or worlds of established knowledge, which produce precisely a new orientation to this world whose effect, affected point by point, is to displace this knowledge from within. Truths have to be established in fidelity to an event. They are not what is adequate to or an instance of established knowledge. Hence a true education is oriented to the world with regard to an established break with its knowledge, by what exposes there the site of its lack.

Knowledge as encyclopedia, as Badiou calls it, is predicated precisely on being coincident with the all of the whole. Badiou’s ontological formulations show the inconsistency of the latter – the One is not  (Badiou, 1999; 2005a)– and the theory of the event, authorized by this rigourous thinking of inconsistency as such, establishes that what is exposed by the event for a situation is this point of inconsistency. In short, there is always within any regime of knowledge its point of lack—its void-site in strict terms (making it categorically unlike Deleuze!)—around which it organises itself. This ‘lack’ is the ‘excess’ (unknowable) that any such knowledge guards against and is therefore a condition of its knowledge. In other words, knowledge cannot know the void or lack at its heart and must therefore produce as knowledge this non-knowledge. The debates on education that presume a knowledge of education in their debates and so rely on its currency in knowledge are, then, effectively producing the non-knowledge of their lack. Knowledge first and foremost produces its own lack of knowledge. But that is not the issue per se. Rather, it is the production of this lack as knowledge itself, that is, that this lack must not be known, that is the real horizon of this discourse or its genuine excess. For Badiou, while this excess is ‘incalculable’ and therefore cannot be known as such, it can be decided—in and through the construction of a generic, indiscernible or new set. In other words, to decide is absolutely consistent with what ontology formalises.8

Truths are not thereby of being itself but are totally contingent on the contingency of an event or the irruption in a situation or world of that which-is-not-being-qua-being.

But neither is genuine change given to us on the side of appearing, or of the transcendental constitution of being-there, on the side, that is, of worlds. For the appearing of a being in a world is the same thing as its modifications in that world, without any discontinuity and thus any singularity being required for the deployment of these modifications (Badiou, 2007, p. 358).

Truths are subjective productions, subtractive of being as of all knowledge. This distinction or coupling between truths and the knowledge which truths interrupt and avoid as a matter of course is operative in all forms of discourse specifically when change or the ‘new’ is at stake.

Modification, fact, singularity – intensity

Badiou elaborates a formal typology of change drawn from topos theory, itself a sub-set of Category Theory. The aim is still to trace the trajectory of a truth in a world but this time in terms of its appearing there. The sets of relations which affect and determine what it is to appear is what makes up the logic of appearance or ‘existence’, and topos theory provides a formal account of what Meillassoux calls the ‘diverse consistencies revealed to us in experience’ (2011, p. 6). What matter here are the three types of change made thinkable by such an onto-logy. These are: modifications, facts and real change or singularity. They are distinguished in terms of their intensity or affect and their relation to the transcendental specific to their world, which is to say, ‘established knowledge’. Approximating to the language of the above examples, modifications are akin to reform, facts to disruptions, and real change to transformationor the instance of the new.

For Badiou any world, in terms of its appearing as such, is transcendentally structured. The transcendental is the ‘locus of the relations of identity and difference by means of which multiples make ‘worlds’’ (Badiou, 2011, p. 75). This is a relation of order of a specific sort in so far as what appears does so in terms of intensity and intensity is a matter of relation—the relation of one multiple to another. What appears most intensely in a specific world determines the intensity of appearing of the other multiples marked to exist in that world. A world is structured in terms of a maximal intensity of appearing or existence, and a minimum. ‘The intensities of objects and relations are measured according to a singular temporal transcendental, which objectivates in their appearing multiplicities…’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 359).In a world, for example, where knowledge provides the transcendental rule, those deemed knowledgeable will appear more intensely than the unknowledgeable or ‘uneducated’. This is a reductive example but accurate enough. Most objects relative to a world, Badiou says, appear somewhere in the middle.

It is impossible to flesh out the entire nuance, let alone all the technical apparatus. If we understand that to appear in a world is to appear for the transcendental of a world, thus relative the knowledge of the sets of relations organised vis-à-vis the order of intensity, then what we need to know is simply: ‘[…] the appearing of a being in a world is the same thing as its modifications in that world, without any discontinuity and thus any singularity being required for the deployment of these modifications’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 358). In a world stabilised by an established knowledge, one in which any point of difference, such that its difference cannot be marked by that knowledge is always already the operation of a modification. To be-there with some degree of intensity above the minimum (which is to inexist for a world (which is not to not be)) is to exist as and to consist in being modified.

[T]his logical identity of a world is the transcendental indexing of a multiplicity—an object—as well as the deployment of its relations to other multiplicities which appear in that world. There is no reason to suppose that we are dealing with a fixed universe of objects and relations, from which we would have to separate out modifications. Rather, we are dealing with modifications themselves… (Badiou, 2007, p. 358)

In other words, then, modification, as the ‘rule governed appearing’ of difference as such is the norm of a world and is not change.

Change is something more than mere modification and something distinct from a fact. However, while modifications are coincident with the transcendental, a fact and a singularity (real change) have in common what Badiou calls a ‘site’. In short, a site marks the limit point within a world or situation of established knowledge. Beneath the site, so to speak, there is nothing—it marks the point of inexistence or an abnormality inadmissible to the logic of the state: it is present but not represented; its parts are un-knowable.  A fact, then, is a site, Badiou says, ‘whose intensity of existence is not maximal’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 372). It is not evental. It does not carry in its becoming the disruptive force necessary to effect a change in the logic of that world itself. While a fact is not of the law as such, it cannot alter this law either. A fact points at change but is not itself real change. A fact is recoverable for a world.

Badiou admits into the schema a distinction in singularity between weak and strong. A weak singularity is an evental site such that it does not produce consequences. In other words, it cannot make a minimal existence pass into a maximal as can an event or strong singularity. A strong singularity—which is an event—is ‘a site whose intensity of existence is maximal’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 372).  Every world admits an element properly inexistent to it. This properly inexistent will be an element of a site. If there is an event, it is the eruption of this properly inexistent or that which exists minimally for that world, such that what happens becomes the index of its happening: hence ‘singularity’. The minimally appearing element of that world comes to appear maximally—which, given the site has no known or presented elements, is patently illegal. So an appearing minimal of a site, of a sudden appears maximally. What the event signifies is the non-impossibility of a change in that order—in the ‘unbroken phrasing of the world’—as Badiou says. However, this is not enough—the world is not changed—except that an exception has been marked: that an exception is not impossible. But maximality is consequential. In the world as it goes, there is a maximal appearing and this gives the world its rule—the order to its appearing and thus when the minimal becomes maximal the possibility exists that the entirety of the transcendental order be changed—nothing becomes everything. So if ‘nothing’ or rather the trace of the event (events as such appear to disappear) comes to occupy this place, or in other words to present itself as the new point of orientationfor the conjunction of a topos (or world)—a new form of collection—all relations are up for grabs. This trace, Badiou says, is the ‘eternal’ existence of the inexistent, the outline or statement, in the world, of the disappeared event. Education, we can say is this trace, manifest in the object body constructed by a subject point by point—an orientation, a trajectory, a materiality, a transformation, addressed to all. ‘There is no stronger transcendental consequence than the one which makes what did not exist in a world appear within it’ (Badiou, 2007, p. 376). The event gives to the subject the chance of an other orientation than that deemed to exist. ‘The event is neither past nor future. It presents us with the present’ (2007, p. 384).

The subject (of education)

These modes of change are elaborated with a theory of the subject linked generically to both truths and transformation. In this way education is linked to truthsor what is new, beyond what is already known and thus intrinsically to change (Badiou, 2005b; 2007): and not extrinsically as for reform movements and technical ‘innovators’. The three types of the subject derived are the reactionary, obscurantist and faithful.9The key is that each subjective type is also linked for a particular world to a singular event of that world. Subjects, then, are reactionary to, occlusive of or faithful to an event. These figures of the subject are the appearance of three forms of subjectivisation, relative to the ‘new body in the world’ an event makes possible. That of the reactionary is of an ‘indifference: to act as though nothing has taken place or, more exactly, to be convinced that, were the event not to have occurred, things would be basically the same’. It ‘quashes what is new within the soft power of conservation’. The subjectivisation of the occlusive ‘is hostility: to consider the new body as a malevolent foreign irruption that must be destroyed. In this hatred of the new, of all that is ‘modern’ and different from tradition, we recognize obscurantism’ (Badiou, 2011, pp. 91-2). Thus the obscurantist changes or intensifies its forms of rhetoric or, if in a position to do so, its repressive capacities in order to make sure there is no fundamental change, while the reactive subject adapts to the world in terms of its ordinary modifications since ‘there is no alternative’. Conceptions of education correlated to either of these forms of subjectivisation cannot be considered educational precisely because they refuse to think the impossibility of their worlds and so pre-suppose a knowledge of the limits of knowledge as such—which cannot itself be known.

Real change is the upheaval in a world of the very logic that holds it together, that provides its consistency, and is at the same time the procedure by which a new truth of that world is set out for it, point by point and by which a new body or subjective formation for that world is constructed—one that draws on the equal capacity of all inhabitants of that world to ‘not know its knowledge’.  In other words the faithful subject is marked by its ‘incorporation within the [new] body, enthusiasm for what is new, and active fidelity to that happening that locally disrupted the laws of the world through its advent’ (Badiou, 2011, p. 91). Somewhat enigmatically fidelity marks that:

a truth process is the construction of a new body that appears gradually in the world as all the multiples having an authentic affinity with a primordial statement are drawn together around the latter. And as the primordial statement is the trace of an event’s power, we can also say that a body of truth results from the incorporation within the consequences of an event of everything, within the world, that has been maximally impacted by its power (Badiou, 2011, p. 90).

Here is the crux. Badiou’s ontology and its onto-logy too, establish via a universalisation of non-inclusion the not-impossible belonging of all to the new truth of the situation. Real change is correlated to the non-knowledge of the situation, exposed in the event, whose consequences are drawn by the subject—as its thought/practice or as what is education.

Conclusion: One more effort please…

Technology is always much weaker than its advocates seem to believe. In truth this weakness is concentrated in this belief. In 1795, when the French Revolution had gone over to the side of restoration the Marquis de Sade wrote a tract extolling his fellow countrymen: ‘Frenchmen, one more effort please if you would become Republicans’. Sade offered a new radicality to what it meant to ‘become Republican’, to follow this ‘desire’ right to the end.  Without this, he declared, the real ‘murderers and thieves’, the state and the wealthy, would keep on getting away with it. The rhetoric of the MOOC, of its educational capacity, despite the animate desire of its most wide eyed proponents, only delivers this new technique over to the hands of those in the position to continue to get away with determining for all what education is. Despite what such technological innovations can do, what possibilities they suppose, MOOCs and their like will remain inscribed in the vicious, expansive circle of capitalist or state logic, replicating and repeating, modifying over and again the subjective incapacity this logic demands. The weakness of technology, shackled to this logic, is that it never actually does do what is claimed, that its subjectivisation is actually of a bastard kind—it engenders what it does not want and wants what it cannot engender.  Beneath all the fanfare of its arrival, its result—the intensification of the procedures of the pedagogy that already exists—commands only new rounds of cynicism, fatalism, defeatism: in the last instance and at best an emergent ecstatic nihilism supported by a hybrid humanism-vitalism which is destined to merely repeat, with difference to be sure but without the very possibility of the new. Such is why the rhetoric of the MOOC is so fervent, so desperate, so hollow: the symptom, nevertheless, of a real desire which demands to be taken up. If the greatest efforts of technique return us yet again and with greater intensity to what there is then what is there? What can be done? This is the trace of an education, the force of the subject, the demand that we truly recommence.


[1]Butin (2012) cites Kevin Carey: the ‘monopoly has begun to crumble. New organizations are being created to offer new kinds of degrees, in a manner and at a price that could completely disrupt the enduring college business model.’

2 While we think the notion of revolution is overwrought, though as hysterical, instructive, we might add, that it’s a class one too. Of the kind perhaps Marx and Engels allude to in the Manifesto – ‘The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part’ (48). Gramsci, in the PrisonNotebooks) notes that under the bourgeoisie ‘the state has become an educator’, while Rancière in TheIgnorantSchoolmaster) will call this rule of knowledge that designates the sites of non-knowledge the pedagogicisation of society.

3Butin is quoting Kevin Carey.

4 While some advocates acknowledge the privacy implications, they are certainly not considered to be overarching. The nexus of capital, knowledge and surveillance is finding a new avatar. There are many books and articles now dealing with the question of ‘digital labour’ but the key qualifier here is the notion of education, which is the trump card for the business investors. Under the cover of ‘learning’ almost anything is possible – as it once was under the cover of God.

5 In the words of one commentator: ‘A fully-automated, massively-networked, natural language processing, data-driven, feedback-friendly, learning analytics system’ (Butin 2012).

6‘For example, if you want to obtain funding for a scientific or artistic grant application, you will, of course, have to explain what the new results of this application will be even if you are thinking in a postmodern fashion. I have read a great many applications of this kind. They all were, or are, postmodern, and they all claim in their texts that there is nothing new. But in the rationale for why they should receive money, it suddenly transpires that they have absolutely revolutionary, new insights. We are living in this situation in which we want to be innovative not because we are driven by creative insights and energies, but because we are carrying out the rituals of innovation, which are repetitive in themselves’ (Groys 2011).

7After Rancière’s thoroughgoing critique of Althusser, which is indeed a lesson, we use this term with some irony and not at all to support the notion. Rather, the education debates referred to here are internecine insofar as most participants share a concept of education and, as mostly academics, a ‘class’ position – whether related to ‘cultural capital’ or otherwise.

8 For this concept of the generic or the new Badiou draws on the work in transfinite set theory of mathematician Paul Cohen. That a generic set, one not bound in its construction to any existing predicates, can be shown to exist serves as the formal model of how a truth can be thought entirely distinct from knowledge. As generic, a truth is ‘for all’ in so far as there is nothing to prevent ‘anyone’ being connected to it. Indeed, its that everyone shares the capacity to not be known by the ‘state’ – represented by it or included in it (or counted as one-part by the powerset) – that is the basis for some new truth of a world. Forcing, the ‘law of the subject’, is intrinsically related to this set and is another of Cohen’s terms. Forcing is the operation by which this generic set or new truth (everything being a ‘multiple’) come to be in or for a world.  Coming from the ‘nothing’ that is there this new collection of elements forces the situation to change on the basis of its capacity to demonstrate or to manifest its being there as a part of that world – precisely ‘where and when’ no such part could be known. See Being and Event, Part VII.

9 There is a fourth mode of the subject – resurrection …


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Biographical Statement

A. J. Bartlett teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Email ajbar@unimelb.edu.au

Thomas Apperley & Christopher S. Walsh

Published Online: June 1, 2013
Full Text: HTML, PDF (190 KB)

This issue of Digital Culture & Education marks the beginning of DCE’s fifth year in publication.  We proudly remain open access with a Creative Commons License to challenge the ongoing hegemony of educational publishers that impede research on digital culture and education.

In ‘Innovation in incapacity: Education, technique, subject’, Bartlett questions the manner in which ‘change’ is conceived through the MOOC, Bartlett critically examines  the debates and claims which surround the emergence and influence of the Massive Online Open-access Course (MOOC) on tertiary education. He advocates for a critical distinction between the notions of education, which marks the subjective capacity of all for thought, and pedagogy, which following Rancière, teaches subjective incapacity for all. Bartlett argues that without a critical conception of change, MOOCs will only contribute to the contemporary pedagogical project.

Santo’s article contributes to the discussion of new literacies by mapping an emerging set of critical and participatory media practices. In ‘Towards hacker literacies: What Facebook privacy snafus can teach us about empowered technological practices’, Santo argues that hacker literacies are distinct from other new media literacies as they are not only empowered by participatory technologies, but also empowered in relation to these technologies. The article uses reactions to changes in Facebook privacy policy during 2010 to illustrate how users conceptualised the malleability of the possible relations between themselves and the platform, and consequently reformulated their actions in relation to and within Facebook.

In ‘Young people and Facebook: What are the challenges to adopting a critical engagement’ Pangrazio explores young people’s critical understandings of Facebook in a way that challenges the simple dichotomy between ‘digital natives’ and others. The article uses Foucault’s theory of discursive formation as a framework through which the motivations behind young people’s behaviours may be understood. Pangrazio concludes with suggestions for future educational programs that aim to develop critical engagement with social media.

Uzun et al. report on findings from their study of how vocabulary learning and practicing games may contribute to learning second languages at the university level. Their article, ‘Developing and applying a foreign language vocabulary learning and practice game: The effect of VocaWord’ reports that ‘VocaWord’—the experimental game they developed—doubled the vocabulary improvement rate of the control group subjects. Uzun et al. suggest that games may be usefully developed to support the different aspects of learning a second language and that recognising the utility of games within contemporary educational philosophies, methodologies, and techniques is crucial for meeting the needs and interests of currant language learners.

The issue concludes with Craig Bellamy’s review of Matthew K. Gold’s edited collection Debates in the digital humanities (2012). This issue’s cover art ‘For your precious love’ is provided by Dr. Adam Nash. Dr. Nash is a Melbourne-based artist, composer, programmer, performer and writer in virtual environments, realtime 3D and mixed-reality technology. Previously was an artist in residence at Ars Electronica FutureLab, and was shortlisted for the National Art Award in New Media at Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in 2008. He teaches at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. The editorial team would like to thank Luke van Ryn for his assistance with this issue.

Thomas Apperley & Christopher S. Walsh

Published Online: December 15, 2012
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Matthew Allen’s article “An education in Facebook” hones in on the contemporary debate on the role of Facebook in higher education. He maps educators’ initial enthusiasm and gradual disappointment with the social networking site, but suggests that its sheer ubiquity inevitably makes it part of the informal education experiences of students. Allen presents a summary of what Facebook affords for online communication and networking and analyses the way that the traditional understandings of university education and the relationships between teachers and students are challenged by Facebook.

The article “YouTube viral videos and HIV prevention among African-Americans: Implications for HIV prevention” by Jocelyn Patterson and Khiya Marshall focuses on the potential use of viral videos for HIV/AIDS prevention activism and education. Patterson and Marshall present a content analysis of YouTube member responses to viral videos featuring African Americans that had a theme of HIV/AIDS prevention. This detailed analysis of user comments suggests that the motivation to share and view such videos includes a spectrum of emotional responses, ranging from anger and frustration, to heartfelt encouragement and support.

Meryl Alper’s article “Promoting emerging new media literacies among young children with blindness and visual impairments” examines the challenges that are faced by young children with visual impairments when they learn how to use new digital technologies.  Alper earmarks the theoretical overlap between approaches to the early literacy education of children with blindness and visual impairments and the new media literacies framework developed by Henry Jenkins (and others) in order to account for how expanding notions of literacy and pre-literacy are enmeshed with the affordances of specific technologies.  The article focuses on how “transmedia navigation” manifests in an ongoing methodological, philosophical, and cultural debate regarding the role of technology in potentially contributing to declining Braille literacy rates in the US.

In “Rebranding the platform: The limitations of ‘platform studies’” Dale Leorke provides a critical account of Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s “Platform Studies” series on MIT Press. The article provides an overview of this intriguing, emerging approach, with a particular emphasis on two recent books in the series that focus on the Nintendo Wii console and the Commodore Amiga. Leorke outlines how these new additions contribute to the project, while suggesting that at the same time, they highlight the limitations of the series’ approach.

This issue also has reviews of Vilem Flusser’s Does writing have a future? by Emmet Stinson, and Ian Bogost’s How to do things with videogames, by Daniel Golding. This issue is rounded out by Michael Nycyk’s review of the 2011 CCA-EDCAUSE Australasia conference, held in Brisbane in December 2011.

This issue’s cover artwork was provided by The Hive, a consulting firm specialising in providing face-to-face and virtual mentoring and workshops in writing, branding, design and  creative refreshment to support busy researchers, designers and entrepreneurs improve their impact. A special thanks to Jesse Ko for his continued work as Line Editor for the journal’s final draft copies.

We would also like to thank the many anonymous reviewers who have contributed to DCE. Their commitment to high quality feedback and the vision of the journal have contributed significantly to the quality of the manuscripts we have published. We rely entirely on their dedicated and uncredited labour.

Michael Nycyk

Published Online: December 15, 2012
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In April 2011, I attended the CCA-EDCAUSE Australasian conference in Sydney, Australia.  It brought together a mix of Australian and New Zealand education and related fields professionals with guest speakers in the fields of higher education teaching and research from the United States and United Kingdom. This conference was based on a metaphor: that the ‘game’ of learning and teaching has dramatically changed.

The main message of this review is that digital culture in secondary and tertiary educational institutions is impacting heavily on teachers and students as we move through a period where the relationship between both is changing. Technology is mediating this change; however, the control of learning, what students want to learn, when and how, is increasingly changing. But there was also on display a relationship between business and academia especially in information technology expenditure that cannot be ignored because, as digital education resource users, we need to be aware how to utilise resources efficiently for our students.

This review demonstrates that the talents and skills of many people go into creating new systems to allow students to control the administrative and learning functions of their educational career. However, the conference also questioned delegates’ responses to change and accept that student teacher relationships have, and will continue, to change into partnerships and mentoring, with technology creating an absence of some previous teacher-led activities. It is crucial that teaching professionals at any level be aware of the changes at the research, resources and technology because they are widespread (CCA-EDCAUSE, 2011). This review will stress the impact of these three issues.

Brad Wheeler of Indiana University was the keynote speaker who outlined the theme of the conference.  Using the analogy of a game as metaphor, he described the core worldwide problem of higher education. The problem as he explains is that higher education does not have the structural capacity for large collaborative action in regards to the information technology infrastructures across the planet (Wheeler, 2011).  This is important for digital educators to be aware of the new sets of relationship rules that will arise from worldwide digital education and research. As Poon (2006) explains the decreasing level of government funding in developed countries has put pressure on universities to enter into collaborative, sometimes controversial, alliances with corporations and educational providers. This was evident at this conference as academics and university support staff paid attention to the experiences of other universities when such universities developed student learning and administrative support systems.

The underlying message from the academic administrators and vice chancellors was, as Pathak and Pathak (2010) describe in their paper on higher education value added activities, is education is a buyer’s market and the student is the customer. Part of that, as the conference stressed, is the development of digital education and e-learning systems for student teaching and student self-administration of activities such as enrolling in classes. While these have been part of the landscape for over a decade, the conference presenters were interested in their student learning management systems being robust, easy and intuitive to use, anticipating student needs and, very importantly now compared to the past systems, have some form of social networking and media platforms within them.

The game metaphor suggested by many of the speakers was widely described as a set of changing rules where digital media and its administration and management is driving change. Of note was Diana Oblinger’s (2011) video conference, who viewed these changes as a gift. As Executive Director of Higher Learning in Microsoft, she outlined in 2003 the factors that would lead to the increased use of technology in distance and face-to-face learning at universities. The “information-age mindset” she described was the difference between those who used computers and did not (Oblinger, 2003). However, since the time she described this mindset more the access to digital learning has increased substantially.

In her keynote speech, Oblinger (2011) emphasised that it is the educators who have the opportunity to create the next generation of learning for the next generation of learners. She urged those at the conference to keep ahead of this “game” by constantly interacting with students to see the directions and trends that their students are taking in the learning process. This is why journals such as The Journal of Online Learning and Teachingand Digital Culture & Education which report the research of established and forthcoming researchers in digital education are crucial to emerging interdisciplinary research in education that deals with digital cultures and technologies. Two examples include Disbrow’s (2008) study of online student conferencing for distance students who argued it was a much better interaction medium than asynchronous static virtual communities. The second example was Peterson’s (2011) study of online role-playing games in Japan where students felt less anxious to participate in learning language skills because they could remain anonymous to others.

This conference needed to have more input from other scholars using such technologies to tell stories of how students use digital technology to enhance their learning. Nevertheless, the mix of technology providers and scholars did emphasise one key point; students have and are changing the game of education and offered studies and examples of how this is being done.

Research has moved from a self-contained to one university or specific discipline to a collaborative and cross discipline environment. Additionally, corporations sponsor research and researchers from many universities may work together. An excellent presentation that highlighted the need for universities to manage data and relationships between researchers was from Wolski and Richardson (2011). Their framework comprehensively suggested how to manage research data through the stages of discovery and collection, cleansing, analysis and preservation. But the issue of finding data, particularly quickly finding experts in a field, their publications and contact details on the internet was seen as a major problem. Porter’s (2011) presentation argued that the University of Melbourne’s approach using an ontological approach to web design was effective for indexing and finding research publications. It made a salient point that it is difficult, but increasingly possible, to pull massive amounts of data together to form a coherent and useful profile of researchers and their careers. Why this is important becomes clear when, as digital educators, we need to access expertise in fast growing fields. Therefore, we need electronic and online systems that can store as much relevant research data as possible and for researchers to find quickly those human and other resources they need.

Aside from the data and information aspects of finding research and researchers, the research relationships and ownership of digital data was discussed. Scott and Hillbrick (2011) argued that the positive outcome of collaborative research exercises the Australian Government has insisted on have had good results for students and educators. They spoke of the repositories being archives for research publications and links to such research, such as The University of Queensland’s eSpace research repository. The consequences for more open research accessibility will, no doubt, affect journal subscription rates yet will also allow more research to be available to many, hence allowing more potentially new fields to emerge (Scott & Hillbrick, 2011). Another issue in the changing research landscape was discussed by O’Brien (2011) of Griffith University, Brisbane. Her view advocated that information professionals, researchers, library staff, information technologists and archivists must work closely and collaboratively to ensure well organised and easily accessed research repositories are available.As digital educators we will be faced with growing costs to our universities and departments. Resources will be under stress to cope with students who, whilst providing their own mobile devices and internet connection, will demand more internet and mobile resources. The presentation by Nikkel (2011) was well received as a guide to the University of New Brunswick Canada’s integration of information technology services across the university. Similarly, Herb (Herb & Steller, 2011) discussed the IT strategic planning process at the University of Newcastle as being successful to deliver digital education resources effectively through careful resource management and planning. Cloud computing was seen as a major strategy for cost saving on resources. However, Northam’s (2011) presentation praised and cautioned against the use of cloud computing services. Certainly informal discussions after his presentation were of the type that although cost savings and data access are major advantages, student privacy and mining of data for unethical purposes are of concern to the academic community.

The key lesson from the conference in the area of resources is to be aware of the impact economics has on digital culture and teaching practice. It is a game because balancing student needs and wants with less funds for expenditure on needed infrastructure. At present the worrying trend the conference brought out was that although expensive, if resources were not made available to students to allow them to use technologies then this may play a factor in the decision to attend a certain university. Though a name, such as Oxford or Harvard, will likely always play a role in one’s decision to study at a prestige educational institution, technology will and does play a part in a decision to attend a place of learning.

The conference also concerned itself with how educators and university management question the business and service models from both cloud computing and disruptive technologies. Although cloud computing issues, as previously mentioned, were discussed, it was disruptive technologies and their role in the changing landscape of education that became a talking point at the conference. Disruptive technologies are described by Christensen (1997) as those that those that challenge the orthodox ways of doing things that especially produce unexpected and new results and problem. Facebook, Twitter, the iPad, Messenger and YouTube are amongst those in digital education that have done this. As Graetz (2006) contextualises disruptive technologies, they have always existed students daydreaming or doing something else in class. But the difference he argues is the new technologies are there every hour of the day and have changed the education landscape as the temptation to use them is always there (Graetz, 2006). Therefore, as Watulak (2010) observes in her study of mobile phone texting, tensions between teachers and students can arise from use of such technologies. Yet if they are integrated into the learning process as was discussed at several of the conference sessions, it is possible to utilise these tools for educational, not social purposes.

The conference presentations suggested that a way to engage students in learning is through play and creativity use of disruptive technologies, but also as Graeml et al. (2011) stated in their presentation, creating a “caring” learning environment. Several academic and corporate presentations reflected the work in creating virtual technologies that are both disruptive and striving to be effective for student needs. One example at the conference was the growing use of the E-Learning Portfolios. Sutherland (2011) discussed his company’s approach to providing the platforms for these portfolios. His message in his paper was interesting in that he stated such portfolios challenge the hegemonic structures of traditional university courses and personalised the learning experience (Sutherland, 2011). They were examples of disruptive technologies because they produced unexpected results, particularly in the United Kingdom, where in some industries they have replaced the resume for obtaining a career. I asked him if they had been well received by universities and lecturers. His reply was mostly yes though formal studies on this are only now beginning, but some resistance was not unexpected as the portfolio was seen as a “substitute Facebook.” Some had said it was crucial to control the information of the person on such portfolios, but the software does allow locking of certain parts of the portfolio if needed.

Yet there were also examples of universities embracing and encouraging its academic and library staff to find new ways to utilise technology to improve student learning experiences. Some brief examples follow. Sukovic et al. (2011) reported how her team at Sydney’s University of Technology library was encouraged to create the still under construction library as “play spaces” for creativity and problem solving, much, as the presenter said, like Google does at its headquarters. Engaging students through mobile technologies was discussed by Smissen (2011) who explained how his student learning system had mechanisms for identifying students at risk of dropping out of courses, though he was not clear due to time constraints on the specifics of how this worked. Finally, Cooper (2011) discussed how an online program was developed at the University of Wollongong which specifically addressed a common problem in first year learning: how to shift student’s thinking from high school to university learning by encouraging them to feel comfortable with using academic journals in their work. She explained how the course uptake was high, boosted by the issuing of a certificate at the end of the course the student could add to their portfolio of tertiary learning.

The conclusion from my attendance is as digital educators who are trying to understand the current and emerging cultures of digital education is that it was worth attending for three main reasons. For early researchers it offered a reasonable priced, informative conference that, whilst slightly leaning towards corporate presentations, gave an appreciation of the current technologies and research in digital education.

It was also beneficial to understand the pressure universities are under which is being student driven to deliver resources at an economical cost but still provide those technologies which students take for granted. It was interesting to hear comments that students, be them online or face-to-face do have this idea to undertake a course based on technological factors the university offers not its name. Also, the thought of a totally virtual library with no books has happened; the impression I got from the discussions after some librarians’ presentations was it is not the end of the printed book at this period in time, but certainly the “bookless library” has arrived and is becoming the preferred way of borrowing by students.

I feel it is vital that journals such as this one continue their presence in presenting research that builds upon conference attendance. This conference needs to be more organised in terms of splitting the corporate/academic sessions. Research findings and doctorate proposals were mixed in with corporate presentations. Overall this conference is recommended to attend to see not only the issues of the time facing digital education in economic and technological innovation terms, but also in seeing that digital education is emerging as an academic discipline and reminds us how our research must benefit our students in their education quest.


CCA-EDUCAUSE, (2011). The game has changed. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Christensen, C.M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Cooper, L. (2011). Enhancing the student experience for transitioning students.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/lynda-cooper.pdf

Disbrow, L.M. (2008).The overall effect of online audio conferencing in communication courses:  what do students really think? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(2), 226-233.

