Delivering The New Primary Computing Curriculum.

If school-based, traditional literacies have not changed, then the children of this new century certainly have. They are initiating, appropriating, and establishing changes to literacy practice in a fast and furious manner. These changes, using the groundbreaking and rapidly developing technological advances of this new century, mean that young children and the youth culture of today are living their lives with and through the aid of digital technology.
Janet Evans (2004:8) Literacy Moves On. 

Schools are already working towards developing strategies to deliver the new computing curriculum, which comes into effect in September 2014. The essential elements of this curriculum can be found here. There are three main parts – computing,  which highlights computational thinking and computer science, information technology which the Royal Society defines as“the application of computer systems and the use of pre-existing software to meet user needs”and digital literacy, which is described as“the general ability to use computers”. Some of these definitions seem problematic.

The guidelines provide a useful Purpose of Study by way of justifying change. These include equipping pupils ‘to use computational thinking and creativity to understand and change the world… the core of computing is computer science, in which pupils are taught the principles of information and computation, how digital systems work, and how to put this knowledge to use through programming‘. In terms of digital literacy, the Purpose of Study claims to address the need to develop citizens who are responsible, competent, confident and creative users of information and communication technologyable to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology – at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.

The idea of ‘computational thinking’ encompasses

a collection of diverse skills to do with problem solving that result from studying the nature of computation. It includes some obviously important skills that most subjects help develop, like creativity, ability to explain and team work. It also consists of some very specific problem solving skills such as the ability to think logically, algorithmically and recursively. It is also about understanding people‘ (CS4FN).

Few who have been involved with school computing would disagree with the overall purpose of study. It is clear that the world we live in is changing rapidly and that it is essential for us to develop new understanding, skills and competencies if we are to thrive, rather than simply survive, in that world.  Digital formats are everywhere – music, photography,  film, where computer generated images play an increasingly important part in movie making. Communication systems are digital and the way in which we buy and sell depends largely on digitised systems. The social networking world, where an increasing number of young people create and share  digital artefacts, including images, video, audio and other art forms, is a digital one. Peppler (2014:xi), talking about the parlous state of Arts Education the United States, notes that “outside of school, however, we see a strikingly different landscape, one full of promise for engaging young people in artistic activity… interest-driven arts learning – combined with the power of digital technology.”

Computer programming is not new to schools – indeed, many who acquired computers like the ZX Spectrum, BBC Model A and B and  Apple 2  in the  early 80’s found that they were limited in terms of software available, leading to a growth of programming. Easy to use and learn languages like Logo and Basic were popular and after school computer clubs proliferated. Logo is still around and is a good platform for learning about programming. Other useful platforms include Scratch. Teachers are already preparing for September and a number of healthy support systems including CAS , are in place.


Credit: San Jose Library. (Creative Commons, some rights reserved) ::

However, I have a concern about the way that digital literacy is presented, specifically in terms of it being seen as consisting of ‘skills’.

Bawden (2008), commenting on Gilster’s early work on digital literacy, highlights it as being about “mastering ideas, not keystrokes” (p 18). My view is that it is about about critical understanding – developing a critical view of the digital world in which we live and the way it impacts on our daily lives. One aspect of this is that of keeping safe. Others involve being aware of the ease with which one is surveilled, be it by the state, the places where one uses credit and debit cards,  the many social platforms on which one participates. It is also about developing a critical understanding of the wide range of mediums which we are are presented with on a daily basis, the importance of  having a robust understanding of issues surrounding intellectual property, copyright and academic integrity and other ‘rules of engagement’ when working on the web in order to avoid embarrassment, or worse. More detail can be found in this post.

Wheeler, (2012:15) states: “…new media and digital technologies offer new opportunities for learning, yet the disruptive nature of these tools and the seismic changes that they bring require us to conceive an entirely new set of literacies.”  Importantly, he emphasises the idea that digital literacy is NOT about skills or competencies, but rather about ‘cultural engagement’, which I would take to involve a thorough understanding of the digital world around us and how to operate successfully within it. Wheeler identifies nine key digital literacies:

  • social networking
  • transliteracy (ability to operate across a wide range of digital platforms)
  • maintaining privacy (staying safe online)
  • managing identity (using multiple online identities)
  • creating content (eg – blogs, participating on wikis, discussion groups)
  • organising and sharing content (posting to different platforms, saving and collating information online)
  • reusing/repurposing content (mashing, mixing)
  • filtering and selecting content (finding, saving content in ways which enable us to find it easily)
  • self broadcasting (sharing one’s own content with others across different platforms).
Digital literacy 2 after Wheeler

Digital Literacies, Wheeler (2013) Diagram by Paul, M. (2013)

There are a range of ways in which schools can deliver this aspect of the curriculum, perhaps the most appropriate being cross-curricular. Writing using digital devices, searching for and evaluating information and presenting ideas in digital formats is common in schools, but using  Web 2.0 applications such as blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing, social bookmarking and presentation platforms like PowToon and Prezi are less so. It is vital to provide realistic opportunities for children to develop their skills as creators of digital artefacts – photographs, music, movies and audio content. There are many opportunities for this across the curriculum. Blogs are useful for reporting on class activities and for sharing children’s work, be it art, writing, interesting problem solving methods used in mathematics, or video of group recitals or drama. Wikis, designed as collaborative platforms, enable users to collaborate (plan, discuss, share, create, produce, edit) to create, share and collate information. They are especially suitable for project work, whatever the subject.

What is most important is that pupils themselves are active in the creation, editing and delivery of material. Buckingham (2008) points out that the best way to understand digital media is to get involved in producing it.  Learning to shoot and edit video, taking and editing a photograph, recording and editing audio content are, after all, part of expressing oneself and developing ideas through the use of information and communications technology.

Schools and teachers need to recognise the power of Web 2.0 as a platform which can motivate children and embrace it. Children enjoy using digital devices and working online and while it is true that there are dangers online, the Byron report suggests that providing children with the necessary understanding to identify and handle online danger is better than blocking sites willy-nilly. The broad scope offered by the new curriculum provides schools with opportunities to use the exciting digital technologies available to us to provide exciting and motivating learning environments.

Perhaps more important that these issues is the more important one of changing schools. The notion of a  ‘grammar of schooling‘ (Tyack and Tobin (1994), the enduring ability of schools to resist change, has been around for a good while.  Writing in 1991, Collins cited Cohen and Cuban as saying that computer technology was unlikely to have much effect on schools and that “to the degree that technology is flexible, it will be bent to fit existing practice and that, to the degree it cannot be bent to fit existing practice, it will not be used” (Page 28). Balanskat et al. (2006) are cited by Arbelaiz and Gorospe (2009) as having identified three main barriers to change in schools. These are as follows.


Lack of ICT skills, lack of motivation, lack of confidence in using new technologies.  In many cases, these are due to poor or inappropriate teacher training.

School resources / provision

Even if teachers are adequately trained, school barriers impede their being able to  put training into practice. These are

  • Absence, or poor quality of ict infrastructure
  • Limited access to ict equipment, school’s limited project related experience, lack of experience in project based learning, absence of ict mainstreaming into school strategies.


Barriers to assessment and evaluation methods, with current ones not designed to measure progress in ict rich schools. There is a level of doubt by schools and parents that ict type assessments will not provide the same kinds of results as traditional ones.

Tyack and Tobin’s  (1994) seminal study on the grammar of schooling highlights aspects of schooling which tend to be regarded as fixed and unchangeable, ‘‘regular structures and rules that organize the work of instruction…   standardised organisational practices in dividing time and space, classifying students, allocating them to classrooms, and splintering knowledge into ‘subjects’ ”  (p. 454). They explain how innovations which have “challenged the structures and rules that constitute the grammar of schooling,  . . . have not lasted for long” (p. 455). Arbelaiz and Gorospe (2009) provide an interesting point about aspects of school practice which fall outside of the established ‘grammar’ but which are nevertheless accepted. These include (usually ungraded) activities like field trips, out-of-school and after-school programmes, domains where “ICT finds fertile ground in which to grow and to afford non-standard innovative practices”. This fits very well with the ‘informal’ curriculum, where learning happens in a less structured, more open and relaxed learning environment.  They suggest that these are venues “for ICT integration” where innovative practices are free of the normal ‘grammar of schooling’ barriers.

The extent to which the new curriculum can succeed would seem to depends more on its ability to challenge the grammar of schooling rather than how good it is.  The question is whether schools in a position where they can let go of traditional strictures and embrace the opportunities offered by the new curriculum. Are teachers adequately trained? Are schools adequately provisioned? Are other aspects of the curriculum flexible enough to embrace the kinds of learning that computers are especially good at supporting? Can organisations like Ofsted adapt their approaches in terms of acknowledging alternate kinds of evidence of learning? Are we ready to challenge the ‘grammar of schooling’ (Tyack and Tobin, 1994) which makes change in schools extremely difficult?  What is particularly interesting is that these long held concerns rise afresh in the Royal Society report, which notes that ‘there is a shortage of specialist teachers able to teach computing’ (page 8), a lack of CPD for teachers (page 9), inadequate teaching resources and infrastructural issues which ‘hold back good teaching’ (page 9). These include compromises as a result of the ‘need to maintain network security – an analogue to health and safety myths holding back practical science’ (page 9).

My personal belief is that the delivering the aims of the new curriculum will be a challenge.  Successful schools will be those who are proactive and innovative, schools which invest in professional development, establish coding clubs, purchase good quality computers, engaging equipment like Lego Mindstorms, embrace the use of multimedia narratives, establish clubs where members can experiment which the capture and editing of digital photographs, video and sound files. These schools will also be open to children bringing and using their own ‘internet ready’ devices to school for use as educational tools. The increased acceptance of children’s devices in schools, driven by current research in the area of ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) would seem to offer good opportunities for developing a broader understanding of how digital devices can support learning.  These schools will also take advantage of the informal curriculum – the learning that occurs outside of school as young people use of computers in informal situations (home, cafes, on the move).


Arbelaiz, A. & Gorospe, J. (2009) Can the grammar of schooling be changed? Computers and Education, Issue 53, pages  51-56.
Bawden, D. (2008) Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy. In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Buckingham, D. (2008) Defining Digital Literacy. What do young people need to know about digital literacy?  Chapter 4, Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (Eds.) (2008) Digital Literacies. Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang, New York.
Collins, A. (1991). The role of computer technology in restructuring schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(1),  28-36.
Evans, J. (2004) Literacy Moves On: Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Primary Classroom. David Fulton.
Peppler, K. (2014) New Creativity Paradigms: Arts Learning in The Digital Age. Peter Lang.
Tyack, D. & Tobin, W. (1994) The “Grammar” of Schooling: Why Has it Been so Hard to Change?
Wheeler, S. (2010) What are digital literacies?
Wheeler, S. (2012) Digital Literacies for Engagement in Emerging Online Cultures.

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Digital Literacy in the Primary School – Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking

Computing also ensures that pupils become digitally literate, able to use, and express themselves and develop their ideas through, information and communication technology at a level suitable for the future workplace and as active participants in a digital world.

Computing programmes of study, KS 1 and 2 (2013).
Department for Education.

The new computing curriculum provides useful changes to the way we think about and work with digital technologies. There is a renewed interest in computing in terms of computational thinking and coding, and the need to ensure that children are digitally literate.  The computing programmes of study KS 1 and 2 document  provides the following guidance with respect to digital literacy.  KS1 children need to be able to:

  • use technology purposefully to create, organise, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content
  • recognise common uses of information technology beyond school
  • use technology safely and respectfully, keeping personal information private; identify where to go for help and support when they have concerns about content or contact on the internet or other online technologies.

In KS2, children need to be able to:

  • understand computer networks, including the internet; how they can provide multiple services, such as the World Wide Web, and the opportunities they offer for communication and collaboration
  • use search technologies effectively, appreciate how results are selected and ranked, and be discerning in evaluating digital content
  • select, use and combine a variety of software (including internet services) on a range of digital devices to design and create a range of programs, systems and content that accomplish given goals, including collecting, analysing, evaluating and presenting data and information
  • use technology safely, respectfully and responsibly; recognise acceptable/unacceptable behaviour; identify a range of ways to report concerns about content and contact.

While these are useful, there is little in the way of a definition of digital literacy, or a detailed discussion about the nature of digital literacies. This post attempts to address these shortcomings by looking in more detail at the notion of digital literacy and the nature of the different ‘literacies’ which are currently being debated online.  There are many aspects to digital literacy and many online practices which involve them. Three key practices will be looked at here – the use of blogs, wikis and social bookmarking.

Digital literacy, digital literacies

I like to distinguish between digital literacy and digital literacies,  the former being a critical understanding of the impact of digital technologies on our society, its institutions and ourselves as individuals. These technologies have  resulted in major changes in the way our society operates and the way we do things. For many, these are emancipatory, enabling us to do things more effectively (better), efficiently (quicker) and most importantly, to do things that we have not been able to do before. Living in a digital society means that a wide range of  information is easily available to us, largely at any time and from any place. Current innovation revolves around increasing mobility, with smart phones, tablets and ever lighter laptop computers enabling us to remain in contact wherever we might be.  However, as with all technologies, these advantages are balanced by disadvantages. These include cybercrime, perpetrated by faceless criminals in remote locations, identity theft, on-line bullying, grooming, troll attacks, hacking, phishing and viruses. Relatively new is the  disturbing perception of governments around the world that leveraging the ability of these technologies to surveil not only their own populations, but also those of other countries, is an acceptable and perhaps even desirable practice. An important issue is raised here. The ability to do things that could not be done before does not mean that general ethical values do not apply. There is a need for innovations and the capabilities they provide to be given serious consideration in terms of ethical standards of use.

Given this, a person who is digitally literate would be expected to have a critical appreciation of both the advantages and disadvantages which arise in our rapidly developing digital world. This involves bringing critical cognitive capacities to bear when working in the digital domain so as to make effective use of the advantages offered while recognition and avoiding the dangers. In essence, a digitally literate person understands the increasingly digital world we live in and is able to thrive in it, rather than simply survive.

Digital literacies can be seen as the skills, tools and competencies we use to interact effectively as citizens of a digital society as we navigate, critically analyse, create, share and collate information as we go about our business in the digital sphere. For the purposes of this post, we will look at the ideas of Wheeler (2012), Summey (2013), Belshaw (2012) and Rheingold (2012).

Wheeler (2012) identifies the following as digital literacy competences.

  • social networking
  • transliteracy (ability to operate across a wide range of digital platforms)
  • maintaining privacy (staying safe online)
  • managing identity (using multiple online identities)
  • creating content (eg – blogs, participating on wikis, discussion groups)
  • organising and sharing content (posting to different platforms, saving and collating information online)
  • reusing/re-purposing content (mashing, mixing)
  • filtering and selecting content (finding, saving content in ways which enable us to find it easily)
  • self broadcasting (sharing one’s own content with others across different platforms).

The diagram below (Paul, 2013) expands on these.


Rheingold (2012) has a simpler five point  structure.

  • Attention! The Fundamental Literacy
  • Calibrating Your Crap Detector: What You Pay Attention to After You Pay Attention to Attention (critical awareness)
  • What It Takes to Participate in Participatory Culture—and What You Get Out of It
  • Clueing in to Collaboration: Making Virtual Communities, Collective Intelligence, and Knowledge Networks Work for You (and Us)
  • What You Need to Know about Network Smarts—from Small Worlds to Privacy Settings, from Weak Ties to Social Capital.

Summey (2013:5) also provides five digital literacies:

  • locating and filtering
  • sharing and collaborating
  • organising and curating
  •  creating and generating
  •  reusing and re-purposing.

Summey (2013, p 15) provides a diagrammatic representation of these.


Belshaw (2012) also emphasises the plurality of the digital literacies, providing eight ‘essential elements’ in which ‘skills, attitudes and aptitudes’  need to be developed (p 42). These eight broad elements are:

  •  cultural
  • cognitive
  • constructive
  • communicative
  • confident
  • creative
  • critical
  • civic.

These are expanded in the diagram (Paul, 2013) below.


Other diagrammatic representations of digital literacy include the one below from Futurelab (2010)

digital literact futurelab

Definitions of Digital literacy from the futurelab Digital Literacy across the Curriculum handbook (2010: p.19)

What is clear from all these definitions is that digital literacy is closely tied to the idea of the participatory web and communication, where we are are not simple consumers of information but active participants and contributors to the richness of content available online. However, it is important to note that digital literacy is not necessarily confined to digital resources. Bawden (2008), commenting on Paul Gilster’s early work (1997) on digital literacy makes the point that the term is inclusive of former technologies (such as print), highlighting the tendency for old and new technologies to exist comfortably side by side.  Notwithstanding rapid developments in digital technology, there is still a place for pencil and paper and paper based resources like newspapers and books. Thus, digital literacy can be seen as  “the current form of the traditional idea of literacy per se – the ability to read, write, and otherwise deal with information using the technologies and formats of the time… (p 18)… involving the understanding of how to complement digital resources with such things as reference works in libraries, printed newspapers and magazines, radio and television, and printed works of literature” (p 19).


The question is how schools can to expose children to these literacies in a way which provides contexts which are practical, relevant, realistic and linked to the curriculum. There are a number of useful platforms which can be used to do this, including blogs, wikis and social bookmarking platforms like Delicious. These are essentially Web 2 platforms, which celebrate user generated content. Blogs are widely used by individuals and the corporate world, having gone ‘mainstream’ over the past few years and are now permanent features of newspapers, providing journalists with a platform for less formal journalistic writing.

