Digital participation and digital literacies

Digital participation is now more or less mandatory. Few are the people that remain anonymous online without leaving digital traces. Teaching and learning increasingly take place in digital realms… Canvas… Google docs… Reflective blogs on the learning process. And these are not digital interactions of the web 1.0 variety, where we interact as visitors, finding information via online tools and then leaving. As teachers and learners, we are increasingly encouraged, if not required to interact as residents using web 2.0 technology. We are inhabiting digital spaces in ways that not only leave traces but shape our whole online personas.

To the outside world, our online content is, to all intents and purposes, who we are. Content = person. This was perhaps also true in a pre-digital world but it now appears more evident. The academy has long pretended that knowledge exists independent of the knower hence the tradition of writing in the third person. In the contemporary digital imaginary it is increasingly difficult to do this.

This is anxiety producing for some people. And rightly so. Comments, stories and ideas, once shared, can be connected to us forever. Digital mistakes are harder to take back, erase, or apologise for than analogue ones. A slip of the keyboard is not the same as a slip of the tongue. An ill-worded tweet can lead to public shaming which can destroy relationships, reputations, careers and lives (Ronson 2015).

This becomes even more terrifying when we pause to think how values and beliefs (both personal and societal) evolve over time. Ideas and opinions that were once common, normal or acceptable may not be any more. What if something we publish online now turns out to be offensive in the future?

It is possible to discuss these anxieties in light of William Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Perry’s theory suggested that college students go through four stages of cognitive and moral development:

  1. Dualism is the belief that every problem has a right and a wrong answer. In this stage the student’s goal is to learn the right answer from an external authority.
  2. Multiplicity is the recognition that there may be multiple different answers to a problem. Hence students must trust their inner voices to find answers.
  3. During relativism students recognise that some answers are better than others, depending on context.
  4. Commitment is the stage in which students accept uncertainty as part of life but commit to their own views on what constitute the right answers to various problems.

Part of what Perry calls commitment is realising that commitment is an ongoing, unfolding, evolving activity. That means, rather than choosing a particular viewpoint and sticking to it forever, we can and should change our minds when presented with new evidence or information about a problem. Our ideas and opinions will, hence, naturally evolve over time. And this is something to be applauded.

Digital publishing offers greater opportunities for our ideas and opinions to evolve than traditional academic journals do. The academic journal article is a snapshot of research from a moment in time. It is frozen, unchanging, for ever more. When new information comes to light, it can take years to get that information “out there” using traditional academic publishing methods. Even if one doesn’t go back and edit the contents of old comments, stories and ideas, a regularly updated blog or twitter feed, for example, can show the evolution of one’s ideas to anyone who cares to look.

In conclusion, we should embrace our potentially embarrassing digital traces rather than being afraid of them. They may well illustrate that we are cognitively and morally well-developed (and developing) individuals and academics.

It is worth noting that students may be as anxious about this as we are, despite assumptions to the contrary. Addressing and explicating our own anxieties should also allow us to empathise with theirs.

2 thoughts on “Digital participation and digital literacies

  1. Thanks for a very fine post, Carys! Since I am not so used to reading pedagogical texts, it sometimes takes a little “mental exercise”, but I really appreciated your exposition about Perry. I suppose the extent to which this applies depends on the field. My background is in mathematics, where there is rarely any need to leave the Duality stage. (In fact, one sometimes has to explain to students that one opinion is NOT as good as another, when it comes to the solution to a math problem!) However, I have now worked as a medical statistician for 10 years, and things are definitely less black-and-white there. There are usually many possible ways to analyse data, each with their pros and cons, so I have gradually got used to thinking about Multiplicity and Relativism (although I wouldn’t have been able to use those words).

    Commitment is also an issue, since people are different (also statisticians), and discussions and outright fights sometimes take place in the academic literature or twitter. I am very sympathetic to the idea that this commitment should not be too fixed, and that you should be humble and open towards new evidence. I hope that a blog or twitter account could facilitate and illustrate this, but I can also fear that you might feel a need to defend what you have once written, especially if attacked by people with different opinions. It might take a certain maturity to admit that you were wrong. Let’s simply hope that we can all reach that!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post, thanks for sharing! Finding one’s balance in these things is certainly never easy. I like your train of thought here about development being visible in traces we leave (as you will be able to see on the final leg of this course), for those who care to look properly. One has to be cautious though with what goes where – as I repeatedly try to tell my teenagers🙄…


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