LRA talk on Mozilla Web Literacies

Last week I attended the Literacy Research Association conference in sunny Marco Island, Florida. Here is where several sessions were held, in chickee huts on the beach. Not a bad gig.

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One of the exciting parts of attending the conference was meeting and engaging in conversation with new people, and on that front, I was happy to be invited to give some remarks in response to an invited session organized by Ian O’Byrne and Greg McVerry. The session allowed participants to hear from and give feedback to Mozilla’s Doug Belshaw on their Web Literacies map.

Doug was kind enough to share his slides and his remarks ahead of time, and I encourage you to look through those materials–they are very helpful in contextualizing the project more generally. I offered my response at the LRA session, which I later recorded as part of Ian and Greg’s work to publicize the session:

Below is the transcript of my remarks, which are mostly concerned with the ways the Mozilla folks are invoking a particular set of definitions around literacy. Here is Doug’s response, which he kindly wrote immediately following the session. I have to say that Doug has been tremendously open and responsive, inviting me into further conversation and showing through this write up how closely he attended to many of the points I made. I welcome further thoughts and will update this page when the full session is archived by Ian and Greg. Thanks again to everyone for inviting me to be part of this session.

 

Transcript:

First I’d like to thank you all for being a part of this conversation, not least because I am a huge fan of Mozilla and their Webmaker tools. I use them regularly as part of the courses I teach, especially my Digital Literacies course, and the high school teachers I collaborate with find them extraordinarily useful in their practice. I heard Doug’s colleagues present at an ed-tech oriented conference when the framework had just come out, and I am happy to see some of the iterations since that time, including the move you referenced from calling them standards to framing this as a map.

 

Some of the parts that resonate with me in this project:

  • the commitment to openness and transparency, which can help guide us toward multiple diverse perspectives and voices (to connect to the conference theme of dialogicality);
  • the framing of the Internet as a global public resource that should be protected, and Mozilla’s leading role in that effort;
  • the acknowledgement of the political nature of the work, more of which I’ll talk about a bit later;
  • the foregrounding of educative dimensions of this work—the need for apprenticeship, modeling, and teaching;
  • the community-based orientation, that is manifested in your practice of training the trainers to teach the web (which of course can be anyone with a willingness and access)

 

And I very much appreciate the reporting of feedback about the first iteration of the framework.

  • I agree with all of the proposals except the second one: that there could be tighter and more explicit alignment between the manifesto and the map; that this should look more like a map; that some of the concepts appear to be cross-cutting ones; and that there should be a way to remix the map for various purposes. All of these seem well aligned with what I am going to say today and with the larger vision Doug has so helpfully laid out for us.
  • My critique of the second proposal, to rename the three strands reading, writing, and participating, I will explain in a moment as part of my broader feedback about this framework and indeed, my discomfort around it. I commend you Doug, and the organizers of this session, for reaching out to the literacy scholars to help you think through the entailments of your decision to frame this project within the ‘literacy’ paradigm.

 

So you ask for our read on this project, and in response I’d like to make four points today. I will start with the two biggies.

 

  1. Certainly my biggest source of concern is the way this framework invokes literacy in very particular and historically significant ways. In the very definition we hear the skill orientation: web literacy involves “the skills and competencies needed for reading, writing and participating on the web.” As you so rightly point out, definitions are powerful things. And defining web literacy as comprised of autonomous skills that can be mapped in linear fashion powerfully invokes a particular model of literacy that folks in the New Literacy Studies tradition have been working hard to complicate.

 

The popular definition of literacy traditionally revolves around the notion of ability: one can or cannot read. So we have information literacy, emotional literacy, financial literacy—glossed as the ability to competently use information, emotions, or money. This definition has a long history, rooted in the use of the word ‘illiteracy,’ which was used for 220 years before literacy came into popular use. This history thus calls forward into the present day this deficitizing ideology, in which literacy is a binary (you can or cannot read and write) and an autonomous set of skills that in and of themselves have an effect on people outside of the social contexts of their use.

 

So given this history, I am wary of the use of the word literacy here—notably in the singular, as if there is one kind of web literacy. From the very definition to the way the map is arrayed, I find this logic of traditional understandings of literacy at play. One of my broadest worries is that when large institutional entities—including Mozilla—take up and amplify these older and problematic notions of literacy that they become even more cemented into our cultural fabric, more transparent and seemingly uncomplicated. So in some ways, that’s why I find it troubling that you bring up the proliferation of ‘umbrella’ terms but ultimately dismiss this as a kind of semantic debate—there are so many definitions that it’s impossible to figure it out. I encourage everyone at Mozilla to think about the cultural sway you hold and to think deeply and carefully about your definitions and the ideologies they carry—these matter and have very real consequences for how people are measured, ranked, and sorted.

  1. The second point I’d like to make, connected to the first in some ways, is about how and where criticality emerges in the map. By that, I mean that I’d like to see more explicitly some recognition that even as we make the web, the web makes us. How DO we balance the public good with commercial interests, which is a point from the manifesto. If these are a set of autonomous skills through which “People should be able to show what they know and can do with the web” then that implies that once one has acquired this expertise, that these skills lead directly to outcomes. This locates the agency within the skills themselves and frames them as neutral. I think this is an area of tension, for while you say that web literacy is political, and as a company you all take a particular stance toward openness and the common good, that this framework implies a neutral process of acquiring skills that lead unproblematically to particular outcomes. What happens when we shift these to a practice-oriented approach, one that focuses on the ways these practices are situated in activities and always in relation to other people and things?
  2. My third point is related and involves this question of pathways you bring up. There is a sense that development is linear: that we develop expertise over time, moving from novice to expert. But there are many other developmental pathways, particularly in a networked, crowdsourced culture in which people learn though multiple possible directionalities. For example, how might the HOMAGO framework fit here? Drawing on Ito and colleagues in the MacArthur and DML field have found that connected learning involves many pathways, including hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Again, I do appreciate your attempts to mitigate this criticism by explicitly stating that this is not a linear process. But there is still a logic, in the definition, in the representation, and in the framing, that there is a correct way to become expert. For example, in your future goals, you say” First, we want to build clear learning pathways that lead to meaningful credentials. People should be able to show what they know and can do with the web. That’s likely to start with Web Literacy Basics 101 and will probably use Open Badges.” This reveals that there are particular pathways you have in mind and these will necessarily constrain the ways people DO learn and make sense of the web.
  3. My last point is really just extending the previous one, in that I wanted to call attention to the ways that our representations have important implications. So the fact that this is a map but is oriented as if these are still standards matters. By separating these three columns, there is a linearity that implies a separation and progression of skills (indeed, this is really what you described as a “competency grid”). Where are the relationships and connections—between items but also between columns? The proposal to look at the cross-cutting themes is a good one, but I think it needs to go further: are there ways to represent these as practices that are somehow connected in relationship to one another? We know that reading/writing/and participating are not separate activities in practice, so the fact that they are separate here, and that this separateness is reinforced by the columnar structure, feels like a very modular, skills oriented framing that has particular implications for learning. Certainly having these individually articulated in the way you do for each item is brilliantly helpful for anyone wanting to teach or learn these; however, when looking at them as a whole, any focus on fluidity, connection, and intersectionality remains hidden. For a company that is all about openness and networked teaching and learning, this “competency grid” fits an older, outdated model of learning, one that does not yet recognize the multiple pathways to learning and participating.

 

So those are my four points, but I want to loop back around to commend you on engaging in this conversation in such an open and inviting way, and to the kind of energy and thought you’ve all contributed to efforts to make the web open and accessible to all.

 

 

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