Blogs and blogging

The word ‘blog’ is short for ‘weblog’, suggesting a way of journaling or ‘logging’ data online. Blogs provide a chronological record of posts, with the most recent at the top. Theysupport hyperlinking and are multimedia capable, enabling authors to provide narratives consisting of text, images, video and audio. Blogs were one of the first instances of socially or user generated content applications to go mainstream –  the first ‘native genre’ of the internet, according to Rebecca Blood, an early web analyst. They cover an extremely wide variety of  topics and have been been used in schools for at least a decade.  Most school blogs are class blogs, showing examples of good work, reporting on visits and so on. Others have used them more widely, communicating with schools across the country and the EU.  However, children also have their own blogs.  Martha Payne  achieved a level of notoriety when her NeverSeconds blog was closed down by the Argyll and Bute council. There are a good number of educators who blog about technology. See  this and this example. Other  teachers  blog about their  workplaces. Such blogs provide a useful glimpse into the world of teaching and are generally written using a pseudonym, which helps to support anonymity. This is highly recommended for bloggers who touch on controversial topics. However, blogging about the workplace is dangerous, given that it is relatively easy to find the person behind the pseudonym, given the digital ‘crumb trail’ that we leave while working online. Two high profile bloggers outed online include policemen Richard Horton and sex worker Belle de Joer. A number of employees have been dismissed for blogging, including Ellen Simonetti, an air hostess working for Delta, Joe Gordon who allegedly brought his company (Waterstones) into disrepute and Catherine Sanderson, a British worker in Paris, again for allegedly bringing her company into disrepute. Sanderson was awarded £30,000 for unfair dismissal.

One of the strengths of blogs as educational tools is as reflective journals.  Another aspect of blogging is the ‘kudos’ of being a member of the blogosphere, a space reasonably free of judgement based on grounds of  colour, gender, nationality and disability. In their book on the use of new web tools in primary classrooms, Barber and Cooper (2012) describe blogs as empowering “in activities that require interaction, by removing physical, social or environmental inhibitors (page 13).” Thus, issues that constrain children in classroom situations, such as negative labeling, perceived views of peers and other factors impacting negatively on self-esteem and personal issues like shyness” can be rendered less intrusive” (page 14). Barber and Cooper make a strong case for blogging as a platform which supports authentic writing (engaging an audience)  and that is extendable (connected to a wider community of readers and collaborators). They also see blogs as highly adaptable, supporting individual or group endeavours and highlight the easy with which they can be published online, without the need to understand the underlying internet protocols.

Rettberg (2009) discusses Dysthe’s (2000) work on the difference between “thinking writing” and “presentation writing”. The former is the ‘process’ writing we do when we attempt when we wrestle with problems and ideas as we try to make sense of the world around us. It is largely personal, a kind of ‘lone scientist’ activity which Piaget highlighted as important for developing understanding.  Presentation writing is aimed at an audience, involving a message. As such, there is always a reader in mind when writing. Rettberg suggests that blogging combines aspects of both thinking and presentation writing. This would seem to make sense, given that blogs are public spaces where readers can comment on the content suits this practice, leading bloggers take care to ensure that their posts are carefully constructed.

The Blogging Platform

Blogs offer a number of advantages over ‘traditional’ writing platforms such as word processing. They are fully multimedia Web 2.0 platforms, accessible from anywhere at any time as long as one has an internet ready device. Blogs provide a wide range of attractive templates or themes, as well as widgets and other add-ons. These allowing a high level of personalisation which is not possible with writing platforms like word processors. Widgets can include providing links to one’s Twitter and Flickr sites, tag and category clouds and Blog platforms provide some of these these as part of the service, with some specific themes and add-ons available at a cost. Many also provide the option to personalise web addresses – for instance, or  Perhaps most important is their ease of use. Editing is as simple as wordprocessing, with the option to save drafts until the post is ready for publishing, which makes it available online. The post can, if required, be taken off-line for further development.

Blogs in Plain English – Lee Lefever, Commoncraft

Specialist blogs

As multimedia platforms, blogs lend them to specialist use as can seen from the examples of commercial blogs as platforms for showcasing art and other artefacts for sale. However, there are a number of specialist blogs, dedicated to showcasing things like photographs, of which  Flickr and Blip Photo are examples. Another aspect of digital literacy creeps in here, given the important issue of copyright and the ease with which one’s work online can be ripped off online. Sites like Flickr make it easy for copyright owners to share their work in more flexible and creative ways than provided by ‘analogue’ mindsets on copyright issues. The copyright model best suited for the social online world is that of Creative Commons. This enables the owner to stipulate the exact conditions under which his or her work can be shared. Six basic models are provided, ranging from full copyright (all rights reserved) , through some rights reserved to an open ‘all rights granted’ licence. The range of licences can be seen here.

Those who prefer video to still photography will produce and share video blogs. Here is a guide to video blogging from Mashable.

What we see from this is that there is a wide range of blog categories on the web in  terms of the specific media that they specialise in and, within these, special areas of interest. However, most blogs provide a mix of mediums. Photos on Flickr will often be described using text, and include comments from followers. Travel blogs will often use photos together with text and audio to provide a record of each day of a holiday or other such trip. These provide a multimedia record events, which can be shared across the web.

The discussion above covers a wider range of opportunities than is perhaps possible in schools, given current beliefs about online safety and keeping children safe. However, it is suggested that sites like Flickr can be used to demonstrate issues surrounding copyright and to demonstrate how developing technologies change the way we look at concepts like copyright. Classroom blogging within a walled garden is probably the most popular way to use blogs in primary schools. However, children and families can branch out with their own blogs. Travel blogs are probably the easiest to get started with, providing a record of places visited, supported by photographs, video and audio content.


Wikis are similar to blogs  being  user generated multimedia capable social platforms. The main difference between them is that while blogs are mainly personal, wikis are designed specifically as collaborative platforms. As such, they lend themselves well to project work and other collaborative endeavours and to situations where diverse data needs to be collated and coordinated in one place. Well known wikis include Wikipedia, WikiHow,  Wictionary and Urban Dictionary. Like blogs, wikis are used by a variety of individuals and organisations.  The well known ‘social’ wikis are open, allowing anyone to register and post online. This involves editing existing posts to correct information or to update by removing out of date content or providing newer information. However, wikis can also be closed, ensuring that only  registered users can update information, and even that they are the only people who can see it. This makes wikis especially useful for schools and other organisations where privacy is important.

Wikis have other important characteristics, the most important one being the rollback feature. A ‘history’ of every edit of each page is kept on a wiki, enabling the administrator to roll back to previous versions of the page should a user inadvertently delete it or make inappropriate comments or changes. Furthermore, the administrator and each user can request notifications of each and every update. Most users turn this feature off, but it is useful for administrators who need to keep track of activity on the site. Wikis lend themselves well to use in education. They are ideal platforms for any kind of collaborative activity, such as project work. Users can create and edit their own pages, using the wiki for group planning, discussion, rough posts and the final submission. They provide full support for multimedia, enabling the inclusion of text, images, video and audio files. Wikis have no boundaries, enabling them to be used for projects across the school, across schools, countries and continents, allowing cross-cultural exchanges and sharing. They are also good platforms for collating information, such as teaching resources, lesson plans and lesson ideas.  As such, they are efficient platforms for supporting communities of practice, making it easy for teachers anywhere (within a school year group, across schools and across countries). 

Some ideas for using wikis in primary school.

Project work

History, geography and science projects, where groups develop relevant pages their own section of the wiki.  The wiki then becomes the project, with the contributions of groups (or even individuals) easy to find, assess and share. Pages provide opportunities to comment, enabling easy feedback by the teacher and others in the class.

Wikis can go beyond curriculum. Cultural exchange wikis allow schools from different countries and continents to share information about themselves, their interests and their culture, as long as they share a common language. Many countries have English as an official language and many others teach it as a second or third language. This provides good opportunities for foreign children to practice their English skills, and for local children to learn about foreign cultures.

This diagram provides an outline for a community history wiki of a town in England. The overview highlights children being involved in interviewing, filming and reporting on their interactions with community members – the local Mayor, ex-servicemen talking about their war experiences ,or business leaders. Doing this involves developing and using multimedia creation skills which would include photography, audio and video recording and – more importantly – the editing of these digital resources to produce digital narratives that are clear, coherent and cohesive.   Software which supports such creation and editing includes iMovie (Mac) and Movie Maker (Windows) and Audacity (audio). Other useful tools include presentation software like Powtoon.


English wiki

Wikis support shared writing in any form and for collating information and writing across genres. An English wiki could thus be the platform which collates work recorded on individual or class blogs, resources including favourite poems, e-books, artistic endeavours, audio interviews and video of group performances.

Year Group Wiki

This is useful for teachers, who need to create, find and share information. This could include lesson plans, self-developed and online resources. The wiki provides a coinvenient platform to collate this kind of information. Lesson plans can be altered to suit different groups and saved under a different name to keep original planning intact.

Wikis in Plain English. Lee Lefever, Commoncraft.

Social bookmarking, tagging, folksonomies

Both blogs and wikis provide the facility for readers to comment on posts, facilitating a two way low of information. They also enable writers to create tags – usually words which ‘identify’ the nature or features of the post, enabling  any posts with that identifier to be located using a search. This post, for instance, has eleven tags, including ‘blogs’, ‘wikis’ and ‘digital literacy’. I have also used a ‘widget’ which adds a tag cloud on the right hand side. Clicking on any of these words lists all the the posts on the blog which have that tag. Tags provide a new way to ‘file’ information, without having to create folders. Tags are informal and personal.  There is no fixed convention for tag names. They provide a common sense way of identifying and enabling quick searches for a topic, based on folksonomies.   The word folksonomy is a combination of ‘folk’ and ‘taxonomy’ and was coined by Thomas Vander Wel, an information design specialist. Tagging is used widely on the web and features largely on applications which value social networking and social bookmarking. Social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Diigo use tags to identify digital artefacts so as to simplify the task or organising and creating large bodies of information. This link takes you to my Delicious site, and shows all the web pages and other digital artefacts that I have bookmarked for this particular session, using the tag ‘pgce’ . You will notice that there is a range of tags for each, including other courses that I teach on, such as the M.Sc Learning and Digital Literacies course (LDL),  and the B.Sc Education course (bsced). Other tags provide further identifiers to make the articles easy to find. Searches can be narrowed by using more than a  single tags, as shown here where the # sign is used to identify only artefacts which have pgce, blogs, wikis as tags.

Using social bookmarking sites like Delicious is invaluable for anyone who needs to collect, organise, curate, collate and share digital information. These can be shared directly with others, and are searchable by anyone using the bookmarking service. Any kind of digital artefact can be bookmarked, including web pages, academic articles from journals, photographs and videos.  Many electronic artefacts make bookmarking easy by providing links to popular bookmarking services. These are usually at the bottom of the article. See graphic below, which comes from the BBC News site.

Social Bookmarking

However, not all sites provide this courtesy. This being the case, when setting up your social bookmarking service, drag the provided ‘button’ onto the favourites bar of your browser. The graphic below shows a link to Delicious on my favourites bar.

There is no reason why social bookmarking should not be used in the classroom. Children who use online content should be taught how to organise content in a range of ways. Documents created and saved on a computer are placed in folders with names that indicate the nature of the content, online documents are ‘tagged’ with identifiers that provide information as to the nature of their content and saved online. This is a good way to collate online sources used for projects.

bookmarks bar2

Social bookmarking in plain English.

Concluding comments

Multimedia has been highlighted during this discussion. It is important that children be provided with opportunities to develop multimedia skills. These include opportunities to use blogs and wikis but also include recording and editing photographs, audio and video. Editing suites for these are no longer expensive – many are free. However, relevant and appropriate opportunities to use these need to be found and used. Such opportunities could involve children using their own devices, given that many mobile phones have still, video and audio recording capacity and apps which enable users to edit content.

Web 2.0 (the ‘social’ or ‘participatory’ web) provides a secure platform for open discussion (blogs) and collaboration (wikis).  This offers opportunities for both teachers and students to work in new ways which extend and enrich learning. Blogs offer unique opportunities to write for a world wide audience. At the same time they provides opportunities for others, be they fellow students, teachers or people interested in the same area of endeavour, to provide feedback.  Wikis offer opportunities to collaborate with others across the world, developing resources which others can use, edit and augment. The emergence of MOOCs indicates  that open sharing of high grade resources is the way forward. The use of social media in the form of blogs and wikis supports this, providing a way for small players with unique and useful insights to make a contribution. Social networking provides opportunities for the development of Communities of Practices, be they formal or informal and active and responsible participation in these servers to develop our understanding of the important digital literacies which are essential for us to thrive in a rapidly changing and increasingly networked world.

The diagram below attempts to provide a ‘map’ of the literacies as they apply to the use of blogs and wikis. We see that the literacies apply largely to both practices.  Those positioned above and below a specific practice apply to that particular one more than the other. From this we see that managing identity /maintaining privacy is probably more relevant to bloggers than those who participate collaboratively on a wiki, while activities like organising, sharing, curating and crap detecting are perhaps more relevant to wikis.  However, this is a personal analysis based on my own work with blogs and wikis. Analyses by others are likely to be different.

Dig Lit blogs and wikis

List of references

Bawden, D. (2008) Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy. In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Beale, R. (2007) Blogs, reflective practice and student centered learning.
Belshaw, D. (2013) The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies.
Hafner, C. & Jones, R. (2012) Understanding Digital Literacies. A practical introduction.
Paul, J. (2012) New Literacies and Their Affordances. Primary Blog.
Paul, J. (2009) Using wikis as learning tools. Primary Blog.
Rettberg, J. Blogging as a Tool for Reflection and Learning.
Rourke, A., & Coleman, K. (2009) An emancipating space: Reflective and collaborative blogging.
Richardson, W. (2006) Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classrooms. Corwin Press, California.
Summey, D. (2013) Developing Digital Literacies. A Framework for Professional Learning.
Wheeler, S. (2010) What are digital literacies?
Wheeler, S. (2012) Digital Literacies for Engagement in Emerging Online Cultures.

Other useful resources

Beetham, H., McGill, L. & Littlejohn, A. (2009) Thriving in the 21st Century: Learning Literacies for the Digital Age.
Belshaw, D.  (2012) What is ‘digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation. Durham theses, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses online:
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008) Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Erstad, O.  (2011) Citizens Navigating in Literate Worlds. The Case of Digital Literacy. In Thomas, M. (2011) (Ed.) Deconstructing Digital Natives. Young People, Technology and the New Literacies.
Wan, N. (2012) Can we teach digital natives digital literacy? Computers & EducationVolume 59(3) 1065-1078.
Buckingham. D. (2008) Defining Digital Literacy. What do Young People Need to Know About Digital Media? In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008)  Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.
Hague, C. & Payton, S. (2010) Digital Literacies across the Curriculum. Futurelab.
Jisc (2011) Developing Digital Literacies: Briefing Paper in support of JISC Grant Funding 4/11
Jisc (2013) Developing Digital Literacies.
Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.
Utrecht, J. (2009) Digital Literacy vs Networked Literacy. The Thinking Stick blog.
Utrecht, J. (2009)  See this diagram from the post entitled The age of Composition.
Wheeler, S. (2013) Can we teach digital literacies?  Blog


Web n’ Circle Blog – more diagramatic representations of digital literacy.
Digital Futures in Teacher Education (DfTE)

Journal articles on the Educational use of wikis.

Boulos, M. & Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and health care education.
Cole, M. (2009) Using wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches.
Désilets, A., Paquet, S., and Vinson, N.G.  (2005)  Are wikis useable?  International Symposium on Wikis. October 17-18, 2005. San Diego, California, USA. NRC 48272.
Godwin-Jones, R. (2003) Emerging Technologies.Blogs and Wikis: Environments for On-line Collaborartion. Language Learning and Technology, 7(2), 12-16.
Grant, L. (2006) Using Wikis in Schools. A Case Study.  Futurelab.
Guth, S.  (2007). Wiki in Education: Is Public Better? WikiSym 07 Converence, Montreal, October 2007.
Haldane, M.  (2007)  Interactivity and the digital whiteboard: weaving the fabric of learning. Learning, Media and Technology 32(3) 257-270.
Birka Jaksch, Saskia-Janina Kepp, and Christa Womser-Hacker.(2008) Integration of a wiki for collaborative knowledge development in an elearning context for university teaching. Lecture notes in Computer Science, Vol. 5298.
Lamb, B. (2004) Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not.
Moskaliuk, J. (2009) Wiki supported learning and knowledge building: effects of incongruity bertween knowledge and information.
Nuutinen, J. (2010) From mindtools to social mindtools: Colaborative writing and woven stories
Neumann, David L. & Hood, Michelle. (2009) The effects of using a wiki on student engagement and learning of report writing skills in a university statistics course. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25(3). 382-398.
Parker, K. & Chao, J. (2007) Wiki as a teaching tool.
Wang, C. & Turner D. (2004) Extending the wiki paradigm for use in the classroom.
 Wen-Chung Shih et al. (2008)  Wiki-based rapid prototyping for teaching-material design in e-Learning grids
Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2007) Evaluating Wiki as a tool to promote quality academic writing skills.
Wheeler, S. (2008) All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes).
Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning.
Wheeler, S.  & Boulos, K. (2008) Mashing, Burning, Mixing and the Destructive Creativity of Web 2.0: Applications for Medical Education.
Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2009) Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training.