Graeml, K., Stahlke, J., &Graeml, A. (2011). Distance learning and affectivity: the tutor’s role in keeping students’ enthusiasm in the virtual environment. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Graetz, K.A. (2006). The psychology of learning environments. In D. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning Spaces(pp. 6.1-6.14). EDUCAUSE.

Herb, F.S., & Steller, C. (2011).The IT strategic planning journey at the University of Newcastle.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Nikkel, T. (2011).A new IT framework to enable effective change.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/terry-nikkel.pdf

Northam, R. (2011). My boss used to tell me I had my head in the clouds, now my strategy is in the cloud. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials: understanding the new students. EDUCAUSE Review, July/August, 37-47.

Oblinger, D. (2011).Next generation learning.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

O’Brien, L. (2011). E-research university partnerships revisited. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/linda-obrien.pdf

Pathak, V. & Pathak, K. (2010), Reconfiguring the higher education value chain. Management in Education, 24(4), 166-171.

Peterson, M. (2011). Digital gaming and second language development: Japanese learners’ interactions in an MMORPG. Digital Culture & Education, 3(1).56-73.

Poon, T. S. (2006). The commoditification of higher education: implications for academic work and employment. International Journal of Employment Studies, 14(1), 81–104.

Porter, S. (2011). eResearch administration: the game will change. Designing a Research Data Registry for a world in which there are no information silos, no single sources of truth, and no one system to complete a transaction. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Scott, P., & Hillbrick, G. (2011). Setting a focus – creating a research database one-stop-shop through cross divisional collaboration. CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/patricia-scott.pdf

Smissen, I. (2011). Enhancing student engagement through online and mobile technologies.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/ian-smissen.pdf

Sutherland, S. (2011). Personalising the ePortfolio experience.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/shane-sutherland.pdf

Sukovic, S., England, A., Litting, D., & Chan, H. (2011).Playful engagement as serious strategy.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011.

Watulak, S.L. (2010). “You should be reading, not texting”: understanding classroom text messaging in the constant contact society. Digital Culture & Education, 2(2), 190-209.

Wheeler, B. (2011). Changing the game.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/brad-wheeler.pdf

Wolski, M., & Richardson, J. (2011).A framework for university research data management.CCA-EDCAUSE Conference, Sydney, Australia held on April 3-6, 2011. Retrieved 15 November, 2012 from http://ccaeducause.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/malcolm-wolski-tue.pdf

Biographical Statement

Michael Nycyk is a Brisbane-based independent researcher, he is a recent graduate of the Masters of Internet Communications program at Curtin University, Perth, Australia. His principle interests are in the fields of electronic learning, older adults’ uses of technology to overcome the digital divide and identity issues in Web 2.0 Platforms.

Email: michael.nycyk@gmail.com

Dan Golding

Published Online: December 15, 2012
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Bogost, I. (2011). How To Do Things With Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978 0 8166 7647 7.180 pages. USD 18.95.

How To Do Things With Videogames is Ian Bogost at his most McLuhan-esque. The book, a collection of very short essays on a variety of deliberately diffuse topics to do with videogames, is a play with both the form and structure of intellectual writing and the form and structure of videogames themselves. It is ostensibly an examination of a medley of ‘things’ one can do with videogames, from “Empathy” to “Kitsch” to “Titillation” to “Disinterest,” each chapter briefly suggesting how videogames ‘do’ these things before moving on to the next.

The theory component of How To Do Things With Videogames is only stated plainly in the framing introductory and concluding chapters; however, the theory of the book is frequently argued obliquely and through example throughout its entirety. It is a book deliberately structured to make Bogost’s point through practice—in a way, more of what Bogost in his more recent Alien Phenomenology (2012) has identified as “carpentry:” an artifact, and not just a piece of writing, that does philosophy. Might we then more justifiably place How To Do Things With Videogames alongside Cow Clicker (2010), Bogost’s satirical Facebook game and his most famous (or perhaps infamous) example of carpentry thus far? Perhaps this comparison is not so strange after all, as we shall see.

In How To Do Things With Videogames, Bogost intends on doing what he calls media micro-ecology. That is to say, if media ecology, taken on from the likes of McLuhan and Neil Postman, is the study of how various media arrange and buttress against each other at a level equivalent to a global ecosystem, then media micro-ecology “seeks to reveal the impact of a [single] medium’s properties on society” (p. 7). Hence Bogost uses How To Do Things With Videogames as an incomplete catalogue of sorts for the kinds of types, roles, and effects associated with the medium of the videogame: “how videogames have seeped out of our computers and become enmeshed with our lives” (p. 8).

The central point of How To Do Things With Videogames is this: if we can “understand the relevance of a medium by looking at the variety of things it does” (p. 3), then for videogames to be most relevant, they must do a variety of things. This is not an argument for a gamification-like approach, where the properties of a media form are filtered outwards to other activities. Instead, what Bogost is suggesting here is that we can measure the relevance of videogames by the spread of the medium itself, and that implicitly, limiting videogames to being either Call of Duty or a serious game designed to cure cancer is not good enough.

Bogost comes at this point mostly with an agnostic approach—it seems that he states this more as an observation rather than an argument for how things should be. There is a feeling throughout How To Do Things With Videogames that Bogost is merely identifying a stage in the life of a media form, and is using it as an opportunity to explore hitherto uncharted landscapes. Yet it is ultimately difficult to view a book like How To Do Things With Videogames as anything but an appeal for the medium’s diversification. As Bogost concludes,

Soon, gamers will be the anomaly. If we’re very fortunate, they’ll disappear altogether. Instead, we’ll just find people, ordinary people of all sorts. And sometimes those people will play videogames. And it won’t be a big deal, at all. (p. 154, original emphasis)

There is something strange in witnessing an academic arguing for their object of study to become more normal, more mundane, and less unusual. As Bogost himself puts it, a focus on the mundane and unremarkable uses of a media form is “not a popular sentiment in our time of technological spectacularism. It wouldn’t play well in a TED talk or on a Wired cover” (p. 3).

In this respect, it is interesting to contrast it with another book that How To Do Things With Videogames will surely share shelf-space with, Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters(2012). Anthropy’s book argues for the adoption of simple and sometimes crude tools of videogame creation by “freaks, normals, amateurs, artists, dreamers, dropouts, queers, housewives, and people like you”, so that videogames can have more “weird shit” (2012, p. 135). It would be easy to place these two books at odds, and to some extent they are; however, it feels more like they end up arguing similar points from different angles. Where Bogost sees mundanity, Anthropy sees “weird shit”—yet they both argue for a large-scale creative diversification for videogames. It may be easy to criticise Bogost’s How To Do Things With Videogames from the perspective that mundanity is a strange thing to strive for; yet for Bogost, mundanity and diversification are concepts that are tied up with one another. A media form does not achieve diversification in one strata alone, he seems to suggest: it is not that videogames will be incapable of the extraordinary, but that videogames as a media form will no longer have the extraordinary aura they currently possess.

Moreover, if by his micro-ecology Bogost means to draw a sketch of how the medium fits into society, then perhaps it is the role of the reviewer to attempt to draw a sketch of how How To Do Things With Videogames fits into the literature of videogames, or media studies, or other such microsystems. This is no easy task. In fact, more so than any of Bogost’s prior books (or his even his following publications), it is difficult to pin down exactly where How To Do Things With Videogames fits. Is its audience a general one, or academics, or interested enthusiasts, or is it genuinely a how-to guide for rank outsiders, as its deliberately naive title might suggest?

As I have noted, in How To Do Things With Videogames, Bogost is at his most McLuhan-esque. While this could not quite be described as a ‘pop’ book of videogame theory, it is certainly Bogost’s most accessible book, and intentionally so. How To Do Things With Videogames is not quite aiming at the same general, entry-level audience as, say, Pippin Barr’s How To Play a Videogame (2011) (a book that is more or less what it states in its title). Yet Bogost is definitely competing more with books like Barr’s, or indeed with Clay Shirkey’s Cognitive Surplus (2010) or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (2010) (two books Bogost discusses in his introduction) for the same shelf space or the “people who bought this book also bought…” recommendation than with his own Unit Operations (2006) or Persuasive Games (2007).

This approach is reflected in the style of the book, and not just its framing. The extremely short chapters of How To Do Things With Videogames (all are less than ten pages) gifts Bogost a nimble structure that allows him to engage with areas that traditional academic investigations do not. Consider Bogost’s(2011) examination of videogame kitsch through the lens of painter Walter Kinkade (pp. 83-88), or of the rhetoric of disinterest around gun safety in the target shooting game NRA Gun Club (pp. 134-140). These are new areas interestingly framed by Bogost, and his compact style here makes for interesting analysis.

How To Do Things With Videogames’ nimble structure also means that readers expecting the usual level of academic scrutiny—for all claims to be tested, explored and supported—will be left wanting. This is a book that features a potted history of music in three short paragraphs. Theorists and intellectual frameworks fly past the reader like songs in a ‘60s disco remix: here comes Slovoj Žižek on page 35, followed by the Dadaists on page 41. There goes Walter Benjamin on page 46, with Wolfgang Schivelbusch in hot pursuit on page 47. How To Do Things With Videogames is not a book that lingers.

Yet we must consider that it is not so much the content of each chapter as the form of How To Do Things With Videogames that is important. Despite Bogost’s warning that “the medium is the message, but the message is the message too” (p. 5), it seems that the structure of How To Do Things With Videogames is reflective of its central argument. It is not so much the content of the short, individual chapters of How To Do Things With Videogames that is important as what their structure can point towards.

If we can “understand the relevance of [the videogame] by looking at the variety of things it does,” then How To Do Things With Videogames is a book that spirals outwards, constantly pointing towards fresh uses for the videogame before moving on to the next. It is a book that revels in unfulfilled blank spaces and the pathways not taken, for it expects that the reader—or maybe even videogame culture—will filter outwards to fill these spaces on their own steam. As I suggested earlier, How To Do Things With Videogames thus feels a bit like a media object in itself, its very structure reflecting Bogost’s central argument. Perhaps, returning to the McLuhan comparison and Bogost’s own philosophy of ‘carpentry’, How To Do Things With Videogames is not most like Barr’s How To Play a Videogame or Carr’s The Shallows, but rather McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium is the Massage (1967), another book that utilises the form of publication in order to mount an argument obliquely through structure.

Thus, the key to How To Do Things With Videogames is plain and clear in the book’s own title. This is a book that is interested in what kind of things you can do with videogames, but it is more interested in how this diversity shapes the form itself within a micro and macro ecology perspective, and this is reflected in the book’s structure. It is therefore not what you can do with videogames that is especially interesting here, but how.


Anthropy, A. (2012). Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are taking back an art form. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Barr, P. (2011). How To Play a Videogame. Wellington: AWA Press.

Bogost, I. (2006). Unit Operations: An approach to videogame criticism. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The expressive power of videogames. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or, what it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. New York; London: W. W. Norton.

McLuhan, M. & Fiore, Q. (1969). The Medium is the Massage: An inventory of effects. New York: Penguin.

Shirkey, C. (2010). Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin.

Biographical Statement

Daniel Golding is currently completing a Ph.D. in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne, where he also teaches in the fields of cinema, culture, videogames and digital media. As a critic, Daniel writes commentary on videogames and gaming culture for Crikey.com.au.

Email: dangoldingis@gmail.com

Emmett Stinson

Published Online: December 15, 2012
Full Text: HTMLPDF (447 KB)

Flusser, V. (2011).Does writing have a future? (Trans. Nancy Ann Roth). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN0816670234, 208 pages, $20 US.

The appearance of Vilém Flusser’s Does Writing Have a Future? (2011) in English translation almost twenty-five years after its original publication is undoubtedly a seminal event for both media studies and scholarship on the future of the book, but—because of its very importance—the publication of Flusser’s text also feels strangely belated. Although Does Writing Have a Future? was inaccessible to English-speaking scholars, many books and essays influenced by Flusser’s have been available for years, and, as a result, the book no longer produces the shock that was surely intended upon its publication. Most of those reading it for the first time will inevitably find their reading shaped by the history of its reception—both explicit and implicit—over the last two decades. In this sense, the publication of Does Writing Have a Future? serves as an invitation to consider Flusser’s influence, as much as it encourages a response to the text itself.

Although Does Writing Have a Future? is a complicated and often digressive text, its main argument can be more or less readily summarised: Flusser argues that writing—and the “alphabetic” paradigm presupposed by the hegemony of written texts as the central means of discourse—is being overtaken by a new regime of “codes” and the concomitant production of images (which is to say images and video that are made up digital information). The future discursive dominance of images and codes, Flusser argues, will produce radical transformations in the way we conceive of history, politics, and even thought itself. The text then attempts to wrestle with the implications of these changes and to assess whether or not they can be seen to be positive developments.

It is worth noting from the outset that Flusser’s argument relies on several presuppositions that are not unproblematic, the two most significant of which have already been pointed out by Friedrich Kittler in “The Perspective of Print” (2002). Kittler not only disputes Flusser’s absolute distinction between images and writing, but also argues that Flusser invokes a monolithic conception of writing and reading as a linear practice, when, in fact, “the most widely used books—from the Bible to the telephone directory—are not read in a linear fashion at all” (p. 37). In his introduction to Does Writing Have a Future?,Mark Poster (2011) addresses Kittler’s critique by admitting that “it serves as a cautionary role against overgeneralization” but “does not grapple with the basic issue of media specificity and its cultural implications” (p. xiii). But this response neither adequately accounts for Kittler’s central point—that print was, at heart, a mathematicalisation of writing that enabled the transcendence of writing as such—or the larger problem of Flusser’s oversimplification of the practice of reading.

Flusser ignores the existence of multiple reading regimes, thereby eliding the differences between the practice of immersive, linear reading with hypertextual reading, which refers to a mode that employs the skimming, scanning and searching of a text in a non-immersive fashion. Since hypertextual forms of reading also occur in a wide array of printed texts—such as dictionaries, encyclopaedias and even contemporary newspapers—and not just the internet, one could argue that the essential contemporary shift is not from language to code, but a shift in reading regimes from a linear to a hypertextual paradigm. The increasing dominance of hypertextual reading is generally understood as a reflection of the needs of readers in neo-liberal economies, who are time-poor and require easy and fast access to information. It’s worth noting that a shift in reading regimes could also been seen to generate many of the same effects that Flusser identifies with the ascendency of code. For example, the shift towards hypertextual scanning as the dominant reading regime also implies a process of de-historicisation (since reading is no longer the rigid time-bound unfolding of a linear narrative), a shift away from self-reflexive, critical theorisation (since raw information becomes privileged over argumentation), and a tendency toward the de-politicisation of writing (since texts are assessed in terms of informational content that is presented as if it were ideologically neutral).

But such critiques inevitably subordinate the question of technology to a question of rhetoric. Richard Lanham has explicitly made this argument in The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (1993), when he argued that “When we ask how electronic technology affects us, then, we are inquiring, in terms of electronic technology, into the most profound division in Western culture” (p. 203). For Lanham and his ilk, the debate surrounding the effects of technology on the written word is simply a late instantiation of the division between classical philosophers and the sophist rhetoricians—who disagreed about whether the ideal medium for the transmission of thought was the written word (logic) or the spoken word (rhetoric). For Lanham, proponents of digital media like Marshall McLuhan—and, by extension, Flusser—are actually crypto-rhetoricians, since “electronic technology mean[s] the end of literacy and the return of orality” (p. 202).

Interestingly, even some of those who are influenced by Flusser similarly omit any consideration of the essential difference between code and writing. Peter Sloterdijk’s “Rules for the Human Zoo” (2009), for example, appears written in Flusser-ian mode, and Sloterdijk’s central claim that books are “thick letters to friends” (p. 12) seems to be a response to Flusser’s enquiry regarding “whether anyone has written a postal philosophy” (2011, p. 104). For Sloterdijk, like Flusser, the book, as a means of communication, is “no longer sufficient to form a telecommunicative bond between members of a modern mass society” and the result is that the foundations of contemporary society are “clearly post-literary, postepistolary, and thus posthumanistic” (Sloterdijk, 2009, p.14). Like Flusser, too, Sloterdijk, in the first volume of Spheres (2011), argues that the situation of being post-literary also entails a shift in modes of thinking since “intelligence is not a subject, but a milieu or resonance circle” and, in this sense, only “literate consciousness . . . is capable of abstraction” (p. 265).

But Sloterdijk’s apparent “extension” of Flusser’s argumentation also serves as a critique as well. As Sloterdijk notes in an interview called “Thick Books Will Survive” (2006), digitisation is not an end to the logic of alphabetisation but “a new form of alphabetisation I call hyper-alphabetisation . . . the old homo orthograficus is being phased out by a new homo typograficus, who not only learns to read and write, but also designs his own symbolic image to the outside world . . . the computer certainly isn’t a rejection of Gutenberg, but an escalation of it: everyone in our part of the world learns to read, write, print and design.” Once again, this account views current changes as ones that are actually internal to writing rather than a transcendence of the written as such; here, digital code is not essentially different from writing, but an exponential intensification of the alphabetic mode.

In this sense, while contemporary debates are absolutely inscribed by the issues that Flusser has raised, his argument about the difference between the ontological status of code and writing still remains a radical conception that cannot simply be reduced to the distinction between writing and orality. Flusser acknowledges that there are forms of writing that do approximate the status of code—known variously as “scripts” or “action schemata”—which, as in recipes for cooking or instructional manuals, offer sets of instructions in a fashion very similar to those of codes. But Flusser does account for these in the chapter, “Instructions,” wherein he argues that action schemata serve precisely as a kind of proto-code: “If a program is to be understood as writing directed not towards human beings but toward apparatuses, then people have been programming since writing was invented . . . For one wrote to human beings as though they were apparatuses”(p. 56). But while programming itself may be an older construct, as Flusser notes, the issue is not of the existence of code, but rather its dominance as a paradigm of communication, which then implies a “posthistorical” and “value-free” mode of thinking.

It is also essential to note that Flusser’s arguments regarding the ascension of code do not necessarily mean that writing will immediately cease, but rather that it will lose its significance. Flusser argues that the current state of writing—in an homage to Nietzsche’s concept of the “last men”—is best described as “the last writing,” which refers to a state of “text inflation” in which “more tides of writing will flow through the presses and technically advanced reproduction apparatuses and into the environment” (Flusser, 2011, p. 161). The result is that the sheer amount of writing available increases at precisely the moment it ceases to have any larger significance, but this moment, for Flusser, is one tinged with sadness, a point that he emphasises in noting that his book is not directed at those who will give up writing but rather those “people who write despite knowing that it makes no sense” (p. 161).

But, ultimately—as it has been increasingly commonplace to note—Flusser’s value as a thinker lies not in the systematic unfolding of his logic, but rather in the originality of insights. For this reason, like Walter Benjamin, he is often classified as a ‘speculative’ thinker. Much of the novelty of Flusser’s insights in Does Writing Have a Future? derives from the way that he is able to reconceptualise aspects of a print culture from the perspective of its own transcendence. In this manner, for example, he is able to describe the act of publishing a book by saying that the “writer is above all there for the publisher, to share with him the making of clenched fist from half-made text” in the hope “that the clenched fist will reach across informatic conditions and seize readers who will complete the text” (p. 45). Not only does this description wonderfully re-insert the intermediaries of a publishing house into the chain of reception, it also clearly explains whyself-publishing is a practice essentially different from traditional publishing. Despite being a book about the end of traditional forms of media, Does Writing Have a Future? is most interesting precisely when dwelling upon such media—and in this sense it also serves as forerunner of more recent scholarship on media archaeologies.


Flusser, V. (2011).Does Writing Have a Future? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kittler, F. (2002). Perspective on Print.Configurations. Young, G.W. &Wutz, M. (Trans.).10: 37-50.

Lanham, R. (1993). The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to the Letter on Humanism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Rorty, M.V.27: 12-28.

Sloterdijk, P. (2011). Spheres, Volume I: Bubbles: Microspherology. Hoban, W. (Trans.).Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Sloterdijk, P. (2006). Interview: Thick Books Will Survive. Digitalisierung, Goether Institute, retrieved at http://www.goethe.de/wis/med/dos/dig/en1799684.htm.

Biographical Statements

Emmett Stinson is a Lecturer in Publishing and Communications in the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne.

Email: stinsone@unimelb.edu.au

Dale Leorke

Published Online: December 15, 2012
Full Text: HTMLPDF (374 KB)


This article provides a critical account of Bogost and Montfort’s Platform Studies series, established in 2009 with their book Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System which aims to ‘promote the investigation of underlying computer systems and how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them’. The article begins with an overview of platform studies, seeking to define the term ‘platform’ within the contemporary digital media industry before outlining Montfort and Bogost’s methodological approach. It then examines the two latest books in the series: Codename Revolution by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal on the Nintendo Wii console; and Jimmy Maher’s The Future Was Here about the Commodore Amiga. It interrogates the extent to which these books continue the project begun by Racing the Beam, while at the same time highlighting some of the limitations of the series’ approach. Lastly it considers how the execution of the series to date might be counterproductive for its wider goal of promoting the study of digital platforms. The article concludes by considering how future books in the series—and indeed any researchers interested in adopting a platform studies approach more broadly—might address these concerns.

Keywords: Commodore Amiga, Game studies, Materiality, New media, Platform studies, Platforms, Nintendo Wii

The ‘Platform Studies’ series was inaugurated in 2009 by series editors Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost with the publication of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. In that book, Montfort and Bogost laid the foundations for a theoretical framework that centred on what they argue is the “most neglected” level in analyses of digital media: the platform, or the underlying ‘computing systems and computer architecture’ of digital technologies (2009a, p. 147). Racing the Beam was a valuable demonstration of this project, setting the agenda of the series as an intervention into digital media studies. It included a short preface, later expanded on in the book’s afterword, which laid the groundwork for future books in the series. It established the series’ stated aim of seeking to “promote the investigation of underlying computer systems and how they enable, constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them” (p. vii). The first half of 2012 saw the publication of another two books in the series – Codename Revolution by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal on the Nintendo Wii console; and Jimmy Maher’s The Future Was Here about the Commodore Amiga. With the publication of these new books, it seems apt to evaluate how the project initiated by Montfort and Bogosthas evolved more than three years since its inception. But it is also worth examining the broader context in which platform studies emerged and what the series has contributed since then towards its goal of promoting the analysis of digital technologies at the level of the ‘platform’.

In this paper, I provide a critical account of Bogost and Montfort’s Platform Studies series, drawing on a close analysis of the two latest publications. I acknowledge that the books in the series to date provide invaluable and often intriguing insights into the production and development of the particular platforms they discuss, as well as the wider culture in which they are situated. I argue, however, that in the process of providing “a place for studies that focus on the platform level” (Montfort &Bogost 2009a, p. 150), the series risks reducing platform studies to a generic formula that limits, rather than expands, the approach’s contribution to studies of digital culture. Despite minor variations in their authors’ disciplinary approaches and focus, the latest books in the series closely emulate the model established by Racing the Beam. Rather than offering a space for platform studies to evolve by critiquing the underlying assumptions and politics of its approach, the series has become a ‘production line’ of texts that apply the same standardised format across each of the volumes. As such, if platform studies is to become something more than a ‘brand’, researchers of digital platforms will need to develop it beyond the archetype established by Montfort and Bogost’s series.

I begin this paper with an overview of platform studies, seeking to define the term ‘platform’ within the contemporary digital media industry before outlining Montfort and Bogost’s approach, which emerged as an ‘intervention’ into these debates. I then examine the two latest books in the series and the extent to which they continue the project begun by Racing the Beam, while at the same time highlighting some of the limitations of the series’ approach. Lastly I consider how the execution of the series to date might be counterproductive for its wider goal of promoting the study of digital platforms. I suggest that, ironically, by providing a pre-established format for their study, it has diminished the capacity for platform studies to problematise and challenge some of the constraints of Bogost and Montfort’s approach. I conclude by considering how future books in the series – and indeed any researchers interested in adopting a platform studies approach more broadly – might address these concerns.

How to Do Things with Platforms

In their book Biomedical Platforms, Keating and Cambrosio (2003) consider the etymology of the term ‘platform’ and how it has evolved over time. They observe that ‘platform’ originally referred to a material structure, a “flat form – a plane, more or less elevated surface, be it natural (the top of a small hill) or artificial (the top of a flat building)” (2003, p. 26). ‘Platform’ embodied a purely material meaning; one that can be described as neutral, passive and apolitical. While this definition still persists in geology, its present meaning is more figurative. Today, it more commonly refers to “a set of ideas, objectives, and principles supporting a common course of action and upheld by a political party, a union, or any other organized group”; a definition which did not emerge until the 1840s in the United States to refer to a tribune, or speaker’s platform for electoral speeches. At this point, the shift “from the material to the figurative meaning entailed a shift in connotation, from platforms as passive supports to platforms as springboards for future action. In this process, technical and political meanings have become inextricably linked” (p. 27).

This intertwining of the material and metaphorical meaning of the term has been further extended in the contemporary digital media era. Keating and Cambrosio note that in the technology industries the term has come to embody “a basis for change and innovation…computer platforms cut across social institutions such as firms” (p. 28). They thus emerge as a kind of organising logic around which a particular hardware or software platform is developed. As a result, “platforms, not firms, account for the dynamics of technological competition in the sector” (p. 28). As Gillespie (2010, p. 350) illustrates, ‘platform’ thus comes to take on more subtle, discursive meanings as “a progressive and egalitarian arrangement, promising to support those who stand upon it”. This rhetoric, he observes, permeates the marketing of technology giants like Google and Apple, imbuing their products with ‘progressive’ values. In the context of information technology and computing, then, platforms take on political, even ideological, connotations: they are no longer ‘passive’ and ‘transparent’ infrastructure, but are “active, generative, and opaque” (Keating & Cambrosio 2003, p. 326).

Platform studies is squarely situated within this historical trajectory and evolution of the term. It provides a framework for analysing the culture within which platforms are created, taking into account the development of their material, technical components as well as broader social and cultural concerns. As Montfort and Bogost (2009b, p. 2) note, platform studies was first introduced in a paper they gave at the 2007 Digital Arts and Cultures Conference; the book series was subsequently launched in 2009 with Racing the Beam. They frame the series as both an intervention into academic scholarship—calling for “the humanities to seriously consider the lowest level of computing systems and how these systems relate to culture and creativity” (2009a, p. vii)—while also serving as a ‘platform’ itself of sorts for this occur.

In differentiating their approach from others in digital media studies, Montfort and Bogost outline what they consider to be “the five levels of digital media” that have been the focus of scholarship over the years. These include the levels of ‘reception/operation’ (media effects and reader-response theory); the interface; form/function; code; and the platform (pp. 145-7).The authors acknowledge that “many studies of digital media and computer games span multiple levels’—such as Bolter and Grusin’s (2000) book Remediation which addresses both the interface and reception/operation levels—but insist that, predominantly, “studies often focus on one” (Montfort & Bogost 2009a, p. 146). Likewise, the platform is but one level and should not be the only level taken into consideration (p. 147).

Nonetheless, the authors’ taxonomy implies that there is a linear progression across the various levels, with the platform as the ‘base’ or most fundamental level. As the ‘lowest level’, it is the formative level, the one that shapes or determines those above it. In describing how platform studies differs from other approaches, for instance, the authors state:

Platform is the abstraction level beneath code, a level that has unfortunately received some attention and acknowledgement, but which has not yet been systematically studied. If code studies are new media’s analogue to software engineering and computer programming, platform studies are more similar to computing systems and computer architecture, connecting the fundamentals of digital media work to the cultures in which that work was done and in which coding, forms, interfaces, and eventual use are layered upon them. (2009a, p. 147; original emphasis)

In this sense, Bogost and Montfort’s approach to platform studies is thus entangled within the intersection between the material and figurative understandings of platforms that Keating and Cambrosio (2003) identify. It also brings in elements of the ‘new materialist’ or ‘materialist turn’ in digital media studies, whereby theorists are increasingly “prepared to tackle what goes on in inside the machine” (Parikka 2012, p. 89; see also Apperley & Jayemane, 2012). Bogost and Montfort state that “a computational platform is not an alien machine, but a cultural artifact that is shaped by values and forces and which expresses views about the world” (2009a, p. 148). As Apperley writes in his review of Racing the Beam for this journal, “the core of the platform studies agenda is to consider how particular platforms…embed material limits into how computer systems may be used, whilst considering how those limits are both challenged and used creatively by programmers” (2009, p. 83). Racing the Beam was a valuable first contribution to this project, offering an account of how the material constraints of the Atari VCS ‘can be seen as providing opportunities for the creative process – not obstacles’ (Montfort & Bogost 2009a, p. 140).

In this sense, the Platform Studies series recognises that the technical limitations and constraints of platforms are not inhibitors to creativity, but rather shape and often generate the creative labour that is produced by them. This approach resonates with Peter Krapp’s compelling argument in his recent book Noise Channels. In it, he examines how “digital culture taps reservoirs of creative expression under the conditions of networked computing” by embracing “the limitations and closures of computing culture…rather than trying to overcome them” (2011, p. ix-x). The structure of Racing the Beam similarly demonstrates this approach through a close technical analysis of several key Atari VCS titles released over the course of its history. It concludes with the videogame industry ‘crash’ of 1983 and considers the console’s ongoing relevance and the creative work that continues to be done with it. It goes against the grain of prevailing attitudes which consider ‘old’, dated platforms as ‘obsolete’, recognising them instead as continuing to generate creative potential. As James Newman writes in a recent book on the subject,

platforms are superseded and eventually rendered obsolete as games are no longer available for them, while the games themselves slip from view as they are superseded by new, faster, “better” versions that, for their part, can only be played on current generations of hardware. When we see old games and platforms referred to at all…it is often in this comparative mode, as a baseline by which we are invited to judge the additional processing power or graphical resolution of the replacement. (2012, p. 9)

Broadly speaking, then, since the publication of Racing the Beam platform studies continues to speak to the concerns of current theorists of digital media by challenging the progressivist assumptions of media studies and acknowledging the material limitations of computer systems as sites for creativity and contestation. The methodology established by the series editors in the foreword is, at first glance, refreshingly open in this regard. They avoid proscribing a single theoretical or critical approach, instead listing several common traits that all books will contain. These include a focus on “a single platform or a closely related family of platforms”; a rigorous technical analysis of these platforms; and an examination of their wider cultural and social importance (2009a, pp. vii-viii).

With the publication of another two books in the series, however, it has become evident that the execution of the series has limited this approach in other ways. Platform studies excel at identifying why the platform should be acknowledged in digital media studies and the wider humanities, and at promoting this cause. But demonstrating ‘an awareness’ of the platform becomes the series’ mantra: it simply becomes a place for the format established by Montfort and Bogost to be recycled from one platform to another. This is illustrated by the way subsequent books in the series have chosen to closely conform to the generic format and framework established by the Racing the Beam as the prototypical entry in the series, albeit with some variations. In the following sections, I examine the latest entries in the series with a particular emphasis on how they expand, to some degree, the project initiated by Montfort and Bogost. I then consider how platform studies might expand the series’ scope even further by addressing some of the concerns I flagged at the beginning of this section by critiquing the notion of studying the platform itself.

