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.


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.



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.




Literacy as Worldmaking

Having just returned from another amazingly generative Educon conference (and if you have not been, you should definitely add it to your calendar for next year), I am chagrined as I look back at how neglected my blog has been. Nevertheless, inspired by the discussion about modeling in a session on connected educators with Kira Baker-Doyle (@KJBD), I figured I should be blogging regularly while asking the students in the Digital Literacies classes I’m teaching to blog.


I thought that I’d spend some of the time in these next few blog posts reflecting on some of the recent articles and chapters I’ve written, especially exploring ideas that had to be cut out or that got short shrift with word limits. (And frankly, these things just take so long to emerge!) The first one I’ll start with is from an upcoming chapter called ‘Literacy as Worldmaking’, and I have to say that the more I sit with the idea, the more it grows on me.

DSC_0061 copyWhy worldmaking? Worldmaking is not a new theory, but it is one that has new resonance for our participatory, media-infused times. Certainly the ways we engage in worldmaking when we participate in virtual worlds or games seems evident, but I argue that literacy is always a kind of worldmaking, or–as Goodman (1978) describes it–a way of creating new orders of reality through remaking and remixing. There is no one objective world we are working to understand; we do not make meaning outside of our frames of reference. I love the example Holland and colleagues (1998) offer of AA as figured world, as personal narratives become emblems and poker chips become symbols of sobriety. We make meaning of our worlds through our historically and socially situated meaning making practices; though our symbolizing practices we shape our worlds and imagine new possibilities.

One of the things that makes this feel like a generative theory for thinking about literacy is the way worldmaking emphasizes both the global (the world part) and the productive (the making part) dimensions of literacy. The global focus puts difference at the center of the meaning making enterprise, highlighting how we can live together across our diversities: meaning making, as always historically and socially situated and ideological, requires us to consider ourselves in relation to the world more broadly. The making focus highlights the productive, dynamic, and active dimensions of meaning making, moving us away from a focus on products or texts to think more about improvisation, emergence, and participation as key features.


Simply put, literacy always involves the interpretive remaking of worlds, “a process of building multiple, shared interpretive realms out of an array of cultural resources in service of communicating across differences” (p. 14). So, how can we remake our shared worlds to incorporate new voices, stories, and perspectives? If testing, reform, and standards are functioning now as the key interpretive frames for the educational world, how can we collaboratively conceive of a new world–and what worlds can we remix and what artifacts can we use as ‘pivots’ to open up these new possibilities? Imagination, of course, is central to this work. Just some thoughts for a cold, cold Sunday evening.

These ideas are more fully developed in the following article, which obviously goes into a lot more detail (please let me know if you’d like a copy):  

Stornaiuolo, A. (in press). Literacy as worldmaking: Cosmopolitanism, creativity, and multimodality. In K. Pahl & J. Rowsell (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Literacy Studies. Routledge.


Goodman, N. (1978). Ways of worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Holland, D., Lachiotte Jr., W., Skinner, D., & Cain, C. (1998). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hacking books

Note: I cross-posted this as a resource at the Digital Is website!

Last month I went to the Educon conference at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia for the first time and was so excited to see all of the amazing work being done by educators to incorporate digital literacies into their practices and classrooms. I was particularly inspired by the hackjam run by Meenoo Rami and Chad Sansing (watch it livehere or read about Chad’s reflections on it here). Immediately I saw how this activity might be a generative one for my digital literacies class at the University of Pennsylvania to help us consider more carefully the ideas of participatory learningcomposing as making, and hacker literacies.

One of the central ideas I was hoping we could explore was how play and Making can help to transform our teaching/learning practices. Hacking (or tweaking, reworking, or disrupting) dominant narratives and technologies is a kind of current participatory practice we have been contemplating this semester. So, as Chad recommends, we began with the material in order to then draw metaphors from this material work to the hacking of our own practices and broader systems (e.g., schooling).

So we hacked children’s books! Some of the teachers in the room felt uncomfortable destroying beloved favorites:


but others found it liberating to deconstruct these narratives:


Small groups began by meeting and reading the stories and then considering how they could disrupt the narratives, the linearity of the print medium, and the ideologies of the stories (the group who explored Disney’s Mulan text were particularly troubled by the essentialized gender and cultural tropes). Groups pondered a variety of material objects I brought to work with as potential tools for disruption (we were also located in a computer lab so they had digital resources also at their disposal):


Groups then spent the next 30 minutes negotiating how their revised stories would take shape, and they painted, glued, cut, and crafted their joint projects:


We then went around the room and shared the ‘final’ products, many playing with temporality, linearity, intertextuality, and revoicing:


All of the digital literacies participants are blogging this semester as part of the course, and some of them offer insightful reflections on this hackjam experience, like pondering “A change in Arthur-ship” or “Imagination.” Here’s the link to all of our class blogs for more amazing reflection/commentary on digital literacies, imagined broadly:

Next up: Musings on curation and links to identity

Jenkins on transmedia

It was a tough call last night–go to see Jean Lave talk about the everyday or to listen to Henry Jenkins on transmedia? Since they were at overlapping times, I decided to go to the Jenkins talk. I have heard him speak before, but this was an intimate setting and I hoped that hearing his thoughts on transmedia might help me to rethink a chapter I am writing about transliteracies. And I think it ended up doing that. But in searching online for the official definition of the concept (he whipped through that slide too quickly for me to process), I found a pretty faithful summary of his talk here on his website. Nevertheless, I am posting my take on this for anyone interested.