Journal articles on Blogs and Blogging

Beale, R. (2007) Blogs, reflective practice and student-centered learning.
Boulos, M & Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite.
Brescia, W. & Miller, M. (2005) What’s it Worth? The Perceived Benefits of Instructional Blogging.  Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education, Vol. 5
Chan, K-K. & Ridgeway, J. (2005?) Blog: a tool for reflective practice in teacher education?Chandra, V. & Lloyd, M. (2008) The methodological nettle: ICT and student achievement. British Journal of Educational Technology, V 39 (6), 1087–1098.
Downes, S. (2004) Educational Blogging.
Drezner, D. & Farrell, H. (2008). Blogs, politics and power: a special issue of Public Choice. Public Choice 134: 1–13.
Ebner, M., Lienhardt, C., Rohs, M. & Meyer, I. (2010) Microblogs in Higher Education – A chance to facilitate informart and process-oriented learning? Computers and Education. 55, 92-100.
Gill, K. (2004) How can we measure the influence of the blogosphere?
Harris, H. & Park, S. Educational useages of podcasting.
Hernández-Ramos, P. (2004) Web Logs and Online Discussions as Tools to Promote Reflective Practice. The Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 3 (1).
Huffaker, D. (2005) Let them Blog: Using weblogs to promote Literacy in K-12 Education.
Kamel Boulos, M., Inocencio Maramba, I. & and Wheeler, S. (2006) Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education. BMC Medical Education 2006, 6:41
Karger, D.R. & Quanb, D. (2005) What would it mean to blog on the semantic web? Journal of Web Semantics, 3 (2-3), 147-157.
Kennedy, R. (2004) Weblogs, Social Software, and New Interactivity on the Web. Psychiatric Services, 55(3).
Lee, M., McLoughan, C. & Chan, A. Talk the Talk: Learner generated podcasts as catalysts for knowledge creation.
Nataatmadja, I & Dyson, L. E. The Role of Podcasts in Students’ Learning.
Mortensen, T. & Walker, J.(2004) Blogging thoughts: personal publication as an online research tool.
Parker, C. & Pfeiffer, S. (2005) Videoblogging: Content to the max. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia. IEEE Multimedia, April-June.
Probert, E. (2009) Information Literacy Skills: Teacher understandings and practice. Computers and Education 53, 24-33.
Wheeler, S & Lambert-Heggs, W. (2008) The MentorBlog Project: Connecting student teachers and their mentors through social software
Wheeler, S. (2008) All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes).
Wheeler, S. (2013) Blogging as literacy. Learning with ‘e’s Blog.
Williams, J. & Jacobs, J. (2004) Exploring the use of blogs as learning spaces in the higher education sector. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 20(2), 232-247.

Educational technology blogs

Related posts on this blog

The impact of multimedia on the gathering and dissemination of news  for information on how blogging has changed news gathering and reporting and  Blogs as reflective writing tools on the use of  blogs in education.

See this post from The Next Web for 15 recommended blogging platforms.

Technorati’s top 100 Blogs for 2013 are listed here.

Posted in Digital narratives, Educational change, Information and Communications Technology, multimedia, Networking, Social bookmarking, Social Software and Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

English as an Additional Language


There are 30 children in the class. A third have spoken English all their lives and speak English at home. Two thirds speak a different language at home and only speak English at school. Most of the latter pupils have limited vocabulary and poor grammatically structured sentences. Five of these pupils have recently arrived in the country, they hardly understand anything the teacher says, they can’t spell their names, and as a result of the language barrier and huge changes in life circumstances, they are very easily distracted from tasks. Through differentiation, the class teacher has the very difficult job of providing the national curriculum for every child in this class
Caroline Scott, (2009:7). Teaching Children English as an Additional Language.


The UK has a generally open policy with respect to immigration and enjoys a proud reputation as an open and tolerant society. London is one of the world’s leading multicultural cities, one where ethnic whites have recently become a minority. Over 200 languages are spoken in London schools, (and over 300 nationwide according to Webster, (2011) with over half of inner London pupils having a first language other than English. This impacts greatly on the ability of schools to provide effective responses in terms of ensuring that all pupils are able to follow lessons, given that English is the medium of instruction. Washbourne (2011) states that one in eight secondary school pupils speak a language other than English at home. In primary schools, the ratio is one in six. Figures provided by the Department of Children, Schools and Families [DCSF] in 2009 indicated that 15.2% of children in primary school and 11.1% of children in secondary school in England do not speak English as a native language. In 2010, according to Washbourne, there were 900,000 (nine hundred thousand) children categorised as English as an Additional Language learners (EAL). She suggests that the demand for EAL is no longer an inner city issue.

From this, it can be seen that EAL pupils are essentially those who speak a language other than English at home. This is a far from homogeneous group, with some born in the UK and relatively fluent and others very new, with little command of English. Mistry and Sood (2010) point out that the number of pupils with EAL in English schools is increasing, given high levels of immigration from Europe in recent years. For many learners of EAL, language can be a barrier to learning, given that children are leaning English at the same time as as learning through English. In addition, home culture and norms can be very different to those in the school and of peers who are native English speakers (Washbourne, 2011).

It is important to note that EAL students are not the same as students with Special Educational Needs (SEN). This is especially important when assessing pupils.


Source: Washbourne, A. (2011) EAL Pocketbook, page 10

According to Webster (2011:4), EAL children in the UK can be categorised as follows:

  • Pupils born in UK but who speak their own language at home, and English on entry to school.
  • Pupils born in UK who speak their home language but not English on entry to school
  • Pupils newly arrived in the UK speaking languages other than English
  • Pupils in a class in which many others speak their home language(s)
  • Pupils who do not share the language of the teacher
  • Pupils in a class in which everyone else speaks only English.

A number of different terms are used when talking about people who are learning to speak English. Washbourne (2011) provides the following lists. These are useful, given that the provide useful information to teachers about the status of families with regard to their citizenship and right of abode in the UK. People who are refugees or asylum seekers could well have extra stresses and problems in their lives, which could impact of their children.


Source: Wishbourne, A. (2011) Page 11


Source: Wishbourne, A. (2011) Page 12.

Supporting EAL Learners.

For new arrivals in the UK, schools can be intimidating places, given that both the system of education and schools could be very different in terms of the curriculum, teaching styles, societal norms and values, cultural, social and religious issues. These are reflected in the illustrations below.


Source: Wishbourne, A. (2011) Page 21.


Source: Wishbourne, A. (2011) Page 22.


Webster (2011) highlights the fact that Education is a fundamental right, and that support for pupils who have English as an Additional language is and entitlement rather than a need. The Bullock Report (1976) made it clear that no child should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home as he (or she) crosses the school threshold. This recommendation makes it important for schools and teachers to ensure that pupils are offered every opportunity to develop their English language skills. All newly-arrived bilingual learners have a right of access to the National Curriculum, and that provision for newly arrived EAL learners is integrated into all subject areas. Government regards the learning of English as an Additional Language to promote rapid language acquisition as a priority. Thus, “Local Authorities have a legal duty to ensure that education is available for all children of compulsory school age that is appropriate to their age, ability, aptitudes and any special educational needs they may have. This duty applies irrespective of a child’s immigration status, country of origin or rights of residence in a particular area” (Naldic website, accessed 9/2/2013).

EAL Research

EAL research has been carried out in a number of English speaking countries. It is worth looking at some of these projects and their findings.

Cameron et al. (2004) looked at the writing of what they called ‘advanced’ Key Stage 2 EAL learners (that is, those that been in the UK for at least five years). Scripts produced by 264 pupils for the 2003 English National Curriculum Test (Writing) were analysed qualitatively and quantitatively to identify features of writing that EAL pupils handle less confidently than their English as a mother tongue (EMT) peers. The project aimed to:

  • identify key features of language that pupils learning English as an additional language appear to handle less confidently than English mother tongue speakers.
  • analyse these features according to level of ability in English (as measured by national tests).
  • strengthen existing evidence provided by Ofsted research into older pupils’ writing by adding to our understanding of writing development.
  • inform the EAL strand of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Strategy by providing information and guidance on the teaching of bilingual primary and secondary students (by pulling together both pieces of work).

Key Findings were:

  • The best writers at this age, using English as a mother tongue (EMT) or English as an additional language (EAL), were found to employ the resources of English – grammar, vocabulary, direct speech, punctuation, rhetorical features – with flexibility and adaptability to create strong story characters and plots, and effective persuasive writing.
  • However, many EAL learners, even high achieving pupils, handle adaptation to a variety of genres less confidently than their EMT peers.
  • Two features of language show statistically significant differences between EAL and EMT writing: the use of prepositions and the composition of short, fixed phrases. EAL writing contains more errors in both features, which also caused difficulties in writing at KS4.
  • EAL learners write stories that include more metaphors and similes than EMT stories, for pupils achieving both level 4 and level 5. EAL writing at level 5 used most figurative language, with animal metaphors and similes the most popular.
  • Certain features of language are handled less confidently by lower achieving EAL writers. In particular: use of Adverbials, modal verbs, Subject-Verb agreement, verb tenses and endings, and subordinators to link clauses.
  • In many ways, EAL writing at KS2 was more fluent and more accurate than the writing seen at KS4. These differences would seem to be linked to the teaching that the younger children have received through the National Literacy Strategy (page 6).

Other findings

  • Formulaic phrases: EAL learners made a greater number of errors than EMT learners in the use of formulaic phrases (a formulaic phrase is a group of words that are ‘bound’ together, in that certain words must, or tend to be, accompanied, by certain other words, e.g. his best friend rather than his best of all friend). The greatest difference was found in writing by learners attaining level 4, where EAL stories contained significantly more errors than EMT stories.
  • Prepositions: Overall, and at level 3, EAL writing omitted significantly more prepositions than EMT writing. Both EAL and EMT groups at level 3 used some prepositions incorrectly. EMT writing improved in terms of incorrect use between levels 3 and 4; EAL writing at level 4 contained significantly more incorrectly used prepositions. For pupils at level 5, there was no significant difference in numbers of preposition errors.
  • Use of Genres: Expertise in writing requires learners to develop knowledge of a range of genres and how language is used to create the format, style, voice, purpose and stance that characterise a particular genre, combined with skills to select from and adapt language resources as required for the genre. In some ways, EAL learners handled the genres less confidently than their EMT peers, and this seems to become more obvious in the writing of higher achieving pupils, perhaps because they use word and phrase level features more accurately: -Story endings: For the group of pupils attaining level 5, more stories written by EAL learners had endings that were rated as ‘incomplete’, and fewer had endings rated as ‘original’ or ‘creative’ in some way.
  • Narrative components: For the group of pupils attaining level 5,writing by EAL learners developed the story components of Characters, Problem and Resolution less than stories by EMT pupils. Stories by EAL learners did more development of the Setting.
  • Radio advertisements: Adverts written by EAL learners attaining both level 3 and level 5 were less likely to open with a catchy ‘hook’ to attract the attention of listeners. Instead, a full sentence was often used. Adverts by EAL learners attaining level 5 contained less variety in sentence types and vocabulary than those by their EMT peers.
  • Length and paragraphing: Both EAL and EMT learners wrote stories that were usually long enough and, at levels 4 and 5, were making good use of paragraphing.
  • Sentence grammar: The amount of subordination was not significantly different between groups, other than between EAL writing at levels 3 and 4, where the mean for level 4 was significantly higher. However, type of subordination varied, with ‘advanced’ subordinators (while, until, after etc) being used more in EMT writing and by pupils attaining higher levels.
  • Clause structure: EAL learners attaining level 4 overall showed statistically significant differences with EMT peers in their use of clause slots. They used more Subjects that were single nouns x more and shorter Verb phrases x more and longer Objects / Complements x fewer words in Adverbial slots. Put together, these suggest EAL writing at this level uses more short clauses, in which information is concentrated towards the end.
  • Adverbials: In writing by pupils attaining level 3 overall, the mean number of words used in the Adverbial slot in EAL writing was significantly lower than EMT, as with level 4 (above). At both levels 3 and 4, therefore, writing by EAL learners is likely to be including less information about time, place, manner and purpose.
  • Verbs: EAL learners attaining level 5 made some errors with advanced verb tenses that show the relative timing of two events, such as the past perfect tense e.g. he had queued
  • Figurative language: Use of figurative language was limited to a subset of pupils in each group, with more use by higher level groups. EAL stories used more metaphors and similes than EMT stories, for pupils achieving both level 4 and level 5. EAL writing at level 5 used most figurative language.
  • Spelling and punctuation: EAL learners attaining level 4 made significantly fewer spelling errors than their EMT peers. At the other levels, there was no significant difference in spelling or punctuation errors (Pages 8,9).

The findings provided a useful comparison with previous work done by Cameron on KS4 EAL writing.

  • At both KS2 and KS4, the strongest differences (quantitatively) between EAL and EMT writing were found at word and phrase level, in formulaic phrase errors and the use of prepositions.
  • In many ways, KS2 writing was more fluent and more accurate than the writing seen at KS4. Length and paragraphing were better; there were fewer errors with agreements and articles; commas were used more accurately by KS2 EAL writers attaining level 5 than by sixteen year olds predicted A or B in their GCSE English. These improvements would seem to be linked to the teaching that the younger children have received through the National Literacy Strategy.
  • At discourse level, the lower achieving EAL writers at KS4 had more difficulties with handling genre than EMT peers. The narrative genre at KS2 was handled quite confidently, probably because it is the earliest acquired genre for children and in many ways the most basic. However, some EAL writers at KS2 did not adapt their language to the demands of the radio advertisement genre as readily as their EMT peers.
  • Subordination: At KS2 and KS4, lower achieving EAL learners and their EMT peers
  • made less use of advanced subordinators than higher achieving EAL and EMT learners. In addition, higher achieving EAL learners at KS2 used fewer advanced subordinators than EMT learners (Page 9)

Summary of key recommendations.

  • Schools need to ensure that EAL learners have extensive opportunities to encounter and work with a range of genres of written English.
  • EAL learners might be helped with handling formulaic phrases through a focus, across the curriculum, on phrases as whole units rather than only on words.
  • Higher achieving EAL learners could benefit from exposure to, and direct teaching about, more advanced tenses that show the relative times of events, and more advanced subordinators to create more varied sentences.
  • EAL learners, even those attaining level 5, could benefit from noticing different ways in which well-written stories are brought to an end, and from trying out various story ending techniques.
  • Level 3 story writing is characterised by lack of development of narrative components, and both EAL and EMT writers could be helped to increase the amount of development of story setting, characters, and plot, by thinking about the imagined readers of their stories, what they might want to know and how this could be made interesting for them to read.
  • Explicit attention to certain features of language such as modal verbs, Adverbials and prepositional phrases seems especially important for lower achieving EAL writers, who seem less likely to discover the grammatical patterns by themselves than higher achieving EAL learners.
  • Pupils’ individual vocabularies offer a rich resource for classroom activities, since many of the less common words used by individual pupils may not be known or used by others.
  • Figurative language allows some children opportunities to create vivid images in their stories. Some level 4 and 5 EAL writing makes interesting use of figurative language that could be used as a resource for teaching all pupils (Page 10).

Mistry and Sood (2010) used surveys and interviews with teachers and para-professionals (teaching assistants and bilingual assistants) “to obtain a range of perspectives, experiences and perceptions of provision for EAL children of primary school age” (112). The sample consisted of 48 adults – 20 teachers, 20 teaching assistants, 7 SENCOs and one an Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant Coordinator. An interpretivist approach was used.

The focus was on schools which supported EAL children directly or indirectly, together with schools that had little or no direct experience of EAL, to provide a comparison between the extremes. The study investigated the way that schools were addressing the needs of EAL primary pupils in a number of counties in England, focusing on the challenges faced by teachers. Early indications suggested huge differential practice for EAL provision, support and training, with many staff indicating that they were ‘culturally unaware’ and had little experience of supporting EAL children. The authors highlight the key challenge for leaders, being how best to cater for EAL children, using a diverse workforce creatively, and operating within tight financial constraints and competing school priorities.

The authors highlighted the importance of being sensitive to cultural attitudes and languages, taking into account the importance of building effective bridges between the home and school environment so that the home culture can be effectively understood. They cite the work of Lumby & Coleman (2007), highlighting the importance of nurturing interrelationships and the need to be sensitive in all activities and actions in situations where there is a high level of ethnic diversity. The suggestions of Woolfolk et al. (2008: 221), being the need for clear learning goals, guided practice leading to independent practice, engaging tasks, opportunities for interaction and encouragement from the teacher, were recommended. Mistry and Sood make a case for much greater emphasis being placed on encouraging, facilitating and engaging the wider workforce to collaborate on pedagogical, cultural and linguistic debates to ensure that the potential of all pupils is enhanced. Finally, they highlight the importance of schools taking into account the need of EAL children to feel ‘accepted’ for who they are, regardless of race, religion or cultural back-ground, as highlighted by the DfES (2006: 7).

Other findings suggested that senior leadership teams sometimes failed to listen to their staff, because ‘they appear to be so obsessed with their development plan’ (teacher comment) that meeting the needs of EAL children is not a priority and funding is not allocated. They also found that EAL staff were non-existent in white schools, leading to teachers in those schools being‘afraid to have EAL children’ (comment from a TA) in their class because the felt ill-prepared to meet their needs, especially when it comes to the end of key stage tests.

Mistry and Sood conclude that there has to be a holistic approach in developing a sound policy to promote inclusive practice, and within that, the EAL pupil provision has to be of a high quality. The school leaders and their teams have to promote values of equal opportunity to ensure greater sensitivity to varied cultural needs. This has implications for practice in the way support of para-professionals is organised and implemented. In this connection, it is an important priority that teachers, para-professionals and SENCOs require continuous professional development to develop a comprehensive awareness of cultural diversity in the classroom.

Their recommendations from the project included the need for good staff recruitment and retention, high-quality continuous professional development programmes being made available for all staff and the development of leadership at all levels. They concluded by saying that if the needs of EAL children are to be effectively met, schools need to be more inclusive. They highlighted the need for increased efforts to ensure that an adequate level of funding reaches schools to train leaders in managing for and with diversity, to re-evaluate the needs of the teachers and para-professionals and to adequately support their training to better serve the needs of EAL children.

South Africa provides an interesting setting for EAL research as more and more ‘previously disadvantaged’ people take advantage of provisions previously denied them. Kajee (2011) explored the multimodal engagement of EAL students in an undergraduate classroom in Johannesburg, South Africa. She used a social semiotic framework, and constructions of design and identity to make sense of students’ multimodal engagement. The essential context was one of students from previously disadvantaged and (still) under-resourced backgrounds being asked to talk about themselves to their peers. The research reports on presentations done by two students in a class, the way in which they presented themselves as individuals to their peers, and explores how the students “negotiate meaning through multiple modes and materialities, using digital texts and performance as mediating tools”. The author argues that a pedagogy of multiliteracies and multimodality enables students to cross borders and broaden their scope for meaning-making. Essentially, the students chose modern digital tools (powerpoint) to present their native cultures, showing who they were and how they saw themselves as citizens in a more open and democratic post-Apartheid South Africa.