The Wii Platform: Platform Studies for the Current Generation

The first book to follow Racing the Beam in 2012 is Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal’s Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform. The book can be seen as an expansion of Jones’ chapter on the Wii in his book The Meaning of Videogames, which was itself “inspired in part” by the announcement of the Platform Studies series (2008, p. 127). Jones is a ‘textual studies scholar’ whose work focuses on how “manuscripts, print technologies, and publishing all work together as a system to afford and constrain the meaning of poetic texts.” Meanwhile, Thiruvathukal comes from a more traditional computer science background: his current research is about “distributed systems and pervasive computing—a space dominated by low-powered devices” (2012, p. 6). These two approaches gel effectively to analyse how the Wii edged out its competitors by combining motion-sensor technology and a “smaller, nimbler, lower-powered” design (p. 33) with a marketing and distribution model that established the console as first and foremost a “social platform”.

The Wii was released in 2006 and is Nintendo’s fifth home console and among the seventh ‘generation’ of home consoles overall (the others are Sony’s PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox 360). Its most distinguishing design characteristic is its pioneering use of motion-sensor technology through the console’s Wii Remote controller. The Wii remote is able to detect movement three-dimensionally and map the player’s hand motions – waving, pointing, swinging and jabbing the controller – into the virtual game environment, making it primarily a physical or ‘kinaesthetic’ gaming activity (see Nansen, 2009). This capability became the selling point of the console as it sought to carve out a niche from its competitors by targeting casual gamers and, crucially, those who have never played a game before. Nintendo thus promoted the Wii as a console ‘anyone can pick up and play’. Jones and Thiruvathukal contend that this is what makes the Wii a ‘social platform’: although all platforms are in a sense social systems designed for interaction among individuals, the Wii was engineered from the ground up as “the first home video game platform consciously designed as a whole…[to] promote social gameplay out in physical space” (2012, p. 4).

Earlier chapters in the book focus on the conceptualisation and mechanics of the Wii’s hardware, such as the console itself and the Wii remote controller, as well as peripherals released for the system such as the Wii Balance Board (a flat, motion-sensitive board that is used for the fitness/training software Wii Fit). The authors note that the physical appearance of the Wii diverged from other consoles in order to snare the casual and non-gamer market, with an emphasis on “quiet and efficient technologies” and “small, slim design” (Jones & Thiruvathukal, 2012, p. 30). As a result, “graphic realism in general was set aside…or it was at least relegated to a much lower priority than it usually is on other game consoles” (p. 35). Similarly, the simple, accessible design of the controller—which, as its name suggests, was modelled to look like a TV remote (p. 54)—contrasts sharply with the increasingly complex, sophisticated game controllers of consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with their growing numbers of buttons and control configurations.

A focus on technical rigour and the material architecture of computing technologies is a hallmark of Platform Studies – and, depending on one’s tastes, also its most laborious trademark feature. But while there is plenty of technical analysis in Codename Revolution, particularly in the early chapters, it doesn’t get bogged down in detailed descriptions of hardware, coding and game mechanics to the same extent as Racing the Beam. This is understandable given the much more technologically sophisticated nature of the console, which as the authors note “only invokes a feeling of simplicity…The Wii, like other computing devices, is actually a relatively complex system” (p. 27, original emphasis). In contrast to the Atari VCS, which is perhaps much easier for programmers to grasp and ‘pull apart’, the Wii is a typically ‘closed’ system with its technological core concealed beneath its sleek and seemingly simplistic veneer. In this sense, the Wii is consistent with Gillespie’s observation that technologies increasingly “submerge their workings” to discourage tinkering with the machine’s material structure, so that “the ‘black box’ of technology is itself being further black boxed” (2007, p. 239). This is in contrast to old school computer systems like the Atari VCS, for instance, which have given rise to everything from glitch electronica to the development of ‘retro’ games that deliberately exploit their archaic architecture (see Krapp, 2011).

Jones and Thiruvathukal offer, however, a welcome alternate reading of the ‘open vs. closed’ debate later in the book when they examine Wii hacks and mods. They contend that the Wii demonstrates different degrees of openness through its gadgets and peripherals like the Wii Remote and sensor bar, which have been transformed through both gaming and non-gaming hacks and mods. Examples of this include Johnny Chung Lee’s projects that reverse-engineer these devices, allowing them to be used as an electronic whiteboard or 3D modelling technology (2012, p. 131). They argue that such experimentation with the console is demonstrative of a wider understanding of “openness” which takes into account not just the physical architecture of the system, but also the way in which its “networking protocols and standards” create an environment for experimentation and creative exploitation (2012, pp. 126-8). Here, as with Racing the Beam, the varying degrees of openness and closure of the system’s material components are recognised as spurning creativity in a way that is “sanctioned” by the architecture of the system, but which also pushes these boundaries (p. 133).

Perhaps the book’s most valuable technical insight comes in the final chapter, ‘After the Revolution’, when Jones and Thiruvathukal contrast the Wii with other the motion-sensitive gaming platforms that have emerged since its release: the Xbox Kinect and (to a lesser extent) the PlayStation Move. They suggest that while the Wii was the forerunner in the shift towards the ‘casual revolution’ aimed at capturing the casual gaming market, it no longer holds this privileged position as the Kinect has (to a certain extent successfully) sought to cut into this demographic. In a useful contrast, though, they contend that the Kinect differentiates itself from the Wii by focussing on ‘full immersion’ in the game environment. Unlike other kinaesthetic gaming platforms like the Wii and Move, both of which use a physical artefact (such as the Wii Remote) as the device that mediates between the player’s physical actions and the virtual game environment, the Kinect seeks to eliminate this interface between the player and game world with its motto “You Are the Controller.” They write,

[The Kinect’s] sensors and cameras work by capturing and mapping the living room the way that certain security systems do, rendering it as a field, the disturbances of which can be detected as bodies in motion. In this sense, it turns your living room into the game space in a much more literal way than the Wii’s motion-control system does. (2012, p. 165)

Although the authors do not explicitly make this theoretical connection, their reading suggests that the Wii could be conceived as illustrative of Bolter and Grusin’s (2000) notion of “hypermediacy”, in that it draws attention to the interface through which you interact with the game. As you swing and wave the Wii Remote the way you would a sword or baton, you’re constantly reminded of the materiality of the device that acts a mediator between the physical space of the living room and the virtual world of the game on the television screen. Meanwhile, the Kinect is more closely aligned with the notion of ‘immediacy’, in that it seeks to efface these distinctions: it is designed to “turn your living room into a sublime, transcendent game space, realizing the fantasy of cyberspace or the holodeck” (Jones & Thiruvathukal, 2012, p. 164). This contrast is further reinforced by the different marketing strategies employed by Nintendo and Microsoft in promoting their hardware (p. 163-166).

These observations are insightful and illuminating. They demonstrate the extent to which a platform studies approach can provide a close technical reading of a system’s functionality, interface design and affordances, while examining broader transformations like the increasingly competitive attempts to redefine the gaming market. But what Codename Revolution offers in informed analysis of the Wii platform and its role in bringing “the social nature of game platforms to the centre” (Jones & Thiruvathukal, 2012, p. 170), it lacks in a more comprehensive theoretical debate. In their theoretical approach, the authors rely almost solely on Juul’s book A Casual Revolution (2010); a useful study of the turn towards casual and social gaming, but by no means the only account of the videogame industry that is relevant to their discussion. For instance, the authors could engage more with arguments around the “capture” of game labour (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Kucklich 2005; Sotaama 2010) in their account of Wii hacks and mods. In particular, there is scope for this kind of analysis in the context of the WiiWare digital distribution system, and the way this creative work becomes assimilated back into the games industry.

Instead, the authors of Codename Revolution closely follow the path laid out by Racing the Beam, albeit with a newer console –and one that, as of the book’s publication, had not reached the end of its mainstream commercial lifecycle. This makes for an interesting new step for Platform Studies that allows the book to provide a different set of observations related to the console’s more complex, and less malleable, architecture. But it doesn’t substantially depart from the formula developed by the first book in the series, with the close analysis of a single platform framed by a lucid discussion of its technical capabilities and constraints in constant focus.

The Commodore Amiga: Back to the Future (Via the Past)

Jimmy Maher’s book The Future Was Here is perhaps even closer to Montfort and Bogost’s inaugural book in the series, both in its subject and its structure. As mentioned, Codename Revolution has to deal with the mechanics of a ‘current generation’ console (which, as of its publication, had yet to be succeeded by the Wii U and the ‘eighth generation’ of videogame consoles). However The Future Was Here, like Racing the Beam, has the benefit of hindsight: the Atari VCS was released in 1979, and the Commodore Amiga in 1985. There is undoubtedly something of a continuation in the narrative arc between the books: Racing the Beam ends with the videogame industry ‘crash’ of 1983 and the subsequent demise of Atari’s dominance of the early commercial videogame industry. Maher’s book naturally picks up from here historically, situating the conceptualisation and development of the Amiga as being directly influenced by the fallout of these events. Early in the book, for instance, he notes that Amiga sought to avoid being tainted by the industry’s implosion by deliberately branding the machine as a personal computer rather than just a game console (Maher, 2012, p. 17). As such, the development of the Amiga is examined as both a response the impending threat of the game industry’s collapse, as well as a visionary exploration of the emerging capabilities of the personal computer that would eventually become a commonplace, mundane feature of contemporary culture.

The Future Was Here is an exhausting and comprehensive account of the Amiga platform. Similar to Racing the Beam (and in contrast to the more thematic structure of Codename Revolution) each chapter of the book is devoted to a particular piece or type of software program or demo designed for the system. These include the famous Boing demo; Deluxe Paint and its successors; the platform’s operating system and coding language AmigaOS and ARexx; and development companies like NewTek. At nine chapters and more than 300 pages, however, The Future Was Here is much longer and perhaps more hard going than previous books in the series. While the book has an overarching argument—that the Commodore Amiga, with its innovative hardware features, pioneering applications and ambitious conceptualisation, can be seen as “the world’s first true multimedia PC” (Maher, 2012, p. 5)—at times it seems to be more of a companion handbook to the system. It is replete with technical specifications, programming instructions and detailed deconstructions of various programs and applications, to the extent that the lay reader not familiar with the intricacies of computer programming—myself among them—might struggle to extract value from every page.

This attempt to reach out to enthusiasts of the system is reinforced by the accompanying website for the book (http://amiga.filfre.net) which provides a wealth of technical resources and aids such as images and video clips to accompany the explanations provided in each chapter, as well as programs that can be downloaded and run on an actual Amiga console or an emulator. This is a welcome addition both in providing a deeper level of technical analysis than even Racing the Beam managed; but also for breaking out of the mould of the series and bringing in something of the author’s personal expertise. The book is also designed in such a way, though, that certain sections can be skimmed for readers less interested in technical knowledge and more inclined towards the console’s history and evolution. By balancing these different concerns, the book addresses Platform Studies’ goal of being useful both to scholars and ‘the general public’; but it also risks trying to cater to both audiences without fully engaging either.

The Future Was Here, as its title suggests, considers the Amiga as a revolutionary platform that introduced many features and applications that are by now a staple of computing systems. Maher’s approach to the book, then, is as an “important link between the pioneering early years of personal computing and the ubiquitous digital culture of today” (2012, p. 249). Maher argues that the Amiga can be seen as a precursor to many of today’s technological innovations, from online video-sharing, digital cameras and MP3 players to the open source movement and platforms like Linux (pp. 5-7). For instance, Maher argues that in an era before tools like YouTube and vodcasting existed, the Amiga played a crucial role in ‘democratizing’ the ‘means of cultural production’ by making editing and production software available not just to professionals or the wealthy, but to a generation of dedicated amateurs. This, Maher writes, is “the Amiga’s most exciting and lasting legacy” (p. 142). In another link with Racing the Beam’s account of the emerging videogame industry, he also interestingly notes how EA—today regarded as one of the most generic videogame development companies, producing a seemingly endless string of sequels, remakes and licenced games to tie in with blockbuster films—were once at the forefront of experimentation with the possibilities of digital art (p. 45). For all its technical jargon and lengthy deconstructions of software programming, The Future Was Here is often illuminated by insightful anecdotes that focus as much on the role that companies and communities played in the platform’s development as its technological capabilities.

At times, though, the book is too overeager in drawing links between the Amiga and contemporary digital technologies, without the rigorous historical, discursive analysis that would be required of a scholarly work to make these connections. In what he describes as a ‘bold’ move, Maher claims that the Amiga was a direct precursor to the participatory culture embodied by services like YouTube and Flickr, and similarly can be seen as prefiguring the rise of open-source software though projects like Fred Fish’s library of free software and the fact many of those who worked on the Amiga ended up as Linux users and designers (2012, p. 7). In a nod to the authors of Codename Revolution, Maher even posits that the Joyboard—an early game controller for the Amiga that consists of a flat board players stand on and use to control the game by moving their body from side to side—is a ‘forerunner’ of the Wii’s motion-sensor controls (p. 153). These arguments are made without the kind of broader theoretical debates—such as a deeper account of the formation and evolution of the open source movement by considering the many studies of it that have taken place over recent years—that are necessary to draw a more convincing link between these developments.

In these moments, as with Codename Revolution, it becomes clear that the focus on a single platform through its material limitations and the culture in which it emerged becomes too confining. There is little room for the kind of deeper theoretical considerations that would lend arguments like Maher’s in The Future Was Here—about the Amiga’s foundational role in the ubiquitous computing ideology that emerged in the 1990s and continues to influence digital culture today—more credence and weight. But as I will suggest in the following section, it is partly the execution of the platform studies itself through the book series that in many ways lends itself to these constraints. The Future Was Here is an impressive book; one that clearly benefits from an enormous amount of research and attention to detail and that, despite its daunting technological fixation, is really quite accessibly written. But, like its predecessor Codename Revolution, it doesn’t offer a challenge to or expand platform studies to any significant extent; even as it offers a critical appraisal of the Amiga’s history, it never moves beyond a kind of hybrid technical handbook/scholarly textbook account of the platform in much the same format that previous books in the series have offered. This is by no means to dismiss the work put into what is an accomplished analysis of the system. Rather, it is illustrative of what I contend is the problematic execution of the series itself that needs to be addressed in order to expand the scope of the series further than what has been accomplished so far.

Stepping Beyond the Platform

The Platform Studies series is undoubtedly highly polished and remarkably consistent across the three volumes to date, both aesthetically and structurally. The books themselves are superbly designed and laid out, and edited to maintain a consistent level of quality and structure that is carefully cultivated across the series. But this uniformity also underscores a recurring problem with the series: the books are perhaps too consistent and undeviating, too closely conforming to the prototype established by Racing the Beam, to fully take up the challenge to digital media scholarship proposed by Montfort and Bogost’s afterword to that book.

As mentioned, Montfort and Bogost do not proscribe a particular approach for the series, leaving it open to contributions from any and all theoretical fields and research backgrounds. There are, as discussed, differences and variations between the books so far: Codename Revolution takes an inherently somewhat different approach to its predecessor by discussing a console that is not at the end of its “lifecycle”. Further, structurally—in contrast to the other two books—it devotes each chapter to different aspects of the system rather than specific software or “moments” in its history. Nonetheless, the three books to date share a common methodology which closely conforms to the format established by Montfort and Bogost, rendering platform studies almost as a kind of brand, or as so many variations on a theme, rather than taking platform studies in a potentially more challenging direction.

It is almost as if, in a strange irony, in the very act of providing “a place for studies that focus on the platform level” (Monfort & Bogost, 2009a, p. 150) the series has instead reduced the platform studies to a generic formula that can be emulated for any platform that’s called for. One can imagine an endless production line of books—one on the Magnavox Odyssey or Sega Dreamcast, another on Java or Microsoft DOS—that are valuable in themselves, but which don’t expand on the established formula of the series. Indeed, a recent article by Montfort and Mia Consalvo (2012) framing the Dreamcast as a “console of the avant-garde”—and which reads almost like a proposal for a forthcoming book in the series—suggests at least one potential future book in the series is likely to follow this archetype. The article’s structure is divided up into a close analysis of five specific games for the console, while examining the culture of creativity within which it was situated, not unlike Racing the Beam.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the quality or level of analysis in the three books produced thus far, and it would by no means be a great loss if several more volumes were produced that perpetuate the same framework as those already published. But there are other directions in which the platform studies project could go, and the series could do more to cultivate this. I would like to propose here a number of brief critiques of Montfort and Bogost’s platform studies model that might be considered in future research on platforms; whether through the book series or scholarship more broadly. The first concerns platform studies’ relationship with the shift towards materialism in media studies, and the focus on the hardware, software programming and material components that make up platforms. In their article “Game Studies’ Material Turn”, Apperley and Jayemane write that platform studies’ flexibility lies in the fact that

The materiality of platforms can be turned inwards to examine the individual components of a platform, and just as easily outwards to focus on the organizational structure that allows the platform to be produced. The genius of platform studies is to locate the platform as the stable object within this complex, unfolding entanglement, allowing it to perform the role of a centre around which other relationships may be traced and examined. (2012, p. 12)

So far books in the series have recognised this potential, but there are other ways in which they could move beyond the characteristics favoured by Bogost and Montfort to expand this relationship between the material and social further. Apperley and Jayemane observe that, interestingly, discussions of the materiality of videogames often overlook the material traces of the object itself, such as the “feel of the console and the controller” (2012, p. 16). There is also the consideration of tracing where the physical components of these platforms—the microchips, processors, cables, casing and so forth—are produced and the material labour that is put into them. As Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter somewhat dryly point out, “ultimately the components of game machines come from sources such as the mines of the Congo and end up in the electronic waste dumps of Nigeria and India” (2009, p. xviii). In contrast to the series’ overarching focus on technical hardware and programming, then, a deeper critique of the embodied materiality of platforms would situate platform studies more concretely within current research on “new materialism” and media studies (see Parikka 2012).

There is also room to critique the very project of platform studies itself, and the underlying discursive and ideological connotations that the term carries. I gestured towards this concern in my discussion of Keating and Cambrosio’s (2003) etymology of the term. As I pointed out, Gillespie goes even further in recognising how platforms have become imbued with rhetorical values by software developers and media industry giants that make them more appealing to consumers. He observes how organisations like Google have “positioned themselves as champions of freedom of expression, and ‘platform’ works here too, deftly linking the technical, figurative and political” (2010, p. 356). Given that platform studies to date has focused on the role that the systems they discuss play in the going battle for dominance of the gaming industry and introducing technological innovations into the lives of its users, a more self-reflexive approach to the concept of the platform in digital culture could emerge. In particular, platform studies has struggled to a certain extent in differentiating itself from this celebratory recuperation of the term and moving beyond an analysis of the “rise and fall” of the videogame industry and other creative industries, as evidenced by the theoretical shortcomings of Codename Revolution and The Future Was Here that I outlined earlier.

Platform studies is only a relatively new concept, and while Montfort and Bogost may have coined the term and played an instrumental role in shaping its existence through their series, it is by no means the only path forward for analysis of the platform. Indeed, the editors express their hope that “others will choose to undertake studies that centre on platforms themselves”. With the exception of a relatively few critical takes on both the series and the concept of the platform itself as a framework for study (Apperley&Jayemane 2012; Gillespie 2010; Keating & Cambrosio 2003), the Platform Studies series remains the dominant mechanism for these discussions. As such, if the project is to evolve and adapt beyond the overly standardised, generic framework of the series an even more radical intervention might be needed into the study of the platform “level”—both from new books in the series and scholars of digital media more widely.


Platform studies is a fascinating and exciting agenda, and one that holds a great deal of promise for expanding the scope of digital media studies. To date the series has offered three excellent books that take up this cause in slightly different ways. But if Platform Studies is to fully developits intervention in opening up the study of digital mediato a new level that significantly departs from previous approaches in new media scholarship, it needs to move beyond the archetypical approach established thus far. This entails becoming more self-reflexive about what it means to focus on the platform as an object of theoretical analysis, and taking up some of the problems that myself and others have raised with the approach. Codename Revolution and The Future Was Here are full of insightful observations and enlightening anecdotes about their respective platforms, but highlight the extent to which a single, closely edited series might blunt the radical potential of the project. In this paper, I have offered a challenge to Platform Studies: to take the framework established thus far in new directions that fulfil the promise of Racing the Beam that “studying what is underlying and assumed—the platform—is rewarding in all sorts of digital media research” (Montfort &Bogost, 2009, p. 150).


Apperley, T. (2009). Book Review of Racing the Beam. Digital Culture & Education 1(1).  http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/uncategorized/bookreview_apperley_html_2009.

Apperley, T. and Jayemane, D. (2012). Game Studies’ Material Turn. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 9(1), 5-26.

Bolter, J. D. and Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dyer-Witheford, N. and de Peuter, G. (2009). Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gillespie, T. (2007). Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Gillespie, T. (2010). The Politics of ‘Platforms’. New Media & Society 12(3), 347-363.

Jones, S. E. (2008). The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies. New York: Routledge.

Jones, S. E. and Thiruvathukal, G. K. (2012). Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Juul, J. (2010). A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Keating, P. and Cambrosio, A. (2003).Biomedical Platforms: Realigning the normal and the pathological in late-twentieth century medicine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Krapp, P. (2011). Noise Channels: Glitch and Error in Digital Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kücklich, J. (2005). Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry. The Fibreculture Journal 5. http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-025-precarious-playbour-modders-and-the-digital-games-industry.

Maher, J. (2012).The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009a). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System.Cambridge: MIT Press.

Montfort, N. and Bogost, I. (2009b). Platform Studies: Frequently Questioned Answers. Proceedings of the Digital Arts and Culture Conference.  http://escholarship.org/uc/item/01r0k9br.

Montfort, N. and Consalvo, M. (2012). The Dreamcast, Console of the Avant-garde. Loading… The Canadian Journal of Game Studies 6(9). http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/viewArticle/104.

Nansen, B. (2009). Exertion Gaming as Kinaesthetic Technicity. Second Nature: International Journal of Creative Media 1(2), 64-91.

Newman, J. (2012). Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. New York: Routledge.

Parikka, J. What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity.

Sotamaa, O. (2010). Play, Create, Share? Console Gaming, Player Production and Agency. The Fibreculture Journal 16. http://sixteen.fibreculturejournal.org/play-create-share-console-gaming-player-production-and-agency.


I would like to thank Luke van Ryn and the anonymous reviewers of this article for their useful suggestions.

Biographical Statement

Dale Leorke is a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His thesis examines location-based gaming and play in public space, using case studies of games that merge mobile and location-aware devices with physical locations for playful interaction in urban space. His most recent work can be found on his research page: http://unimelb.academia.edu/DaleLeorke

Email: dleorke@gmail.com

Meryl Alper

Published Online: December 15, 2012
Full Text: HTMLPDF (372 KB)


When applied to a particular disability, the terms “technology” and “literacy” take on many layered meanings.  This complexity underscores the lack of empirical research on the combined areas of young children with visual impairments, emergent literacy, and assistive technology.  This article specifically examines theoretical overlap between approaches to the early literacy education of children with blindness and visual impairments and the new media literacies (NML) framework (Jenkins, 2006) in order to better account for how expanding notions of literacy and pre-literacy are enmeshed with the affordances of specific technologies.  After situating Braille and literacy in a transhistorical and multinational dialogue about children, technology, and innovation, I explore how the 21st century NML skill of “transmedia navigation” manifests in an ongoing methodological, philosophical, and cultural debate regarding the role of technology in potentially contributing to declining Braille literacy rates in the US.  I conclude by suggesting future areas of research into best practices for promoting emergent traditional, technological, and new media literacies among children with visual impairments.

Keywords: Braille, Children with disabilities, new media literacies, visual impairment

Technological advancements have historically shaped cultural norms around many health conditions.  The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health defines disability not solely in terms of health, but as the interaction between these mental and physical conditions and personal and environmental factors (World Health Organization, 2001).  Without access to the proper materials and technologies for communication, expression, and independence, the gap widens between a person’s abilities and the sociocultural perception of their disabilities.

While new digital devices and assistive technologies contribute to lowering the threshold for many young children with disabilities to lead more independent and fulfilling lives, the digital playground is not universally equipped with access for all, nor ways to participate in ways that will prepare youth with disabilities for active citizenship in our increasingly networked society.  Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 3) define this “participation gap” as “the unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow.”

The academic, social, and emotional impact of the participation gap on young children with disabilities is immense.  The lack of empirical research on the combined areas of young children, emergent literacy, and assistive technology highlights a need for richer theoretical understandings of technology and media literacy when applied to a particular disability (Buckingham, 2004; Burne et al., 2011; Floyd et al., 2008). This article specifically examines theoretical overlap between approaches to the early literacy education of children with blindness and visual impairments and the new media literacies (NML) framework (Jenkins et al., 2006) in order to better account for how expanding notions of literacy and pre-literacy are enmeshed with the affordances of specific technologies.

As described, the new media literacies framework is less an explicit blueprint for digital technological literacy and more lifelong metacognitive skills for critical thinking.  In addition to reassessing the evolving definition of literacy and the significance of media literacy education, Jenkins et al.’s (2006) white paper focuses on describing and extrapolating twelve core media literacy skills. These areas include: play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation and visualization.  In terms of early childhood education, the new media literacies framework offers large- and small-scale ways to support the social skills and cultural competencies that will enable young children of various backgrounds to be successful in preschool, grade school and beyond (Alper, 2011).

After situating Braille and literacy in a transhistorical and multinational dialogue about children, technology, and innovation, this article specifically explores how the 21st century NML skill of transmedia navigation manifests in an ongoing methodological, philosophical, and cultural debate regarding the role of technology in potentially contributing to declining Braille literacy rates in the US.  Jenkins et al. (2006, p. 46) define transmedia navigation as “the ability to deal with the flow of stories and information across different modalities.”  I preface this discussion with a note on limitations and terminologies regarding blindness and Braille, and conclude by suggesting future areas of research into best practices for promoting emergent traditional, technological, and new media literacies in children with visual impairments.


I would like to note early on that I am not a person with a moderate or severe visual impairment, and cannot claim to write from personal lived experiences.  Linguist Gunther Kress, who has written a great deal on multimodal literacy, expresses similar trepidation towards approximating a blind experience:

As a person who has both sight and hearing I can only attempt to imagine in the most superficial ways what kind of information I take absolutely for granted in visually reading a page […] I imagine that the precision of (and preciseness about) information required for the sense of touch in the “reading” of Braille script will make the reader of that script “take up” information in quite particular ways, and think in entirely different ways about what reading is, and what abilities and dispositions it is founded on, than I do with my ability to see and hear. (Kress, 2000, p. 74)

Dynamics of power can hinge on the senses, a theme that has been particularly explored through Georg Simmel’s(1921) study of the “sociology of the senses.”  Simmel explains that a society that overemphasises visual culture disengages the substance and meaning from other senses.  Blindness is commonly associated with both concrete and metaphoric meanings in popular culture (e.g. blind faith, blind as a bat, love is blind).  Disability studies and utopian literature scholar Julia Miele Rodas (2009, p. 116) writes, “Blindness is ultimately about language and, for this reason, it exists as a reflection of the culture that describes it, rather than as a representation of the condition and identity it ostensibly names.”  The range of human blind experiences, like the range of human visual experiences, for children and adults, is infinitely diverse.

The population of young children around the world with visual impairments is very heterogeneous.  Some children are born congenitally blind, while others may have degenerative eye diseases or become blind through an accident.  An estimated 19 million children globally have a visual impairment, and more than 90% of the world’s 285 million persons with visual impairments live in developing countries (World Health Organization, 2011).  In most of these regions, opportunities for young children with visual impairment are in residential schools in urban areas, with few children are ready to start school at the age of five.  Lack of accommodations for young children with visual impairments, such as materials supporting emerging literacy, ultimately impacts national productivity, poverty rates, and quality of life, and disproportionately so for children in developing nations (Frick & Foster, 2003).

According to the 2010 American Community Survey of the US Census, there are approximately 490,420 children age 0-18 with vision difficulty in the US, and additional estimates report approximately 59,341 US children (defined as age 0-21) that are legally blind (American Printing House for the Blind, 2010).  Numerous studies have reported that over half of all children with visual impairments in the US have additional disabilities (American Foundation for the Blind, 2009; 2011).

“Tactile code” does not always imply US Braille, and Braille has many symbol systems.  Promoted in the UK and Australia, Moon tactile code (a simplified raised line version of the Roman print alphabet) has also been taught to children with multiple impairments or limited tactile sensitivity as a Braille alternative (McCall &McLinden, 2001).  There are many types of Braille symbols for conveying various types of code.  In addition to simple Grade 1 encoding, modern Braille transcription also employs contracted Grade 2 Braille.  There is Nemeth Braille code for Mathematics, Braille code for musical notation, and computer Braille code.  Braille has also been adapted to languages that do not use the Latin alphabet, such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek.

Learning Braille in any language must take into account different types of abbreviations, standards for contractions, and phonetic systems (Argyropoulos & Martos, 2006).  In many languages, but not all, Braille is named for its’ French inventor, Louis Braille.  The name for Braille is a word translated as meaning “script of the blind” or “dot script” in Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and has multiple names in German (Zurita, 2009).  In this paper, the use of the term Braille refers to US English literary Braille code unless specified otherwise.

Young children, technological change, and Braille literacy tools

Technological changes for persons with visual impairments are particularly tied to historical, social, cultural, and political legacies (Aviv, 2010).  Changing modalities in literacy among diverse populations of students are dramatically linked to new technologies (Tyner, 1998), particularly for children with visual impairment.  The progression from rudimentary methods to the current Braille system reflects the tensions between information equity and dominant normative protocols for reading processes.  Pre-Braille technologies developed in the centuries before Braille, such as woodcarvings, wax embossing and cast-iron letters (Harley et al., 1987), failed not only due to their great expense, cumbersome nature, and inefficiency, but also because they conflated tactile literacy with visual literacy.

Children with disabilities are often at the forefront of new media practices (Hartz, 2000).  Students who feel frustrated by the boundaries of their abilities regularly drive the demand for technological development and challenge policy (Verlager, 2009).  “Far from being left behind by media change,” writes Jenkins (2008, p. 33) “the disabled are pushing ahead of the able-bodied population in their understanding of the media changes taking place around them.”  It is important for young children with visual impairments around the world to learn from and model the media practices and technological proficiency of experienced others with visual impairments.

Young children can learn to accept people with disabilities just as they are, but not to accept environmental inaccessibility just as it is.  For example, apps for toddlers and preschoolers are the most popular age category in the education section of the US Apple iTunes App Store (Shuler, 2012).  While there are great possibilities for multi-touchscreen devices such as the iPad to support revolutionary practices in early childhood education (Takeuchi & Stevens, 2011), these technologies do not necessarily support multiple definitions of “touch.”  Haptic interfaces that inherently value smooth surfaces over textured surfaces do not treat all forms of touch as universally accessible.  A screen that is exclusively smooth to the touch cannot support early tactile experiences with reading Braille unless other costly assistive technologies are used in conjunction.

