This issue of fibreculture journal is based on an invitation to respond to the following provocation:
It is easy to argue that much of the rhetoric attached to “new media” and the internet in relation to pedagogy has mistaken quantity for quality. It has been a conversation that has confused the qualitative changes that our new conceptions of media, knowledge, and networks afford with the quantitative changes beloved of those who confuse teaching and learning with instruction and consumption. These new qualities are the differences between the vector and commodity, blogs and books.
However, imagine if our universities had been invented now. What would pedagogy be? What form would teaching and learning take? What would count as knowledge? Expertise? What forms would this knowledge take?
Taking this as a departure this issue of the Fibreculture Journal invited those working in new media, internet studies, education, and cognate disciplines to discuss the strengths and celebrate the possibilities that new media and its networks affords teaching and learning. The emphasis in this issue is not on the criticism or description of existing models and paradigms but to invite the exploration and celebration of new possibilities, real or imagined. What new knowledge formations should there be? How would they be taught? How could they assessed (if at all)? What critical academic work, and in what forms, would our students be producing?
Willis, in ‘Towards an Algorithmic Pedagogy’, takes a position from within contemporary debates on multimodal literacies asking how to shift traditional and institutional definitions of literacy to acknowledging not only the changes wrought by digital networks but the epistemological changes that have followed in its wake. These epistemological changes see contemporary media from an ecological perspective where such an approach
allows us to take account of the multiply determining relationships wrought not just by individual media, but by the interrelationships, dependencies and symbioses that take place within the dynamic system that is today’s high-tech university. An ecological approach allows us to examine what happens when new media practices collide with computational models, providing a glimpse of possible transformations not only ways of being but ways of teaching and learning. (Willis, 2007)
This is where Willis sees the consequences of the digital as productive of a mode of practice, rather than in the production of objects or artefacts, and so proposes a pedagogy that is “soft”, process orientated, distributed in regards to authority and allows for the unexpected.
Whereas Willis makes an argument through the essay, Bianco’s ‘Composing and Compositing: Integrated Digital Writing and Academic Pedagogy’ moves into a reflexive mode where the writing seeks to perform as much as state its case. Here we get the brio of writing that is beginning to treat text as a material artefact with force in its own right, and not merely a semiotic sign on the way towards an idealised sense. Here a liberal use of basic typographic variation is employed to good effect. It is easy in work such as this to misjudge this as only bravado, or even perhaps writerly vanity, however the ease with which type is malleable in digital writing (a point we have perhaps too easily taken for granted after twenty years of word processing) and the resolute conservativeness of academic writing to eschew these simple possibilities is something this work returns to with some force. This is an exciting essay, crossing between classroom practice and a critique of literacy and literacy education that is grounded in that peculiarly North American phenomenon of the composition class. Bianco argues:
The various generic qualities of academic writing in specific fields provides strict design parameters through a shared and discreet legend against which the future of manuscripted thought must tabulate itself to be recognized as accountable literate writing. The medium is the message only insofar as its formal excesses cannot transmit as anything but noise and chaos. Intertextuality resides only at the level of readership and writerly citation thresholding the full force of writerly signification in the manuscript to remain expository, always-already exposed, and above all, transparent and clear. (Bianco, 2007)
These are accurate points, and in the history of critiques of the normative force of academic writing on discovery and experimentation perhaps not novel. However, from this traditional critique Bianco quickly moves to the qualities of movement and affect and their affordances for writing in digital media. While remaining preliminary, I believe this slide towards affect offers a manner of conceiving of the role of learning and literacy that offers an alternative conception to that which we have inherited.
Unlike the first two essays Ball and Moeller offer a manifesto come “webtext” that can only ever be online. It uses a very simple alphabetic architecture as one form of navigation, but also uses typographic cues to indicate writerly voice, as well as providing internal links. Hence ‘Reinventing the Possibilities: Academic Literacy and New Media’ can be read traditionally, from beginning to end by following the letters, or hypertextually by reading the internal links. They argue for the relevance of rhetorical frameworks for the study of what is best thought of as a digital writing, specifically identifying the value of “topoi” as places of ‘negotiated meaning making’ which allow for a variety of critical literacies to be experienced. The arguments here are rich, variable, and splintered, as they ought to be. It is a call to arms as much as a demonstration of other academic forms in the humanities and is what I would characertise as part of the first wave of such work.