Traditional Xhosa dress.

Beauty came to class dressed in a pair of jeans and a blouse (typical student dress), changing into a traditional skirt made of colourful fabric and beads over her jeans for her presentation. She added several strings of beads around her head, neck and wrists, and across her shoulders, bared her feet and wore her hair was in a short braided style. Beauty also used technology in the form of a PowerPoint programme to create slides and to record sound. Although she was unable to use personal photographs, she searched the Web for images of Johannesburg which, although second hand, she was able to incorporate into her personal story. The borrowed images became representations of her own lived experiences. While Beauty was not technologically trained, it is through digital technology that she was able to reconstruct and redesign her identity.

Kajee highlights the key feature of the presentations as the use of gesture to convey meaning. The study highlights the way in which multimodality enabled students whose first language is not English to make meaning while employing alternative signs and symbols. “Through digital visual image, performance, gesture, dress and voice, they were able to reconstruct their identities as young black South Africans and, through discussion with other students in class, to communicate a sense of their own social world” (251).

The author concludes that “… caught on the cusp of change from a traditional background to a future world dominated by English, they seized the opportunity to interrogate who they are and where they come from. Multimodality, through a paradigm of social semiotics, has the potential to transform the teaching and learning of EAL by providing students with new opportunities for agency and voice. The multimodal environment facilitates the emergence of shared moments of learner participation, negotiation and renegotiation of meaning within the class-room as a community of practice (251).

There are two important aspect of this study. The first is the way in which the teacher demonstrated respect for the cultural background of the students, valuing the contributions in terms of celebrating the use of traditional dress and (in the case of the second student) the ‘performance’ of a self-written African ‘Praise’ style poem about himself. Much of the literature on effective EAL teaching highlights the importance of schools celebrating diversity and going out of their way to demonstrate that the cultures and values of EAL pupils are valued. The second aspect is the way in which technology was embraced by the two students. Neither of the students owned a computer, yet both had seized the opportunity of making use of the resources at the university and to teach themselves how to use Powerpoint. Much of the research on the use of Web 2.0 applications highlights the affordances of digital platforms such as wikis and blogs, these being the facility to use multimodal approaches (text, images, video, photographs) within digital writing platforms.

Kajee highlights the importance of multimodal narratives, saying:

“Through their presentations, the redesigned meaning-making of the students in the present case enabled them to reconstruct, remake and reshape their own social identities as subjective agents of change through acts of language: written, image, gesture, digital and performed. Variability and agency are two significant aspects of design that distinguish it from more traditional approaches to literacy pedagogy… traditional, rule-governed grammar teaching tends to propose a pedagogy of transmission, ignoring agency and subjectivity, the notion of design is the opposite: agency and subjectivity are crucial in shaping social worlds. This, redesigning accommodates Giroux’s notion of border crossings… As teachers of English we need to acknowledge that different communities value skills others than writing alone, and that our students bring with them a repertoire of social histories which shape them. A multimodal approach gives freer reign to students by providing them with the space to engage and interact through their creativity and agency” (250).

An overview of the literature on EAL suggests that schools and teachers face challenges in providing effective support for EAL learners, as increasing numbers of Europeans and other immigrants move to the UK. The greatest impact in terms of children needing EAL, is felt in Britain’s cities. This has resulted in a range of needs for support, with some areas swamped and others remaining largely untouched. Previous assumptions about the rate of acquisition of high level language skills would seem to have overestimated the impact of strategies. Cummins (1979, in Skinner, 2010) explains that while children give the impression of being fluent after two or three years, this is often not the case. He makes a distinction between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), that is, everyday informal English, and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), being more formal academic English, and says that it can take five to seven years for children’s CALP to develop. Faced by increasing numbers of pupils, new strategies need to be developed and trialled and tested and more teachers prepared to deal effectively with EAL pupils.

Skinner (2010) has reported on developments in Northern Ireland, where nearly all pupils, irrespective of their English language competence, are automatically mainstreamed. The policy of withdrawing EAL pupils from class to be taught by specialists from outside has been phased out and the Inclusion and Diversity Service is now training teachers to take a ‘whole school’ approach to the issue. At the moment, a ‘partnership’ exists, where teachers collaborate with EAL staff provided by the Inclusion and Diversity Service in order to implement strategies that support learning. Thus we see a situation where EAL is regarded as a generalist skill required of all teachers, with teachers currently having to ‘learn on the job’. However, some see the expectation of ‘learn on the job’ by adapting their general teaching skills,without specific EAL training, as too ambitious and unlikely to provide the required skills and understanding required to work successfully with EAL pupils .

Skinner cites a range of previous research to contextualise her work. Costa et al. (2005:108, in Skinner 2010) make the point that ‘good instructional practices alone are not enough for students who are trying to learn in a second language’, while Hawkins (2004,:21, n Skinner, 2010) asserts that teachers need to rid themselves of the invalid assumption that if they teach well, this will result in language acquisition and academic achievement. Murakami (2008, in Skinner, 2010) suggests that this approach is grounded in the idea that pupils will just ‘pick it up’ as they go along. Research shows that this language-learning process can be improved when teachers have the knowledge systematically to develop pupils’ awareness of language structure and functions (Ellis 1994, in Skinner, 2010). Robinson (2005, in Skinner, 2010) speaks of teachers who had received no specialist training but had lots of experience of working with EAL pupils. Despite this experience, only some actively developed their pupils’ subject-specific vocabulary and interacted with them in a way which would encourage their oral skills, while the others seemed to find the reason for lack of improvement lay with the pupils rather than with how they were dealing with them. However, in Franson’s (1999, in Skinner 2010) study of teachers who had received initial training and were continuing with it in a professional development capacity, felt confident in how they managed EAL pupils. Murakami (2008:269, in Skinner, 2010) emphasises that ‘learning on the job ‘is inadequate as, even if teachers are attuned to the fact that it is their responsibility to serve both language development and academic needs, “… they are unlikely to base their practice on any ‘real understanding’ of how to concurrently enhance new language and subject matter learning. In other words they can only act upon what they feel is ‘right’ – even though it may fundamentally be wrong”.

Skinner (2010) concludes that, for ITE in Northern Ireland to improve EAL teaching and learning, the structure, content and delivery of the EAL input needs to be looked at. Recommendations are that:

  • All ITE courses should include a compulsory, assessed (e.g. a case study assignment) EAL component. This should centre on EAL pedagogy and strategies (visual aids, eye contact, gesture, facial expression and integration of host culture) which can help build rapport, enhance two-way communication and make a positive contribution to the children’s English language acquisition. Theory underpinning language learning is also recommended as part of such a module, for example, including “Input Hypothesis (Krashen), acculturation (Schumann) and accommodation (Giles and Smith), Cummins’ (1979) work on BICS and CALP and Gardner’s (1972) work on attitudes and motivation (Skinner, 2010:88).
  • Cultural inclusiveness/intercultural awareness training is recommended, possibly across the curriculum. In the same way that prior language knowledge and learning experience are believed to facilitate the acquisition of additional languages (De Angelis 2007, in Skinner, 2010), so “prior exposure to multilingual diversity may lead to a more positive attitude when working with pupils whose first language is not English. It is suggested that pre-service teachers be exposed to diversity through other curriculum areas, such as foreign language experience, community links, international departments in higher education settings and careful examination of multicultural education and assessed work focused on culturally diverse pupils. Commins and Miramontes (2006, in Skinner, 2010) suggest an EAL component to steer pre-service teachers away from being worried about teaching EAL pupils. To achieve this, they need to understand the importance of celebrating and reflect upon the cultural diversity which exists in classrooms of today. Staff in all main strands of ITE should accommodate this.
  • An optional module/certificate could be made available on each of these courses for those interested in developing EAL knowledge. It should be recognised that gaining an extra qualification like this can enhance employability. The Inclusion and Diversity Service should consider complement their in-service training “by providing specific training appropriate for new teachers in their first and second years of teaching and by working closely with the providers of ITE who may wish to use their expertise (Skinner, 2010:88).

Teaching EAL

Webster (2011) suggests that it is important for teachers to know the variety of languages an EAL pupils can speak in addition to English so as to evaluate their capabilities. Active use of two languages can have a positive effect on learning in general (Baker and Hornberger, 2001:41 – in Webster 2011). This is because knowing how well a pupil speaks and writes in his or her home language enables one to decide on how much English input they need, especially if the pupil’s first language has a different alphabet. Webster suggests that it is best not to assume that pupil will have difficulty learning English simply because they are new to it, because pupils who speak two or three other languages demonstrate a clear ability to learn other languages and usually have good meta-cognition.

Webster (2011) cites research by Cummins (1979) and Baker (2007) as indicating that it takes two years to master basic language and five to seven years to become proficient in more complex nuances of English. Exposed to English, EAL pupils can improve their knowledge of the language and be able to communicate what they need on a daily basis from watching and discussing TV shows, sport and things of general interest, but it will take longer for them to be able to evaluate, analyse, criticise, pursuade and describe with evidence in English.

Webster suggests that there are four levels of capability, which are useful in assessing EAL capability.

Stage 1 – survival language and phrases, little experience of English language

Where is the toilet?
Pass the ball/pen/cup/salt
Please / thank you
Can I have
Swear words
What is that?

Stage 2 – basic sentences that can be understood but may not always be grammatically correct. Vocabulary is extended and there is general communication about things of interest.

Discussion about football,music, etc,
Answering simple questions in class
Some basic ability to justify their opinion about mathematical or scientific findings
Correct use of some technical vocabulary
Ability to describe family and friends and events
Can copy-writing and write basic sentences.

Stage 3 – usually a pupil who has lived in the UK for a while. Able to express some abstract thought.

Answering complex questions in class that require a justification of an explanation
Writing a persuasive argument and taking part in a debate
Understanding the task in the lesson without it having to have it explained again by the teacher
Describing something that they might not have had much (if any) experience of, such as a tube/train ride or the path of a river from its source to its mouth.

Stage 4 – able to communicate as well or even better than a native English speaker of the same biological age. Can converse in jokes and understand cultural conventions of the UK. Being able to understand a joke can be quite difficult for a person learning a language because jokes are often related to a shared culture and requires an understanding of nuanced language.


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
And his winter wasn’t bad either! (Page 5,6)

A child who has not progressed through these stages in a suitable time frame (five years) is likely to need additional support. This could be due to a number of things – poor language ability in his or her home language or a special learning need such as dyslexia. Webster suggests that a diagnostic test in their home language might be appropriate.

Approaches to teaching EAL.

There are two main approaches to the way that EAL is taught, being the immersion and bilingualism approaches. Cummins (2000:34) suggests that children acquire fluency in English when totally immersed and exposed to it. Others favour bilingualism, where both languages are taught sequentially, because it celebrates both languages equally. In some countries (Luxembourg, Philippines), bilingualism is the norm for all pupils. In others, (Canada, New Zealand) it is at the request of the parents.

In 2001, Ofsted analysed both approaches in England and concluded that good quality teaching and learning happened because of good-quality joint working between EAL staff in mainstream schools. Withdrawal of pupils, which is a customary method with the bilingual approach, was less successful than provision in class.

Speed of development.

The speed of acquisition depends on a number of factors, one being how efficient children are in their mother tongue (Cummins, in Webster). This is known as developmental independence, where the development of the second language is dependent on the on efficacy of first language. For example, if the child does not know the names of colours or numbers in the home language, he or she could have difficulty learning them in English. Likewise, if children are able to read and write fluently in in their home language, it should not take long to become fluent in English. High expectations from teachers also has a positive effect on children’s learning.

Baker (2001) believes that the rate of learning is affected by social factors and social interaction rather than proficiency in the mother tongue. Thus, children can be fluent in English if they are proficient in all areas of oracy and literacy – listening, speaking, reading and writing. Of these, listening and reading are regarded as receptive, and speaking and writing as productive. All of these areas need to be taught and learnt in the new language. Fluency is achieved when people are proficient in all areas. To become fluent, learners need opportunities for social interaction and some linguistic input in the language. Without such opportunities to interact with the language, the rate of fluency development is likely to be slower.

Washbourne adds that the time taken to learn an additional language also includes factors like age, attitude, personality, motivation, aptitude, the learning environment, together with the level of fluency in the hope language as emphasised by Cummins. She provides a useful diagram comparing native English and EAL learners acquisition rates of conversational and academic language proficiency (page 14). However, she makes the important point that fluency in spoken English may well mask continued needs in understanding and using more academic forms of English.


Source: Washbourne, A. (2011) EAL Pocketbook. Page 14.

Supporting EAL learners in the multilingual classroom.

Baker suggests two routes to fluency – simultaneous and sequential. Simultaneous routes involve learning two languages together while sequential involves learning one after another. Cummins says that English can be taught using either method, but that children need guidance, especially if the strategy is immersion. Children need experience of particular skills, namely Basic Interpersonal Communication (BIC), and Cognitive/Active Language Proficiency (CALP), to become fluent multilingual speakers.

BIC involves activities such as chatting about things learners have in in common (TV and sport) and organizational language such as instructions.

CALP is where the learner uses language for reflection, evaluation and analysis. CALP involves the higher order thinking that we are trying to encourage in the classroom.


Source: Webster, M. (2011) Creative Activities and Ideas for Pupils with EAL. Page 9

This diagram (Webster, M. 2011:9) shows how children learn CALP and BIC skills and is an accepted way of looking at how to cognitively develop children learning through the immersion method. To achieve CALP, we need to provide activities which fit into the B quadrant. This means that the child understands what to do and how to do something, but finds it challenging on a cognitive and academic level. To achieve BIC, the task only needs to fit in the A quadrant. According to Webster, children need experience of both to achieve fluency in a new language. Furthermore, BIC and CALP should be see of equal value, each having its own set of skills with their own set of challenges to master. Tasks in quadrant B are very difficult, given that it is difficult to understand what is required without a clear context. Webster suggests that too many classroom tasks are of this nature. The challenge to teachers is to find an authentic context when teaching abstract themes. According to Cummins and Baker’s work, it takes between two and seven years for EAL children to reach the same level of proficiency as an English speaking child when their work is context embedded. Without relevant contexts, the task takes between five and ten years.

Using Cummins’ framework

To support EAL children effectively, teachers need to be sensitive to the cognitive demands of a task and to provide relevant contextual support so that the child is aware of what is to be learnt and how to achieve the learning. The figure below illustrates the kinds of activities involved.


Source: Webster, M. (2011) Creative Activities and Ideas for Pupils with EAL. Page 10.

Webster says that higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are considered to be CALP skills because they use subtle language skills. However, because they can be fairly abstract, we need the teaching and learning to be context embedded to support the child to develop the skills. Thus, the learning and teaching needs to be embedded in quadrant B. Other examples from sector B include:

  • Explanation and justification
  • Solution seeking, problem solving
  • Dramatic stories – reading and writing
  • Role play
  • Simple measuring skills
  • Giving instructions
  • Small group work
  • Turn taking
  • Demonstration
  • One-to-one work with a teacher or pupil
  • Interactive teaching techniques
  • Mixed ability groupings
  • Discussion
  • Jigsaws
  • Matching words with pictures and translations
  • Word webs about class topics
  • Journal writing

Webster (2011:11) highlights the importance of effective scaffolding to move children from learning with support (SB) to learning without support (SD). The activities in quadrant B serve to provide a platform for pupil transition to the more cognitively demanding but context reduced quadrant D, where the following abilities need to be evidenced.

  • Reflection
  • Discussion ways in which language is written
  • Relating new information that is read
  • Reading a book and discussing its content
  • Listening to news items
  • Matching words
  • Spelling tests without definitions
  • Definition of English words without translations
  • Interviewing a person or watching an interview
  • Tests and examinations.

(Webster, M. 2011:11)

Webster provides useful strategies for ensuring that learning is context embedded and cognitively demanding.

  • Provide plenty of visual cues
  • Be expressive when you teach
  • Usa a bilingual dictionary
  • Differentiate with mixed-ability groupings,
  • Put EAL pupils in the middle
  • Use mixed ability talk partners
  • Take multiple intelligences into account
  • Use repetitive language
  • Label everything!
  • Find time for one0to-one communication
  • Celebrate differences – their language, their culture
  • Let them be! (provide rest time)Webster (2011:12,13,14.)

References –

Journal articles

Cameron, L. & Besser, S. (2004) Writing in English as an Additional Language at Key Stage 2. Department for Education and Skills (Research Report RR586).

Kajee, L. (2011) Multimodal representations of identity in the English-as-an-additional-language classroom in South Africa. Language, Culture and Curriculum Vol. 24, No. 3, 241–252.

Mistry, M. & Sood, K. (2010) English as an Additional Language: Assumptions and Challenges. Management in Education 24(3) 111-114.

Skinner, B. (2010) English as an Additional Language and initial teacher education: views and experiences from Northern Ireland. Journal of Education for Teaching: International research and pedagogy.


chris-pimPim, C. (2012) 100 Ideas for Supporting Learners with EAL. Continuum. London.


Scott, C. (2009) Teaching Children English as an Additional Language. A programme for 7-11 year olds. David Fulton, London

Alice WashbourneWashbourne, A. (2011) EAL Pocketbook. Teachers’ Pocketbooks.

Maggie Webster

Webster, M. (2011) Creative Activities and Ideas for Pupils with English as an Additional Language. Longman, London.

Other sources:

Traditional Xhosa dress picture from Yizakubona.
Traditional Zulu dress.