The lack of voluntary or regulatory standards around marketing these apps and tablet computer devices as educational makes it difficult for educators, therapists, and parents of children with visual impairments to discern if mainstream products will be helpful or detrimental for their child’s development.  For example, Apple VoiceOver provides audible control for every menu on the iPad and iPhone in 36 international languages and Braille tables for more than 25 languages.  Also, iOS 5 supports more than 30 different portable refreshable Bluetooth-enabled Braille displays (Apple Inc., 2012).  These devices function without the purchase of any additional software, can be shared by other family members, and are supported by a network of technical support more expansive than most other assistive technologies.  This ease of installation, low cost in comparison to other specialized devices, and the social acceptance and cultural cache of the iPad contribute to enthusiasm for the iPad as a potentially beneficial device for promoting early literacy for children with visual impairments.

However, other electronic tablets for reading, such as the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble NOOK Color currently remain far less functionally accessible to Braille readers (Danielsen et al., 2011).  Even the iPad can be problematic.  When the Apple VoiceOver functionality is enabled in the leading children’s iPad e-books currently on the market, such as The Cat in the Hat and Alice for the iPad, preliminary results suggest that they are not fully designed to interact with VoiceOver (Baird & Henninger, 2011).  When VoiceOver is enabled, most apps do not allow the reader to move beyond the main menu.  Of those that do, there many downgraded features, including page turning, the reading aloud of mislabelled buttons, and inability to exit out of pop-up screens.  These technological limitations possibly further disadvantage young children with disabilities and inhibit their literacy skill development.  The extent to which Braille is socially recognised as a meaningful mode for early literacy practices is mediated by its lack of integration into some mainstream user interfaces, as well as poor design and clumsy coding by mobile app developers.

Transmedia navigation

With a greater range of tools for accessing information in the 21st century, there is a pressing need to teach all students transmedia navigation skills to judge the validity of the increasing amounts of information they are able to encounter on the Internet and the multiple means by which they are able to consume, create, and distribute information.The new media literacies framework, encompassing technical, cultural, and social-emotional skills, is particularly relevant for young children with visual impairments.  Jenkins et al. write (2006, p. 47), “Participants in the new media landscape learn to navigate these different and sometimes conflicting modes of representation and to make meaningful choices about the best ways to express their ideas in each context.”  A multimodal understanding of literacy for young children with visual impairments should be inclusive of transmedia navigation, including navigation between Braille, print, and aural media.

Literacy is not just as an amalgam of cognitive and linguistic skills, but a complex set of social and cultural practices (Barton et al., 2000; Lewis et al., 2007; Street, 1995).  The significant literacy events for each child differ from one specific context to another: an ever-shifting “protean” interplay between different modes of language (Heath, 1982). Lankshear and Knobel (2006, p. 64) propose that literacies are “socially recognized ways of generating, communicating, and negotiating meaningful content through the medium of encoded texts within contexts of participation in Discourses (or, as members of Discourses).”

In the movement from an oral to print society, the act of writing, revising, and refining ones ideas has perhaps altered the nature of human thought (Ong, 1982).  Revisiting symbols is a different process depending on whether one is rewinding a tape, flipping back a couple pages, or moving fingers back over a passage of raised Braille letters.  There is cognitive value in a child’s “trafficking” (Forman, 1994) through different modalities and learning more about a concept by returning to it at different points over the course of a project.

If one considers the writings of Gunther Kress, and his argument that modern literacy requires an understanding of multimodality, then locating a singular notion of literacy for a population of readers who may have multiple ways of reading is inherently highly problematic.  Kress (2003) offers rich insight into human semiosis though his theory of “the materiality of modes and the human body,” and has written more extensively regarding Braille than is generally acknowledged.  On how sensory information channels, such as touch or smell, fundamentally impact the production of meaning, he writes:

Each of these sensory channels is capable in principle of being developed culturally for full communication and representation – as touch is in Braille, for instance, for the sight-impaired.  But beyond that, the bodilyness of mode has quite other implications, which have to be considered in a new theory of meaning.  The affective affordances of sound are entirely different to those of sight or those of touch; sound is more immediately tangibly felt in the body than is sight, but certainly differently felt.  A theory of meaning that is inattentive to these will not be able to provide fully satisfactory accounts of the new communicational forms. (Kress, 2003, p. 46)

Braille both enables meaning and is enabled by movement between modes, through what Kress calls “transduction” and “transformation.”  In Early Spelling (2000), he notes that Braille is an example of transduction in that it “is another instance of a translation from one representational mode to another: from sound organized as speech to touch organized as three-dimensional configurations of marks on an otherwise flat surface” (Kress, 2000).  Braille also makes interpretations possible that cannot exist solely in sound or visual modalities.  Writes Kress,

The possibilities of tactile apprehension as in the reading of Braille script, differ yet again both from the perception of sound by the ear and from the perception of graphic substance by the eye.  In other words, it matters, in quite fundamental ways, in what mode the “spelling” happens: it affects what can be spelled and it affects how it can be “taken up,” perceived by its readers/viewers/sensors. (2000, pp.73-74)

Each and every child’s process for assembling, deconstructing, and reassembling meaning is unique.  No two children with visual impairments see in the same way (Huebner, 2003).  Young children’s Braille participation must be backgrounded with an understanding of emergent literacy (also known as preliteracy or reading readiness).  Before infants and toddlers begin the actual task of learning to read and write, they are often exposed to incidental shapes, sounds, letters, and words during their everyday experiences.  Recognising the letters M-I-L-K, the colour white, and/or the shape of the milk carton in aisles of the supermarket can help children develop a level of neurological and physical maturity required for reading, writing, and talking (Kuby et al., 1999).  Besides skills and knowledge, attitudes towards literacy are also part of the reading readiness process (Whitehurst & Lonigan, 1998).  Children who have been exposed to emergent literacy activities at young ages demonstrate higher rates of achievement in reading in their later school years (Senechal & LeFevre, 2002).

Although a lack of empiricism exists in understanding the specific cognitive development of young children with visual impairments (Correa & Beverly, 1990), emergent literacy for children with visual impairments is in many ways similar but also distinct from that of their sighted peers (Cheadle, 2005). Without visual observation cues, young children with visual impairments often have difficulty initiating and sustaining social interaction with their peers (Celeste, 2006), which has implications for future participation in online and offline learning spaces.  Children with visual impairments usually do not have the same opportunities for incidental contact touching Braille that sighted children have with seeing print.  Repeated, hands-on experience with real objects can foster connections between early Braille acquisition and spoken language (Stratton, 1996).  Experiential learning with a range of reading and writing materials builds fluency and confidence in sighted and blind children alike, and may support the later development of transmedia storytelling and navigation skills.

Toys can provide young children with visual impairments opportunities for experimenting, reconfiguring, and playing with the building blocks of communication and literacy in non-visual ways.  Most toys that promote Braille literacy for children with visual impairments are not out of the box ready, but require tinkering and workarounds to encourage crucial finger readiness and hand strength skills.  Tack-Tiles, a Braille-based toy developed in the early 1980s by a father named Kevin Murphy trying to teach his son Braille, is an example of an innovative transmedia navigation tool promoting literacy play (Murphy & Murphy, 2000).  Murphy transformed traditional Lego blocks into tactile Braille cells.  He writes on the Tack-Tiles website, “I mutilated the toys of Christmas 1980 […] The cells became words and sentences on the surfaces of toy boards meant to serve as front lawns” (Murphy, 2010).  This experiment in “hacking” toys is a vivid example of supporting young children’s capacity to reinterpret Braille across alternative modalities.

While parents often help their sighted children learn print, most caregivers are unable to read Braille and cannot as readily offer the same types of scaffolding at home to children with visual impairments.  Helping parents participate in their children’s own reading by encouraging parents to learn Braille themselves is a major outreach effort (Malinski, 1996).  Tack-Tiles represent a symbolic recombination of Legos, toys with major popular cultural relevance for caregivers and preschool-age children, inclusive of all abilities.  The potential for constant rearrangements of the Tack-Tile units allows children to play with literacy, both independently and in conjunction with their caregivers, siblings, and extended families.

However, the price for a full set of Tack-Tiles is US $695.00, outside the means of most households (For comparison, the current price for a Wi-Fi-only 16 GB 4rd generation iPad is US $499).  More financially accessible systems that families can make themselves include reconfiguring discarded plastic Easter eggs into 2×3 moveable Braille grids of cardboard egg cartons, or homemade Mancala board game sets for improving fine motor skills (de Voogt et al., 2010).  These less cost prohibitive toys, as assistive technologies, support transmedia navigation skills and early literacy development.  They put reading into young children’s hands by remixing media into unexpected combinations outside the materials’ intended uses.

Recent advances in digital desktop fabrication technologies, such as 3D printing machines, are also a means of integrating transmedia navigation and convergence.  Such “critical making” (Ratto & Ree, 2012) is a way of exploring systems (technological, social, cultural) through hands-on experimentation.  Designing, printing, and modifying simple handheld objects through rapid prototyping machines can potentially give parents and educators unprecedented control in developing assistive technologies (Hurst & Tobias, 2011).  While 3D printing devices such as the MakerBot may allow families to become more materially and civically engaged in theory, there are also cost, assembly, and access limitations for the time being to these new, digitally-enabled ways of making, re-making, and sharing literacy assisting technologies, games, and toys.

The technological paradox of emergent Braille literacy

Making accessibility an inherent part of the design parameters of out-of-the-box technology has huge implications for the future of learners with visual impairments of all ages.  New media literacies approaches to education have emerged from current debates about traditional and emerging definitions of literacy, as well as narratives of deficit and decline in mediated and technological contexts (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; New London Group, 1996; Westby, 2010).The 21st century NML skill of transmedia navigation particularly manifests in the issue of declining literacies and a much-debated US “Braille literacy crisis.”

Approximately ninety per cent of legally blind children in the US cannot read or write Braille (American Printing House for the Blind, 2009).  Concerns of a “Braille literacy crisis for children” in the US (Johnson, 1996) are based on reports that there has been a steady decline in the number of Braille readers since the 1960s, even after the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (Miller, 2002).  The IDEIA mandates that all children with moderate and severe visual impairments be taught Braille unless it is determined to be inappropriate by the child’s Individualized Education Program team (National Federation of the Blind, 2009).

The “Braille literacy crisis” is far too complex to be understood without analysing the larger context of special education in the US (Spungin, 1996).The illiteracy rate figures are controversial and linked to various potential causes, though there is no clear consensus.  Among these reported causes are: negative societal attitudes towards blindness and Braille (Federman, 2005; Hehir, 2002; Riccobono, 2006); difficulty in finding sufficient numbers of teachers knowledgeable in Braille (Pogrund & Wibbenmeyer, 2008); a strained educational system unable to ensure that students with disabilities have the same access to educational materials as their typically developing classmates (Schroeder, 1989); and a rise in the number of multiply-impaired children with visual impairments who are non-readers (Rex, 1989).

Modern technological advancements have also been singled out a prime cause of declining Braille literacy rates.  The National Federation for the Blind, the largest membership of visually impaired people in the US, describes what the organisation calls “the paradox of technology.”  While new technological advancements are making Braille easier to produce and disseminate than any other time in the history of the code, simultaneous advances in the availability and accessibility of audio books and screen reading technology may be counteracting that effect.  A greater reliance on speech output and print-magnification technology is often viewed as a substitute for Braille (Aviv, 2010; Spungin, 1989).

In primary school classrooms, Braille may be viewed as a technological barrier (Connell, 2003), as Braille books take up tremendous shelf space. Costly print book transcription into Braille requires a great deal of time and a high level of skill, contributing to disputes on the utility of the Braille code (Hartz, 2000).  The Braille edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the first popular children’s book in history to be distributed in Braille and print simultaneously) is 1,100 pages, weighs twelve pounds, stands over one foot tall, and extends to ten volumes (Oleck, 2010).  In a culturally diverse classroom, English and Spanish Braille versions of Harry Potter would be double the cost, space, and weight.

Another perspective though on “the paradox of technology” is that increased access to text in general for children with visual impairments promotes a love of literature that transcends modalities and sensory experiences (Cooper & Nichols, 2007; Verlager, 2009), and promotes transmedia navigation, storytelling, and learning.  Audio e-books are increasing the range of literary materials that are available to young readers, are being released around the same time as print versions if not earlier, and are providing a lower cost than large volumes of Braille texts (Danielsen et al., 2011).

Technological advances are also making tactile Braille a more attractive option to users with visual impairments.  Some educators and students find that due to the linear and unsearchable nature of audio books, reading Braille actually allows for a more active process and the ability to control pacing (Hartz, 2000).  Printed Braille may be gaining traction as scanners and software increase the speed of Braille book production.  Tactile refreshable Braille displays also complicate the “paradox of technology” because they greatly increase portability and anytime/anywhere learning.

Children with visual impairments and their families utilise a wide range of assistive technologies for reading and communication, though many around the world lack the resources and guidance for making critical choices (Wong & Cohen, 2011).  As defined in the US Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEIA), assistive technology is “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially or off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004).

Assistive technology may promote small and large motor skills for daily life; support cognitive skill development; modify the presentation of media for learning, reading, and communicating; facilitate social interaction with peers, caregivers, and educators; and increase opportunities for play and recreation.  Many researchers, educators, and therapists conceptualise assistive technology as a continuum, with expanded parameters for no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech devices and strategies (Mistrett et al., 2005; Weikle & Hadadian, 2003).

Caregivers of young children are often caught in middle of the Braille literacy debates and left confused about best courses of action and best practices for assistive technology use.  There is a lack of data on literacy outcomes for Braille readers who are dual-media readers (Lusk & Corn, 2006).  Some educators insist that a choice must be made early on between either print or Braille, and that only one reading medium should be used so as not to burden a child with extra work or isolate them from classmates.  Other research suggests that learning both modes simultaneously may pose confusion and problems due to differences in spelling, punctuation, and capitalisation (Holbrook & Koenig, 1992).

Learning to read Braille is not necessarily appropriatefor every young child with visual impairments.  There are many considerations when assessing forms of assistive technology for reading and communication.  These factors include developmental readiness, activity specificity, environmental preparation, and the scaffolding of experiences with lower degrees of technological devices.  Geographic, economic, and temporal constraints, as well as cultural considerations and the values of families and communities are also important considerations (Cooper, 2009).  Distinctions among children’s level of visual function (moderate visual impairment, severe visual impairment, and blindness), as well as the age of onset of vision loss also influence the range of assistive technology to which a child is introduced.

There may be a widening of the participation gap if children with visual impairments with the capability to be dual or multiple media users are not given the opportunity to develop those social and cultural competencies.  Students with low-vision, particularly those with degenerative visual impairments, are especially at risk for not receiving appropriate Braille instruction while some level of sight remains (American Printing House for the Blind, 2009).  Children who do not fall neatly along a print/audio/Braille axis have a right to agency and respect in their modes of literacy learning (Caton, 1991).  Without exposure to all options, children with visual impairments might not have the opportunity to practice the skills and ethical choices necessary to become active consumers, creators, and distributors of cultural material.

Many educators contend that young children with visual impairments need to learn how to manage a digital/non-digital balance.  Just as long as sighted people find pencils and pens more than convenient than computers on multiple occasions, young children with visual impairments need to have the option to learn to write with low-tech items such as a slate and stylus (Jacobson, 2002).  FamilyConnect, the online, multimedia community created by the American Foundation for the Blind and the National Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, cautions against children becoming reliant on one tool, instead using a variety of tools for developing life skills (FamilyConnect, 2011).


Societal concern over declining, dormant, and dominant literacies is fundamentally about multimodalities and transmedia navigation.  The Braille literacy crisis debate speaks to a larger dialogue about the changing landscape of literacy in the lives of all young children.  Tension lies not only in determining the “official” version of literacy to be taught in schools and homes, but the possibility that more than one necessary literacy exists.

As early childhood literacy scholarship is increasingly global in scope, future research into young children’s “techno-literacy” practices can better integrate emergent literacy among young children with visual impairments (Beck, 2002; Marsh, 2004).  For example, there is very little information available on how blindness factors in to raising young children in an international, bilingual or multilingual home (Vasiliauskas, 2009), a research area that merits further consideration.  Future research should also expand web accessibility studies to app accessibility for young children with visual impairments.

Assistive technologies are an important component of early intervention, preschool, and early elementary special education.  As there becomes a wider spectrum of assistive technologies available to children with visual impairments, the new media literacies framework enables reflection on the affordances of these dynamic tools and critical inquiry into the transparency of these technologies, including the iPad, in fostering multimodal literacy and transmedia navigation skills.  While there is much to unpack regarding the causes of the “Braille literacy crisis” in the US, locating a singular notion of literacy within a population of early readers who may one day employ multiple modes of reading (e.g. Braille, large print, audio books) is inherently highly problematic.


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Biographical Statement

Meryl Alperis a Ph.D. student in Communication at USC Annenberg.  She graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern University in 2005, double majoring in Communication Studies and History.  She also holds a certificate in Early Childhood Education from UCLA.  Prior to her graduate studies, Meryl interned in the Education & Research Department at Sesame Workshop and worked as Research Manager for Nick Jr.Her main area of research is young children’s evolving relationships with old and new technologies, and in particular, the social, cultural, and historical construction of early literacy, as well as assistive technologies for children with disabilities.  Currently, Meryl serves as Research Assistant on a children’s transmedia storytelling project at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and is a Research Associate with The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop.  She has been published in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy and the Journal of Children and Media, and has a forthcoming book chapter on children and convergence culture in the Handbook of Children, Adolescents and Media.  Her research has also been featured in Wired Magazine.

Email: malper@usc.edu

Jocelyn D. Patterson & Khiya J. Marshall

Published Online: December 15, 2012
Full Text: HTMLPDF (675 KB)


A viral video is a video which gains widespread distribution through the process of Internet sharing, typically through email, blogs, and other media-sharing websites, such as YouTube. Given the popularity of YouTube with African Americans, a content analysis was conducted to examine the characteristics, content, and YouTube member responses to viral videos featuring African Americans and focusing on HIV/AIDS prevention. The top two most frequently viewed videos elicited in our search generated strong viewer comments that were grouped under three major themes: threats and insults toward the maker of the video, questions about the authenticity of the video maker’s claims, and positive comments supporting the statements made in the video. The motivation to share HIV-related videos may be related to the video’s elicitation of emotions like anger and frustration or the inspiration of feelings of encouragement or support.

Keywords: African-American, Black, HIV, YouTube

YouTube (www.youtube.com) is a free Internet-based video sharing and storage website launched in February 2005. The website is designed to publicly store short video clips which visitors can view and share with others. The website’s users have the ability to connect and communicate with other users by posting responses and written comments. Videos uploaded to YouTube can be accessed across the Internet through the YouTube website, links embedded in other websites, mobile devices (e.g., Smartphones), email, or social networking sites, making it easy for video clips to be shared and quickly circulated around the world.  According to YouTube statistics, every minute 48 hours of video are uploaded to the website. With an audience of over 800 million unique visitors per month (YouTube, 2012), YouTube should be considered an important resource for gauging health information available to the public. However, despite the extensive viewing audience and potential reach of YouTube video clips, the public health impact of viral videos has yet to be measured (Freeman & Chapman, 2008).

Among the millions of videos housed on the YouTube site, there are certain videos that “go viral.” Viral videos are video clips that are widely disseminated and become popular due to large scale social transmission in the form of email, embedding in webpages, and sharing on social network sites.  Viral videos are unique phenomena that offer a special opportunity to communicate a discrete message with thousands, perhaps even millions, of people. These videos have the potential to capture the attention of mainstream culture without large financial investments in video development and distribution. Yet, little is known about what motivates online video consumers to disseminate videos to others. In light of the scalability and low cost of viral videos, it is important to learn more about how to maximize this resource.

Previous research exploring video health messages posted on YouTube has included issues related to prostate cancer (Steinberg et al., 2010), tanning beds (Hossler & Conroy, 2008), tobacco (Freeman & Chapman, 2007), and immunizations (Keelan et al., 2007; Ache & Wallace, 2008). Internet-based video sharing sites like YouTube are a new platform for healthcare providers and public health officials to consider when conveying health messages. However, few studies have examined how YouTube can be used to disseminate and promote HIV prevention. In order for public health officials to maximise this medium for video-based HIV prevention messaging, research needs to be conducted on existing HIV-related videos to explore the content driving their popularity.

The incidence of HIV among African Americans is nearly eight times that of their white counterparts (HIV Incidence Surveillance Group, 2011).  African Americans comprise 14% of the United States population, but represent 44% of new HIV infections (HIV Incidence Surveillance Group, 2011). The disproportionate impact of HIV among African Americans sheds light on the need to identify innovative prevention efforts targeting this population.  Previous research suggests that video-based HIV/STD interventions are a promising tool for HIV prevention among African Americans (Calderon et al., 2011; Downs et al., 2004; Healton & Messeri, 1993; Kalichman et al., 1999; O’Donnell et al., 1998). The success of existing video-based HIV prevention interventions implies that videos will continue to be useful in future prevention efforts. A better understanding of Internet video-based sharing communities, like YouTube, may be a key step in maximising the creation and dissemination of effective HIV prevention initiatives for African Americans.

African Americans are central consumers of Internet-based mobile technology. An estimated 71% of African Americans use the Internet, which can be accessed through various mediums such as personal computers and cell phones (Radio One, 2008). Visiting YouTube and other video-sharing websites is among the most common online entertainment activities for African Americans (Radio One, 2008).  In fact, African Americans are 51% more likely to use YouTube than the general online Internet-using population as a whole (Quantcast, 2012). Because of its widespread use and accessibility, YouTube may be an important venue for reaching African Americans at high risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV.

This paper describes the results of a content analysis that was conducted to identify and describe the most popular videos posted on YouTube related to HIV/AIDS and African Americans/Blacks. We further examined the content and comments posted in response to the viral videos identified in our search to explore what made people share those particular videos.


The YouTube community consists of video viewers and website subscribers. YouTube requires video owners to subscribe to a free membership in order to post and comment on videos. However, subscriptions are not required to view videos. When posting, video owners enter keywords called “tags” to help users find certain videos or search for particular types of videos. YouTube operates in real time and therefore the content is constantly changing with videos being added and removed. Search strategies were implemented at two different time points to observe changes over time.

Video clips were determined to be eligible if: content focused on HIV/AIDS and video included images or discussion with African Americans or Blacks. Videos were excluded if there was indication that the video clip was filmed outside of the United States or focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic outside of the United States.

On June 1, 2009 (T1), search strategies were entered into YouTube’s (www.youtube.com) search engine to capture videos tagged as African American/Black. The two search terms were limited to the English language.  The first search used the keywords African American and (HIV or AIDS) and the second search used Black and (HIV or AIDS). The results of each search were sorted by the number of times the videos were viewed. The top 50 viewed videos in search one and the top 50 in search two were entered into an Excel spread sheet.

YouTube displays each video’s popularity as measured by the number of times the video link has been accessed, commonly referred to as number of “hits”. The number of hits was used as a representation for number of times the video has been viewed as well as an implication for the number of times the video was shared with others. Two researchers independently reviewed all videos for eligibility and coded content of the video according to the following variables: category (YouTube’s pre-defined topic areas), date posted, tags (keywords video posters used to identify their video), duration of video (in minutes), popularity (number of times viewed), rating (based on a five-point scale [five being the best and one being the worst] by video viewers), number of comments, and identified common themes in video content.

Discrepancies were reconciled through discussion. The preceding search strategy and data collection procedures were repeated again five months later on November 16, 2009 (T2).  For the purposes of this study, viral videos were defined as videos that had been viewed over 100,000 times. In order to identify the characteristics of viral videos; additional content analyses were conducted on viewer comments posted for the viral videos identified in our sample.  Again, two researchers independently reviewed the original comments on the videos for common themes and discrepancies were reconciled through discussion.


After combining the top 50 videos for African American/Black and HIV/AIDS there were 35 unique and eligible videos identified at T1 and then 35 again at T2. Only the videos that overlapped at T1 and T2 were included, leaving a total of 28 eligible videos (Table 1). Videos covered a broad range of topics and specific target populations. These 28 videos in the sample were posted between June 24, 2006 and March 16, 2009. The range for the number of views per video was broad (T1 range: 1,061 to 181,299, M=16,288; T2 range: 1,382 to 202,199, M=17,524).

YouTube gives video owners the option of selecting one of 15 pre-established categories to group their video. The videos in our sample represented nine of those categories: Entertainment (N=6), People/Blog (N=5), Education (N= 4), Film & Animation (N=3), News& Politics (N=3), Non-profit (N=3), Music (N=2), Science & Technology (N=1), and Comedy (N= 1). The top two categories that video owners chose for their videos pertaining to HIV/AIDS were Entertainment and People/Blogs. Our analysis of video content identified the following themes: HIV testing (N=10), HIV transmission and exposure (N=8), HIV treatment and living with HIV(N= 7), compassion and advocacy (N=6), HIV education and awareness (N=6), safe sex and using condoms (N=4), youth (N= 4), gay men (N=2), men (N=3), women (N= 2), and HIV/AIDS conspiracy (N=2).

The top two most frequently viewed videos identified at both T1 and T2 were Trashman gives 15000 women/Girls hiv aids virus and Know Your Status, each with over 100,000 views. Details on the content and data abstracted for these videos are reported in Table 1. Further examination of these videos shed light on characteristics and possible reasons for their rise in number of hits. Review of the number of views over time reveals that there was an initial explosion of number of hits on both videos that later levelled off. However, the number of views for both videos remained consistent at T1 and T2. Furthermore, other videos identified in our search, although posted prior to the top two videos, never reached their level of popularity. Therefore, the length of time a video is posted did not appear to directly impact the number of views or its popularity.

Table 1. YouTube Videos that Overlap at Time 1 and Time 2 (n=28) (See PDF for full chart)

T1 Rank

T2 Rank

Title of Video

Description of Video Content

Original Date Posted on YouTube



Duration (minutes)

No. of views

No. of comments



Trashman gives 15000 women/Girls hiv aids virus. Masked African American man who calls himself Trashman, lists some of the 15000 of the women, by name, who he claims to have knowingly infected with HIV.

April 23,  2008

People & Blogs

trashman  aids  hiv

virus girls  women  15  000  chronic  central  black Latino  sex  awarenessprevention  protection


T1: 181,299                T2: 202,199

T1: 837     T2: 917



Know Your Status A former African American adult film actress makes a video documentary of getting tested for HIV.

February 4, 2008


HIV Get Tested AIDS Know Your Status Blood  Black  HIV/AIDS  day  February 7th  Feb


T1: 152,426    T2: 154,709

T1: 459                 T2: 467



GurlTalkkTV-The Game of Death – - 1500 Infected Response to Trashman video- confessions of a black man explaining how he does not respect women but women should respect and protect themselves from black men like him.

January 31, 2008


GurlTalkkTV  The  Game  of  Death  AIDS sex           Sexually  diseases  STDs     virus Hepatitis condoms  protection  HIV  Blood       safe semen


T1: 48,469              T2: 51,308

T1: 215                T2: 215



Loony-T – She Got It Remix (Parody) Music lyrics about a man who thinks his girlfriend has an STD/HIV and now he thinks he is infected.

May 15,   2008


Loony  Looney  the  and  for  Toonz  Tunes  She  Got  It  Remix  Parody       Pistols  TPain  Lil  Wayne  Plies  Young  Jeezy  STD   AIDS  Condom  SEX        Booty Shake  Carter  Dolla  Fight  Punch  Kick  MTV  Bet Crank  Dance  Diss  New  Obama  Barack  Georgia


T1: 18,614            T2: 21,428

T1: 59                 T2: 67



Vivica Fox & Bill Duke Interview Vivica Foxx and Bill Dukes promote a new independent film Cover about men on the down low (DL), which was inspired by the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the black community.

March 4,  2008

Film & Animation

interview  trailer  filmmaker reel  Vivica  Fox  Bill  Duke HIV  AIDS  Down  Low  Independent  film


T1: 13,803           T2: 16,112

T1: 28                  T2: 28



Mr. Del (Rain Cry) Music Video -From EGM.tv WEEKLY page A music video with an African American rapper in the rain showing images of woman dancing in rain, washing away all infirmities and God giving new life.

November 29, 2007


Mr  Del  EGM  ethno  graphic  rap  Rain  Cry  Music  Video  Miss  HIV


T1: 12,798           T2: 15,486

T1: 82                    T2: 82



All of Us – Trailer A Trailer of the documentary ALL OF US where a young doctor in the South Bronx embarks on a research project to find out why black women are becoming infected with HIV at alarming rates.

January 3, 2008

Film & Animation

documentary  trailer  African  Ethiopia  hiv/aids  women  black  abt  emily mehret


T1: 11,376             T2: 13,265

T1: 7                    T2: 8



ChingoBling : Keep Your Torta Clean Rap artists encouraging safe sex in a pre performance interview.

July 26,    2006


rap  hip  hop  dj  screw  ccmhiv  djscrew  chingo  bling torta  clean


T1: 11,291            T2: 12,109

T1: 4                     T2: 4



The Present An African American woman returning from trip tells her girlfriend about wonderful guy she just met. During the trip he gives her a present to open when she gets home. The present is a box with “welcome to the world of HIV” written inside.

October 11, 2006


Chyna  Layne  Rayan  Lawrence  Darrell  Smith  HIV  AIDS  young  black  females  girls  males  african  american  african-american


T1: 10,837            T2: 12,522

T1: 27                  T2: 27



Joe Biden Discusses AIDS, Al Sharpton gives the evil eye Joe Biden discusses HIV prevention during a debate of the 2008 Presidential Election. He mentions working to reduce HIV in black neighbourhoods by holding rallies and telling black men to wear condoms.

June 30,   2007

News & Politics

joebiden  alsharpton  pbs    hiv  aids  policy  politics  election08  debates  howarduniversity


T1: 8,467             T2: 8,795

T1: 40                   T2: 40



Fake AIDS / HIV Diagnosis For Black People pt1 The accuracy of HIV tests is discussed.

April 13,   2008


black  history  central  park jogger  rape  racism  slavery antisemitism  malcolm        pamshouseblend  ybf          bossip.com


T1: 8,118                T2: 10,864

T1: 314                    T2: 479



Skorpion Interviews BET’s Baldwin Hills Cast Member Etienne Maurice Etienne, from the television show Baldwin Hills talks about a range of topics, including HIV/AIDS.

March 16, 2009


The  Skorpion Show  BET  entertainment news reality TV show  Baldwin  Hills    Etienne  maurice  sheryl  leeralph  hiv  aids  activist       divas simply  singing  star  moesha  dee  mitchelle        gerren  vs  tyler  black         version  of  the  hills           viacom  d


T1: 7,097               T2: 8,862

T1: 155                T2: 162



Sen. Obama on Homophobia and Stigma A 2008 Presidential debate in which, Senator Obama discusses CDC’s report regarding young African-Americans and HIV/AIDS.

July 6, 2007

People & Blogs

African  American  Homophobia  Black  Gay  Stigma  HIV/AIDs  Free  Speech


T1: 5,914                 T2: 6,263

T1: 11                     T2: 12



SistahGirl: Black Women & HIV/AIDS Documentary First Look A documentary project that profiles the lives and experiences of HIV-positive black women from the United States who will journey to sub-Saharan Africa to meet other HIV-positive women activists.