These three essays together in their own right are of interest as they demonstrate the extent to which problems of “literacy” and new media are present in a North American context. These are not debates that one sees very much of in new media, internet, or media studies in Australia (though they are more common in technology and education communities) but for those who are interested in finding a practice that lies between the studio arts and design based model of making (with not a lot of critical thought), versus the Bachelor of Arts model of critical thought via essay writing (with not a lot of creative making) they provide a series of critical possibilities and modes of practice. This cultural difference is evidenced in the differences in the arguments introduced by the remaining, local, contributors to this collection.
Jorgensen makes two major claims in ‘The Digital, the Virtual and the Naming of Knowledge’. The first is that the role of educators is to defamiliarise rather than explicate, and the second is to validate the “virtual”, in particular via Lévy, as a more robust framework for research and teaching in the realm of the digital. The first claim is made in an effort to shift the larger project of digital studies (whether this be labelled new media studies, internet studies, media studies or some combination of these is largely moot) towards an engaged and critical practice and not merely an instrumental teaching which prepares labour for a post industrial labour market. This is compounded simply by the promiscuity of the digital as a useful category since its role and applicability is hardly subject to disciplinary constraint, and Jorgensen identifies an implicit determinism in what has become a reactive educational agenda within our universities. On the other hand the ‘virtual’, particularly in the sense he ascribes, has the benefit of not being grounded within the digital, but offers a methodology to consider technology in terms of actualisations. Jorgensen argues that this provides a means of investigation and critique that is neither technologically or socially determinist and allows us to view ‘a technological face on the virtual continuity of regimes of knowledge and power’ which allows the humanities to assume the critical role it ought.
Gye’s contribution, ‘Some Thoughts on the Evolution of Digital Media Studies’ is firmly located in the specificities of teaching in an applied institution and offers a historical, critical and personal reflection on Gye’s history as a digital media studies educator. Here the contexts of teaching involve as much a “doing” of digital media studies as a theoretical analysis of whatever we may take digital media studies to be. In this context Gye argues for the legitimacy and ethics of media as a “making your own media”, the sort of independent media production and distribution that community radio developed, with its attendent technical skills which are understood to be means towards an end, rather than the ends in themselves. From here Ulmer’s seminal contributions to the broader field of critical digital literacy are introduced from where Gye slides into the shift from the digital as a mode for the production of different objects into networked practice where the idea of object is problematised, which in turn becomes the space of the mobile phone, the network, and the relations between the individual, corporate culture, communication as social and commercial imperative, and the role of education as a critical practice. Gye’s contribution provides a timely overview of the very rapid change in both the object of study, and the same socio-technical changes that students and institutions have bought to education in general. While Gye does not offer specific answers, the questions are significant.
Finally, a mp3 roundtable conversation, moderated by James Farmer, discusses the key questions posed in the original call for papers for this issue. Farmer’s respondents, Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Chris Bigum, provide an intriguing and timely discussion around the possibilities and problems posed by digital literacies. While arguing for a revolution, and criticising existing practice as merely applying “band aids” to existing structures, Bartlett-Bragg identifies the tensions between the demands of digital learning systems as apparatuses of compliance, versus the affordances of the digitally native student. Bigum, on the other hand, identifies the resilience of the university, and education, as systems that in themselves have much to offer and provides an intriguing, and very well argued counter view that seeks a middle road between existing industrial modes of education and the more utopian versions of digital liberation. That this was recorded using Skype I think is of more than passing interest as it is a simple example of the ways in which simple tools might shift and complement traditional practices.
The essays and ideas collected here are diverse, at times disjunctive, but each provides a point of view on the digital, broadly conceived, and education. At this point, with digital media now ubiquitous in our institutions, but also with the rise of highly centralised learning management systems, it is perhaps timely to have a survey of this sort. This lets us recognise where we have come from, where we have gotten to, and then perhaps allows for debate on where we might go.