Graf, M. (2011) Including and Supporting Learners of English as an Additional Language.  Continuum.
Van Patten, B. & Williams, J. (2007)(Eds.) Theories in Second Language Acquisition – An Introduction. Routledge.

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New Literacies and their affordances

What are the conditions of life for our students in the era of the new, digital media? To return to and extend our earlier argument, as well as being vicarious viewers of movies, today’s learners also play computer games in which they are the central character and in which their actions and identities in part determine narrative outcomes. They do not just listen to the top forty songs on a play list constructed by the radio station’s play list; they create their own playlists on their personal listening devices. They are not only consumers of broadcast television, but also cruise across thousands of television channels and millions of YouTube clips; or they make their own videos and upload them to the web. And rather than reading and writing being separate activities, as often as not, they are positioned as writers at the same time that they are also readers in today’s writing experiences—in wikis, blogs, Facebook or MySpace, instant messaging, SMS or Twitter. Traditional relationships of culture, knowledge and learning are profoundly disrupted, and even the terms of the either/or differentiations we have hitherto ascribed to these relationships: creator/audience, producer/consumer, and writer/reader. These old distinctions have all become blurred. The key to these changes is an intensified cognitive and practical input on the part of previously more passive recipients of culture and knowledge, a shift in the direction of the flows of knowledge and culture, a transformation in the balance of creative and epistemic agency.

Kalantzis and Cope (2012) New Media Literacies.


In the past, the term ‘literacy’ referred simply to the ability to read and write, the medium of these processes being paper. However, technological changes have developed a range of new ways of reading and writing, using digital mediums which are radically different from traditional paper-based ones. The idea of a discrete ‘digital literacies’ and the need to look at the notion of ‘literacy’ afresh, developed from this.

Early discussions about ‘digital literacy” by people like Gilster emphasised the need to take an ‘inclusive’ view of literacy in a way that allowed the inclusion of traditional ‘print’ literacies. This is useful, given that paper and screen based mediums exist in tandem and complement one another. This being the case, the early use of the terms ‘digital literacy’ and ‘digital literacies’ extended to literacy in the digital age. However, more recent discussion focuses specifically on digitally generated texts and the way in which ongoing developments drive changes in the way we engage with one another. It is worthwhile looking at the special affordances they provide and the challenges they present.

The diagram below (Futurelab) identifies eight main issues which we need to take into account when looking at the concept.

digital literact futurelab

Prensky’s paper entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001) highlighting the ease with which those exposed to digital devices at an early age embraced them. As early as 2004, Evans noted that young people were “initiating, appropriating and establishing changes to literacy practices in a fast and furious manner. These changes, using the ground-breaking and rapidly developing technological advances of this new century, mean that young children and the youth culture of today are living their lives with and through the aid of digital technology.”

Buckingham, (2007), a media specialist, reported similarly, stating that children were using digital mediums more often and that the Internet, computer games, digital video, mobile phones and other contemporary technologies were providing them with new ways of representing the world. He noted that these tools facilitated opportunities for children’s imaginative self-expression and play, serving as a medium through which intimate personal relationships were being conducted. Outside school, he says, children are engaging with these media, not simply as technologies but as cultural forms. Buckingham challenges educators to take note of this, so as to be in a position to provide students with the means to understanding them fully and to use them appropriately. For Buckingham, this is what digital literacy in the classroom is about.

Lankshear and Knobel (2008) point out that just as we we need to understand that ‘literacy’ involves particular kinds of texts and particular ways of reading that vary enormously, (comics, books, poems, legal briefs, technical manuals, newspaper and academic articles requiring different backgrounds and skills to be read with understanding), the same applies to digitally mediated literacies, which involve a wide range of social practices and conceptions of engaging in meaning making. Digitally generated texts are represented by a wide range of genres, including blogs, video, texting (SMS), instant messaging, online social network pages, discussion forums, Internet memes, FAQs, and online search results.

Jones and Hafner (2012) also note that reading and writing are increasingly mediated by digital devices, characterised by “new literacy practices, shaped by the affordances and constraints of digital tools” (35). They highlight important differences between traditional and new mediums. For instance, while most books are designed to be read from front to back in a linear fashion, digital sources are not – they are generally more interactive, provide the ability to move about the source in a non-sequential way by using hyperlinks, based on the reader’s own choices. This allows readers to play a more active part in reading than is the case in traditional print-based media. Furthermore, digital texts provide a multimedia approach to reading, providing images, video and audio resources to support the text. These are characteristics of what we call multimodal texts. Jones and Hafner say that this enables us, both as readers and writers, “to interact with texts in ways that were previously difficult or impossible” (35). For instance, it is easier to contact the author to point out errors via email or the comment facility and, in some cases, to annotate the texts we read and engage in conversations with other readers. These new affordances, say Jones and Hafner (2012:36), “have required people to rethink their understanding of reading and writing, refine their ideas about what a reader is, and adopt new practices in reading and writing.” This does not mean that the reader takes total control of the hypertext reading experience, as the creator of the text determines the links, thus providing limits to our reading. This being the case, warns Burbules (1998: in Jones and Hafner, 39) we need to ensure that we are critical when interpreting links in hypertext, asking questions about the associations the writer is making, those the writer is not making and the assumptions and biases that these reveal.

Modes of meaning - literacy

Kalantzis and Cope (2012), in their book Literacies, identify seven modes of meaning in their discussion of multimodal theory. The graphic above provides a representation of these.

  • Written meaning – writing, and reading
  • Visual meaning – making still and video images
  • Spatial meaning – positioning oneself in relation to others, creating spaces and ways of moving around in spaces
  • Tactile meaning – making experiences of things that can be felt in terms of touch, smell, taste
  • Gestural meaning – communication through movements of the body, hands, arms, facial expressions, eye-movement, demeanor, gait, clothing and fashion, hairstyle… (see Multimodal representations of identity in the English-as-an-additional-language classroom in South Africa for examples of these modalities)
  • Audio meaning – communication that uses music, ambient sounds, noises, alerts, hearing and listening
  • Oral meaning – communication in form of live or recorded speech.

Clearly, digital technologies are able to represent a good number of these, but not all – yet!

Jones and Hafner also draw attention to Ong (1996) and Wolf (2007), who have highlighted the point that the development of writing helped to change the way we think, freeing us up to engage in abstract reasoning as opposed to memorising facts. Today we believe that learning to read results in physiological changes to the brains of children, with learning to read additional languages enabling other changes. On a recent BBC2 television programme (Dara O’Brien’s Science Club, episode 5), the idea was raised that no longer needing to remember telephone numbers provides similar freedom for the brain to do other things. Jones and Hafner ask whether it is reasonable to ask whether the shift to reading hypertext could result in cognitive changes.

Research by Rowlands et al. (Jones and Hafner, 40) suggests that early exposure to hypertext helped participants to develop “good parallel processing skills needed to move efficiently from one document to another”. However, there is concern that this can impact negatively on the sequential processing skills required to understand the logical progression of longer narratives. Carr, (2011, in Jones and Hafner, 40) suggests that “reading hypertext may compromise our ability to read conventional texts and follow complex arguments”, with the stimulus of moving between documents short circuiting “both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively”. However, Pinker (2010) suggests that such distractions have always been present and that we have developed ways of dealing with them. His claim is that “the ability to reason and follow logical arguments does not come from the media we use, … but from effort and education” (Jones and Hafner, 40).

Wheeler, (2012: 15) provides a useful overview of digital literacies, which he describes as ‘widely disruptive’. “…new media and digital technologies offer new opportunities for learning, yet the disruptive nature of these tools and the seismic changes that they bring require us to conceive an entirely new set of literacies.”  Importantly, he emphasises the idea that digital literacy is NOT about skills or competencies, but rather about ‘cultural engagement’, which I would take to involve a good understanding of the digital world around us and how to operate successfully within it. Wheeler identifies nine key digital literacies:

  •  social networking
  • transliteracy (ability to operate across a wide range of digital platforms)
  • maintaining privacy (staying safe online)
  • managing identity (using multiple online identities)
  • creating content (eg – blogs, participating on wikis, discussion groups)
  • organising and sharing content (posting to different platforms, saving and collating information online)
  • reusing/repurposing content (mashing, mixing)
  • filtering and selecting content (finding, saving content in ways which enable us to find it easily)
  • self broadcasting (sharing one’s own content with others across different platforms).

A diagrammatic representation of Wheeler’s ideas. Paul, M. (2012)

Most of these aspects are expanded upon below, albeit under different descriptors.

Blogs and Blogging.

Blogging is an easy and effective way to generate, save and  share content. Rebecca Blood, an early analyst of blogging, regards blogs as the first native genre of the internet, given that they have no clear predecessor in print-based media. Jones and Hafner suggest that blogs draw on the communicative affordances of digital media in a way that has created something unique and that they can teach us a lot about new practices of reading and writing hypertext. The subject matter covered by blogs varies greatly, being created and maintained for very different reasons. These include personal diaries/journals, alternate takes on the news and events, critiques of mainstream broadcasting and news events (news watch), commercial practices of various kinds, personal views on politics, marketing, archiving, images (photo blogs, video blogs, audio blogs), augmenting hobbies and pastimes (collections, techno-gadgetry, sport, genealogy, fanzines, travel journals educational tools, for delivering content, as class diaries, and for reflecting on practice. Lankshear and Knobel (2008) suggest that the diversity of weblogs and weblogging practices cautions against conceiving blogging as a specific singular type of writing.

Blogging software provide an easy to use editor and a range of attractive templates for writers to choose from. Further choices are provided in respect to add ons in the form of blog rolls (links to the blog sits of others), links to Flickr sites and so on. The structure of blogs is unique, in that ‘posts’ are displayed in reverse chronological order. Hyperlinks play a major part, allowing bloggers to provide evidence of their claims in the form of newspaper and other online articles. Internal links are also possible, with links to one’s own earlier posts. Perhaps most important is the comment feature, which allows readers to enter into a dialogue with the author or one another. In many cases, the comments provide a more interesting discussion than the original blog post.

Jones and Hafner (2012) suggest that blogs show that digital media has changed in ways that people think about the practice of reading and writing, with bloggers seeing them as interlinked, with the one feeding into the other. Furthermore, publishing a post is not the end of the line as in the case of a printed article, but a part of a process where comments by readers provide an ongoing conversation. An important aspect of digital media is that they are “always evolving and always unfinished” (Jones and Hafner, 42).

Bloggers and tweeters have, in the past, considered themselves above the law, resulting is a series of libel suits. The recent Leveson inquiry has made it clear that they need to adhere to the same standards as traditional media organisations. However, there is now a realisation that the law has been overzealous in the past, as in the case of Paul Chambers, who was successfully prosecuted for his joke tweet about Doncaster airport. Recently, Keri Starmer said that the law would in all likelihood take age into account over abusive posts, except in the case of sustained attacks by internet ‘trolls’. (The Times, 18/12/12) or excessively offensive online behaviour.

Mashups and Remixing.

Another interesting aspect of digital narratives is the ease with which content can be mashed and remixed. Mashing refers to the ability to take an original artifact and change it so as to add value in some way. For instance, the popular practice of combining two or more songs to create a new one which is very different from the originals, or to combine web resources in such a way as to make something new and useful, as done by combining a map with photographs to show where thy were taken. Remixing usually refers to changing an original artifact into something unique and different, be it a ‘remix’ of a song (think about the two different versions of Eric Clapton’s song Layla) or a ‘re-interpretation’ of a photograph. The photographs below are examples. The second photography has been edited (remixed) to provide a more striking image, highlighting the curve of the London Eye. The final photograph is a mashup – where an image has been superimposed on another to provide a more impact.


Original photograph. Copyright JRM Paul


Edited image (remix) Copyright JRM Paul

Red Arrows

Mashup, using superimposed compass over original image. Copyright JRM Paul

What is important here is that editing digital mediums is very much easier and cheaper than mediums that came before. This means that more people are in a position to enjoy working with these mediums, including children. Digital still and video capability is built into most mobile phones, as are sound recorders. Both image and audio editing suites are affordable.

Intellectual property, ownership and copyright issues.

In academic circles, the practice of acknowledging sources of information by citing and referencing is well established. However, the ease with which digital sources can be copied and pasted leads in many cases to situations where work submitted by students “reads like a patchwork of online articles cut and pasted into their assignment without any proper form of attribution” (Jones and Hafner, 45). This is further complicated by the fact that software like Turnitin identify one’s own previous work as a source and mark it as possible plagiarism, making it necessary to reference one’s own previous work.

In the commercial world of music and photography, some see remixing as theft which deprives them of income from their work, notwithstanding that others might see the new product as distinctly different. For example, Hitler film parodies on YouTube could well be seen as breaching copyright rules, but have not resulted an any legal action to date. However, one needs to be extremely careful when  targeting individuals, as an executive of BNP Paribas found out.  Lankshear and Knobel make the point that different people read and interpret the same text in different ways, with some unable to make sense of texts that others handle with ease. The same applies to photoshopped images, which are taken literally by some, but simply as absurd remixes of images by others with a better understanding of the medium. Lessing (in Jones and Hafner, 46) suggests that remixes and mashups are more than simple copying, requiring “a creative reworking … so that when it is placed in the new context and mixed up with texts from with other sources it takes on a new meaning or significance.”

Mikhail Bakhtin (1986:89), cited by Jones and Hafner, (45) points out that texts are “filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of our-ownness”. The essential issue here is that there is no true original version of anything and that we necessarily build on the ideas of others. Lessing argues that the “law acts to constrain creativity and the development of culture, by unnecessarily limiting the extent to which people are free to build on the work of others” and that people have less freedom to borrow and build on the creative works of the Disney Corporation in the way its founder borrowed to build on the creative works of others.” This notwithstanding, mashing and remixing are very common forms of creativity on the web.

Lessing is the person responsible for the Creative Commons licensing system, whereby owners can indicate to others clear terms under which their material can be used. Creative Commons copyright is often seen on blogs, wikis and photo sharing sites like Flickr. This image can be used by anyone as long as it is attributed to the owner, is not used for commercial purposes and is not used in a derivative form – that is, no mashing.

Micro blogging and texting.

There are a wide range of other ‘new’ literacies based on text, such as texting, email, messaging and micro-blogging, What is particularly interesting about these is the form they take – essentially short bursts of words, in most cases using platforms which are asynchronous. These platforms are extremely popular, notwithstanding the fact that they do not take advantage of the ‘rich’ multimedia affordances (images, audio, video) that other digital technologies offer.

Written language remains our primary communication tool in online environments (Jones and Hafner). Some forms of writing like texting, which is very popular with young people, generate controversy given that users make use of non-standard grammar, spelling and abbreviations, generating accusations that the use of computer mediated communication systems has resulted in children’s writing becoming substandard and impoverished. The original over-reaction about such language has largely been debunked by writers such as David Crystal, who has shown that claims that children can no longer write, with allegations of ‘text speech’ common in GCSE exams, cannot be substantiated. Crystal shows clearly that children are aware of the difference between traditional writing and informal writing, where interesting and creative new forms of language, driven by the limitations of 140 characters, are used appropriately, adding to the richness of our language rather than destroying it.

Jones and Hafner point out that while these short messaging forms might lack the rich cues of face to face conversations and the affordances of richer digital systems, users of sms and other short messaging systems have developed ways in which to limit these shortcomings. These include the use of abbreviations, non-standard typography and spelling and emoticons. Furthermore, they point out that these do more than simply substitute for “the kinds of cues we use in face-to-face conversations” (70) and that we cannot assume that “there is a more or less one-to-one correspondence between emoticons and facial expressions and between certain forms of non-standard spelling and actual speech” (70) Thus, while systems of emoticons and typography draw on facial expressions and phonology “they are not simple replications of these systems in writing. They are systems in their own right, with their own conventions and their own sets of affordances and constraints” (70).

Jones and Hafner contest the oft held belief that text based digital communications are an ‘imperfect replica’ of transitional modes of communication and that claims that they lack richness are based on a false deficit model of analysis. People do very different things with text based digital communication than in normal written or verbal conversations, Additionally, simple sms type digital communication has resulted in a wide range of new interactions which were not possible up till now.

The story goes that the developer of Blogger, Evan Williams, tried to ‘add value’ to the blogging experience by developing audio blogging, by which bloggers could make their posts ‘more expressive’ by embedding recordings of their own voices. There are a number of apps which enable one to do this easily, including Audio Boo. However, the idea of audio blogging has never really taken off. Nor have other ‘rich’ media approaches. Jones and Hafner (73), point out that even though computers come standard with webcams and most IM clients, and that video chat is supported by many social networking clients, “very few people actually engage in this form of interaction.” However, another development by Williams, the micro-blogging platform Twitter, which limits a post to 140 characters, has proved extremely successful in spite of it providing little in the way of richness that other digital media provide.

The reason for the success of Twitter and other ‘impoverished’ media like sms is that of transactional costs – essentially, the effort and hassle involved in transacting or sharing information. The richer the medium, the higher the transactional costs involved, given that we have to attend to more modes while engaging with others. A face to face conversation involves a wide range of niceties – small talk, showing interest and attention, ensuring that our gestures, facial expressions and voice quality are appropriate and that our responses are delivered within the time frame expected by the person we are talking to. A text based communication, be it a message (sms) or a tweet, cuts across these demands, enabling us to concentrate of the essential message (which could include taking more time to consider how replies or questions are framed) and enables us to do other things (multitasking) at the same time.

There are other reasons for the popularity of tweeting and sms. For young people, it provides a way of communicating with friends without their parents listening in. Low cost interaction via sms and Twitter also provide new affordances – “increased opportunities for monomodal communications using only text” (Jones and Hafner, 2012:74) which support the ability to communicate and maintain relationships more regularly but in less detailed ways. Low transaction cost mechanisms support sharing of thoughts, feelings and ideas. Jones and Hafner suggest that what people are mostly doing when they share is less a matter of transacting information as maintaining connections with friends – doing friendship.