November 29, 2007

Film & Animation

SistahGirl  Black  Women  HIV  World  AIDS  Day   DryerBuzz  Sistributions


T1: 5,686                 T2: 7,219

T1: 9                     T2: 14



I just got a phone call from a young lady… You have to watch this video!! A young African American male decides to get tested for HIV/AIDS after learning that a previous sexual partner’s HIV/AIDS test results came back UNDETERMINED. He explains the difficulty he had finding a testing location. He tested negative.

September 8, 2008


condoms  sex  porn  teen   Asian  Latina  booty  black  African  condom  white      young  people  girls  lesbian gay  breast  anal  oral  ass     tit  fuck  get  fucked  cunt   dick  pussy  porno  fucking  naked  lingerie  horny  milf  hot  mom  babe  fetish       AIDS  HIV  naisha  testing  beef


T1: 5,354                T2: 7,229

T1: 36                    T2: 38



Justin’s HIV Journal First Entry Justin B Smith chronicles his experience being HIV-positive to help educate everyone, young, old, black, white, red, yellow, straight and gay.

May 27, 2008

People & Blogs

Justin’s  HIV  Journal JustinB.  Smith  HIV/AIDS blackgay  sex  GBMNews           Baltimore  MD


T1: 5,190                T2: 6,413

T1: 37                      T2: 44



HIV/AIDS Documentary Trailer A documentary showing the  effects that HIV/AIDS has on the African American community. It provides statistical information as well commentary from various movie, television and radio personalities, sports figures.

May 30, 2007

News & Politics

HIV  AIDS  Documentary  Creflo  Dollar  Mase  EX  Ministries  Craige  MTV     BET  NEWS  Program  Mo Stegall  The  SELF SHOW  BISHOP  CHURCH


T1: 3,993                T2: 4,553

T1: 17                    T2: 17



AIDS 60 Minute report focusing on an African American woman who is HIV-positive.

January 28, 2007

News & Politics



T1: 3,932               T2: 4,505

T1: 4                     T2: 4



HIV Research: Beyond the Vaccine – KQED QUEST Chronicles HIV/AIDS in the United States over the past 15 years since the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It closely examines HIV/AIDS among the African American community and possible reasons for the high prevalence in certain communities. Also discusses the history of HIV/AIDS.

October 16, 2008

Science & Technology

kqed  pbs science hiv quest AIDS african american race vaccine california  san  francisco


T1: 3,703                T2: 6,270

T1: 1                       T2: 2



Living with HIV African-Americans discuss living with HIV.

July 31, 2007

People & Blogs

AIDS  HIV  Health African-American  Blacks  Illness


T1: 3,194                         T2: 3,642

T1: 0                      T2: 0



Who Can I Talk To, Who Can I Tell – WombWork Productions Performance of “Who Can I Talk To, Who Can I Tell” by the Nu World Art Ensemble. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, the Nu World Art Ensemble shows through dance and lyrics, the experience of a woman who was told that she was HIV positive.

July 25, 2006


wombwork  nuworld  nu   world  art  ensemble  hiv     aids  prevention community  outreach          performance  kids  teens     youth  baltimore


T1: 2,526                T2: 2,687

T1: 2                      T2: 2



A Need to Know CDC TV – Health Matters discusses how young, old, men, women, gay, and straight can be at risk for HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS poses a great risk for African American community men who have sex with men. Promotes getting tested for HIV.

March 16, 2009

Nonprofits& Activism

AIDS  GayMen’sHealth     HIV  HIV/AIDS               LGBTHealth  Men’sHealthMensHealth                       MinorityHealth                   SexualHealth  STD             SubstanceAbuse  TB         GayHealth  LesbianHealth  TransgenderHealth  Gay    Lesbian


T1: 2,250                 T2: 2,448

T1: 0                      T2: 0



fearful TRUTH Discusses HIV/AIDS in the African American community of Oakland, California.

June 24, 2006

People & Blogs

HIV.  African  American   Oakland  California  Alameda  County  Black  Stigma   Secrets  lies  fearful  Truth


T1: 2,202               T2: 2,405

T1: 1                       T2: 1



Deeply Rooted Dance Theater – Jagged Ledges A lyrical dance performance depicting the plight of people living with HIV/AIDS.

April 15, 2008


Deeply  performing  arts    modern  dance  african       american  drdt  deeply         rooted  jagged  ledges


T1: 2,166               T2: 2,885

T1: 7                    T2: 7



The Barbershop A PSA with two African American men who discuss HIV prevention in a barbershop.

March 16, 2008

Nonprofits& Activism

Trae  Tha  Truth  grassrootsoutreach  nonprofit  public  service  announcements     HIV  Tattoos  AIDS


T1: 1,497               T2: 2,814

T1: 2                      T2: 2



The Closing Argument (a video book) The first 10 minutes of a 150-minute video book of an African American man accused of spreading AIDS in Connecticut.

March 26, 2007


AIDS  The  Closing           Argument


T1: 1,472               T2: 1,634

T1: 0                      T2: 0



Stomp A PSA by the AIDS Community Resources. African American adolescent girls stomp about being knowledgeable, getting tested, and assertive regarding HIV/AIDS.

January 3, 2007


Commercial  PSA  Aids     HIV  Condom  use


T1: 1,454                T2: 1,608

T1: 0                      T2: 0



Standing-n-Truth This video discusses sex, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS in the African American community.

June 10, 2008

Nonprofits& Activism

Sex  Sexuality  and             HIV/AIDS  in  the  Black  community


T1: 1,061              T2: 1,531

T1: 1                       T2: 0a

* The numbers not listed for Time 1 (T1) and Time 2 (T2) did not appear at both T1 and T2, n=14 total)
*T1 search was conducted on June 1, 2009 and T2 search was conducted on November 16, 2009
a Comments are sometimes removed, which may account for zero comments at T2

At the time of analysis, the most viewed video, Trashman gives 15000 women/Girls hiv aids virus had an identical video entitled, Aids man ‘trash Man’ fitting Name, which was not yielded in our search, this video was posted on YouTube by another host. At time two, this duplicate posting had over 1.5 million hits and over 3,000 comments. The content of both the number 2 (Know Your Status) and number 3 (GurlTalkkTV-The Game of Death –1500 infected) ranked videos made direct references to the Trashman video posting. This suggests that the popularity of one video may influence the number of hits on other related videos. As a result, one video’s popularity may not be independent of another.

Community reaction to the top two videos was assessed using a content analysis of comments posted by viewers (Table 2). The Trashman video yielded written comments (N=837) under three major themes: angry threats and insults toward the maker of the video, questions about the authenticity of the video maker’s claims, and positive comments supporting the statements made in the video. A number of respondents questioned the authenticity of the video and found it mathematically unlikely for Trashman to have had sex with thousands of women. In contrast, a smaller portion of respondents (approximately 10%) had positive reactions to the video. Some felt the video was an effective tool for educating African American and Latina women about the dangers of unprotected sex. Others supported Trashman’s video because they felt the women mentioned in the video were guilty of being promiscuous and not using condoms.

There were 474 comments posted for the Know Your Status video (Table 2). Miss Jia, a YouTube blogger and former African American adult film actress, takes viewers with her as she is tested for HIV.  Most of the comments posted by viewers were positive. Some shared that they were motivated to be tested for HIV or actually received an HIV test after viewing the video. Several of the viewers asked questions related to HIV.

Table 2. Major themes and examples of relevant quotes for of Trashmangives 15,000 women/girls HIV AIDS virus and Know Your Status comments section

Trashman Quotes N=966
Anger and negative threats

N=498 (63%)

I am Pissed somebody lock this dumb JERK up what the heck I wannaloose all my Christianity and KILLLLLL HIM!!! (kingdomchild22, 11/2009)

This is one sick f[---] he needs to be put somewhere and tortured until he dies I mean slow torture who could so that he has to be a sick sick person and needs to be put under the jail (sweetthang9488, 2009).

Wow this dude needs to be castrated. Pathetic. It’s people like him that makes us have an imperfect society (saiyyru14, 2009)


N=158 (21%)

This is fake cause how is he going to remember all of the firsts and lasts names of all those girls.  He is sick cause he made this video. Hopefully this is not true (SHAR383, 11/2009)

This man is fake I don’t believe this (NyFin3st11, 2009)

This had to be a joke cuz if he had sex with a girl everyday it would take him 41 yrs  to reach 15,000 girls (TheCharleycat, 2009)

I look betta than this [n word] and I drive a jaguar and I don’t get that much ass so I know he lyin’ (Keezy59, 11/2009)

Support for Trashman

N=83 (11%)

I don’t feel sorry for any of these women because they put themselves in this position, with the aids rate steady increasing why would anyone sleep with anyone unprotected they don’t know from Adam?!? they are getting exactly what they deserve (MissOakCliffUSA, 3/2009)

That’s bad but that will teach them sluts to have unprotected sex with random guys (Straightgenius, 3/2009)

Man has a point, women need to learn how to respect themselves and close their damn legs. Not saying I agree with his methodology (stracinsrt4, 2009).

“Most people here can’t read between the lines to see that you were just giving advice to young women. I understand clearly, it also reminds me that I need to talk to my daughter even more about not having unprotected sex. Thanks. (justin5551212, 2009)

Know your Status N=474


Kudos to you and Nicole…it takes guts to show something this personal (sprat10, 2008)

Thanks for the video jia, people need to know (enjoi3s, 2008)

God Bless, you could have saved lives (reese3005, 2008)

Jia I’m so proud of you for steppin up and makin this video. You attract a large audience, and you used that for a good cause. Yay, you!! (homemadegravy17, 2008)

Motivation to get tested

N=28 (9%)

wow this has inspired me to get test. I just searched a local testing clinic in the area. Thanks a lot ;] (emjayoath, 2009)

I honestly just left a testing site about 2.5 hours ago. This video along with advertisements motivated me to get test.

Knowing your status is the business…and I’m glad I am sure of mine now. Also, being negative is the business!!!! J Take care. (reneikad, 2008)

Forgot to tell you…I went the week I say this…I’m negative!! (Ceci247, 2009)

Thank you for making this video. I watched it so many times. This vid[eo] along with my best friend’s encouragement I did it. I’m 38 and go my first test today (negative). WHOO HOOO! (nunya33763, 2009)

Questions about HIV and testing

N=15 (4%)

negative means you don’t have HIV and positive means you do right? (sacabuchi, 2008)

Quick question. How much did it cost you to get tested (racso329, 2008)

Do you have to be 18+ to get tested (iTRUTHperiod, 2009)

isn’t he suppose to tell u that u need to come back in 6mo after the last time u had sex to kno[w] if one is truly negative? (bow2jade, 2009)

do condoms help prevent HIV? (bow2jade, 2009)


The purpose of this study was to identify and describe viral YouTube videos addressing HIV/AIDS and African Americans/Blacks in order to learn more about the characteristics of and community response to the most popular videos. Our primary findings were related to the content of the videos found, the characteristics of the most popular or viral videos, and lessons learned in searching YouTube to find videos related to HIV/AIDS and African Americans/Blacks.

There were several themes that emerged from the video content. The major themes included the continuum of prevention, from HIV testing, to HIV transmission and exposure, and finally HIV treatment. The videos focused less on specific target groups (youth, gay men, heterosexual men and women) or HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories. The most frequently viewed videos, Trashman and Know your Status, included negative and positive feedback. Trashman had threats, insults, and questions regarding the authenticity of his claims, while Jia had positive feedback and support in the Know your Status video.

There were several important lessons learned about searching YouTube.  Because the assignment of tags is left to the discretion of the video publisher, videos may be labelled with irrelevant tags or missing key words. There is limited direction and no systematic oversight in the assignment of tags. Additionally, flexibility and search controls are limited in YouTube videos when compared to science-related search engines. As a result, we conducted two separate searches to meet our study objectives (African American and HIV/AIDS; Black and HIV/AIDS).

The comments section was a key mechanism for identifying community responses to the video. The viral videos generated the most viewer comments and the amount and content of comments posted on these videos may be a reflection of the emotion generated by the video. Having a strong reaction to the video content may have inspired viewers to pass the video along to others or motivated them to post comments. For the two viral videos identified in our study, the most common sentiments generated in video comments were anger towards Trashman and positive support for Know your Status. Previous research suggests that situations, news, or information (both positive and negative) which heightens arousal boosts social transmission (Berger, 2011). Eckler and Bolls (2009) found that college students reported having the strongest intent to forward viral video ads with pleasant emotional tone. In another recent study by Berger and Milkman (2011) examining how content characteristics impacted the “most emailed” New York Times articles, researchers found that content evoking high positive arousal (awe) or negative arousal (anger or anxiety) were more likely to go viral. These findings suggest that HIV-related videos that elicit anger and frustration or those that inspire encouragement and support may motivate people to share the videos.

One feature that makes online video viewing sites unique and novel is the reliance on user-generated content. As a result of online video sharing sites like YouTube, anyone has access to a worldwide audience. In the past, health-related videos could only be circulated and disseminated by organisations and agencies. This user-generated online video market has reshaped possible forums for delivering health messages. Perhaps the popularity of top videos measured in terms of numbers of views and viewer comments can be attributed to a video blogger featured in the video. It is possible that video bloggers like Trashman and adult film actors like Ms.Jia draw or capture the attention of a broad audience. Internet video bloggers may be an untapped resource for accessing high-risk target populations.

Our study has the following limitations. This research was conducted in 2009 amidst the initial surge in social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The introduction of these mediums vastly increased the ability to share the video beyond the traditional YouTube community members, forwarded emails, and blogging sites. The growth in these social networking sites created new and different pathways for going viral. It is important to also note that the definition of viral video in this study is specific to the videos identified in our sample. Within the larger sample of all YouTube videos the most popular viral videos have hits/views in the millions.


YouTube provides a new opportunity, resource, and venue for the widespread dissemination of public health messages. The site continues to introduce new features to enhance interactive capabilities and descriptive information collected about the video viewers. This information could be used to learn more about the demographics of a population (age, location, gender) who watch a particular video, and the types of videos that appeal to specific audiences.

New forms of media and technology, like the Internet-based social networking sites that are accessible via smartphones (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), have introduced a different landscape for communicating and connecting with people. The potential impact of these media for HIV prevention messaging has yet to be fully understood. In light of the disproportionate impact of HIV on subgroups in the US population, such as African Americans, it is imperative that we consider new and innovative HIV prevention approaches for this population. Moreover, given the current economic climate of sparse resources, free and accessible resources like YouTube should be considered for public health initiatives. Future research that focuses on developing video-based health messages that evoke strong emotions may be useful in creating HIV prevention videos that the public is motivated to share.  There is still more to learn about how web-based resources like YouTube can reach persons at the highest risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV/AIDS.


The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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Biographical Statements

Jocelyn D. Patterson is a behavioural scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the Division of HIV/AIDS. She has a Master of Public Health degree from Emory University and a Master of Professional Counselling degree from Georgia State University. Her previous research includes waiting room videos for STD clinic patients and HIV behavioural interventions for African American men who have sex with men. Her most recent work focuses on HIV prevention and medication adherence using New Media and technology.

Email: jpatterson@cdc.gov

Khiya J. Marshall received her DrPH in Social and Behavioural Sciences and MPH in Community Health from the University of North Texas Health Science Center- School of Public Health. She is currently a behavioural scientist within Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Violence Prevention. Her research has included HIV/AIDS, focusing on HIV prevention for populations disproportionately impacted by HIV (African American women, African American heterosexual men, and HIV-positive men who have sex with men (MSM) in the United States), medication adherence interventions, and new media and technology related to HIV prevention.

Matthew Allen

Published Online: December 15, 2012
Full Text: HTML, PDF (547 KB)


For some years academics have debated the role in higher education of Facebook, the world’s most extensive social networking site. At first there was enthusiasm—it was a new tool that could be ‘repurposed’ for education; then, as Facebook became more widespread, its use seemed less than opportune. But now, with so many students already engaged before they even come to a university, perhaps it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Facebook is as natural to education as the commute, the computer, and everything else which students ‘bring’. This paper first presents a summary of what Facebook affords, by way of its design and use, for online communication and networking, demonstrating the central role of reciprocal acts of attention exchange in this system. It then analyses, through a critical reading of research into Facebook and education, the way Facebook challenges traditional understandings of university education and the relationships between teachers and students. It concludes that, however we might seek to use Facebook in higher education (and there are many reasons we might), its use will always be shaped by—and indeed give rise to—a blurring of the traditional boundaries between formal and informal education.

Keywords: Facebook, informal learning, Internet, online learning, social networking, universities

In this paper I will first summarise the particular (even unique) status which Facebook has achieved in online communications, suggesting that Facebook is now helping define how we understand the Internet’s social effects (rather than being one of those effects). I will outline the key technological features of Facebook, while also indicating how they are moderated, produced and understood through individual and social uses, and emphasise that Facebook is a system which produces a visible and persistent social network through the work performed within it, by its users.

I will then review some of the research done that explores the use of Facebook in education. My aim here is not to cover the field of work, nor summarise types, nor to identify effective and less effective examples. Rather, I want through this review to inquire more critically into the complex and conflicted response that university education has to Facebook – both welcoming it and concerned about it, seeking to use it yet wondering whether it is the right thing to do. In this analysis I focus heavily on the way that Facebook might be seen as blurring the boundaries between formal and informal learning. I take this approach to avoid giving a simplistic answer to the commonly asked question: ‘should academics use Facebook in their teaching?’ Such a question can only be resolved through practice, attentive to context and avoiding generalisations. I am, therefore, attempting to create the context of thought within which such practice might proceed, concluding that the existence of Facebook, the ‘problem’ of Facebook as it might be put, refashions academic sensibilities towards students, online and flexible learning, and the use of time and place to manage the experiential dyad of learning-teaching.

A Facebook primer

Facebook’s origins, as a form of campus dormitory dating / networking site, are now well established, as is its extraordinary rise to being one of the most widely used online services globally. While its initial connection to a university setting might, at first, have made it seem naturally appropriate for educational uses, the service is now so different that we should not draw any direct connection between it and higher education (and indeed be cautious of early research into its educational applications: see Roblyer et al. 2010, p. 135 for a useful summary of Facebook’s history and development as seen from the perspective of educational research). Similarly, while Facebook became significant in a wider context as a social networking service (though, notably, it described itself as a “social utility” and continues to deprecate the specific ‘network’ appellation), it now involves far more than this simple phrase might imply. As Facebook has grown in size and scope, it has added more features that mean we must either redefine online social networking so as now to include all that can be done via Facebook, and in the manner in which Facebook works; or we should recognise that Facebook is a new kind of online entity, with many features and uses, of which social networking is just one, albeit significant part. As part of this ‘redefinition’ of social networking in light of Facebook, we should recognise that Facebook has been at the forefront of the now-common interweaving of online communications (for many years construed as a separate dimension, distinct from ‘offline’ life) with the everyday lives of people, in places and with faces, who have just one social network, more or less online depending on time and circumstances (Ellison et al., 2011).

Facebook is no longer one of several competing but similar online services: it is unique. Nothing else works in the same manner and with the same scope (nearly 1 billion monthly users as of June 2012, with more than 500 million active daily; and more than 10 million in Australia: Socialbakers, 2012; Facebook, 2012). As one recent review of some 400 scholarly articles put it: “The sheer online ubiquity of Facebook is astounding” (Wilson et al., 2012, p. 203). Rather like Google, Wikipedia, and more recently Twitter, Facebook has no effective imitators (except in limited cases where linguistic and national differences produce equivalent but discrete services, as in the case of Weibo in China and VK in Russia). Google and Facebook indeed essentially provide two different, sometimes competing but also complementary arguments, for ‘what’ the Internet should be, each recognising the benefit of the other for its own business while still always seeking developments that privilege its own approach. Google attempts to be at work everywhere within the web, whereas Facebook, quite deliberately, transcends the normal distinctions between ‘web’ and ‘websites’. It is the web for many people, especially when they are using mobile applications with restricted options for multi-tasking. While Facebook may not occupy all of a user’s time online, nor achieve all that must be done, it certainly offers (or pretends) to be all-encompassing. Certainly it is seductive, in its openness, in suggesting that what is lacking in Facebook can be made up by constant efforts by users to enhance its comprehensiveness by distributing, through their online Facebook networks, information available elsewhere online. Facebook also offers itself as something equivalent to the Internet, through the extensive suite of communications tools which can take the place of many other equivalents, all in a single neat package.

It is essential to grasp that Facebook is, before anything else, a business, and the economy of Facebook is all about attention. It is, perhaps, the most exquisitely rendered realisation of the early hopes of the early web entrepreneurs, who wished to capture an attentive audience through free content, exchanging their ‘eyeballs’ for advertising revenue. At such a site, multitudes of users would spend hours a day, never wandering the web and getting distracted, but consistently attending to that one site and all of the advertisements therein. For most businesses that tried it, this ‘old media’ model was doomed before it began, failing to understand the transformation of everyday life wrought by the Internet. Facebook, by contrast, worked however because first, all of the content is provided by users themselves (at no cost to Facebook). Second, the behaviour of those users within the system creates the rich data about those users which enables Facebook to target advertisements, generating greater revenue per advertisement. Third, Facebook’s inherent sociality (it works because of the people one knows within it) harnesses network effects not only so that the network is successful as it grows but also by creating potential that attracts people (including advertisers) to it. Facebook is not the only way to make money online, nor the only way to mobilise the attention economy (Amazon and Google, respectively, would suggest equally if not more secure approaches): however, for the specific form of network aggregated, user-generated content, data-mining, advertising intensive business, Facebook is without peer (for a recent analysis and summary of the various dimensions of attention in contemporary internet practices see Terranova, 2012; also Hill, 2012, pp. 110-117; and Skågeby, 2009).

There are several distinct features of Facebook which underpin its operation as a key social communication technology. There is the profile, consisting of information identifying a user and, effectively, presenting them in the manner they see fit for other users: this profile is relatively static, but the actions within Facebook also help to provide the data for one’s profile (such as the friends you have made). A Facebook page serves as a profile for organisations, with some differences which reflect the attempt by the service to provide a form of web publishing for entities other than individuals. Second there is the social network of friends with whom a user is connected so as to privilege interactivity with those friends (what they can see; what you see of their activity). One does not, however, ‘see’ the network so much as its effects, principally through the newsfeed which consists of the material regularly posted to Facebook by users – the newsfeed is best understood as the aggregation, presented to any one user, of all the posts by other users to whom they are connected. Note that posts and post-related behaviour cover several categories (text, photos, videos, links, shared content, tags, likes, and comments on all of these). A single user’s own posts effectively become part of their profile, along with other content, through a timeline (though this feature can be avoided in some cases and there are more significant editing tools than in previous years). There are applications which serve as specific forms of publishing and interaction, most notably games but also many other ‘structured’ interactions, normally conducted in a relatively public manner. There are communication channels, chat and video and email-type messaging, for private interactions. Finally, there are groups to which one belongs, either public or private, and which create a more coherent space for collective interaction, compared with the individuated network behaviour more generally presented in a newsfeed.

For most educational purposes, it would be groups (probably kept private), plus some of the private communications, that would seem most obviously important but, of course, using Facebook will necessarily involve its other features, even in finding ways to avoid them. Groups contain some limited capability for exchanging documents, organising and managing events, as well as a shared space for collective discussion (effectively a newsfeed from and for all group members). Therefore groups are a kind of limited collaboration application, inbuilt within Facebook, but kept somewhat distinct through the capacity to keep group and other activity separate.

It is also important to understand that Facebook operates autonomously through information that the system holds about individuals and their connections. While the features described above are designed into the system, so too are the prompts which Facebook can provide to enhance the degree of use by people. Research, for example, has shown that the reminders to users of birthdays that their friends are about to have increases cross-contact between those users (Wilson et al., 2012, p. 209). Similarly, Facebook enthusiastically identifies and recommends potential friends for its users based on the patterns of friendship which it can discern from the data of all users. The system also analyses the patterns of interactions between friends to attempt to prioritise in a newsfeed items which seem to be more interesting or useful based on previous actions. The automation of ‘addressing’ (when the system prompts you to send requests to all your friends) also demonstrates how Facebook, as well as allowing you to manage one’s social network, also attempts to manage it for you, encouraging you to participate in it in ways which suit Facebook’s design. Equally, Facebook attempts to draw content into itself through the growing reliance of other websites on technologies which allow their content to be posted directly to Facebook, through the Open Graph system. Ries (cited in Wilson et al. 2012, p. 215) concludes that Facebook has, therefore, become the central clearinghouse for information sharing online, simply because so many users interact with so much fragmented content through Facebook rather than through the original websites.

Facebook has additional features emerging less from its fundamental design and more from its contemporary usage. For example, Facebook is increasingly used by people via mobile, always-connected devices, though the format it is given through mobile apps is not as usable or richly featured as through a web browser. Mobile use brings with it a strong emphasis on ‘push’ notifications, with users regularly and instantly notified of changes and updates in Facebook. Because of the cameras inside most mobile devices, Facebook use in practice tends to promote the sharing of images (one reason for the company’s recent acquisition of the digital photography company Instagram). Indeed it is important to recall that, whatever the technical design of Facebook features, they work only in concert with users’ preferences, social norms, and other features. For example, Facebook can be used to promote attention to other web services (such as Twitter) which users prefer, though Facebook attempts to limit this cross-connection through various technical means. Thus, while there are many applications which offer something ‘extra’ inside Facebook, their use is limited compared to general Facebook activity. Similarly, the general tenor and structure of Facebook communications between users, through posts, tends to be brief, episodic and, in many cases, largely without substance except insofar of demonstrating that a person has noticed what the original user has posted. There is a lot of sharing of links, photos and other material from elsewhere. It is possible to use the technologies of Facebook for in-depth, complicated exchange: but the social and cultural norms are not to do so.

Fundamentally, Facebook is a system for communicating to others the interests, passions, pleasures and business of the individual, ‘showing off’ the self and thus creating, sustaining and enriching connections through that communication. It might appear that the social network is the means by which communication occurs: but this is a very narrow reading. In fact, communication (most often in the form of declarations of only marginally dialogic intent) is the raw material from which the network is made or, perhaps, the process through which it is made persistent and tangible. The principal feature of Facebook, therefore, is not within the system so to speak, nor even determined by its use: the principal feature is each user and how they come to be known (perhaps too well known) by the ‘public’ with whom they connect. As a result, Facebook tends to be a place where missteps, mistakes and alarms all centre on the visibility of individuals and organisation linked to information that might otherwise not be associated with them or which, while acceptable in some contexts, is unacceptable in others. The problems with Facebook are normally understood as breaches of privacy (see Raynes-Goldie, 2010 for a good analysis) which, while partially the responsibility of users, are largely an effect of a system whose generality precludes effective use by people of specific social contexts to control the dissemination of information. The problems occur when information suitable for some people to know become known to all and where information can be disclosed so long as it is not linked to the individual finds its connection to that individual, caused by the collapse of defined contexts in a single system that networks together people from different contexts (Hull et al., 2011). However, I would argue that this problem is more usefully understood as excessive publicity, not too little privacy, because such a conceptualisation more accurately reflects the cause, which is an ‘overflow’ in attempting to attract attention. The lack of context is exactly what makes Facebook work and why it is popular.

In conclusion, then, Facebook is best understood as a system that attempts to capture as much of a user’s online behaviour as possible, either directly or indirectly. It gives users a way of offering themselves to others, to gain attention, as well as enabling easy reciprocity in the giving of attention. In doing so, it enables users to become more or less significant nodes in networks of attentive interaction, by which the self is understood, presented and validated in its pursuit of interests, expressions of ideas and everyday actions. Facebook enables our lives (represented through information) to be a public performance and thus makes our identity the consequence of our actions as much as its origin.

Universities, learning and Facebook

I want to focus now on analysing several examples of the way that Facebook’s use in educational settings has been researched, looking at what has been found, but more importantly attempting to get a better understanding of how educators are thinking about this technology and its uses. I do not believe that there is any necessary correlation between a single example of its educational use and any other putative use: each experience of using it will differ depending on context and purpose. However, the research to date reveals the broader state of affairs in which university academics seek ways of responding to the rise of this enormously popular, all-embracing aspect of our daily lives in connected societies.

Baran (2010) reported on her effort to build a Facebook-based component into a traditional campus-based learning experience. Noting that there have been many previous discussions of the informal benefits of student and teacher communication through Facebook, Baran’s goal was to explore its use in a formal setting, as if it were equivalent to activities normally conducted in class. In that setting, grades were assigned for work done in Facebook and students were required to participate, with tasks being clearly identified by the teacher. Three findings from this research are significant. First, Baran concluded that “The student–student dimension may be more important than the student–content and student–teacher dimensions”. Second, she found that “students may tend to be more interested in the social than the teaching dimensions of tools such as Facebook … [and] the higher degree of social presence may well be one of the greatest contributions of such tools. However, because of the informal basis of Facebook, the students may not necessarily perceive this as a formally planned element of the teaching and learning.” Third, it was important to plan for the “tensions that may arise between the formal and the informal uses of social networking tools in education”.

What interests me about this research is the way that Baran frames both the problem she is seeking to solve and the results she obtains in terms of the boundaries between formal and informal learning or, perhaps, between instruction and learning. She points to the conservative, traditional nature of the Turkish university system in which she works, in which there is limited experience of online education as well as strong expectations from both students and teachers about the subordination of the learner to the instructor because of the expertise and authority of the latter. She interprets her results in terms of the challenges to get students using Facebook in a way that better reflects the formality required for effective learning (when they are naturally using it in other ways outside of this specific instance), while also approving the way that Facebook made the experience more social. In other words, Baran discovered that the principal effect of blended learning was to make the boundaries between informal and formal learning less distinct, with both positive and negative implications. Similarly, Jones et al. (2010) concluded that the central challenge for the use of any kind of social software with students was its capacity to disrupt established boundaries between study and other aspects of life (particularly on campus). While noting that such a distinction is usually criticised by pedagogic theory as less effective for learning, nevertheless students were often reluctant to accept this disruption to the distinction between the two forms.

This interplay between formal and informal becomes clearer from a much more extensive survey of Facebook use by students within a broader context of education, focusing on the general experience of students at university. Madge et al. (2009) surveyed first-year students at the University of Leicester in the UK and discovered that the students commenced their studies with a normalised understanding of Facebook as a means to stay in touch with friends made earlier (while at school) who were now no longer co-present; they also used Facebook, to some extent, to begin forming friendships with other students at the university without first having met them in person. The research showed Facebook was highly valued as “social glue”, helping students to settle into life at university, especially in relation to social events; these findings confirmed the early and ground-breaking work of Ellison et al (2007) who found a clear correlation between Facebook use and the creation of positive social capital for American university students (distinct from general Internet use). This benefit was, however, realised only in the context of many other social networking practices “and clearly face-to-face relationships and interactions remain significant”. More importantly, these researchers also found that students had mixed opinions about the consequence and value of Facebook for learning. While many students, over the course of their first varsity year, became comfortable using Facebook for informal learning (principally by discussing, while out of class, assignments, tasks and other formal requirements with other students), there were more divided opinions about its formal use. Many respondents wished to keep Facebook use separate from formal education, variously deprecating any contact with tutors, or university administrators. Even those who were more positive about teachers using Facebook to provide course-related communication principally wanted its use to be limited to administrative announcements which would take advantage of the timely delivery of information.