The presentation really centered around his work with the idea of transmedia storytelling, which he said he has been talking about with people in the entertainment industry in very similar ways to the way he discussed the concept with us. He began by describing the provenance of the term transmedia (building on the work of Marsha Kinder) and his interest in transmedia storytelling (as opposed to other transmedia logics one could examine like transmedia play, branding, performance, etc.). Jenkins is an engaging speaker, and he used lots of examples to illustrate his definition of transmedia storytelling throughout the talk, drawing on popular culture texts like Harry Potter, the Matrix, Green Lantern, Disney, and dozens of others. He provided a working definition that structured his talk, explicating the italicized portions for us over the next hour:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

He made two important points: 1) there is an important distinction between participatory culture and Web 2.0 (a business model that attempts to commodify that participation) and 2) transmedia is about how we tell stories and not the tools we use to do so. That is, he is interested particularly in the ways that narratives can be expanded and how fans/audiences engage with that process. That is my take away, at least, from the talk (and the part I am most interested in).

He spent the majority of his time describing how transmedia storytelling expands narratives (point #1). This story expansion can happen successfully when the author creates a world (e.g. the world of Harry Potter). That is, when storytellers create or map a fictional world (e.g. Baum’s creation of Oz), they create many opportunities for narratives to be developed in different media (novels, movies, plays, etc. that all tell different stories set in Oz). Sometimes this means that a story is adapted (Superman is told in comic form and in movie form, with a similar plot line but adapted/interpreted for different media) and other times the story is extended (Superman in his youth, in a different country, etc.). Hollywood has embraced the principle of additive storytelling, in which there is a “mother ship” or a self-contained, ‘authorized’ version from which other stories are spun off. This adds a deepening/layering element to the narrative, which also allows other narratives to be told (e.g., minor characters’ stories or some kind of backstory might be developed in a video game). But the Matrix, for example, had a different logic–an integrated vision whereby the story was told in pieces across different media (and made for an incoherent narrative if someone missed the backstory from the video game, for example).

In all of these ways, then, Jenkins makes clear he is talking about the different possible relations between media. He argues that for him, transmedia storytelling has to combine principles of radical intertextuality and multimodality that allow us to understand something more about a story. He describes radical intertextuality as a movement across texts or across textual structures within the same medium (like DC comic characters that traverse different comics over time). He talks about multimodality as the way different media involve different representations, with different affordances for interaction (e.g., the Green Lantern is a character that moves across comic, movie, and game but is recognizable across all three, though each has a different kind of affordance for our relationship to the story/medium). For him, then, transmedia storytelling has to traverse texts (intertextuality) and modes (multimodality) in order to extend a narrative in some way.

I am particularly interested in the second point (above), about how fans and audiences engage with transmedia storytelling. Jenkins argues that fans can have different kinds of relationships with transmedia stories, from hunting and gathering (e.g., finding parts of the Buffy story that you like) to fan participation (creating your own story in the Harry Potter fictional world). He says the question becomes–as audiences take up, broaden, and extend these narratives through their participatory practices (like the huge fan fiction following of Harry Potter fans), what is the relation of these texts to the authorized “canon”? Jenkins talked about this tension in relation to JK Rowling’s new online space that will extend the Harry Potter narrative but not take into account the complex worlds fans have already created (e.g., ‘sorting’ themselves in ways the new site will likely not recognize or take into account). He asks about the multiplicity of stories in this ‘fanon’ and its relations to the canonical texts of the corporate entity. All fascinating questions–and I am left wondering: what other kinds of relations might audiences take up with texts? What are the other roles people take up beside ‘fan’? What can we understand about the literacy practices of authors and audiences as they participate in multiple ways? What are the relationships between texts/authors/audiences across genres? With corporate/mainstream texts? What kinds of counternarratives might we find in an analysis of the stories fans create? In general, I think I wondered a lot about the stories that do and do not get told and the ways in which people are positioned by and position themselves in relation to these mainstream media (and of course they ways they actively coopt, resist, and otherwise transform those media/narratives).

In relation to these questions and Jenkins’ work, I found an interesting article on transmedia traversals by Jay Lemke that proposes a theoretical model for understanding these relationships. Lemke argues that the presence of social networks changes the nature of these relationships, in that we will filter and re-appropriate our diversity of experiences and resources across our social networks in ways that challenge the hegemony of mass media.