18h40 Cheesecake: hihi

19h08 Snowbread: wowo

21:33 Cheesecake: kaka~~~

23h05 Snowbread: ~^.^~

This series of interchanges between two friends, according to Jones and Hafner (74), is not a real conversation but a process of maintaining a virtual connection, as suggested by earlier work by Berg, Taylor and Harper (2005), in which they identified young people’s text messages to one another not so much as an exchange information but rather as the exchange of tokens of friendship

In others ways, low cost texting is also instrumental and efficient – asking a partner to pick up a packet of sugar, informing a friend that one will be late, telling the boss that a report has been completed. Before texting, doing these interactions involved long and complicated phone conversations and a trip down the corridor and knocking on the boss’s door.

The limitations of getting a message across in 140 or so characters has already been seen to force users to be creative and imaginative in terms of using emoticons, short forms and newly created words. In an innovative experiment by the University of Iowa, applicants for the School of Business were told to submit admissions essays in tweet form, with the promise of a scholarship for the most creative effort. The winner submitted a haiku, “creatively combining one of the newest forms of communication with one of the oldest forms” (Snee, 2011 – in Jones and Hafner, 78).

Digital Identities.

Another affordance of text-based digital communications is the facilitation of new identities, by which people can ‘assume’ new personas. There are a range of reasons for this – avoiding identification, acting out a different role to the one we use in real life and to comment on our lives from behind a mask, rather like a clown, actor or puppeteer does. Often, people will join a service not knowing quite what to expect, and will use an assumed identity while they test the waters. Avatars and false identities abound on the web. We see people describing their lives while using the persona of a fish (Twitter feed Erica’s Fish @ericasfish), or other domestic creature. These false personas are often transparent, but this is not always the case, as indicated by this well known cartoon.


Erica's FishErica’s Fish ‏@ericasfish

I will be featured in 2 books! That sound you hear is the human sobbing over her English degree.

18 Jul 11Erica's FishErica’s Fish ‏@ericasfish

Homeowner Association mtg = disaster. 5th proposal for bowl upgrade denied. Why’d I vote for the cat for HOA president. WHY.

20 May 11Erica's FishErica’s Fish ‏@ericasfish

Dear @amychua – My mother tried to eat me while I was encased in an egg. Frankly I find your tiger parenting a bit wimpy.

25 Apr 11Erica's FishErica’s Fish ‏@ericasfish

The cat is asleep with a paw on her face. She is a heap of dumbness, mesmerizing and beautiful.

These trans-personalisations allow people to analyse and comment on  themselves and their world from another perspective.   There are aspects of this kind of behaviour which can be dangerous, as in cases of old men masquerading as young men or even women, so as to create digital relationships (and possibly physical ones) with others, which could make the target of these relationships vulnerable. However, deception and harassment are not always the case and Turkle (1965 – in Jones and Hafner, 79) suggests that young people can use ‘identity play’ to ‘try on’ different kinds of identity in the safety of their own homes. People who engage in such text-based identity play are not necessarily pretending to be someone else but exploring different aspects of the ‘real life’ identities, as in the case of Erica’s Fish, where Erica “is communicating about herself, what happens to her and how she feels about it through her fish.” This is a case of a person using identity play to look at and comment on her life from a very different perspective – “a process which helps her to share different aspects of herself with her followers” and to reflect on her life and activities in a different (and perhaps creative) way. More importantly, suggest Jones and Hafner, is the way it helps to use different styles of writing and inventing screen names, message signatures and by aligning themselves to different groups and communities by using different social language.

Managing Content.

Managing the wealth of information online effectively so as to be able to find it at a later date can be a challenge. A good number of people rely on the use of their browser’s ‘Favourites’ or ‘Bookmarks’ feature. While these work for often used links, they are far from adequate when saving a large number of articles on a variety of topics which are returned to from time to time. For instance, a blogger writing about an issue such as police brutality and corruption will need to save articles as they are reported to use at some later date. Arranging these effectively in, for instance, folders, takes a good deal of time and effort. Social bookmarking applications like Delicious and Diigo are far more effective for this kind of resource management, providing a simple click on link to save the article. Finding the relevant and related articles is made easy by the process of using one’s own system of ‘tags’  – simple words and phrases (UK, police, policing, Met, police brutality, corruption, fraud, set-up, manufactured evidence, lies, deceit) which one remembers easily. When looking for articles relevant to these posts, one need only put in the most commonly used tag(s) (police, UK) to bring all the sources up. Tagging us widely used in web 2.0 applications, including blogs like this one.


We see that the term digital literacy has two distinct meanings. The first refers to an overall understanding of the digital world in which we live and the impact that digital technologies have on the way our society, its institutions and ourselves individuals.  The second refers more specifically to the applications and devices we use to create and share information – that is, to ‘write’ and ‘read’ using digitally mediated mediums. What emerges from this is the power of the participatory read/write web, where we share a wide range of information via blogs and wikis,  Twitter, YouTube or photosharing services like Flickr, Instagram, EyeEm, Starmatic or Hipstamatic. New Media/Literacies are about being creative and sharing information on the public space.  In many respects, this space is akin to the Wild West, where participants make up their own laws as they go along. And like the wild west, dangers abound. The greatest of these is probably access the the information that we do not intend to give away – the personal data that we use to sign up for services and which the bandits of the internet abuse in a range of ways, including selling off contact information to touts who use it for marketing purposes and criminals who abuse it by stealing our identities and/or money. Other organizations, including Facebook, annex our information and resources and treat it as their own, using byzantine methods to keep their dealings secret from customers.  As this moment, the Facebook owned photo service Instagram is attempting to back down from its recent declaration that photos taken and shared using their service will henceforth be regarded as their property. At the same time, international debates are taking place which could see the world wide web regulated to a far greater extent. What is particularly worrying is that oppressive regimes are leading the call for this regulation, with themselves as the chief regulators. Quite how all these issues will be resolved is not clear. However, users of the web need to realise that united action might soon need to be taken if the freedom of the web as we know it is to be maintained. The affordances of new literacies, together with the web in terms of the ability to reach a large number of people quickly has already been used successfully to express the public will and ensure that people like Gary McKinnon was not extradited to the USA. Pressure groups active in the UK include 38 Degrees and Avaaz.

These concerns notwithstanding, the use of the wide range of Web 2.0 applications provides us with a range of powerful tools with which to create and share information, be it textual, visual, audial or, as is ofter the case, a combination of these in the form of multimedia presentations. We have seen that these applications enables us to be creative and that they appeal to and are regularly used by younger people. We also see that there is a divide between the ways in which younger people use these technologies at home and at school, with home use generally providing greater opportunities for creating and consuming information. This situation poses challenges which schools need to face.


Buckingham, D. (2007) Beyond Technology: children’s learning in the age of digital culture. Polity Press, Cambridge.

Evans, J. (2004) Literacy Moves On. Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Primary Classroom. David Fulton.

Futurelab. (2010) Digital literacy across the curriculum.

Hafner, C. & Jones, R. (2012) Understanding Digital Literacies. A practical introduction.

Kalantzis & Cope (2012) Literacies. Cambridge University Press.

Kalantzis & Cope (2012) New Learning. Transitional designs for pedagogy and assessment.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (Eds.) (2008) Digital Literacies. Concepts, Policies and Practices. Peter Lang, New York.

Wheeler, S. (2012) Digital Literacies for Engagement in Emerging Online Cultures. eLC Research Paper Series, 5, 14-25.

Other useful articles.

Disruption can be good. José Picardo, Network.Ed blog, 12/5/2012.

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Digital narratives: Telling stories using digital media.

Jacob, a twelve-year old boy, shows me his latest video production: a skateboarding DVD. The title of the DVD, Get Out, refers to a sequence in the video when the skate boarders are chased away from the site where they practice their tricks. The DVD is presented with a printed covering, designed by Jacob, complete with his company name, Mimic Films. Playing the DVD reveals a stylised menu accompanied by the sound of skateboard wheels on pavement. As I click through the menu options, I am able to view carefully edited movies of Jacob and his friends… (Willett, R. 2009:13)

Digital cameras, be they still or video, have revolutionised the art of photography and movie making. Images captured digitally can be seen immediately, then transferred to other digital devices for long term storage and editing. This immediacy has popularised photography and we now find digital cameras with both still and video as a fixed feature of most mobile phones. While top quality digital SLRs are expensive, affordable digital cameras are available in a majority of schools in developed countries, where they are used by teachers and children to add pictures to class folders, where they can be edited, shared and used to aid discussions and support learning across the curriculum.

In this post I would like to look at the idea of getting children to use digital media in the classroom to add value to text and even to replace it as a story telling medium, as in the case of video and photo essays. Video is generally well understood in the world we live in, given that television, computers and even mobile technologies can be used to watch movies and ‘home made’ stories on sites like YouTube. Photo essays are perhaps more challenging, given that in this case the images themselves tell the story. This is not an easy task, given that it is more limited than general digital storytelling, which uses a combination of words, photographs, video and audio.  However it has the potential to develop students’ understanding of discrete narrative mediums to a greater extent than general multimedia narratives.

Several skill sets need to be developed in order to complete this kind of task successfully.  These would include developing a good understanding of the camera as a tool, learning how to edit still and video images and, more importantly, how to use these mediums to develop clear and coherent narratives.  Other more generic skills would include organisational and problem solving skills. These skills developed incrementally over time with practice and guidance from understanding and enthusiastic teachers. Access to a good quality equipment is essential, as is access to good quality editing and presentation software. Luckily, this equipment is a good deal cheaper now than it was in the past, with editing suites often provided with operating systems.

Sylvester and Greenidge (2009:284) provide a useful overview of the different ‘literacies’ involved above. These include technological literacy (skills used to operate cameras and computers adequately), visual literacy ( ability to interpreting and encode images in a ‘product’), media literacy (ability to access, evaluate and create messages in written and oral language, digital still, digital moving images, digital audio … to create  a multimedia product) and information literacy (the ability to find, analyse, evaluate and synthesize information). What emerges from this is that digital storytelling involves the use of a wide range of literacies, both new and old, which are combined to develop new and exciting multimedia narratives. Sylvester and Greenidge’s overview  shows clearly that it uses traditional writing (pencil and paper, word processor) to compose a story, which is then recorded in digital format to form the narration. Scenes are then designed using image frames and story-boarded to match the narration. These are then translated into a graphical narrative using photographs, appropriate clip art and video footage, which are then under-laid by the narration in the final product.  It is clear that this is a complex process, involving a good deal of discussion and decision making by the production group. Clearly, both academic and social skills come into play here.  Sadik (2008), working with teachers in Egypt to enable them to use technology effectively in classrooms, found that the best approach required learning to be designed from a (social) constructivist approach that encourages students to learn in a social context, as suggested by the Sylvester and Greenidge’s model described above.

An important aspect of creating digital stories is that they motivate students, keeping them engaged and on task (Burn & Reed, [1999] in Sylvester and Greenage, [2009]). Additionally, they provide an alternate conduit of expression for those students who struggle with writing traditional texts (Reid, Parker & Burn, [2002] in Sylvester and Greenage, [2009]), enabling them to discover voice, confidence and structure.  The main thrust of Sylvester and Greenidge’s paper is that the creation of digital narratives can go a long way towards helping ‘struggling writers’ by providing them with the opportunity to use other literacies which can “boost their motivation and scaffold their understanding of traditional literacies” (p 286). This is echoed by Bull and Kajder (2004) who claim that “Technology has the capacity to amplify the writer’s voice in a well written story. In particular, digital storytelling can be used to engage struggling readers and writers who have not yet experienced the power of personal expression.”  Riesland ([2005] in Robin,  [2009:222]) states that powerful but affordable hardware and software is exactly what is needed in today’s classrooms, providing students with the skills to “thrive in increasingly media-varied environments.”

While it may be the case that struggling writers are supported by using technology to create stories of different sorts, it is also true that young people are generally avid users of digital technologies outside of school. Evans (2004:8) reports young people as “initiating, appropriating and establishing changes to literacy practices in a fast and furious manner”.  and Robin (2009) points out that they regularly use a variety of internet resources, not simply as consumers of information, but as contributors, creating wikis, blogs, podcasts and movies which they share on sites like YouTube. This is echoed by Willett (2009) in her description of the twelve year-old’s video production, Get Out, which heads this post.

An important aspect of successful use of digital technologies in the classroom is that teachers need to “possess the expertise to use technology in a meaningful way in the classroom” (Sadik 2008:487). Sylvester and Greenidge (2009:293) concur, saying that “one of the major reasons for the dearth of digital storytelling in schools is that most teachers have not been exposed to the medium” and that “they are reluctant to initiate it because  of their lack of competence or confidence.” Furthermore, even teachers who were confident in their own ability to create digital stories were not necessarily comfortable trying to guide a whole class because of the logistical issues involved.

Bull & Kajder (2004) highlight Lambert’s  seven element guide for structuring digital stories.  These are further developed by Robin (2009:223). These include:

  1. a point of view –
    the main point of the story and the author’s perspective
  2. a dramatic question –
    a key question that keeps the viewer’s attention and is answered at the end of the story
  3. emotional content –
    serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way,connecting the story to the audience
  4. economy –
    providing just the right amount of content to tell the story with overwhelming the viewer
  5. pacing –
    rhythm, how slowly and how quickly it unfolds
  6. the gift of voice –
    personalising the story to provide a meaningful context for the audience
  7. an accompanying soundtrack –
    music or other sounds to support and embellish the storyline.

Equally important is the provision of appropriate contexts for this kind of storytelling. Robin (2005), talking about digital storytelling in general, lists three types of narrative – personal, those that examine historical events and those that inform and instruct. All of these could be used in a relevant way in schools, given the prevalence of all three in general storytelling environments. The reality is that relevant contexts present themselves every day, be they personal or curriculum based. As teachers we need to recognise them and use them.

Robin (2009:223) provides a useful diagram illustrating the convergence of digital storytelling in education.

Robin, (2009:223)


Bull, G. & Kagdir, S. (2004) Digital Storytelling in the Language Arts Classroom. Learning and Leading with Technology, 32(4). 46-49.

Evans, J. (2004) Literacy Moves On. Using Popular Culture, New Technologies and Critical Literacy in the Primary Classroom. David Fulton, London.

Robin, B.R. (2005) The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling. University of Houston.

Robin, B.R. (2009) Digital Storytelling: A Powerful Technology Tool for the 21st Century Classroom. Theory into Practice, 47(3). 220-228.

Sadik, A. (2008) Digital storytelling: a meaningful technology-integrated approach for engaging student learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(4). 48.

Sylvester, R.  & Greenidge, W.  (2009) Digital Storytelling: Extending the Potential for Struggling Writers. The Reading Teacher, 63(4). 284-295.

Willett, R. (2009) Young People’s Video Productions as New Sites of Learning. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices. UKLA/Sage, London.

Other resources.

Lambert. The Digital Storytelling Cookbook.

Photo Journal – First Brighton and Hove M25 Tour.

Highly recommended reading:

Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Contentions Technologies. Introduction, Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

Dowdall, C. (2009) Masters and critics: children as producers of online digital texts. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

Leander, K. (2009) Composing with old and new media: towards a parallel pedagogy. In Carrington, V. & Robinson, M. (2009) (Eds.) Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices.

Posted in Digital narratives, multimedia | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Embracing the Information age paradigm

A number of recent articles dealing with the changing nature of society, students and working practice,  highlight again of the difficulties we face with using computers and other information and communications technologies (ICT) in schools. In the UK,  Labour government initiatives based largely on a technicist belief that the use of technology will automatically improve grades, have been generous, providing funds for the purchase of computers, interactive white boards (IWBs) and a range of software. However, these initiatives are generally deemed to have had limited impact on improving children’s attainment at school, notwithstanding the clear potential of ICT to provide “powerful learning environments, rich contexts and authentic tasks” in which “active, autonomous and co-operative learning is stimulated.” (Smeets, E. 2005:343). In a study analysing the use of computers by 331 primary teachers in Dutch schools, Smeets concluded that the methods employed by teachers to adapt education to the needs and abilities of individual pupils were limited.

Findings in the United Kingdom and the United States are similar. Robertson (2002:403) found that, in spite of generous government  spending, “teachers have not embraced ICT within their core practice”. Wijekumar, Meyer, Wagoner and Ferguson (2006) report that the great expectations for improved learning have not materialised.

There are a number of reason for this, the most common being the limited number of computers, the placement of equipment in difficult to access suites and limited training for staff. There are others reasons, including the seeming inability of too many teachers to adapt to the new kind of world in which we live. Robertson (2002:403) speaks of a failure by teachers to “understand the complex cultural, psychological and political characteristics of schools.” The result is that schools, by and large, have been unable to responded to the information age paradigm or the need to embrace the powerful technologies it provides so as to provide relevant and meaningful context for today’s young learners.In too many schools, the Information Age stops at the school gate. The generation gap has never been wider.

Social and technological change has been especially rapid over the past decade, with changes not only in the way we shop, work, communicate and spend our leisure time, but also in the way that (especially) young people see the world and interact with it.

In an article in the Guardian in May 2007, David Puttnam remarks on a statement by a child at a digital education conference in San Francisco:

“Whenever I go into class, I have to power down.” That roughly translates as: “What I do with digital technology outside school – at home, in my own free time – is on a completely different level to what I’m able to do at school. Outside school, I’m using much more advanced skills, doing many more interesting things, operating in a far more sophisticated way. School takes little notice of this and seems not to care.”

In his seminal paper Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Prensky (2001) makes the point that “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” He speaks of massive change – a “really big discontinuity”, a “singularity” – “the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century” (1). These students, whose lives revolve around computer games, email, the web, mobiles and instant messaging,”think and process information fundamentally differently” (1). According to Berry (Prensky, 2001:1) it is likely that their brain structures having been changed due to the fact that their environment has been different, leading to different patterns of thinking. Prensky calls these people, who grew up in the age of technological change, digital natives. For them, computers and other digital technologies have always been around. As such, they are “native speakers” (1) of the digital language which abounds in the world of computers, digital games and the web.