Madge et al. (2009) concluded, in part, that universities ought to do “something” with Facebook which closely correlates with the general conditions of its use by students:

Facebook appears to be such an important social tool used by new students to aid their settling-in process, higher education institutions could sensibly and gently act as a catalyst for this process for pre-registration students by promoting the existence of accommodation/hall and departmental Facebook groups (p. 152).

However, in concert with earlier analysis by Selwyn (2007), these researchers also argued that universities and teachers need to be very careful about formalising the use of Facebook and should instead recognise the opportunities it affords for increased informal learning, organised and conducted by students on their own initiative, in response to what is being done in formal instruction. Teachers staying ‘out’ of Facebook might actually be more effective at promoting learning than if they were to get too involved.

Nevertheless, even a decision to avoid Facebook is, still, a form of engagement, an attempt to solicit from this social technology some kind of learning advantage. Madge et al., and others who have a similar perspective, seek to harness Facebook by making it distinct from the formal learning environment and thus tacitly encouraging students to deploy their social networks to promote better learning outside of that formal place, transferring initiative from teachers to the learners themselves. The call to link the spatially ambiguous form of Facebook (whose informational exchanges appear all in the same space but refer to various otherwise bounded physical places) to a place (residential halls) while refusing the link to another place (the classroom) is an attempt to map within Facebook known spatial divisions presumed by academics to have significance in the general process of university education.

DeSchryver et al. (2009) reported research into the use of Facebook in a very different context. Starting from the presumption that “Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard and Moodle do not inherently promote a sense of community, social presence, and frequent interaction in the way that Facebook does”, they tested the idea that the use of Facebook “for the discussion elements of an online undergraduate educational psychology course” would produce different results, noting that more than 90% of students already were using Facebook. The research involved randomised assignment of students to either Moodle or Facebook for the discussion component, while all other activities occurred within Moodle. They found that there was no significant difference in the length or frequency of posts in either group. Their analysis also included interviews with students, however, which revealed why perhaps no significant differences occurred. First, students indicated that they did not like having to divide their time between Moodle and Facebook; second, the researchers hypothesised that because they did not require students to ‘friend’ each other (thus creating a more explicit social connection than simply being in a group together) they had not properly exploited the key social affordance of Facebook. As a result, “many of the Facebook ‘cues’ that might have otherwise driven students back to the discussion, or made them feel more of a sense of social presence, were not available”. Nevertheless, these researchers remain positive about Facebook and have used it more successfully on other occasions, noting that they have found learning engagement between students on Facebook has extended beyond semester times, whereas this outcome is not possible with a closed learning management system.

The results DeSchryver et al. produced are important now mainly to demonstrate why research in this area is always a matter of exploration without definitive conclusions. The research reported occurred in 2007 and, since that time, Facebook has changed very significantly. The research remains valuable, however, for what it says about the researchers as teachers. First, they concluded that Facebook may not be useful because it does not have threaded discussion forums but simply a chronological list; they happily assumed that “as Facebook evolves, threaded discussions will become more commonplace therein, and may help maximize its affordances for interaction”. Second, the lesson they drew from the experience was that, in future, they would require students to ‘friend’ each other so as to better utilise mechanisms which come with friending. Both of these conclusions demonstrate that the research team approached the investigation of Facebook and its role in education from a very traditional perspective, seeking to make Facebook fit into their pre-existing understandings of education. First, based on the existing use of Moodle, DeSchryver et al. normatively assumed threaded discussion was better: in fact Facebook has educated people away from threaded discussions and produced new online conversational conventions to which educators are adapting, including the designers of Moodle 2. Second, DeSchryver et al. reduced the complexity of decision making about ‘friends’ to a technological pre-condition for effective system use, thereby focusing too heavily on the technological rather than the social basis for the use of Facebook. DeSchryver et al. finally concluded that the lack of difference found in the research between the use of Facebook and Moodle was explicable as a consequence of the excellent curriculum design: “the absence of significant differences in our measures between the different delivery media may demonstrate the power of good pedagogy to override any media differences”. In other words, they not only wished students to conform to their expectations of how to learn, but also interpreted their results as if students had conformed. It is likely the picture was rather more complicated than that.

Similar evidence of the struggles academics have to appreciate Facebook as a system independent of their intentions and expectations, when it comes to educational use, comes from Robyler et al. (2010). Looking at the differences in attitude towards Facebook between faculty and students at an American university, they found a “significant difference between the perceived role of this tool as social, rather than educational. Students seem much more open to the idea of using Facebook instructionally than do faculty” (Robyler et al., 2010, p. 138). They concluded that, while the future can be hard to predict because of rapid shifts in the popularity of technologies, at the moment the role of Facebook in education was limited by the reluctance of faculty members to adopt it. More generally, “SNSs may become yet another technology that had great potential for improving the higher education experience but failed to be adopted enough to have any real impact” (p. 138). Whether true or not, the notable feature of this research is its assumption that ‘adoption’ by faculty is the primary means by which Facebook could make education better. Perhaps the real lesson from the differences in perception is that students already use Facebook to support and extend their learning and will do so regardless of faculty involvement. Researchers and indeed educators who position academics as the arbiters of engagement with new technologies thereby perpetuate underlying notions of the authority of the teacher over the student.

Mazer et al. (2007) also considered the problem from the academics’ perspective, arguing that carefully managed self-disclosure through a teacher’s profile might assist in the formation of better student-teacher relationships in class (and, by extension, throughout the whole learning engagement) Such a use would remind students that teaching is a particular duty or role, only part of an individual’s identity. The evidence from the limited study they reported is strong for the positive benefits of this effect, but of more interest is the way that Facebook is positioned here as something which teachers use as teachers, almost undermining the very notion that its benefit is to ensure teachers are not seen just in that manner. While based on experiments conducted early in the life of Facebook, nevertheless, we see another version of the same approach implicit in Robyler’s research: that the correct pedagogical approach to Facebook is determined first by how it might be subsumed into the normal business of education with teachers determining its utility and utilising it in ways contrary to already established norms. For Robyler et al. and Mazer et al., the implication is clear: they seek the benefit of blurring the boundary between informal and formal learning but only in ways that allow the contradictory demarcation of authority between teacher and student to be maintained.

So what exactly is the relationship between the use of Facebook for more formal learning and its general use? Some evidence can be gained from Estus (2010), who reported that students compulsorily using a Facebook closed group to discuss their studies and engage more with readings out of class were all positive about the experience. Interestingly, she found that students would not check the group as often as they would check their general Facebook activity, normally focusing on study weekly, while being a daily Facebook user. Thus students maintained a degree of separation between ‘everyday’ uses of Facebook and its use for formal learning (most likely because of the technical differentiation of the group from a normal newsfeed page). Estus reported her findings with a sensible recognition of the reasons why she had thought Facebook might be valuable:

Educators in all settings strive to identify methods to engage and motivate students to learn. This is true especially within the current generation of students who embrace trends in technology because this always has been a part of their lives. Using Facebook is so widespread that its language is spoken by most college students…

Clearly, this use of online learning as a complement to the normal business of university education was a novel experience for both the teacher and the students. While she noted the use of a learning management system for uploading readings and formal communication (such as submitting assignments), it is remarkable to see how her students responded to the use of Facebook in a manner very similar to that evident in early online learning in the 1990s, just as learning management systems were starting to develop. Thus, we have evidence that the first question to ask, when considering the use of Facebook, is: what effects might any kind of online engagement have in our teaching and learning? Online learning is always going to require us to think of the pedagogic benefit of computer-mediated communication. The specific choice of Facebook, as exemplified in Estus’ research, is more a response to how we might better connect with the way our students themselves understand computer-mediated communication, attempting to realise the advantages of such interaction in a setting that is ‘natural’ to students. As Estus concluded, “[c]ontributing to discussions and sharing additional ideas, both orally and through Facebook, became a natural process rather than an assigned course activity [emphasis added].”

This natural setting may not necessarily be an advantage, however. Although it affords teachers a chance to align learning-oriented communications with other forms in which students are regularly engaged, it also means that teachers must adapt to pre-existing conventions (often structurally enforced by the system’s design) and therefore have less control over how they utilise such communications. Mazman and Usluel (2010, p. 452) found, for example, that Facebook adoption and use by students is largely governed by factors external to education and that its use for learning is indeed shaped by prior adoption and use. Estus (2010) summed up this dilemma by concluding “The increased time spent on Facebook may be a distraction from time intentionally allocated to schoolwork. Alternatively, Facebook may be considered a learning tool reaching out to students in a familiar way and encouraging them to be more involved in a particular course if this technology were used” (see also Madge et al. 2007 for students’ own assessment that Facebook risked only a superficial or distracted engagement with study). Facebook might be said to be the most obvious example of how education now involves a convergence of the opportunity to engage students and the threat of lowering the productive outcome of that engagement.

Facebook can satisfy academics’ attention-seeking desires while normalising only casually attentive interaction in return. This duality is exemplified by Bosch (2009).  Reflecting on how students enthusiastically use Facebook while largely ignoring the formal learning management systems, she implicitly reveals the pressure to respond to and be led by this student behaviour:

However, if one considers the large numbers of students on Facebook often actively participating in discussions and groups, it cannot be ignored as a potential educational tool. Compared to university course sites, e.g. Vula at UCT [University of Cape Town], students are more engaged with Facebook, and perhaps educators need to explore ways to tap into an already popular network. After all, these methods of community building (online social networks) are the ways in which students today are meeting … Facebook may be just the tool we need to stimulate collaborative student-led learning (Bosch, 2009, p. 190).

Yet, as Bosch concludes, this move into the online environments that students have already made their own, and which encompass much more than just education, might not fulfil the challenge for higher education [which] remains to create a reading culture, and foster the development of skills related to critical reading and thinking (p. 197).

The problem is that academics cannot easily have it both ways, to both gain attention through Facebook and yet demand its reciprocation in a manner consistent with other norms. Skerritt, reviewing an example of the use of Facebook within teacher education via students’ creation of a fake profile for communication and reflection, identified the risk that Facebook and similar systems might be “co-opted into the classroom only to the extent that they facilitated learning the kinds of literacies privileged by schools without seriously contesting schools’ traditional cultures” (2010, p. 81). The same might also be said of universities’ approaches, moderated only by the fact that generally students in higher education are afforded some degree of freedom beyond that of school children. Academic approaches to Facebook always run the risk of forms of appropriation in which the conduct of exchanges and interactions must be made proper if they are to serve educational purposes, trivialising the rest of what happens on Facebook. While Facebook is indeed often trivial, the existence of this desire for normalisation is what matters: it marks out a dynamic that always comes into play when educators seek, in the Internet, something which connects with students, which makes for flexibility, or which produces innovation in pedagogy – these quests attempt to re-make the Internet (if only for a time) into something it is not.


Selwyn has offered one of the more sophisticated approaches to understanding the likely benefits that Facebook might provide, noting the learning opportunities afforded by the “conversational, collaborative and communal qualities of social networking services”; that Facebook provides “support for interaction between learners facing the common dilemma of negotiating their studies; and that social networking can become learning networking, as individual students attach themselves to other students, and teachers, and gain insights outside of more traditional instructional settings” (2009, p. 158). His research focused on the public posts by students on their ‘walls’ (pronouncements not connected to other comments or posts), quite different to the specific use of groups for classes or courses which are normally what researchers study. He showed how Facebook postings variously: performed the student’s identity (as a student); provided or sought support (both emotional and practical) in managing studies; and generally commented on life at a large university which they were attending in person.

Of most significance is Selwyn’s reflection that:

The data presented in this paper represent the sporadic and often uncomfortable intrusion of university education into students’ private, personal and interpersonal worlds. Indeed, the data show the fluctuating prominence of educational concerns within students’ overall use of Facebook, with instances of education-related interactions between students structured by the rhythms of assessment schedules or timetabled teaching provision rather than a desire for forms of continuous learning or ad hoc educational exchange (p. 170).

Selwyn thus concluded that, while Facebook is clearly essential for students and certainly a “learning technology”, it “contributes to what Kitto and Higgins (2003, p. 49) termed, ‘the production of the university as an ambivalent space’” (p. 171). This ambivalence is marked, according to the originators of the idea, by uncertainty about whether online-based learning activities increase or decrease the flexibility and freedom students gain online and whether the campus does or does not remain an organising ‘locus’ for their studies. Kitto and Higgins had concluded that students may not find online learning any more ‘flexible’ than other educational arrangements because “appropriate space, technology, and capital must be obtained to study effectively. Judgements must be made on the basis of how much time they can afford to be online and when they can get online.” (2003, p. 51).

With the more widespread availability of connectivity (especially through mobile devices) than a decade ago when Kitto and Higgins were writing, we might turn around this insight and reflect on the extent to which the university is, because of the Internet, an ambivalent space for academics. Teachers’ relations with students, and the judgments about time and effort to be expended, are much more uncertain now because students accept, tolerate or even embrace this ambivalence about the university and, in doing so, can thereby force upon their teachers similar acts of negotiation which place in question the boundaries between formalised times and places of instruction and the ambiguous multi-purpose, temporally fluid zones of social networking.

Higher educators’ desire to exploit Facebook’s crucial role in the way students manage their lives through social and organisational communication and information sharing, while also being sensitive to the separation which students wish to maintain between the generality of their everyday lives and those specific aspects of being a student. In this duality certain processes of effective learning fit naturally with Facebook simply because it is so popular, but the formal educational relationship between a student and their teachers and administrators does not fit so well, even as this relationship nevertheless is enacted through informal uses. As the various examples I have reviewed in this paper demonstrate, any use of Facebook will necessarily confront both teachers and students with the fact that, in an online environment which is so closely entwined with real identities, real places and persistent communication, they are always explicitly negotiating the boundaries between formal and informal. In other words, Facebook does not allow us to separate formal and informal uses in education. Its design and social affordances are all about confusion and overlap, while its computer mediated format also trumps the traditional use of time and place as a means of enforcing the separations between people based on role and function.


Baran, B. (2010). Facebook as a formal instructional environment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41, E146–E149. Bosch, T. (2009). Using online social networking for teaching and learning: Facebook use at the University of Cape Town. Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, 35(2), 185-200.

DeSchryver, M., Mishra, P., Koehleer, M. and Francis, A. (2009). Moodle vs. Facebook: Does using Facebook for discussions in an online course enhance perceived social presence and student interaction?. In I. Gibson et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2009 (pp. 329-336). Chesapeake, VA: AACE. Retrieved from: http://www.editlib.org/f/30612

Ellison, N., Steinfeld, C. and Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “Friends:” social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(4), 1143-1168.

Ellison, N, Vitak, J, Steinfield, C, Gray, R and Lampe, C. (2011) Negotiating privacy concerns and social capital needs in a social media environment. In S. Trepte and L. Reinecke (Eds.) Privacy online: Perspectives on privacy and self-disclosure on the web (pp. 19-32). Heidelberg: Springer.

Estus, E. (2010). Using Facebook within a geriatric pharmacotherapy course. American Journal of Pharmacy Education, 74(8), 145.

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Selwyn, N. (2007). Screw blackboard… do it on Facebook!: An investigation of students’ educational use of Facebook. Paper presented to the Poke 1.0 – Facebook social research symposium, November 15, at University of London. Retrieved from: http://www.scribd.com/doc/513958/

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Skerritt, A. (2010). Lolita, Facebook, and the third space of literacy teacher education. Educational Studies, 46, 67–84.

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Biographical Statements

Professor Matthew Allen is the foundation Head of the Department of Internet Studies, Curtin University. An experienced online educator, winner of an Australian Award for University Teaching and an ALTC Teaching Fellow, Matthew combines research into online learning with research into the social and cultural conditions of connectivity. He has written extensively on Web 2.0 and is currently completing a monograph (with Dr Tama Leaver) on web presence. He is also working on users’ reactions to high-speed broadband and the historical experience of connectivity.

http://netcrit.net :: netcrit@gmail.com :: @netcrit

Christopher S. Walsh
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Digital Culture & Education (DCE) has hit a milestone in 2012. For the first time, we will publish three issues in one year.  Submissions to DCE are increasing as the journal becomes more established with consistent high quality articles.

Volume 4, Issue 2 is no exception. Karen E. Wohlwen & Lara J. Handsfield’s ‘Twinkle, twitter little stars: Tensions and flows in interpreting social constructions of the techno-toddler’ examines the affordances and limitations of two interpretive frames—nexus of practice and the rhizome for understanding the social construction of young children as precocious users of digital technologies. John Hilton III & Kenneth Plummer pose the question, “To Facebook or Not?’ and Stephan J. Franciosi pays attention to digital culture in regards to leadership frameworks at the school, district and governmental levels, rather than merely discussing its influence on children and adolescents. Swapna Kumar, Feng Liu and Erik W. Black explore how undergraduates in the USA forged a participatory and collaborative digital culture within their courses despite their professors’ scarce use of such technologies pointing out—rightly so—how further research and insight into undergraduates’ voluntary use of technology in educational contexts can contribute to the effective integration of digital media into higher education. Roy Krøvel reports on how a wiki was introduced in the teaching of Development and Environmental Studies to journalism students in Norway. His findings indicate that using wikis stimulates cooperation between students and strengthens collective processes of learning, but more importantly, illustrates how using wikis can improve the teacher’s understanding of the process of learning. Issue 2 also has three robust book reviews by David Crouch, Nazanin Ghodrati and Fabian Schäfer and Martin Roth.

This issue’s cover design is by Andrew Chong, a young UK-based award-winning multidisciplinary designer who specialises in residential and commercial architecture and interior design, graphic and brand identity, product development, art direction, photography and 3D illustration. Special thanks are also due to Jesse Ko, a graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University for his ongoing contribution to line editing each manuscript for the journal.  As always, DCE is greatly indebted to all of the members of the journal’s editorial board and the external reviewers for their hard work and dedication to helping us make the journal such a success.

In 2013, a Special Edition of the DCE will be published with papers from the mLearn 2012 conference workshop entitled, ‘mLearning Solutions for International Development: Rethinking what’s possible’.  Papers in this special issue will demonstrate examples of mLearning and the significant potential they hold to transform the delivery of education and training for International Development, whilst also considering the challenges of achieving scale and impact. The workshop, on October 15, 2012 in Helsinki Finland, will showcase hands-on examples of how mLearning supports and extends learning—across diverse contexts and fields—through mobile devices including inexpensive alphanumeric mobile phones used widely across the developing world.

Shortly DCE be advertising a position for a Junior Editorial Assistant to help us speed up the submission and review process for all manuscripts, if you are interested in this role, please contact the editors.

Swapna Kumar, Feng Liu and Erik W. Black

Published Online: In press
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To better understand how students’ familiarity with digital media in their daily lives can be harnessed in learning environments, a survey about their informal and educational use of new technologies was administered to undergraduates in three schools at a private university in the United States. The results indicated that undergraduates (n=282) transferred their skills in technology use for personal purposes to their higher education coursework, infusing digital technologies that were not required or used by their professors into their educational endeavours. As in prior research, respondents used new technologies and created online content more for informal purposes than for course-related activities. However, they forged a participatory and collaborative digital culture within their courses despite their professors’ scarce use of such technologies. The results suggest that further research and insight into undergraduates’ voluntary use of technology in educational contexts can contribute to the effective integration of digital media into higher education.

Keywords: collaboration culture, digital media, digital natives, technology use, undergraduate education


Those born after 1984 have been termed digital natives, the Net generation, Generation M, or even Neomillenials (Dede, 2005; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Prensky, 2001; Rideout, Foehr & Roberts, 2005, Tapscott, 1998). The time that this group spends online, the ways in which they use various digital technologies and the ease with which they use those technologies have been the topic of much discussion in education, communications and anthropological research. Some educators have asserted that these children, teenagers, and students are high users of technology who learn differently from their parents and educators, and will have to be taught differently (Dede, 2005; Tapscott, 1998). In response, recent research has criticised such claims and cautioned against categorising a complete generation or age group and attributing it with characteristics that might not be true of all members. Researchers have reported both differences and no difference between the level of technology used by digital natives and immigrants (Garcia & Qin, 2009; Guo, Dobson, & Petrina, 2008) and called attention to the lack of empirical evidence for an entire generation that learns differently (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Bennett & Maton, 2010). Indeed, results from surveys conducted since 2002 indicate that there are huge discrepancies in the ways that members of the so-called Net generation use technology, over and above contextual conditions like geography, access, and socio-economic status (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005; Jones & Madden, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2008; Oliver & Goerke, 2007; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005; Sandars & Schroter, 2007; Smith, 2009). Lorenzo, Oblinger and Dziuban (2006) point to student diversity in higher education institutions, variance in information literacy skills, and their unequal access to the latest technologies as reasons why this demographic cannot be categorised as one group.

Despite the different facets of the argument, the common goal of researchers and educators is to provide students of today with the skills to succeed in jobs of the future. Educators on both sides of the argument related to technology use amongst adolescents and young adults recognise that online and digital technologies are ubiquitous in informal environments and should therefore become an integral part of formal learning environments. They acknowledge that newer generations are growing up with varying levels of exposure to digital technologies, and that educators will have to leverage students’ prior technical experience in formal learning environments (Jenkins et al., 2009).

In order to better understand how students’ familiarity with digital technologies in their daily lives can be harnessed in learning environments, and to compare how students currently use new technologies for both informal and formal purposes, a survey was administered to undergraduates at three colleges in a large private university in the United States. The survey was designed to answer the question: What new technologies do undergraduates use informally (for personal purposes) and for educational purposes? In order to integrate technologies that are regularly used by students outside of their coursework into their coursework, it is important to understand what technologies students use, the manner in which they use them and whether they also apply specific technologies in their coursework of their own accord. Jenkins et al. (2009) postulate that students graduating from the colleges of today will be part of a “participatory culture” (p. xi) consisting of formal and informal affiliations (online communities), creative production, collaborative problem solving (formal and informal), and circulations of online content. Jenkins et al. argue that educators cannot presume that youth will acquire skills to participate in these affiliations informally, but should provide them with educational experiences that will facilitate their participation in media creation and the online world, thus preparing them for future work in participatory environments where media and virtual collaboration are ubiquitous. In order to investigate the ways in which current undergraduates create digital content informally and in educational environments, a second research question was added to the study: What new technologies do undergraduates use to create online content informally (for personal purposes) and for educational purposes?

Literature Review

Research studies in different parts of the world have surveyed teens’ use and access to Web-based and mobile technologies (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005; Jones & Madden, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2008; Jones, 2009; Lenhart & Madden, 2005, 2007; Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005; Sandars & Schroter, 2007; Smith, 2009). The participants in this research study were undergraduates between the ages of 18-24, therefore the research reviewed in this paper is restricted to studies that reported the informal and educational use of technology by participants in that age group.

Informal Technology Use and Content Creation by Undergraduates

Undergraduates enrolled in institutions of higher education in different parts of the world have been reported to have an extremely high level of familiarity with communication technologies, social networking tools, and audio and video media-sharing (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005; Kvavik, Caruso & Morgan, 2004; Jones & Madden, 2002; Lenhart & Madden, 2005; Nagler & Ebner, 2009; Sandars & Schroter, 2007). In the United States, the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) reported high use of social networks by over 27, 000 respondents in 2008, 2009, and 2010 (Salaway et al., 2008; Smith, Salaway & Caruso, 2009; Smith & Caruso, 2010). In Germany, Nagler and Ebner (2009) found that over 90% of undergraduates (n=821) had used YouTube, StudiVz (a popular German social network) and MySpace, and that 60-70% had used wikis, blogs, audio podcasts, video podcasts, and SecondLife. In Austria, Safran, Guetl and Helic (2007) surveyed three groups of computer science students (n=183) who were very familiar with wikis (90-100%) and blogs (76-96%), and the use of these technologies for learning, but were not as familiar (40%) with social bookmarking. Both groups of researchers, along with White (2007) in the UK, found that large percentages of ‘digital natives’ had never heard of social bookmarking tools or had very limited experience with them. College students’ technology use in an Australian university was also found to vary greatly depending on their familiarity with digital devices and online learning (Cameron, 2005).

In addition to undergraduates’ use of technology, their participation and creation of online content informally have also been studied by researchers (Kvavik, Caruso & Morgan, 2004; Kennedy et al. 2008; White, 2007). In the latest ECAR study in the US, 42% of respondents said they contributed to video websites, 40% to wikis, and 36% to blogs (Smith & Caruso, 2010). Likewise, Kennedy et al. (2008) reported that 58.6% participants regularly read blogs and 43.9% had contributed to blogs but only 34.9% had created blogs. They also found that only 18.4% had contributed to wikis, similar to White’s (2007) research in the UK where 82% of respondents had not contributed to wikis. This resounds with prior research by Kvavik, Caruso and Morgan (2004) where only 21% of 4374 undergraduate freshmen and seniors surveyed in the US had created Web-based content. Given the potential of new technologies to facilitate the creation of online content and the easy contribution of participants to the creation of shared content, the gap between undergraduates’ use and creation of online content has surprised researchers.

Educational Technology Use and Content Creation by Undergraduates

Educators have been particularly interested in students’ Web 2.0 use because such technologies are perceived as easily accessible, collaborative, and beneficial in learning environments. Compared to their high use of technologies informally, 25% and 33.1 of the US respondents in the ECAR 2009 (n=30,616) and 2010 (n=36,950) studies respectively had used wikis and 11.6% had used blogs for educational purposes (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009; Smith & Caruso, 2010). In 2009, 35% of respondents used podcasts informally, but only 5.8% used podcasts in courses the semester they were surveyed. Likewise, 90% of respondents used Social Networking Systems for social purposes but only 27.8% for educational purposes. Six percent had used video creation software and 5% audio creation software in their coursework compared to 33% who had used such technologies informally. The researchers concluded that students used technology mainly for social, but not educational purposes (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009). Likewise, in a survey of first-year engineering and business students in Western Australia in 2005 (n=413) and 2007 (n=290), Oliver and Goerke (2007) also found that 29.8%, 87.8%, and 21.9% of respondents had used blogs, instant messaging, and podcasts socially. Further, only 6.5% of respondents had used blogs, 39.5% instant messaging, and 11.5% podcasting for educational purposes. These data correspond to prior findings by Kvavik (2005) and Sandars and Schroter (2007) that high levels of technology use did not always translate to students’ use of technology for educational purposes, and by Caruso and Kvavik (2005) that students are extremely comfortable with certain basic technologies but are not comfortable with more advanced technologies or specialised applications of technology. “We cannot assume that being a member of the ‘Net Generation’ is synonymous with knowing how to employ technology based tools strategically to optimise learning experiences in university settings” (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005, p. 4), so it falls to professors to find ways to integrate technologies that are often used by students socially into their course work and course activities (Oliver & Goerke, 2007).

Undergraduates do value the use of technology in their learning environments – 79% of college students in 2002 and 84% in 2006 agreed that their educational experience was positively impacted by their Internet use (Jones et al., 2008). In the 2009 ECAR study, 49.4% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the use of technology in courses improves their learning and 45% reported that all or almost all their instructors use IT effectively in their courses (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009). Moreover, 73.1% of respondents reported using college or university library websites, and 70% the university course management system (CMS) for their coursework, similar to Oliver and Goerke’s (2007) Western Australian study where 90% of first-year college students used online resources for study purposes. These data might reflect the penetration of online resources and CMS on university campuses, because prior research reported that communication with instructors or peers was the main focus of students’ Internet use for educational purposes (Jones & Madden, 2002; Jones et al., 2008).


The instrument used in this study collected descriptive data about undergraduates’ use of technology for personal and educational purposes and consisted of items in four areas: Demographics, informal (personal) use of emerging technologies, educational use of emerging technologies, and online content creation using emerging technologies. The instrument was developed following focus groups, a pilot survey, and input from experts. Initial focus groups were conducted with 21 undergraduates from different disciplines who were asked about their perspectives on Web 2.0 technologies and asked to choose from a list of technologies that they used regularly. The focus group data was used to develop a pilot survey that contained questions about students’ informal use of new technologies, students’ educational use of new technologies, and open-ended questions about how students had used those technologies. Students (n=26) in an undergraduate course in education completed the survey, simultaneously providing feedback on the clarity of questions and adequacy of the answer choices. Key feedback from participants involved distinguishing educational use as the professors’ and students’ use of an application in an educational environment (Kumar, 2009). Following the pilot survey, the section on educational use was changed to reflect professors’ and students’ use, and open-ended questions about the ways in which applications were used in educational environments and why students perceived them as enhancing the learning experience were added. Four measurement and evaluation faculty members reviewed the survey and provided feedback on the scale and responses.

All undergraduates enrolled in the College of Education, College of Communication, and College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at a large private university were contacted by email and invited to participate in the online survey (hosted in SurveyMonkey). There was no incentive provided to participants. Follow-up emails were planned after the first round of responses, but could not be implemented due to administrative changes. Following collection, data was analysed using SPSS PASW v.17. Both descriptive and categorical statistical procedures (chi-square for percentage comparison) were used to analyse the data.


The 282 respondents to the survey ranged in age from 18-24 years old. The sample was primarily female (77.9%). Table 1 provides demographic data on the respondents.

Major Male Female Total
Education 8 (14.8%) 46 (85.2%) 54
Communication 41 (26.2%) 115 (73.8%) 156
Health and Rehabilitation Sciences 13 (18.5%) 57 (81.5%) 70
Total 62 (22.1%) 218 (77.9%) 280

Table 1: Demographics of respondents

Undergraduates’ Informal Use of New Technologies

The undergraduate respondents to this survey were frequent users of social networking sites – 98.5% had Facebook accounts and 28% were members of least three social networking sites. Online videos, photo-sharing, online forums, and blogs were the technologies most used by them for informal purposes (Table 2). Only 2.5% of respondents had used SecondLife, a multi-user virtual environment.

Yes No Do not know what it is No response
Online forums 63.5% 27.7% 0.0% 8.9%
Google Docs 42.2% 40.1% 8.5% 9.2%
Blogs 60.6% 30.1% 0.7% 8.5%
Wikis 47.5% 33.7% 8.5% 10.3%
Podcasts 42.9% 46.1% 1.1% 9.9%
Photo-sharing 64.5% 24.8% 1.4% 9.2%
Online Videos 86.9% 4.3% 0.4% 8.5%
SecondLife 2.5% 48.6% 35.1% 13.8%

Table 2: Informal Use of new technologies (n=282)

A Chi-square test was used to compare male and female undergraduates’ “Yes” responses to their informal use of new technologies in the survey (Table 3). Male students aged 18-24 were found to be more frequent users of online forums, Google Docs, wikis, and SecondLife in an informal context (p<.05). There was no significant difference between male and female students’ informal use of blogs, podcasts, Photo-sharing, and online videos.