The rest of us (teachers and lecturers) are “digital immigrants”, citizens of an older world where computers were figments of science fiction writers’ imaginations. As such, we speak “an entirely new language” which our digital native students struggle to understand. Says Prensky (2)

“Unfortunately for out Digital Immigrant teachers, the people sitting in their classes grew up on the ‘twitch speed’ of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They’ve been networked most of their lives. They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and ‘tell-test’ instruction.”

Frand (2000:16) speaks of the Information-Age mindset which is becoming more commonplace in our educational institutions.These consist of “ten attributes reflecting values and behaviours.” These he divides into three groups, the first identifying “broad observations of change” the second addressing how young people do things and the last looking at “subliminal needs conditioned by the cyber age.”

The broad observations of change are described as attitudes which reflect the belief that computers are not technology, that Internet is better than TV, that reality is no longer real and that doing is better than knowing.

As to the first set, these indicate that digital natives

  • are at home with computers and other electronic gadgets and regard them as part of the wallpaper
  • prefer operating on Internet to watching television
  • are aware of the need to “believe none of what you hear and none of what you see”, referring to the need to be critical and aware of the power of technologies to manipulate reality, be it digitally manipulated photography or hoax emails
  • need flexible ‘doing’ skills which enable them to deal with complex and sometimes ambiguous information rather that ‘knowing’ lots of facts.

Digital natives do things differently to the rest of us. Thus, they

  • use trial and error to make things work rather than read manuals
  • multitask without thinking about it
  • type rather than write.

As to subliminal needs, natives

  • believe that staying connected is essential
  • have no tolerance for delays
  • blur the distinction between creator and consumer. We see this in the way that that we cut and paste and provide hyper-links to information rather that recreate it. Oblinger (2003) adds that “the distinction between creator, owner and consumer of information is fading… the operative assumption is often that if something is digital, it is everyone’s property” (42).

Frand (2000) challenges institutions to work proactively to address the reality of the new age. He provides a vision for higher education in which “we will combine the potential of the computer, communication, and information technologies with the pedagogical changes that need to occur in light of the prevalence of the information-age mindset” (22). He urges institutions to look at new ways of doing things, including the provision of access to both ‘distributed education’ which makes use of the benefits of both on-line and face to face approaches and on-line ‘distance’ learning. As to pedagogy, he suggests that a more constructivist process driven model as appropriate for today’s learners.

Oblinger (2003) raises the point that there is a wide range of age groups within today’s student population,including undergrad ‘millennials’, post grad ‘Gen-Xers’ and mature ‘Baby Boomers’ who might be taking a first degree after sacrificed university for marriage and childbearing in their youth. As such, they provide a differentiated set of world views and expectations which place different demands on universities and colleges. Providing for the needs of this varied group, some of whom are technophobic, requires careful management and open door policies, given that learners today “bring customer service expectations” (42) to the institutions in which they study.

Anyone working in higher education is well aware of the shift in the power balance between students and teachers. Providing an effective service means that teachers have to act proactively to provide for student expectations. Communication between student and teacher have never been more important. Luckily, computer mediated communications service these expectations well, be it via email, telephone, text or instant messaging.

One might well ask what the findings of higher education institutions have to do with primary schools and their practice. In a word – everything. Oblinger (2003) points out that “the younger the age group, the higher the percentage who use the Internet for school, work and leisure. This comfort with technology often leads to the perception that the use of technology in schools in inadequate” (38). given that their clientèle is the current crop of millennials.

The question is whether schools can change to provide a service more relevant to the needs of today’s young people. My own experiences of working with schools is that this is unlikely until the following conditions are met.

Firstly,  our notions of what learning and teaching is needs to be looked at in the light of what we know about the information age.

Schools are naturally conservative institutions which prefer to surround themselves with safe, clearly defined routines for each and every eventuality. If schools are to change, they need to be freed from the tyranny of micromanaging government departments, providing more freedom to teachers to try out new approaches. Organisations like Ofsted need to be restructured to provide support, guidance and training, rather than rigid inspection regimes.

Secondly, as Frand (2000) has pointed out, process is more important than product, skills more important than facts. I am not sure that schools have really bought into this. There are a number of reasons why, one being the demands of the monolithic national curriculum which tends to discourage teachers from working imaginatively and taking risks, not because it forbids it, but because bureaucratic testing, form filling and reporting regimes leave little time for these approaches. The time constraints that these demands place on schools provide little space for individualism. Planning tends to be done in year groups, with older year group leaders dictating both approach and pace.

Thirdly, the potential of ICTs will only be freed up when a critical mass of younger and Internet savvy teachers are entrenched in schools. Attempts over the years to ‘train’ existing teachers have been patchy and ineffective. Teachers tend to teach as they were taught, rather that as they were taught to teach.

Fourthly, computers and other ICTs need to be available to all students at all times, in flexible, ICT friendly ‘learning spaces’* designed to maximise movement, discussion and ICT use. The information age is about learning on the move (M-Learning – St George, A: 2007), ubiquitous technology, collaboration and access to powerful tools. At present, most schools provide limited hands on access to computers for children to use as writing, problem solving, creative, presentation and research tools. As far back as 1990, Hawkridge raised the issue of the power of technology to change the way we work and learn in discussing what he called the catalytic rationale for their use in schools. However, he concluded that, while the catalytic rationale was powerful, it “promises a Utopian future that will never arrive… schools as they might become, if only computers could be present in enough numbers, with the right kind of software to enable children and teachers to change… move away from rigid curricular, rote learning and teacher-centred lessons, by giving more control to children of their own learning.” (3). My personal view is that the power of modern technologies can help us realise this rationale. What is missing is the will to do so.

Fifthly, there needs to be a clearer and more equitable relationship between institution and client. Unfortunately, children, because of their age, are too often disregarded as ‘clients’ who deserve the very best that the school can offer, such as an modern, up-to-date learning environment which provides access to effective learning technology and the powerful tools which are part of our daily lives. The reality is a preponderance of pencil and paper approaches, more akin to learning in the 19th century than it is to the 21st.

Finally, some of the problems we face in the information society such as the illegal copying of music, disregard for intellectual property, the importance of citation and referencing, are probably best taught at an early age when children are more open to heeding the advice with regard to respect for the property of others. However, for this kind of lesson to be meaningful, a working context, rich in ICT, needs to be in place.

Cost has, and always will be, an issue for primary schools. However, developments in technology could help solve this issue. Portable learning tools of the modern age are readily available and relatively cheap. St George (2007) speaks of the importance of mobile technologies as learning tools. These have taken off in colleges and secondary schools in the United States, but could well be utilised at primary level.. According to St George (2007), the University of South Dakota began issuing new students PDAs preloaded with calculators, reference books, course organizers, and word processors as early as 2001. Since 2003, complete courses on handheld Pocket PC devices have been offered by Coastline Community College. Today, colleges and universities are giving incoming students iPods preloaded with campus registration forms, policies, maps, organizations, class schedules, and library hours and many institutions are using MP3 technology to provide students with access to course information and lecture recordings. While some of these applications are not relevant to primary schools, the technology would seem to offer applications (word processors, calculators, spreadsheets, web access) which are.

The burning question is whether our teachers are ready to accept these challenges.

Learning places need to be different to current classrooms, providing areas for ‘play’, and movement, for group work and discussion and for the use of computers, interactive white boards, digital still and video cameras, electronic microscopes and the many other information and communications technologies which are yet to be developed.


Frand, J.L. (2000) The Information-age Mindset. Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education. Educause, September/October. 15-24.
Hawkridge, D. (1990) Who needs computers in schools, and why? Computers and Education, 15(1-3). 1-6.
Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials. Understanding the new students. Educause, July/August 2003.
Puttnam, D. (2007) In class, I have to power down. Education Guardian, May 8.
Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon (NCB University Press, 9(5).
Robertson, J. (2002) The ambiguous embrace: twenty years of IT (ICT) in UK primary schools, British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(4). 403-409.
Smeets, E. (2005) Does ICT contribute to powerful learning environments in primary education? Computers and Education, 44(3). 343-355.
St George, A. (2007) Imagining tomorrow’s future today. Educause, November/December. 107-127.
Wijekumar, K.J., Meyer, B.J.E., Wagoner, D. & Ferguson, L. (2006) Technology affordances: the real story in research with K-12 and undergraduate learners. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37(2). 191-209

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Using wikis as learning tools

Monty Paul, 2009. (Updated October 2011)

The social Web is characterised by the richness of interpersonal experience users enjoy when they use its tools and services. It is this shift in emphasis and a repurposing of the ‘old’ Web spaces into shared environments that is shaping the new digital territories in which the information age is redefining itself. It is this new dynamic which the ‘digital natives’ the so called ‘Net Generation,’ are colonising. We have noticed a distinct migration from text to hypertext and then towards hypermedia, and we now observe a relentless progression from reading to reading/writing/participation made possible by open architecture tools.
Wheeler, S.  (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of Sharing.  Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning.


Wikis are Web 2.0 applications designed specifically as collaborative environments. In some respects, they can be seen a ‘communal’ blogs, which can be open to the public, or limited to members of a specific group. Wikis support learning communities well, given that sites are available at any time from anywhere and because they can be freely edited by members of the specific wiki community. Wikis are often used by researchers who are located in different locations, providing a common resource on which to co-create knowledge and share data and ideas. The idea of community members being able, or perhaps even obliged, to edit one another’s work, is key for effective collaboration, although, as we shall see, this is not always the case.

Wikis have a number of features which provide added security. Amongst these is the ability to ‘roll back’ to previous versions of posts and, if necessary, to set them as current. These features are especially useful in socially authored public wikis like Wikipedia, which are open to abuse by vandals. Wikipedia, remains one of the most popular internet sites, despite concern about the validity of some of its content. Other popular wikis are listed here. Citizendium is a new project by one of the founders of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger.
This paper concentrates on the use of wikis in educational settings, where their features offer the facility for them to be used to set up interactive environments to scaffold collaborative learning (Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler, 2008). However, while wikis are designed for working collaboratively, they are not necessarily used as such, be it in education or other fields. Wheeler (2009:4) makes the point that “wikis can be exactly what their masses of users wishes them to be”,  so we see them used as e-portfolios, content delivery platforms as well as collaborative learning platforms in education and other fields.

From early on, social software has been regarded as having great potential for active learning. Wheeler (2009:5) highlights a strength of  wiki applications as the ease with which students can work together to create content – “generate, mix, edit and synthesize subject specific knowledge” – and share it within a “openly accessible digital space” . Grant (2006:2) describes social software as having “the potential to support and structure communities where individuals can come together to share, learn, create and collaborate” and believes that “wikis offer enormous potential to learning”. Boulos, Maramba and Wheeler (2006) highlight the strengths of the anytime, anyplace nature of Web 2.0 applications  for supporting ubiquitous learning and, according to Ebersbach, Glaser and Heigl (2006 – in Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987)) “social networking and social software are proving to be fertile terrain within which communities of learning coalesce.”

A major feature of Web 2.0 is that of user generated content, sometimes described as the wisdom of the crowd, at others as the ignorance of the masses. Attitudes to this vary and Wheeler (2009:5) points out that the idea “sits a little uncomfortably in the minds of some teachers.” This was clearly illustrated in April 2007 when the then Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, was criticised by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of Wikipedia, for praising the site which he regarded as broken beyond repair. This notwithstanding, it has been pointed out that Wikipedia, for all its faults, ” is at least as accurate as Encyclopaedia Britannica” (Wheeler, 2009:6).

What should also be noted is that information posted on blogs and wikis is known by the creators to be viewable by the millions of people who have access to the web. This awareness of their membership of and social presence on the web leads to a greater sense of responsibility with respect to what is posted, and how it is presented. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:987) refer to the work of Jacobs (2003) which suggests that applications like blogs and wikis encourage “deeper engagement with learning through the act of authoring, simply because the awareness of an audience, no matter how virtual and tentative, encourages more thoughtful construction of writing.”

Early contributors to the debate identified wikis as providing a space for ‘communities of practice’ to, inter alia, develop solutions to common issues and shared problems and to expand knowledge and improve practice. (Godwin-Jones, 2003). Usability issues were also discussed early on. Desilets, Pacquet & Vinson (2005) showed that even young children could make effective use of the platform to author stories collaboratively. Not surprisingly, the biggest challenges for children were hypertext and link creation management issues.

Grant (2006) analysed collaborative group writing at secondary school level in the context of what Bereiter and Scardamalia (2003) say about the need for communities of practice to have intentional goals of learning if they are to produce new knowledge. The knowledge building networks model emphasises “collaborative activity” in which “learners take responsibility for their own learning goals, identifying the problems and gaps in their understanding” and making decisions about how to solve problems which arise by developing and sharing explanations and ideas publicly with peers and by offering critiques and alternative explanations. (Grant, 2006:3)

Grant’s findings suggest that the students do not automatically understand the nature of collaboration and the kinds of things they needed to do when co-authoring stories. Thus, Bereiter and Scardamalia’s criteria for knowledge building networks were absent. Students did not take responsibility for their own learning goals, review each other’s work, identify gaps in their knowledge of a topic or find ways of making the different topics relevant to each other. The main reason for this was that they ‘imported’ existing school practices in which ‘discourse’ was seen as individualised written assessment. Grant’s recommendations are that students be inducted into new social working practices by introducing them to an existing wiki as new members, providing an environment in which they can learn about the affordances of the platform and about the existing culture of sharing, collaboration and negotiating meaning.

These findings are not uncommon, given the traditional individualistic values which students have grown up with. A classic example is the reluctance to have others edit one’s work, or to critique and edit the work of others as members of an online community of practice. Only one member of the Grant’s group edited the work of another member and was maligned for doing so.

Wheeler, Yeomens and Wheeler (2008) and Wheeler and Wheeler (2009) found a similar reluctance, with students tending to protect their ideas as their own work, and although happy to post their contributions to a wiki for other members to read, were resistant to having their contributions altered or deleted by other group members, or to edit the work of others. It seems clear that accepting that one’s work is not sacrosanct and that others have the right to edit and improve it is a big step. Clearly, sites like Wikipedia would be much poorer without this understanding.

Cole (2009) describes an interesting action research project involving third year information systems students. Cole attempted to promote student engagement by getting students to use a wiki as a platform to create a “module level knowledge repository” consisting of “meaningful course content suitable for assessment” (page 143). Half way through the course, no work had been posted. An open-ended questionnaire revealed four main constraints – pressure from other courses (29%), issues about ease of use (37%), self confidence (19%) and lack of interest (20%).

Cole’s findings were that:

  • so-called digital natives do not know everything about information technology and a good level of ‘instructional scaffolding’ is required when working with applications like wikis
  • a significant number (19%) of students are reluctant to publish web-based material for peer-group review
  • There must be a balance between cost (time invested in learning and using new technology) and benefits (engagement, interest and improved learning.)
  • it is not enough to add a wiki into a course with traditional content. Course content needs to be explicitly redesigned around wiki use
  • student motivation for using social technologies appears to be linked to their perception of fun (active postings with friends) and consumption (individual browser behaviour)
  • Technology needs to support pre-existing educational behaviour rather than attempt to import behaviour from other domains. Essentially, education exists in a consumer culture where altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded.
  • While technology may be fun, fun is determined by the user and students do not appear to view popular social technologies in an educational context as enjoyable or useful.

In a study at Plymouth university by Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008), four groups of volunteers from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year cohorts of the Bachelor of Education course used wikis during classroom sessions to store and edit work from their research exercises and as a forum for discussion. Students posted their views about the use of the wiki during sessions and also completed a post module questionnaire via email.

The researchers report that, while comments were generally positive, the wiki activity did not suit the learning preferences of all students and that effective use of the wiki was limited. However, “apportioning responsibilities to each individual” (page 992) provided a structure which enabled all to contribute to the so-called knowledge repository. However, as each was contributing to a separate section of the repository (thus avoiding conflict between contributors), it was difficult to ensure that students read any of the content contributed by others and, as reported above, there was a decided reluctance to edit the work of others of have their own work scruitinised. In a separate paper covering the same research, Wheeler and Wheeler (2009:1) point out that students “appreciated the shared environment as a means of discussing their work” and believed that “their academic writing skills had improved through their formal participation in the wiki.”

A wiki project designed for pre-service teachers students (n=150) to create and coordinate a collaborative resource consisting of teaching and learning resources at Southampton University in 2005 provided other useful insight into how students work with wikis.

  • While the students were initially enthusiastic about the possibility of co-authoring a resource which would be to the benefit to them all, by the end of the course a good number (55%) had either contributed very little towards the project or nothing at all.
  • Of this group, most (60%) admitted that they made liberal use of the contribution of others.
  • When questioned more closely as to why they had contributed little, most (60%) stated that the process of finding a resource, then having to log in to the wiki, find the relevant page, open it, provide a hyperlink with a descriptor and then save, was too time consuming, especially when they were in schools. Others (20%) stated that they preferred to work by themselves, using browser bookmarks on their own computers, or in small groups using other methods to share resources.
  • A good number (20%) said that they had forgotten how to use the wiki (hyperlinking was the main issue) and some claimed to have lost their passwords.

Wiki are perhaps a little ‘clunky’ compared to other social networking applications.  However, the biggest issue was probably that the wiki was set up by someone else (myself) and ‘marketed’ to the group  as a public entity (this is our wiki, not mine).  In spite of initial training in how to use the wiki,  a good level of moderation and constant reminders to participate, a majority of the students never really embraced the resource, or felt that it was really theirs. Essentially, the resource was seen as useful while the process of participating actively was regarded as extra and non-essential work.