Male Female Chi square P value
Online forums 82.7% 66.7% 5.060 .02
Google Docs 63.5% 41.9% 9.448 .01
Blogs 78.8% 63.4% 4.644 .10
Wikis 70.0% 48.5% 7.768 .02
Podcasts 61.2% 44.6% 4.779 .09
Photosharing 64.7% 73.0% 3.085 .21
Online Videos 94.2% 95.1% .426 .81
SecondLife 4.4% 2.5% 7.749 .02

Table 3: Comparing male and female undergraduates’ informal use of new technologies

Undergraduates’ Educational Use of New Technologies

Fifty-nine percent of undergraduates had used the social networking site Facebook in an educational context. Students were asked whether the technologies were used by them, by their professors, or not used at all in their educational experiences. Students (28%) and their professors (46%) used online videos the most for educational purposes.  Google Docs (21%), and wikis (16%) were the other technologies used frequently for educational purposes by the respondents. Podcast use was generally low by students (1.8%) and professors (3.5%). Students’ open-ended responses indicated that they primarily used Google Docs to collaborate on course projects and share their work with their peers.

Undergraduates’ use of new technologies for educational purposes was much lower than their use of technology for social purposes (Table 4). For example, 47.5% of them had used wikis informally but only 16% had used them in their coursework. Students reported that few instructors (6%) used wikis as resources in their coursework. Likewise, 60.6% of students had used blogs informally but only 12-14% of students and their professors had used blogs in courses. McNemar’s test (Chi-square for within-subjects) was used to compare students’ informal and eduational use of the different technologies and report the difference between students’ responses (Table 4). There was a significant difference between students’ informal use and educational use (p<. 01) for all the technologies listed in this question.

Informal use Educational use P value
Online forums 63.5% 47.9% <.01
Google Docs 42.2% 21.3% <.01
Blogs 60.6% 12.4% <.01
Wikis 47.5% 16.0% <.01
Podcasts 42.9% 1.8% <.01
Online Videos 86.9% 28.4% <.01

Table 4: Comparing respondents’ informal and educational use of new technologies

Undergraduates’ Informal and Educational Creation of Online Content

Respondents’ informal creation of online content using digital media was higher than their creation of online content in their coursework, except for their creation of websites (Table 5). Students’ open-ended responses revealed that a large number of education and communication majors had taken a required course in their programs where they learned to create websites, which accounts for the results.

Yes for a class Yes, but not for a class No Do not know what it is No response
A website 35.5% 19.1% 33.7% 0% 11.7%
A blog 6.7% 35.1% 46.5% 0% 11.7%
A wiki 2.8% 6.4% 68.4% 9.6% 12.8%
A podcast 0.4% 2.1% 84.4% 1.1% 12.1%
Electronic portfolio 5.0% 13.1% 60.6% 8.9% 12.4%

Table 5: Creation of online content using digital media (n=282)

The Chi-square test used to compare male and female undergraduates’ informal creation of online content highlighted a significant difference in their creation of websites, wikis, and podcasts (p<.05, Table 6). More male students used these technologies to create online content informally than female students.

Male Female Chi square P value
A website 40.0% 17.2% 12.250 <.01
A blog 54.0% 36.4% 5.503 .06
A wiki 20.8% 4.1% 16.129 <.01
A podcast 6.0% 1.5% 8.094 .04
An electronic portfolio 26.0% 12.2% 6.143 .11

Table 6: Comparing male and female students’ informal creation of online content

Informal creation Educational creation P value
Websites 19.1% 35.5% .019
Blogs 35.1% 6.7% <.01
Wikis 6.4% 2.8% .547
Podcasts 2.1% 0.4% .834
Electronic portfolios 13.1% 5.0% .453

Table 7: Comparing Respondents’ informal and educational creation of online content

McNemar’s test of the difference between student content creation using technology for informal and educational purposes (Table 7) was significant for student creation of websites (p=.019<.05) and blogs (p<.01) but did not provide any evidence that students’ creation of a wiki, podcast, and electronic portfolio for educational purposes differs significantly from their informal creation of the same.

Undergraduates’ Use and Creation of Online Content

Undergraduates were also found to use online content rather than create online content both informally and for educational purposes. McNemar’s test was used to compare students’ responses for informal use and informal creation of online content (Table 8), and for educational use and educational creation of online content using different technologies (Table 9). A significant difference was found between students’ informal use and informal content creation using blogs, wikis, and podcasts (p<. 01), and between their educational use and educational content creation using wikis (p<. 01). Students were more likely to use blogs and wikis as resources for informal and educational purposes than create content using these two technologies.

Informal use Informal creation P value
Blogs 60.6% 35.1% <.01
Wikis 47.5% 6.4% <.01
Podcasts 42.9% 2.1% <.01

Table 8: Comparing respondent’s informal use and informal creation of online content.

Educational use Educational creation P value
Blogs 12.4% 6.7% 0.03
Wikis 16.0% 2.8% <.01
Podcasts 1.8% 0.4% 0.15

Table 9: Comparing respondents’ educational use and creation of online content


There are several limitations associated with this study. First, data was collected from a convenience sample of students at one private post-secondary institution, and the participants were volunteers, limiting the ability to generalise the results to other bodies of students. Within the sample, males were underrepresented. Further, the data was collected from a subset of the student population, students enrolled in Colleges of Education, Communication, and Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. It is certainly feasible that students enrolled in other colleges or institutions may have different experiences with technology both in the classroom and informally. Notwithstanding the limitations, the findings of this research are discussed here in the context of prior research.

Creation of a digital culture in educational environments

At the beginning of this study, undergraduates’ use of technology was categorised as informal use (for personal purposes) or educational use of new technologies based on prior research. The findings revealed a third category – undergraduates’ informal use of new technologies in their educational endeavours ( i.e. students used new technologies that were not required or not used by their professors in their educational activities, thus creating a digital and participatory culture independent of the structure provided to them). Contradicting prior findings where researchers claimed that educators do not transfer their familiarity with technologies to educational contexts (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005; Oliver & Goerke, 2007; Sandars & Schroter, 2007), undergraduates in this study used new technologies of their own volition in many different ways in educational contexts. Kvavik (2005) identified convenience, communications and control as factors influencing the Net Generation’s adoption of technology and Smith and Caruso (2010) highlighted undergraduates’ use of technology for collaboration in their coursework. Likewise, convenience, communications, and collaboration drove undergraduates’ use of new technologies in this research. They found it convenient to schedule meetings and share resources using social networking tools like Facebook and to back-up resources using Google Docs. They stayed connected with latest developments and topics of interest using blogs, shared photographs online, and communicated with their peers to organise study groups or elicit information about professors and assignments using social networking sites. They used wikis and Google Docs to collaborate – 16% of students used wikis as a resource compared to 5.7% of their professors, and 21.3% students used Google Docs compared to 2.8% of their professors. Undergraduates in this study thus recreated a digital culture of collaboration, participation, and knowledge exchange with which they are familiar with in their personal lives, in their educational environments.

In this research, undergraduates were self-directed in their use of social networking technologies or collaborative online tools, using them when not required or used by their professors. Except for online videos, undergraduates reported that their professors’ use of all technologies listed in our survey were comparable to or lower than students’ educational use of those technologies. The fact that students integrate new technologies into their coursework in areas not required by their professors indicates that they no longer distinguish between their use of technology in informal and educational environments for communication and collaboration, and are able to find innovative ways to informally learn with new technologies in their courses. Undergraduates continue to view the term ‘educational use’ of technology as technology use by their professors, which is an important finding for future surveys or research that investigates students’ use of technology for educational purposes – researchers will have to define what they mean by educational use as participants increasingly infuse their learning activities with new technologies. Future research could further investigate how undergraduates use these digital media in educational environments, in order to enable educators to learn from the ways in which undergraduates learn with new technologies and purposefully use those new technologies in learning environments. It is also important to determine how critically and appropriately students use online resources for educational purposes.

Informal & educational use of new technologies

Despite their self-directed use of digital media and their creation of a collaborative culture using digital media in their courses, undergraduates in this study used and created digital content more in their personal lives than for course-related activities. They were also more familiar with and skilled in some technologies over others – they were high users of online videos, photo-sharing, online forums, and blogs informally but did not have much experience with social bookmarking or virtual worlds. These findings correspond to those of prior researchers who reported undergraduates’ high use of communication technologies, social networking tools, and media-sharing, and their low use of social bookmarking (Caruso & Kvavik, 2005; Kvavik, Caruso & Morgan, 2004; Nagler & Ebner, 2009; Safran, Guetl, & Helic, 2007; Sandars & Schroter, 2007; White, 2007). Likewise, compared to their high use of online content, undergraduates in this research did not create as much online content either for social or educational purposes. Given the future participatory culture in which undergraduates of today will work (Jenkins et al., 2009), higher education course work has to include increased opportunities for students to actively engage in the creation of online content. In addition to communicating and collaborating in online communities in the future, they will also have to be creative contributors and circulators of online content.

Male undergraduates were found to be higher users of new technologies informally and to also create more online content than female undergraduates. This finding differs from the ECAR survey (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009) where the only significant difference was between male and female students’ preferences of learning with video games and simulations. Although the difference can be attributed to the low number of male participants in this sample or in the disciplines that were represented in this sample, research with a larger sample and more disciplines could provide further insight. In further analyses of this data to compare undergraduates’ use of technologies in the different disciplines included in this survey, we will investigate the use of technologies by males and females in each discipline.


Notwithstanding the existing research on students’ informal use of technology, it would be valuable to study the ways in which undergraduates who have grown up with digital media transfer their familiarity with such media to learning and teaching contexts, to further define digital literacies in the context of emerging technologies, to explore how undergraduates demonstrate such literacies in their personal environments and educational endeavours, and to investigate how professors currently encourage students to develop and apply such literacies in their coursework.

Regardless of the different terms used to describe students who have grown up with digital technologies, and the discussion around whether those terms should be used to categorise a generation of group of students, it is clear that the ways in which they use digital media and transfer their digital collaborative culture has to be studied and leveraged in educational environments. There is insufficient empirical evidence about how students of today use new technologies in their educational endeavours, to what extent they infuse and manage their learning with technology, and whether exposure to new technologies at the college level can make up for lack of exposure to the latest technology in their prior educational endeavours. While it is valuable to attempt to identify the learning styles of new generations, it is equally important to craft an educational environment that provides the diverse body of undergraduates entering universities with learning experiences that use new technologies to prepare them for jobs of the future.


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Biographical Statements

Swapna Kumar teaches courses on technology integration, the design, development and facilitation of online and blended learning, online identities in social media, the digital divide, and teacher inquiry. Her research interests include the use of new media in teaching and learning, online communities, blended learning, asynchronous online interactions, and the impact of professional practice programs in work environments.

Email: swapnakumar@coe.ufl.edu

Feng Liu’s current research interests include the employment of advanced research methods and statistical approaches in educational research, the investigation of online learning success and the effectiveness of virtual schooling, and the use of e-game/simulation in education specifically in Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM) field.

Erik Black is an Assistant Professor in the University of Florida Department of Pediatrics with a joint appointment in the Educational Technology program in the University of Florida College of Education. His research focuses on innovations in education for individuals with special needs and the psychology of online learning. Dr. Black teaches graduate courses in interdisciplinary learning, educational research design and social media.

Stephan J. Franciosi

Published Online: In press
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The influence of the digital culture on the modern childhood and adolescent educational context makes it dynamic and fast-changing. In a field characterised by technological innovation and change, leadership style is critical to facilitating successful adaptation of useful technology, which contributes to successful learning outcomes. At the same time, much of the discussion on digital culture and education is focused on the classroom level, and very little attention is given to leadership frameworks at the school, district or governmental level. This paper introduces constructs more commonly discussed in the study of leadership or organisations, and reviews literature on leadership issues in the modern educational context. It is argued that educational leadership should be more flexible to cope with technology-driven changes and new developments. This entails moving away from a leader-centric organisational framework toward a more democratised model. It is suggested that a transformational leadership style is most appropriate for organisations such as educational systems operating in a field characterised by change and innovation.

Keywords: educational leadership, educational technology, leadership, organisational theory, transformational leadership


Few would deny that digital culture is creating pressure for change in organised public institutions for childhood and adolescent education. The permeation of personal computing, networked communication, and the participatory culture engendered by these technological tools in industrialised societies has incurred a cultural shift documented by anthropologists and sociologists (Ito et al., 2008; Ito, 2010), as well as economical and political changes described by legal scholars (Benkler, 2006; Zittrain, 2008). Since education exists in a socio-cultural context, it must change as well in order to adapt to the emergent needs of an increasingly digital public (Jenkins, 2009). At the same time, however, schools have proven to be rather conservative hamlets within the greater society, and in fact, there seems to be an underlying assumption that schools and school systems should remain relatively unchanged from their present state in industrialised societies—that is, social organs dominated by hierarchically organised, state-sponsored institutions with centralised leadership frameworks. Yet this assumption has little basis in theoretical or empirical evidence, especially when one considers that most of the discussion on digital culture and education has been at the classroom level, leaving the vital topics of leadership and organisational theory largely unexplored.

The pressure for educational systems to change makes the role of educational leadership critical. Here, it is important to note a distinction made between “leader” and “manager.” Leaders are those in positions of authority or influence that serve to create and/or sustain effective and desirable change in organisations, while managers are those who serve to ensure, in a word, the opposite—a minimum of deviance from the status quo (Gibson, 2000). Managers are appropriate when the means and goals of an organisation are already established and constant, and there is ample precedence to learn from and build expertise. On the other hand, leaders are needed when change is called for, and more so in an uncertain environment where the right direction for change is not readily apparent. Since it would be disingenuous to claim that the future direction of educational development is clear, the nature of educational leadership stands out as an important consideration in the overall discussion on digital culture and education.

Although the topic of leadership is pertinent to the current discourse, surprisingly little has been written about it. While studies on leadership have a long history in the military and business management disciplines (Northouse, 2010), there is scant literature that deals with educational leadership and technology. Furthermore, what does exist does not constitute a body of empirical knowledge adequate for informing optimal decision-making in the educational fields with regard to technology and a digital culture (McLeod & Richardson, 2011). At the same time, several inferences can be made from the existing scholarship, and these suggest that technology-driven change should make the future organisational state of educational systems differ considerably from traditional models.

One purpose of this paper is to bring leadership and organisational theory into the discussion on digital culture and education by reviewing relevant literature in the field. Practitioners and researchers focusing on the classroom level should be more informed about the organisational contexts in which they work so that they might understand the potential alterations to those environments. A second purpose of this paper is to point out common themes in the extant literature which suggest that the traditional role of an educational leader as a manager and central authority figure in a relatively stable system is rapidly becoming, or is already, outdated. Leadership must become more democratised in order to reflect changes that are occurring in the greater social context. This paper first considers the historical context of modern education. It briefly traces the development of the educational leadership in the United States and the industrialised West from the post-World War II era to the present. This history is useful for illustrating the socio-economic developments that coincide with a transition from a relatively stable organisation to a more dynamic one. Next, the concept of transformational leadership is introduced, and its advantages with regard to dynamic and creative organisations are outlined. Following this, the current state of educational leadership, specifically with regard to technology integration and utilisation, is examined. Finally, a discussion on the overall implications of the literature is offered.

Educational leadership, past and present

Education in the industrialised West has changed dramatically since the end of the Second World War, and continues to experience a paradigmatic shift in both socio-cultural context and leadership. Kowch (2009) outlines the historical development of educational leadership from the 1950’s, when schools constituted systems that were largely closed off from the surrounding society. The purpose of the schools was largely to train manufacturing workers in basic reading and writing skills, which was considered a relatively systematic and well understood undertaking, so leadership was entrusted to expert managers. In these systems, the function of leadership was based on identifying relatively predictable outcomes and providing the means to achieve them. Teachers were considered mere cogs in the greater machine, and the principal or headmaster was the sole person in authority. In the 1960’s and 70’s, attention began to turn toward individuals rather than organisational systems partially as a result of the socio-cultural climate of increasing distrust of government during the Viet Nam War and Watergate scandals. This, along with a shift in focus from training industrial line workers to service workers, gave rise to the instructional or transformational schools of thought on leadership that emerged in the 1980’s and 90’s. This leadership framework emphasised relationships within an organisation rather than the roles of individual members. With the turn of the millennium, the focus shifted to the organisation as a group and decentralisation of the traditional leadership role. Kowch argues that leadership should now be seen as existing in a more fluid organisation consisting of transient teams and networks rather than cogs performing repetitive tasks.

From the perspective of strategic decision-making, Cheng (2010) outlines the same societal contexts that affected the evolution of educational leadership strategies in the United States in a three-wave model. In the first wave (1950s-1960s), American society was industrial and the economy was production-based, making educational goals clear and predictable. Strategic leadership during this era was primarily inward-looking as schools concentrated on providing the relatively measurable skills of reading and math for an industrial workforce. In the second wave (1970s-1990s), the waning of a production-based economy and the waxing of service- and information-based industries created a demand for more sophisticated workforce skills, such as creative problem-solving, which in turn created a demand for higher education. This era was characterised by more choice for students, which created a commercialised market environment in which schools vied for “client” students. Educational leadership in this era was faced with strategic decisions for dealing with the competition and recruiting students. In the final wave, which includes the present, the internet and affordable computing are creating a globalised environment in which educational leaders are faced not only with more competition, but with competition from outside of their own localities. In other words, schools have changed from relatively closed systems in which one leader was responsible and accountable for producing predetermined outcomes, to dynamic systems that must adopt and respond to rapid societal changes on a global level.

Thus, the modern educational environment in the western industrialised world at the beginning of the 21st century is drastically different than that of the second half of the 20th century, primarily due to the decline of a manufacturing based economy and advance of the information and service based economies. It is also worth noting how the educational systems of the different eras reflected the economic base of the societies they served. In both the manufacturing sector and the education system designed to serve it, tasks are stable and repetitive, so very little creativity or problem solving is necessary. Also, immediate outcomes are relatively easy to measure so there is a clear indicator of performance. In such an environment, leadership can be relegated to a manager because it is possible to concentrate the knowledge necessary to sustain such a system in one individual, and it is desirable to maintain a steady environment with few deviations from routine. Contrastively, an information/service-based economy and the educational system designed to serve it are both characterised by change and innovation. Creativity is important because unforeseen challenges and opportunities that arise must be dealt with. Human relationships are important because a diminished ability to rely on set routines, and a continuing necessity for coordinated efforts mean that such connections must constantly be renegotiated. Most leadership theorists have noted that it is unreasonable to assume that a manager-type leader is suitable in such a situation.

Although the patterns outlined in this section deal specifically with the western culture, they can be expected to emerge in any region of the world that experiences similar socio-economic conditions (i.e., technically advanced or industrial countries). The question, then, of what type of leadership is required for a dynamic, and increasingly networked educational system, is one that every region touched by globalisation and the digital culture will eventually have to face.

Transformational leadership for dynamic organisations

Since the 1970s, much attention has been given to the notion and effectiveness of transformational leadership in the West (Northouse, 2010, p. 186). Transformational leadership is characterised by a focus on the concerns and needs of followers to develop them into semi-autonomous entities that can act to advance the goals of an organisation without the need of constant direction. According to Bass (1997), this contrasts with transactional leadership, which is another major framework for leadership style in modern society. Whereas a transformational style emphasises the quality of the relationship between leader and follower through ethical role-modelling, motivation and care for individual needs, a transactional style emphasises a contractual relationship between the leader and the follower based on extrinsic rewards and punishments. In this sense transformational leadership can be considered the more flexible approach that serves to empower and guide rather than to control subordinates. This style has even been compared to a completely selfless or “servant” style of leadership (Stone, Russell, & Patterson, 2004). According to this view, both transformational and servant leadership styles are characterised by role modelling, motivation, encouragement of risk-taking among subordinates and “individualised consideration,” but that while a transformational leader is ultimately concerned with the organisation, a servant leader is more focused on the well-being of followers. Yet, the overall intent of both transformational and servant leadership is to empower and motivate followers to work autonomously for the success of an organization.

It is worth emphasising that the notion of transformational leadership is not meant to imply leaderless organisations. The leader in this model has three important coordinating roles. The first is that of motivator, which entails instilling in individual followers the will to work toward the goals of the organisation. To do this, the leader must understand those goals and the context in which the organisation operates. This is often difficult for individual subordinates to do as they are concentrating on the task at hand. The second role is that of communicator. Since individuals can very often become distracted with their own jobs and challenges, they must be reminded periodically of the overall vision. Finally, a leader must be a facilitator of communication among the members. Risk-taking and experimentation are encouraged in an organisation emphasising creative solutions, so learning from mistakes becomes the key to efficiency (Govindarajan & Trimble, 2010). Individuals cannot learn from each other if they are unaware of each others’ actions, so it falls to the leader to ensure that adequate and productive communication takes place.

Organisational and leadership theory suggests the utility of a transformational leadership style particularly for a tech-driven operational environment. From the literature on business management in the technology industry, Kouzes and Posner (1996) focus on the “visionary” role of leaders, and admonish them to be ideal, unique and future-oriented as means of engendering follower support. Pulley, Sessa and Malloy (2002) outline a leadership development program that they created for Xerox. In the program, they address five “dilemmas” created by the new dynamic organisational environment. These include the need to empower individuals without isolating them, and the need to encourage input from the bottom while providing guidance from the top.

Empirical support from the business world

Transformational leadership is supported by empirical evidence suggesting that it is preferred globally in human society. According to Bass (1997), empirical studies show that the transformational model is preferred over transactional by followers across cultures in different countries around the world. In addition, MacDonald, Sulsky and Brown (2008) show evidence that while perception of a leadership style can be “primed” in followers, the transformational style is more prototypically “salient” in most individuals. This suggests that, all else being equal, transformational leadership is more fundamental to human society and psychology.

There are also studies on outcomes that indicate transformational leadership is more effective than other models of leadership in dynamic organisational situations where creativity and autonomy among subordinates are required. Jung (2001) investigated the relationship between creativity and transformational and transactional leadership styles. He found that divergent thinking is more common in brainstorming sessions carried out under a transformational leadership condition, and that transactional leadership may actually be detrimental to creativity. Also, Jung and Sosik (2002) found that transformational leaders improved autonomy and morale, thereby improving performance among groups working in Korean firms. More recently, Munir and Nielsen (2009) found that transformational leadership had a positive impact on the health, and therefore the morale and retention, of Danish healthcare workers. Finally, Ruggieri (2009) reports that, compared to a strictly transactional (i.e., reward-and-punishment) leadership style, transformational leaders were associated with a higher rate of job satisfaction among people working on problem-solving tasks in virtual groups. Yet while transformational leadership is shown to be effective in certain commercially competitive and healthcare organisations, is it appropriate for an education system as well?

Empirical support from education

In the field of educational leadership studies, Kirby, Paradise and King (1992) investigated the behaviours of exemplary educational leaders. They quantitatively studied follower descriptions of “extraordinary” leaders for such characteristics as charisma and intellectual stimulation. The findings suggested that leadership which focuses on the development of subordinates is preferred over educational systems that involve contingent reward. There is also a series of studies showing that a leadership style emphasizing decentralised authority and subordinate development has positive influences on school culture and, eventually, learning outcomes. Leithwood and Jantzi (1990) studied the relationship between administrative strategies and collaborative school cultures. They found that various administrative policies focusing on staff development, communication of desirable philosophies and decentralised authority and responsibility could positively affect collaboration in order to enhance improvement initiatives. Later, Leithwood (1993) argued that evidence indicating a transformational style to instil school change is based largely on unpublished dissertation research, and that while transformation leadership seems to be supported in this regard, more research was necessary. More recently, Leithwood and Jantzi (1999) replicated their earlier study and found, as before, that transformational leadership policies had a strong influence on organisational culture, and furthermore, the findings also showed a modest positive influence on student engagement. A further investigation by Leithwood and Mascall (2008) of the influence of “collective” leadership on learning outcomes revealed a relationship between the two: transformational leadership styles that engender decentralised authority and collective responsibility among all stakeholders, including students and parents as well as teachers, had a positive relationship with the level of school achievement. Interestingly, the authors also point out that the influence of the principals seems to increase as they allow subordinates more authority.

Thus, there is considerable evidence that transformational leadership is effective in educational in general. This should not be surprising considering that the modern profession of education, like many modern commercial industries, is a dynamic field demanding creativity and problem-solving skills. This is true, even when the socio-cultural context is not undergoing rapid technology-driven change. What, then, is the relationship between this leadership style and education as it exists in a context that is influenced more drastically by technological innovation?

Transformational leadership for education in the digital culture

Several authors have suggested a re-examination of educational leadership for the purpose of addressing 21st century educational needs. For these scholars, addressing the needs of the digital culture primarily means the successful integration of technology into pedagogy. Two decades ago in a remarkably prescient paper, Kearsley and Lynch (1992) attempted a prediction at how technology will change what is required of an educational system, and discussed how the administrative role would be influenced. They argued that the traditional training for educational administrators is inadequate to prepare future leaders because of the newness inherent in a technology-driven system. Later, Gurr (2004) discussed the notion of “e-leadership” and its role in the modern Australian educational system. The term seems, since the time of Gurr’s writing, to have evolved to mean leadership in virtual groups, or groups wherein interaction is mediated strictly through electronic means (Avolio, Walumbwa, & Weber, 2009, p. 439). However, Gurr uses the term to refer to leadership in a context where technological permeation of society puts intense pressure on educational leaders to integrate digital technologies into school curricula. Writing from the standpoint of an educator in the field of business management, he argues that the rapid pace of technological development makes a digitally mediated educational environment too dynamic for traditional notions of educational leadership, which are too rigidly based on “leader-centricity.” He states that change is too rapid and new information is introduced at such a rate that a single individual manager, operating based on standard systems and policies, simply cannot cope. “Formal” notions of the educational leader may even be detrimental to educational outcomes. Therefore, Gurr concludes that authority to act must be decentralised.

More recently, Sugar and Holloman (2009) describe the role of a technology leader in education as being extremely complex and dynamic. In addition to the formal role as technical expert, they argue that it is more important for a technology leader to be facilitative and concentrate on the development of others. Additionally, technology leadership involves transformational leadership traits such as promulgator of the organisational vision for technology use. Similarly, Collins and Halverson (2010) argue that technology amounts to a game-changer with regard to leadership in education. They claim that new emphases in the educational environment make technology leadership fundamentally different than traditional notions of educational leadership. Whereas traditionally leadership has been characterised by expert knowledge of established routines, it now must account for diversity and reliance on outside sources for knowledge. Also, according Townsend (2010), educational leaders themselves realise that change in education has been substantial, both because of newly introduced technological capabilities, and technology-driven cultural changes.

Some of the literature directed primarily at school administrators advocates for transformational leadership styles as a means of dealing with technology-driven change. Flanagan and Jacobsen (2003) examined the difficulties related to technology integration and offered an outline with which school principals could carry out new duties as leaders. They stress the need to create a vision and a context of support in order to facilitate teachers to act on their own initiative. Also, Dexter, Louis and Anderson (2009) emphasised the importance of team coordination in technology leadership. They argued that a team-based leadership approach is necessary to facilitate an initiative to improve learning outcomes using technology. They further argued that the coordination of technology roles, whether principal, tech coordinator, teacher or IT director, is critical to the success of a tech program. Furthermore, the perceived need to rethink the role of educational administrator has led to the compilation of a list of principles purported to be suitable for education in a digital culture. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) (iste.org) has put together standards for educational technology leaders. These standards are revised on a regular basis, with the latest version having been updated in 2009 as of this writing. The purpose of the core standards, titled National Education Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A), is to provide guidance to the educational technology leader. The NETS-A includes transformational leadership themes such as communicating a vision and empowering subordinates to act on their own. Finally, Overbay, Mollete and Vasu (2011) give advice for education administrators who are implementing new technology initiatives. They admonish school leaders to prioritise human relationships over the technology itself by listening carefully to teacher input and addressing their concerns. They also advise administrators to have a plan, but suggest that teachers must also participate in the planning stage in order to get an accurate picture of what technology will best fit the context, and to facilitate buy-in. Therefore, the overriding sentiment on leadership for education technology seems to focus on decentralising authority and enlisting the participation of all stakeholders.

In addition to the literature directed at administrators, there are also articles meant for teachers, calling on them to be more participative in leadership issues. Yee (2001) argues that educational leaders should consider teachers and students as their peers when dealing with technology uses in education. Similarly, Fullan (1993) talks about how teachers can be change agents and identifies certain guidelines that can attain “interactive professionalism,” and Earle (2002) claims that teachers should be considered stakeholders in technology integration in order to engender the grassroots support necessary for success. He cited failure to do so as an obstacle to successful integration. Finally, Sherry and Gibson (2002) echo the sentiment that teachers must be empowered in order for technology integration to be successful, and outline several steps for them to become technology leaders in their own right.

Empirical support for transformational leadership in digital education

In support of the theoretical arguments, there are empirical studies suggesting the importance of technology leadership in education, and the efficacy of a transformational leadership style. Hughes and Zachariah (2001) investigated the roles and responsibilities of administrators, and the relationship between administrative leadership styles and the use of technology. They surveyed public school workers in Ohio and found that transformational leadership attributes positively influenced technology integration. Anderson and Dexter (2005) investigated the factors that impact the effectiveness of technology on learning, and concluded that school leadership is more important than other variables such as spending on infrastructure or the ratio of students to computer. Tan (2010) provides a meta-analysis of 12 empirical studies that examined the relationship between transformational leadership in schools, technology integration, and computer competency. She found that transformational leadership was associated with a higher level of technology integration and use. Hadjithoma-Garstka (2011) found that technology implementation was more widespread among teachers at schools where principals displayed a “people-first” approach to leadership rather than a “pacesetting” leadership style. Although this study did not investigate transformational leadership per se, the description of the more successful leadership style shared many qualities with descriptions of transformational or servant leadership styles, such as an emphasis on human relationships, various types of support and encouragement for followers, and communication of a common vision. Peck et al. (2011) conducted a case study of a technology initiative at a high school in the United States. They found that there were some problems due to centralised pre-implementation planning, but that individual administrators and faculty members were quite adept at finding workarounds on their own initiative. Recommendations for administrators include more flexible planning and the encouragement of informal support networks to deal with the inevitable glitches. Dexter (2011a) investigated organisational arrangements and customs to determine the successful leadership practices of technological integration. She found that successful schools use teams rather than individuals responsible for technology integration, and predicted that “shared leadership” will characterise such programs. She concludes that the most important trait for a formal school administrator is to be a good communicator of a shared vision of technology integration because this contributes to a “recursive effect” that determines how teams perform. In a report on a technology implementation initiative at a school in Bombay, Luthra and Fochtman (2011) describe the use of tech leadership teams that included parents and students as well as teachers, and the encouragement of experimentation by these teams. They reported that often times teachers would learn from students, who tended to be more tech-savvy. Luthra and Fochtman conclude that the lesson learned from their experience is that no one individual can be a technology leader because no one individual has all the knowledge and experience necessary to make the full use of technology in education. Therefore, there is much evidence for the need to foster autonomy among followers, and create an organisational culture where each individual is motivated and capable of working toward a common goal.

Current state of leadership for educational technology

While the empirical evidence strongly indicates that a transformational leadership style can facilitate technology integration in an educational setting, the extent to which current educational leaders around the world adopt a transformational framework is uncertain. Are current school leaders equipped to cope with an educational environment that seems much more dynamic and challenging than what has traditionally been the case? What literature there is provides a mixed view. Banoglu (2011) measured the technology leadership skills of school principals and found that, in general, they showed a lack of planning and held unrealistic expectations of teachers with regard to technology use. Also, while their skills seemed adequate overall, they showed little evidence of vision, which can be considered important for successful technology leadership based on the previously cited literature. Sisman and Kurt (2011) investigated leadership qualities in Turkish elementary school principals with regard to educational technology. They used a survey to determine adherence to the NETS-A standards, and found that while scores were generally adequate, principals were strong in terms of vision but lacking in terms of support.

Others have pointed out that, despite the potent influence of digital culture on education, there is not enough technological preparation for educational leaders. For example, Schrum, Galizio and Ledesma (2011) investigated pre-service preparation and experience among American educational administrators with regard to technology, and found that most received little or no formal training in educational technology. In fact, they also discovered demonstrations of technological savvy and/or experience are not prerequisite to employment as an administrator or principal at the state level in 48 of the 50 United States, nor prerequisite in many cases at the institutional level. The participants in the study (who generally believed in the importance of integrating technology in education, and were active in promoting such integration at their own institutions), were self-taught technology experts. Also, McLeod and Richardson (2011) reviewed popular academic journals and conference presentations in the field of education leadership in the United States over the past decade, and found that only a little more than two percent of the literature specifically addressed technology leadership. They argued that the field of educational technology leadership lacks a sufficient empirical base to adequately inform policy-making.


The common theme suggested by the literature is that the traditional model of educational leadership is unworkable in the digital culture. Notions of the school administrator as the sole expert with the ability to devise and implement elaborate plans and policies to account for learning needs are outdated and harmful. First, it is unrealistic to expect that technological adaptation in education can be planned for adequately in advance. In an environment that is characterised by a propensity to change rapidly and often, there is a paucity of reliable precedence with which to construct a dependable plan for the future. Second, while there has been a traditional reliance on individual or small groups of managers as “experts,” the pace of technological innovation has the effect of diminishing the difference between expert and novice. As Luthra and Fochtman (2011) note, students can be more knowledgeable about digital tools than teachers. Also, since there seem to be few requirements for technological savvy among administrators (Schrum et al, 2011) it is entirely possible that teachers can be more knowledgeable than administrators, or that administrators can be more knowledgeable than policy-makers higher up the governance ladder. Thus, in an environment characterised by newness, an expert on any issue may emerge at any level of an organisation. It is therefore unwise to rely solely on a small group of pre-designated individuals at the top to set policy, calling into question the entire concept of hierarchical or centralised organization.

This is an important insight because it deviates considerably from traditional (and still prevailing) notions of educational leadership. One discouraging example is that over the past 50 years there has been a gradual (and continuing) shift of authority in the United States toward “federalism” (Mitchell, Crowson, & Shipps, 2011). Federalism entails the concentration of educational decision-making authority at the federal level of government, with a corresponding loss of democratic empowerment at the state and local levels. This has led in many cases to schools that operate primarily under top-down mandates, where teachers are discouraged from participation in decision making (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Considering the above-reviewed literature on leadership in the modern educational context, this trend is most likely ill-advised.

Democratisation of educational systems is a logical replacement to centralised authoritative organisational structures. The evidence repeatedly shows that successful technological adaptation requires universal participation among stakeholders. In the case of the digital culture, students and teachers are at least on par with administrators as far as knowledge and experience, and therefore at least as qualified to contribute to policy-making. At the same time, to suggest a decentralised organisation is not to suggest a leaderless organisation. In order to function effectively, a group of individuals working toward a common goal must have coordination and guidance, otherwise there is no purpose for an organisation to exist in the first place. However, in lieu of an authoritative transactional leadership framework that is appropriate for a centralised, hierarchical organisation, a democratised educational system would benefit from transformational leadership. In a system wherein subordinates are expected to participate pro-actively in decision making and act autonomously in implementation, leadership that emphasises the development of individual organisational members is indispensible for successful outcomes. Also, in a context characterised by innovation and change, it is necessary to encourage experimentation and risk-taking, as well as communication between individual members of the organisation so that learning and growth are fostered, and members are better able to coordinate their efforts. This is not to mention the fact that an innovative environment entails a demand for creative problem-solving, or simply just for creativity in general. As the evidence suggests, a transformational leadership style is more engendering of creativity than the traditional alternative. Finally, the transformational leader is tasked with the duty of clarifying organisational goals, and ensuring that all members understand them. This helps prevent conflicting and paradoxical action in an organisation where members work for the most part independently.


This paper has reviewed literature outlining historical socio-economic conditions that influence the leadership and organisational styles of educational systems, and introduced the theoretical concept of transformational leadership as an appropriate framework for the modern educational context. It was argued that the influence of the digital culture on education makes it dynamic and fast-changing field, so rigid traditional models of leadership that emphasise the delegation of routines should be discarded for more fluid leadership frameworks that emphasise communication and human relationships. This entails moving away from a leader-centric organisational framework toward a decentralised model. Yet, despite what type of leadership style that organisational theorists and researchers purport to be desirable, in reality transformational leadership is most likely not adopted universally. It is therefore hoped that this paper will prove useful for practitioners and researchers to better understand the organisational structures in which they work, and for those in positions of authority to better understand which type of leadership may work for their institutions.


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Biographical Statement

Stephan J. Franciosi, is a doctoral student in Learning Technologies at the Graduate School of Education and Psychology at the University of Pepperdine in Los Angeles, California. He is EFL instructor under contract at a liberal arts college in Kyoto, Japan. Franciosi’s research interests include all aspects of Learning Technology and EFL, particularly Digital Game-Based Learning or gamified EFL.

Email: steve.franciosi@gmail.com

Roy Krøvel

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The article reports on how a wiki was introduced in the teaching of Development and Environmental Studies to journalism students in Oslo, Norway and intends to contribute to the understanding of how students use wiki technology to produce knowledge. The findings indicate that using wikis stimulates cooperation between students and strengthens collective processes of learning. Even more importantly, the investigation shows that using wikis can improve the teacher’s understanding of the process of learning. However, some lecturers found serious framing problems in articles regarding lectures they had given, especially when they had been introducing new terms or new perspectives on complex issues. To avoid a process where students repeat and mutually reinforce each other’s misrepresentations, it is necessary to construct a scheme of systematic feedback, including perspectives from lecturers and teachers.


Action research, depth of intention, interpretation, journalism, representation, wikis


In 2004, Jeremy Williams and Joanne Jacobs claimed that “blogging has the potential to be a transformational technology for teaching and learning” (Williams & Jacobs, 2004, p. 244). Williams and Jacobs were particularly intrigued by the possibility of providing students with a high level of autonomy and, at the same time, an opportunity for interaction with their peers. This had proved particularly valuable since students learn as much from each other as they learn from instructors or textbooks (Williams & Jacobs, 2004). Today, the same could be said about Wikis. According to Greenhow, Robelia and Hughes, Web 2.0 facilitates communication and learning in ways that require “a new wave of research question”, especially related to learner participation and creativity (Greenhow et al., 2009b). In order better to understand and take advantage of the potential of Web 2.0 in higher education, Greenhow, in particular, called for more research on student learning with Web 2.0, both inside and outside classrooms. Ronald Owston, meanwhile, called for the investigation of teacher learning with the Web, in particular “teachers changing from a traditional pedagogical orientation to an inquiry-based, student centered approach” (Owston, 2009, p. 272). Teachers need to develop their knowledge through Web 2.0 practices. They also need to model these practices in the classroom (Greenhow et al., 2009b).

This article is based on reflexive action research on such usage of wikis in teaching journalism, in part as a response to these and other calls for more research on web 2.0 and higher education. It reports on how a wiki was introduced in the teaching of Development and Environmental Studies to students in the fourth semester of the Bachelor’s degree in Journalism at Oslo University College, Norway. It explains the problem-oriented pedagogy and the specific context of wiki usage.

Social media and Web 2.0 are often used interchangeably and have been defined or used in a number of different ways. The terms are generally used with reference to groups of technologies, for instance blogs, wikis, podcasts and RSS feeds, “which facilitate a more socially connected Web where everyone is able to add to and edit the information space” (Anderson, 2007, p. 5). The employment of more participatory technologies in education has already been explored by researchers from a variety of perspectives (Greenhow & Robelia, 2009a, 2009b; Greenhow, Robelia, & Hughes, 2009a; Greenhow, et al., 2009b; Luckin et al., 2009; Owston, 2009). Wiki technology can thus be understood as a particular form of communication technology enabling a more participatory form of online communication. A wiki is a page, or a collection of Web pages, designed to enable users to contribute or modify content (Catalina, 2009). Wiki technology shares many of its collaborative practices with other Web 2.0 technologies, but is mostly employed to facilitate the collaborative production of texts, as, for instance, on Wikipedia. It is precisely the process of collaborative production of texts in a formal educational setting that is the focus of this article.

The article intends to contribute to the understanding of how students use wiki technology to produce knowledge. It takes an exploratory approach, reflecting on a number of issues as they appear as part of the experience of employing wiki technology as a pedagogical tool. How do journalism students use wikis to produce knowledge in the context of their course? What is the nature of the knowledge produced? What can course instructors learn about their students’ knowledge-building process by using wikis in their teaching? In addition, the article also reflects on the quality of the knowledge produced. To what extent are the students able to summarise and re-present what textbooks and lecturers say in a way that reflects an understanding of what the textbooks or lecturers are trying to convey? This second category of research questions deals with the quality of the knowledge produced by the students.

Existing literature on Wikis and participatory forms of learning and teaching

The article is based on critical realism as a basis for research (Banfield, 2004), a basis which permits a diversity of methodologies and multiplicity of epistemologies. However, critical realism stands out from other philosophies of science by prioritising ontology (Hammersley, 2007) and this means that critical realism argues against reducing statements about the world to statements about our knowledge of the world (Bhaskar, 2010, abstract). From a critical realist point of view all claims about natural and social reality are fallible, but not equally fallible, and it is thus also necessary to attempt to evaluate the validity of statements about the world in relation to a notion of social or natural ontology (Bhaskar, 1997, 2010). Learning is about producing knowledge, but also about the quality of knowledge. I will not attempt to define the contentious term “knowledge” here. From a critical realist perspective, however, “knowledge-producing fields” comprise both “relational structures of concepts and methods for relating these to the empirical world and actors positioned in institutions within specific social and historical contexts” (Maton & Moore, 2010, p. 5). According to Maton and Moore, some forms of knowledge are “more epistemologically (or aesthetically) powerful than others” (2010, p. 7). Pedagogy should take account of this. In this article, I have evaluated the knowledge produced by the learners by employing Arne Næss’s concept “depth of intention”. I will return to this aspect of learning shortly, after first making a few comments on the social and collaborative aspects of using wikis as a pedagogical tool.

Wikis can help students to attain skills in collaborative work and to develop critical and reflexive practices (Bruns & Humphreys, 2005, pp. 25-32). Wikis can also help to engage students in collaborative writing activities, thereby developing collaborative skills (Forte & Bruckman, 2006). Collaborating with other students on solving a task or a problem, for instance, means exchanging information and perspectives with other members of the team. This helps to develop understandings of how one standpoint or perspective is related to other possible perspectives, thereby facilitating a reflexive understanding of knowledge.

One investigation showed that the most noteworthy benefit of employing Wikipedia in classrooms was the sense of personal achievement and ongoing engagement in the learning process (Pollard, 2008). According to McLoughlin and Lee (2007), wikis and collaborative writing and editing tools are useful because they improve and extend conventional writing approaches. Some have suggested other arguments for student cooperation in learning processes. McLoughlin and Lee (2007) claim that working in groups which cooperate is a more effective learning strategy than working individually, for a number of reasons. Using wikis, the students themselves can play an active role in producing knowledge, thereby improving motivation (Heafner & Friedman, 2008). According to Surowiecki, large groups exhibit more intelligence than smaller, more elite groups (Surowiecki, 2004). Teachers may therefore “restrain themselves from direct action, in order to promote free and democratic production of content according to the principles embodied in the ‘wisdom of the masses’” (Wheeler, Yeomans, & Wheeler, 2008, p. 994).

If using wikis motivates students and facilitates critical, reflective practices, we might expect to find that the active participation and engagement with the wiki introduced in the teaching of Development and Environmental Studies (as discussed in this article) somehow resulted in improved learning. Many authors, however, have also warned of the dangers involved in using wikis in teaching, especially regarding problems concerning the accuracy of the information (Denning et al., 2005), and this makes it necessary to return to the issue I raised earlier of how to evaluate the quality of the knowledge produced by learners in a collaborative process.

One recent study found that the accuracy of Wikipedia is high (Chesney, 2006). Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries (Giles, 2005). However, while many have believed that the accuracy of wikis will continue to improve over time, another study found that “roughly 20 per cent of errors can be attributed to surviving text added by the first edit, which confirmed the existence of a ‘first-mover’ effect … the results do not provide support for the idea of trusting surviving segments attributed to older edits” (Luyt et al., 2008, p. 318). When choosing a wiki for teaching purposes, it is therefore important to include features such as authentication and tracking (Augar, Raitman, & Zhou, 2004). By including features for tracking it should be possible to learn more about how possible mistakes or misunderstandings by “first-movers” are corrected by other students or incorporated into the emerging corpus of knowledge.

As indicated earlier, I will build on Arne Næss’s work to evaluate the quality of the knowledge produced by the learners. The concept “depth of intention” was developed by Næss and used to describe the quality of a statement (Gullvåg, 1983; Næss, 1953) because a statement can be misunderstood. Put simply, “depth of intention” means that the quality of communication improves when the speaker is aware of other possible interpretations of what is being stated. It is believed that the possibility of misunderstanding decreases when the speaker has such “depth of intention”. Discussing and debating with other students should help to develop depth of intention, resulting in fewer mistakes and misunderstandings. Depth of intention is seen as being developed when students are stimulated to discuss different or alternative perspectives and interpretations with other students. Inspired by Næss, many critical realists have also found Wright’s definition of realism useful, as it understands learning as a process in search of deeper insights into reality: “A way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’)” (Wright, quoted in Lynch, 2007, p. 6). In Journalism Studies both Lynch and Wright have argued for critical realism as a foundation for science, in line with the perspective proposed by Næss (Lynch, 2008; Wright, 2010).

Næss argued that we should always strive for quality in representing the views and statements of the other. According to Næss, the goal should be to represent the other in a way that the other would find acceptable. Students should therefore strive towards representing what is said during a lecture in a way that the lecturer finds acceptable, in addition, of course, to developing their own perspectives on the issue being discussed. By following the development of the process of collaborative production of knowledge on the wiki, I hope to be able to contribute to the existing knowledge on this particular aspect of learning.


Seventy-four students participated in the course “Development and Environment Studies for Journalists” from March to June 2009.1 Seventy-two participated a year later. All were second year students of the Bachelor of Journalism degree at Oslo University College in Norway preparing for upcoming individual fieldwork of at least four weeks in the global South. A number of writing assignments were given to prepare the students for the fieldwork by stimulating research on the site and topic of the individual fieldwork, hopefully fostering further reading, reflection and finally production of the knowledge necessary for successful fieldwork. During the course, each student had to contribute at least seven short texts on themes related to lectures. The students were free to decide for themselves which topics to choose for their articles, as long as the topic was based on a lecture or a textbook. The texts were then discussed in groups of approximately seven students and one teacher, before being published on a closed wiki (jbi.wikidot.com). All articles were published on the wiki after group sessions. After publication, other students were invited to edit, add information or contribute fresh perspectives to already published articles, in the same way as on Wikipedia. The project resulted in a total of more than 300 articles, mostly co-written by three to seven students. The collaborative writing on the wiki was not organised by the teachers, but was left to be decided by the interests and motivation of the students themselves. The articles covered major aspects of the lectures given during the course and the curriculum, and were later made available for the students in their preparation for written and oral exams.

Qualitative investigation of participation and collaboration on the wiki

The methodology for this article was designed to answer the two categories of research questions presented in the introduction. First, how did the journalism students use wikis to produce knowledge in the context of their course? The investigation of the production and publication of articles builds on information from the wiki and from the discussion in the groups. The wiki contains a function (“history”) which makes it possible to follow the development of each of the 300 articles as students participated and contributed. Each new contribution was automatically forwarded to the teacher (me), so that the contribution of each individual student could be evaluated. I also investigated the later usage of the wiki in the period leading up to written and oral exams. This investigation was mainly made by using Google Analytics, which made it possible to evaluate patterns of use. When did the students use the wiki? How often? To which articles did they contribute? What themes did they find particularly interesting? This part of the investigation followed an explorative approach (Stebbins, 2001). I will provide more detail of this in my discussion of the findings.

Interviewing lecturers on the quality of articles published on the wiki

The second category of research questions deals with the ability to summarise and re-formulate what textbooks and lecturers say. The majority of articles on the wiki worked with statements made by lecturers. According to Næss, the students should strive to represent the lecturer in a way the lecturer would find acceptable. This is a very difficult task. First, it requires the student to try to understand what the lecturer is trying to say – which can be difficult in itself, as the topics are by definition mostly new to the students. There are therefore numerous possibilities for making factual mistakes or for misunderstanding the meaning of a statement made by the lecturer. In addition, the lectures are too long to be presented in their original form. The students therefore need to synthesise and thus re-formulate in their own words what they believe is the meaning, or the most important meanings, of the lecture. In so doing, the students “frame” their representations of the lectures. Framing necessarily means “selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient in a communicating text” (Entman, 1993, p. 5). A frame suggests what the controversy is about and involves implicit information that gives meaning to an issue to and provide a context for the interpretation of the message. Framing was made more difficult by the fact that many students participated in the process of representing the statements made by the same lecturer. The students would each have had their own particular framing in mind, based on their individual backgrounds, cultures or embedded worldviews. The resulting article with its specific framing was therefore the outcome of a chaotic process in which no individual had the editorial responsibility.

Thirteen lecturers participated in the experiment. Each lecturer read and evaluated the articles that represented their statements and then commented on the reliability of the representations on several levels. First, they commented on possible factual errors found in the articles. Second, they looked for statements in the articles that indicated that the students had misunderstood what they had said or had intended to say. Third, the lecturers evaluated the framing of the article. Did the students manage to make important themes salient in their representation? Or did they choose to make other themes visible, while what the lecturer judged as most important was relegated to a less important status? How could this then be interpreted? The lecturers were then finally asked to evaluate the experience of being represented by the students. Six lecturers were interviewed. Seven, for various practical reasons, gave written answers to the questions.

A survey of the students after finishing the course

Finally, the students in the second year were invited to answer an online questionnaire (QuestBack) on issues that had come up during the first parts of the study. The students were asked to give their opinion (anonymously) on the quality of the course, the quality of lectures, and the overall work-load, to assess their own degree of participation and (voluntarily and anonymously) reveal the grade received after written and oral exams. Fifty-three out of sixty-five students finishing the course participated. All the students voluntarily (and anonymously) agreed to reveal their final grades, thus making it possible to evaluate how different combinations of variables combines and correlates with specific outcomes (grades). The questionnaire consisted of questions designed for quantitative analysis and open questions inviting further comments and reflections designed to facilitate further qualitative analysis.

Research ethics

Since the researcher is also the teacher of the course, a brief comment on the research ethics is warranted. As a teacher, I participate in all the individual activities described in the methodology chapter, including the final evaluation, oral exams and setting the final grades for many of the students. Teachers at Oslo and Akershus University College for Applied Sciences are also asked to involve students in evaluation of the course itself, employing discussions, interviews, reference groups and/or surveys. As such, this research is an attempt to extend and improve an already ongoing process of improving teaching and learning. However, combining information from different sources could potentially lead to ethical problems such as, for instance, concerning the identification of individual students, so before undertaking the research I asked permission to use input from the exam results in the research. The request was discussed and accepted by the dean and the officers in charge of exam-related questions. Before publishing the results I asked for a second opinion from the Faculty of Social Sciences, as since the research started we have merged with Akershus University College and now belong to a newly created Faculty of Social Sciences. Again, the relevant authorities found the research to be a potentially valuable contribution to the process of improving the quality of education in the Faculty, but also underlined the importance of making sure that no single student could be identified in the article.

Results: Producing knowledge

A large number of articles were produced during the two years of the investigation. Between 300 and 500 articles relevant could have been included in the study, but many of those did not develop and were not much used. This was often the case when three or four students simultaneously began reporting on a lecture they had attended; typically, these articles would be merged into one article which then went on to develop further, while the others were abandoned.

The main focus of the current article will be 63 articles that were each viewed at least fifty times during the last four months of the research period. Typically, these articles would be subjected to between seven and fifteen revisions between being initiated until the end of the period. In more than seventy-five per cent of the cases between four and ten students participated in the writing and editing of the articles.

The articles dealt with most of the themes covered in the curriculum and the lectures, for instance:

  1. Journalism, skills, ethics, genres and narratives;
  2. Environment, environmental movements, climate change issues and environmental ethics;
  3. Development aid, development theory, critical perspectives on development and alternative perspectives and perspectives from the South on development;
  4. Articles on specific issues in specific countries or districts.

Typically, an article would be initiated by one student who, after finishing the first revision and logging out, would usually return to do a second and a third revision – possibly after remembering more topics that should have been included in the article. The second or third student to join in would normally begin by searching for articles related to a specific lecture or a topic from the curriculum. This is when the existence of more than one article related to a lecture or a specific topic would be discovered. In most cases, this student would then choose to continue working on the best of the “competing” articles, cutting and pasting the most valuable parts of the other articles into the chosen one. This cut and paste work would almost always end with the student adding a few lines of his or her own and, often, deleting a few elements to make the article more accessible. At this point it should be mentioned that these students have systematically developed their skills in writing and editing over the first two years of the journalism education. Most of them do not find it difficult to express themselves in writing and to participate in a semi-public process of content production in full view of their peers. It should be noted that other students could very likely have reacted differently if asked to participate in the same way.

At this point, all the other students would have been automatically notified by email about the ongoing writing and revising process. The most curious would access the page to check out the content, some adding a few lines themselves in the process. Those who had already submitted a few lines on the topic in question would be curious to see what others might have done to their input. Each process of editing required the student to read and reflect on what the others had already written; thus the wiki seems to have functioned as a “architecture of participation” (O’Reilly, 2004). It stimulated what McLoughlin and Lee described as a “less hierarchical form of learning based on small teams, sharing, content creation, and the use of ICT to access, create, share and continually improve ideas” (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007, p. 48). The results also seems to verify Bruns and Humphreys’ claim that Wikis can help students to develop critical, reflective practices (Bruns & Humphreys, 2005).

Interestingly, the research did not uncover any instances of what some researchers have dubbed “Wiki Wars”, heated conflict over definitions or perspectives explicitly or implicitly expressed in Wikipedia articles on contentious issues (see for instance Shah, 2009). The intimate collective writing and revising process described above could very well be expected to lead to heated arguments over definitions or perspectives on issues such an climate change, indigenous peoples, war and peace and many more. I propose that this absence of WikiWars is due to the fact that these students, in contrast to many of those participating on Wikipedia, interact on a daily basis. The online cooperation is grounded in day to day social interaction, which makes the participants more likely to show each other respect when editing and producing articles (Enli & Skogerbø, 2008). It also means that the students have a number of other channels for communication and for deliberation on issues of potential disagreement. Disagreement and misunderstandings can be discussed and possibly cleared up outside the virtual world. It might also be that the students, who participate as part of an assignment, are less likely to have strong opinions on certain issues than those who participate voluntarily in writing and editing on Wikipedia. Finally, the group of students is a much more homogeneous group than the groups of people participating in writing and editing on Wikipedia. The students are more likely to have similar views, or at least some sort of common ground on many issues that might have become contentious on Wikipedia. Using similar views or common ground to produce an article on what was said in a lecture proved to be effective in most cases. In some instances, though, building consensus and avoiding conflict, might be seen as a problem, especially when the topics called for deeper reflection or fresh alternative perspectives. I will return to one such example later.


Participation and collaboration on the wiki

The usage of the wiki went through four distinctive phases, each with its typical pattern. First, in October, approximately six months before the fieldwork, the students were engaged in the first exercises to define where to go (for example, country or region) and what to investigate. They were encouraged to make use of a number of different sources of information at this stage of the process, including books, newspapers, journals, resources on the Internet and the Wiki-site where the previous batch of students had published articles related to the research they had conducted a year earlier. The hypothesis was that the new batch of students would be particularly interested in learning from the last year’s students, and therefore particularly interested in the Wiki site. This was not verified by the research. Only 6 per cent of the respondents agreed with the statement “it was very useful to see what the other students had done last year”. The largest group of students (43 per cent) had found the wiki “a little useful” at this stage of the process. Nonetheless, the wiki received a total of 188 visits on the most active day (19 October) during this period. More importantly, each visit lasted on average more than thirteen minutes, and the students visited on average eight different pages during each visit. The visits were relatively longer and “deeper” (more pages viewed) than later in the research process, indicating that the students were usually surfing from one page to another in search of ideas and inspiration. The results indicate that at this stage most students found other sources of inspiration more useful than the wiki. This type of usage continued to dominate in December and January, when the students moved on to the next phase in the preparations of the fieldwork: buying tickets, reserving accommodation snd so on.

The lectures and group sessions began in earnest in March. This is also when the students were asked to publish articles on the wiki on themes from the curriculum and the lectures. The pattern of use changed noticeably. The number of daily visits increased, reaching 420 on 26 March, approximately six daily visits per registered student at this time. Each visit was shorter than in October, lasting on average three to four minutes. During such a visit each student would visit three pages, where the first page visited would normally be the welcome page, the second would be “search” or “recent changes” and the third would be a page dedicated to a topic the student was participating in writing or editing. The usage of the wiki was much more focused on articles on topics of particular interest for the student than earlier in the process. This is also when the contribution of one student became interwoven and integrated into the contributions of other students. Each student needed to formulate his or her thoughts in relation to what others had already said. Building on McLoughlin and Lee, we could expect that working cooperatively and sharing ideas would stimulate  a more productive learning process than asking the students to work in isolation (McLoughlin & Lee, 2007). This was clearly the case for many students, but definitely not for all.

The largest group of students (41 per cent) did not see any substantial difference between the wiki-based form of cooperative writing and more traditional forms of written assignments, or did not have any opinion. A slightly smaller group, 39 per cent, felt that this method improved the learning process. Twenty per cent had a negative perception of the experience. The attitudes towards this type of learning process will become more interesting when, later in the article, I discuss how these attitudes correlate with the quality of the final exams, as measured by a team of sensors.

The usage of the wiki dropped when the students travelled to do their fieldwork and it continued at a relatively low level as they began preparing for written exams. In May, the students handed in a reportage, produced during the fieldwork, in addition to one analytical essay on the topic for the reportage and the sources of information the student had made use of. The usage of the wiki continued to be noticeably lower than in March, reaching a maximum of 195 visits on 20 May. The majority of students later reported that they had made little use of the information on the wiki during this phase of the learning process. This changed markedly as the oral exams approached in June. The number of visits rose to new heights, reaching a zenith of 425 visits and a total of 817 page views on 14 June. These visits were typically quick, lasting little more than a minute, going directly to the pages of interest, reading a few lines before signing out – a pattern of use one might reasonably expect in preparation for oral exams.

We observe that the usage of the wiki went through several distinctive phases, each best understood in relation to where the students were in the learning process. During the whole process, the wiki generated a total of 7,900 visits and 26,559 page views. Each visitor this visited an average of three to four pages during a visit. The average visit lasted for four minutes and five seconds.

Is there a correlation between usage of the wiki and the outcome of the learning process?

An interesting correlation can be observed between the evaluation the students make of the wiki and the grades they are given as a result of the whole process. Those who see working jointly on the wiki as useful score significantly higher than those who did not find the wiki useful (see table. 1). Twenty per cent of those who felt that using the wiki had enhanced their learning process got an “A”. Among those who did not see any point in using the wiki, none scored an “A”. The average for those without strong opinions on using the wiki was 14 per cent. The same pattern can also be observed at the other end of the spectrum: 20 per cent of those who did not find the wiki useful scored “D” or worse (4, 5, or 6), that is,  below average. Only 10 per cent in the group that had found the wiki useful scored “D” or less. At this end of the spectrum the numbers of students are too small to draw strong conclusions. The results only indicate that the pattern found among the top scorers is also present among those who were not as successful in their exams.

Table 1. Attitudes towards the Wiki: Mean, standard deviation, sample variance and confidence intervals of final grades.

A – Excellent. B – Very Good. C – Good. D – Satisfactory. E – Sufficient. F – Insufficient/Fail

(A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4, E=5, F=6)

a. Group 1 (those who found working on the wiki useful) 20 students.

Mean 2.3
Standard deviation 0.9
Sample variance 0.9
90% 1.959 to 2.673
95% 1.890 to 2.741
(assuming Gaussian distributio

b. Group 2 (those who did not find working on the wiki useful) 10 students.

Mean 3.1
Standard deviation 1.3
Sample variance 1.7
90% 2.431 to 3.769
95% 2.303 to 3.897
(assuming Gaussian distribution)

While a pattern of correlations has been observed, it is nonetheless important to note that correlation is not the same as a causal explanation. First, there are many reasons to question how suitable the final grades are as indicators of the quality of a learning process. It is indeed difficult, possibly impossible, to agree upon a methodology for measuring the outcome of a complex learning process, especially when it involves cross cultural learning. In this case it is well worth noting that learning from cross cultural experiences develops gradually, often as the student looks back and reflects on the experience. Measuring at the end of the semester probably means that important elements of the learning process are not captured.

Nevertheless, the marks are given by two experienced journalists and academics and are based on two written assignments and an oral exam. In order to make sure that the students understand what they are expected to learn and how it will be evaluated, the examiners use a guideline for evaluating the exams which has been developed in cooperation with the students themselves. While the final grading is not a perfect indicator of a learning process, I would argue that it is, in this case, the best we have to inform systematic reflection on the quality of the learning process in relation to possible causal explanations.

Second, other causal explanations could lie behind the observed correlation between grades and perceptions of the wiki. A closer look at correlations between other factors can shed some light on this possibility. For example, both groups (those who found wiki useful as a tool for learning and those who did not) show very similar degrees of participation elsewhere, for instance participation in lectures. A clear majority claims to have participated in more than half of the lectures (60 per cent in both cases), but the reasons given for not being present during a lecture vary: by far the most common explanation (40 per cent) from those who found the wiki useful was “I had to work”, while only a few (15 per cent) responded “I did not find the topic interesting”. For the other group – those who did not find the wiki useful – it was the other way around: 30 per cent responded “I did not find the topic interesting”, while only 10 per cent responded “I had to work”. It should be mentioned here that many of the students actually work as freelance journalists for newspapers, television or radio. That some students have problems finding enough time to follow lectures and to work is well known among students and teachers alike at Oslo University College. The important message here is related to the interests of the students. The evaluation also indicates that those who did not find t