Wheeler (2009:7) has stated that it is inevitable that some students contribute more than others and that there will always be  social loafers. Furthermore, “in wiki and other online activity, it (social loafing) is sometimes easier to perpetuate.” Another useful point made is that wikis are group specific and are unlikely to be valued by future groups who “perceive no clear ownership” (page 7). I would suggest that group size also has an impact on participation. It is far easier for social loafers to hide in a large group than a small one and it is also more difficult to embrace a true sense of ownership in a large group.

Some reports reflect more positive results, with students using wikis in imaginative ways. Parker and Chao (2007:65) give details of a pilot study in which wikis were used as a platform for student project development in a software engineering course. While students in the course were initially required only to maintain a diary of individual and team activities, “they soon began to devise innovative ways of using wikis for project activities that were unanticipated by the instructor.” In addition to group diaries, wikis were used successfully for project planning, requirements management, ptoject tracking/progress reports, test case management, defect tracking and client notes.

Parker and Chao conclude by saying (page 67)

…educational institutions can offer immense value to their students by familiarizing them with the simple technologies that make collaborative networks possible. Today’s students will not only manage business innovations of the future, but in many cases will drive them. Rather than being limited to today’s skills, students must learn the skills of the future. Educators need to teach what wikis and other social software may mean to business, not just as a phenomenon, but also as a skill (Evans, 2006). By incorporating wikis into the classroom, educators can better prepare students to make innovative uses of collaborative software tools.

It is clear that there is a distinct difference in the way that contributors to large open sites like Wikipedia and small educational sites see wikis and their respective place and nature as contributors to them. It is also clear that those who have worked with educational wikis have had a mixture of results. Wheeler, Yeomans and Wheeler (2008:992) point out that “in classroom contexts, where students are familiar with one another, ownership appears to be an issue.” Here, the issue is the one of having one’s work scrutinised and edited, something also found by Grant (2006). My own work at Southampton, using a somewhat different wiki, suggests that much of the reluctance to contribute was due to a lack of real ownership, coming out of a situation where students were urged to contribute to a wiki which had already been set up. This is likely to have made them hesitant about buying into the process of contributing to the resource.

Given the issues uncovered in recent research into students using wikis, it would seem that the applications, although offering a great deal of potential for collaborative learning, have limitations. However, these limitations probably have less to do with the application than with the social paradigms and individual values which impact on the perceptions of users. As Cole has noted, in our society altruistic acts are devalued and individual efforts rewarded. The adage about taking horses to water comes to mind, suggesting that all the conditions for success need to be present for wikis to work. Foremost amongst these is a real need by the user which is best satisfied by the use of a wiki. Much of the research reported on has been carried out using contrived situations, given that the researchers have been the ones to define the task, rather than the users. However, this does not mean that realistic situations for successful educational use do not exist. They just need to be found.

Some ideas for using wikis in primary schools.

Project work.

Wikis are well suited to collaborative work, including shared writing and group projects. As such, they are excellent platforms for class, school, or inter-school project work. They support multimedia, which means that text can be supported by photographs, audio files and video. Different aspects of the project can be developed by different members and groups on different pages, which can then be cross-linked. A school wiki  could include details of the different classes, sports teams and results, examples of art work and descriptive writing and the school’s policies. The advantage over a blog is that the wiki does not have the hierarchical reversed journal type structure of a blog, making it easier to navigate.

Able Seaman Paul. Royal Navy, 1942-45.

Community projects are also well supported by wikis. A local community blog could be facilitated by a history teacher, whereby children are guided through the process of finding historical information about their community from books and the web. More importantly, members of the community can participate, by adding photographs,  movies converted to video and their memories about the way that the community has developed. The wiki could be supported by a Community Day, in which the older generation comes to the school to share their memories. Audio and video footage of these reminiscences could be captured by the children and added to the wiki.   A wiki of this kind could also be linked to local museums.

Wikis are also well suited to links with other schools, be they in the same country or abroad. This is an excellent way to share information about our cultures, using text, video, photographs or audio files.

List of References:
(Full bibliographical data is only provided for resources which are not hyperlinked.)

Boulos, M. & Wheeler, S. (2007) The emerging Web 2.0 social software: an enabling suite of sociable technologies in health and health care education.

Cole, M. (2009) Using wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches.

Godwin-Jones, R. (2003) Emerging Technologies.Blogs and Wikis: Environments for On-line Collaborartion.

Grant, L. (2006) Wikis in Schools.

Lamb, B. (2004) Wide open spaces: Wikis, ready or not.

Parker, K. & Chao, J. (2007) Wiki as a teaching tool.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2007) Evaluating Wiki as a tool to promote quality academic writing skills.

Wheeler, S. & Wheeler, D. (2009) Using wikis to promote quality learning in teacher training.

Wheeler, S., Yeomans, P. & Wheeler, D. (2008) The good, the bad and the wiki: Evaluating student-generated content for collaborative learning.

Wheeler, S.  & Boulos, K. (2008) Mashing, Burning, Mixing and the Destructive Creativity of Web 2.0: Applications for Medical Education.

Wheeler, S. (2009) Learning in Collaborative Spaces. Encouraging a culture of sharing. In Wheeler, S. (2009) (Ed.) Connected Minds, Emerging Cultures. Cybercultures in Online Learning. IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc. ISBN 978-60752-015-3 (pbk).

Other resources.

Bruns, A. & Humphreys, S. (2005) Wikis in Teaching and Assessment. The M/Cyclopedia Project.

Wang, C. & Turner D. (2004) Extending the wiki paradigm for use in the classroom.

Wheeler, S. (2008) All Changing: The Social Web and the Future of Higher Education (a tale of two keynotes).

This article was first published on the Enhancing Learning and Teaching wiki.

Posted in Educational change, Information and Communications Technology, Networking, Social Software and Learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Social Bookmarking

imagesSocial bookmarking sites provide a secure online environment for saving and managing web pages and other teaching and learning resources.  Saved pages are typically tagged by personally created metadata, which provides an easy way to identify and share them with others.  Over 200 social bookmarking applications are listed on the FeedMyApp website.These serve different purposes for a wide range of audiences. is one of the better known bookmarking applications and is used widely in educational institutions. Features include the facility to create networks and bundles. Networks are created by setting up reciprocal links to other people’s Delicious accounts. This provides all concerned with a wider and richer variety of informtion.  Bundles provide an easy way to manage tags which deal with a similar topic. For example, the tags ‘education’, ‘learning’, ‘teaching’, ‘universities’, ‘schools’ and ‘e-learning’ could be bundled under an ‘Education’ label. Clicking on the bundle name will cause all the articles in the bundle to list.Tags can be managed in a number of ways and are easily edited or deleted.

Why use Delicious?

One of the strengths of social bookmarking applications like Delicious is the ability to create identifying tags in one’s own way. There is no such thing as an incorrect tag – tags make sense to the tagger and provide him or her with an easy to remember set of ‘personalised’ references with which to work. The activity of tagging website addresses according to one’s own criteria is known as  folksonomy – coming from the words ‘folk’ and ‘taxonomy’.  Mathes (2004) warns that personal metadata can be weak, given that informal identifiers are not necessarily understood by everyone in the same way.  Others however, have suggested that the ability to freely index web content in this way offers a “partial solution to the semantic web” (Grosseck, G. 2007:6).

The two most useful features of social bookmarking for teachers are:

  • the facility to bookmark and collate a large number of electronic resources which are available from anywhere at any time
  • the ease with which these can be shared with others, be they colleagues or pupils. However, it should be noted that the process of looking at resources, evaluating them and choosing relevant tags provides  a very powerful learning experience for children. This being the case, it is probably worthwhile having a class bookmarking site, especially when doing project and other work involving the collection and evaluation of information sources.

As mentioned above, there are many bookmarking applications. More and more web pages are beginning to provide direct links to these. The graphic below, providing access to Delicious, Digg, reddit, Facebook and StumbleUpon,  is copied from the BBC News site. It also provides a quick share link via email.


Diigo, is a good alternative to Delicious. It has a number useful extra features, including  electronic sticky notes and highlighting.

How to set up a Delicious account.
How to set up a Diigo account.

More information on social bookmarking, metadata and folksonomies

Grosseck, G.- Slideshare presentation |:| Innova Junior College – Slideshare presentation |:| James, K. EduGuru blog |:| Information Age Education blog.

Posted in Networking, Social bookmarking, Social Software and Learning | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Malcolm Gladwell – Outliers

What is the essence of genius?

Persistence, practice and hard work – the 10 thousand hour rule.

When you give people the opportunity to experiment and engage in trial and error you are capable of solving problems which would otherwise remain unsolved…

Being a good teacher is not something that simply happens or emerges or that is… comes out of an investment on my part and an investment on the part of the organisations and communities I am a part of…

If you don’t write every day your technique suffers. You have to be willing to do 20 drafts…

Do we encourage this level of persistence in our schools? Does teaching to the test allow for this?

Outliers. The story of success :

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Using social software in the classroom

Social software consists of web based applications which are generally free. They include blogs, wikis, bookmarking, photo and video sharing, social networking, microblogging, photo editing, mapping and poster making applications.

This posts lists and describes some of these applications, providing examples of how they could be used to make work in the classroom more relevant and engaging. Links to discussion and research papers are provided where possible.


moleskineBlogs are essentially journals which can be used to discuss a wide variety of topics. They cover politics, democracy, life, sexuality, society, travel, oppression, gender issues, freedomemancipation and much in between. Blogs are especially useful as reflective tools and have been used in a number of educational environments to get students to think deeply about their practice. Just why blogs are so powerful as writing tools is discussed further in this post. Educational blogging is growing rapidly, with educators using blogs to share ideas , augment face to face teaching  sessions and as e-learning sites. Blogging is used increasingly in classrooms in the UK and USA.

Ideas for using blogs in schools.

A class blog, managed by the teacher, works well in primary classrooms. Examples of creative writing, artwork, photographs by children, reports on sport, school outings and residentials supported by photographs, can be covered. Be careful not to show photographs of children.


Wikis can be seen as communal blogs. While blogs are largely personal, wikis are designed specifically for collaboration. They have been used to develop major resources like Wikipedia and WikiHow as well as on a smaller scale for sharing resources, collaborative research and as as e-portfolios. While wikis are usually open to the public, they can be private, as in the case of a wiki used as an e-portfolio in an educational institution.

Ideas for using wikis in schools.
Community History.

In this instance a wiki could be used to develop a community history project in a specific location. Older citizens have many memories and a great deal of knowledge about their community as well as artifacts of various sorts. These include old photographs, old tools and  even skills which are no longer be current, such as soap and butter making. A class project of this nature could involve input by children, the local town hall, the Member of Parliament, senior citizens, professional historians, genealogists and other interested persons. Schools  could invite senior citizens for a ‘seniors day’ where they can talk about past times. These talks could be recorded (audio and video) and placed on the wiki together with bios, photographs and favourite sings from bygone times. This kind of work gives children the opportunity to work first hand with information and communication technologies, developing their interviewing, recording, videoing, editing and writing skills.

Inter-school projects.

Wiks are also ideal as tools which enable schools to share information, ideas and practice. Take for example a shared project between schools in the UK, USA, South African and Australia. Sections of the wiki could be used by teachers to share ideas and good practice. Other sections  could be used by pupils to share experiences, photographs, music and different ideas about youth and culture and to do specific projects on curriculum areas, such as ethno-mathematics.


2305106421While photo-sharing applications like Flickr are normally used for recreational purposes, they have the potential to be used a educational tools. Each class should have a Flickr site, which children can upload their digital pictures to. These could be pictures taken around the school, on class visits, residentials, and elsewhere. They could include pictures and videos of shapes for discussion during mathematics, mood, colour and shape for creative writing. They provide a useful photographic record for the class which could be used, amongst other things, for assessment.

Flickr encourages members to use the Creative Commons copyright convention to provide a clear indication of rights of use. Copyright is a major issue in a society where it is easy to copy and paste. Encouraging children to consider the kinds of copyright limitations they would like to place on their own photographs raised the issue of the nature, reason for and importance of copyright in an environment which is relevant and meaningful for those involved.

Flickr also supports geotagging, a process in which photographs can be linked to a map  to show exactly where they were taken. Geotagging can be used to teach a number of skills, the most obvious of which are mapping skills in geography.

Digital photography has changed the world of photography quite radically. The ‘art’ is open to more people given the development in camera phones and the fact that the cost of shooting is reduced without the cost of film, developing and printing. We also have access to cheap or free digital editing software, making it easy to work creatively by manipulating images. Sites like Flickr also provide a number of other services, including social networking groups and specialised printing services.


YouTube has a comprehensive collection of video material covering a range of interests. Use intelligently, it provides a powerful  resource for both teachers and pupils. Like digital photography, the development of cheap and easy to use video cameras has resulted in an massive increase in the number of ‘resources’ available. Some are dire, some merely poor, but a reasonable number are good, demonstrating just what can be done with a bit of imagination. The resources include music videos of various artists taken over a long period of time.

I was recently introduced to the music of the late Eva Cassidy, which includes a magnificent rendition of Judy Garland’s song  Somewhere over the Rainbow. I do not have any music by Judy Garland but was able to find a video clip of her singing this song. More interestingly, YouTube provided me with a list of other artists who have performed the song, which meant that I was able to listen to renditions by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Tommy Immanuel, Katharine McPhee,  someone called Israel Kamakawiwo’oke, Jason Castro, Doris Day, Connie Talbot (age 6) and Leona Lewis.  It struck me that this was a useful tool for music teachers.

Music Sharing.

iPod TouchThere are a good number of music sharing applications on the web. I use, and Spotify, which are quite different from one another. I use as a tool for developing personal stats of my listening habits with iTunes. However, it is also a social networking tool which identifies other subscribers  with similar music tastes as possible friends and allows one to highlight forthcoming gigs. It also highlights events in one’s geographical area where favourites will be appearing and recommends other artists similar to those one listens to. Thus, on identifying Eva Cassidy as a favourite of mine, recommended that I also listen to Norah Jones, Dianna Krall and Amy Winehouse. A click on Norah Jones takes me to Last’s Norah Jones page and provides me with a list of her songs to listen to. One can also link material from YouTube to, where they can watched.

Using this application has enabled me to expand my knowledge of music by introducing me to a range of other artists without my having to risk spending money on music which I might not like. At the same time, it does provide a way to purchase music which one likes by providing links to online music vendors. is a lot of fun, enabling one to provide an online DJ service. Spotify enables one to stream music to one’s computer. Adverts can be avoided by paying a small fee. This post provides more information.


Microblogging is particularly popular at the moment. Applications like Twitter an Plurk enable users to send short messages (maximum 140 characters) providing information about what they are doing or thinking, which can be seen by others. Links to stories and resources can be shared and photographs can be stored and shared via Twitterpics.  Small communities of followers (Twitter) friends and fans (Plurk) who can see and respond to each other’s posts develop, providing a unique yet powerful social network. Tweets and Plurks can be forwarded to other social networking sites like Facebook, where they are reflected on one’s profile. A major feature of microblogging is the ability to send short posts quickly and often, which provides a useful conversational stream. These enable one to develop a comprehensive understanding of virtual friends. Microblogging an also be done via mobile / cell phone using SMS, making it an anywhere, anyplace any time application. I recently read a tweet sent from an aircraft flying over the Rockies.There are a growing number of allied applications. In the case of Twitter, they include Twitearth (a location aware application which shows where tweets are coming from on a spinning globe), #hashtags, Twemes and Twitwall, the latter enabling one to write longer posts.

There have been a number of articles about the use of Twitter as a teaching tool, including this one by Steve Wheeler.


This is a popular leisure activity, with podcasts covering a wide range of subjects. A number of schools in the UK are working with podcasts as a creative medium, and some boast their own ‘radio’ stations. The term podcast has become generic to includes both audio and visual mediums. It is very useful as an alternative platform for story telling, providing an alternative method for those who are not particularly strong as writers in the traditional sense of the word. At the same time, this medium requires and helps develop the skills which underpin ‘writing’, given that it involves a high level of reflection and planning, much of which is noted in some or other form, including storyboarding.  Listen to the Downs School podcast here and the Sandaig School podcast here. Podcasts are increasingly used instead of lectures at universities.

The potential of social software for learning and teaching.

The discussion above suggests that social software has the potential to revolutionise classroom practice. However, in the UK, many social networking sites are blocked to schools because of concerns about inappropriate content, paedophiles, cyber-bullying, stalkers and other (real and imagined) cyber predators.  This makes it impossible for teachers to access sites like YouTube and Flickr and to use content which they know to be appropriate and useful. Educationist Stephen Heppell has commented about a new digital divide which he describes as “far more serious than have or have-not computer ownership. It’s between those children for whom the whole power of new technology is locked down (ie offer limited access to web content and functions) so utterly, that they are left helplessly watching their computer screens, while others are forging ahead unfettered and unrestricted.”

Julie Nightingale points out that “Children need to develop IT literacy – the skills to enable them to operate safely and effectively in order to capitalise on the wealth of knowledge and opportunities offered by the online world. The parent who bans all online activity risks depriving their child of a tool that can enrich their education.”  Parenting expert Dr Tanya Byron speaks in similar vein, and suggests training for parents. Ideas about how to go about this are addressed in this article.

While it is important to keep children safe online, we need to move beyond the scare mongering and conspiracy theories that are quoted as gospel in so many schools and to look at this issue in a logical way which allows us move forward.  The knee-jerk, nanny state, lock-down policy so loved by the current government serves little purpose other than to to negate the effectiveness of the most powerful learning resource we have ever had.

Useful resources on social software.

Lee Lefever has developed a number of useful videos which explain a variety of social networking applications in an easy to follow way. I have provided links to some of these below.

Blogs in Plain English | Wikis in Plain English | Online Photosharing in Plain English | Social Bookmarking in Plain English | Social Media in Plain English | Podcasting in Plain English |

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