New Literacies and the Need for Bridging Formal and Informal Learning Environments (part 2)

Technical and Mindset Shifts

Across several books and articles, Lankshear and Knobel have conceptualized the new literacies as social practices that have “new technical stuff” and “new ethos stuff.” On the one hand, the “new technical stuff” is related to the new kind of expressive media tools that are available to people such as personal computers, desktop publishing software, and mobile devices. Since the means of production for creating media content have become available to ordinary people, in particular youth, they have become capable of producing quality products.

On the other, the new literacies involve a different “ethos stuff”, new values and qualities different to the ones of conventional literacies. According to Lankshear and Knobel (2007a) “new literacies are more ‘participatory,’ ‘collaborative,’ and ‘distributed’ in nature than conventional literacies. That is, they are less ‘published,’ ‘individuated,’ and ‘author-centric’ than conventional literacies. They are also less ‘expert-dominated’ than conventional literacies.” (9) Hence, for them, the “new” of literacy practices is not just in relation to the new tools that are being used, nor the products that are being created. It is “new” also in relation to a new ethos, a new way of doing things, of being deeply involved in processes, of building peer-to-peer relationships and communities of practice.

The “new ethos” can be understood as a cyberspatial-postindustrial mindset that values dispersion, relationships, conversations, and networks; focuses on
collectives as the unit of production, competence and intelligence; understands space as open, continuous and fluid; recognizes that roles of author/authority and expert have changed under the move from publishing to collaboration (disruption of authorial social relationships); considers norms in a more fluid way, less policed and controlled by centralized authorities and experts; and turns the consumption of popular culture into active production.

The New Ethos in Action: Sociocultural Practices

Lankshear and Knobel (2007a, 2007b) have been able to illustrate several of the characteristics of the “new ethos” and cyberspatial-postindustrial mindset by describing the Web 2.0 infrastructure and practices. For instance, they have explained how Web 2.0 platforms such as Flickr, have not only enabled communities of interest to build relationships around common interests and tastes by making groups, but have also encourage a folksonomic organization (non-expert, bottom-up classification management system) of the content.

As Lankshear and Knobel (2007a) explain, “the scope for participants to speak their own meanings, find collaborators who share these meanings, and build relationships based on shared perspectives opens up possibilities that are foreclosed by centralized and authoritative regimes that circumscribe norms of correctness, legitimacy or propriety.” (20) The Web 2.0 embraces the “new ethos” because it has an infrastructure that focuses more in services and in enabling relationships, cooperation, and networking, than in producing artifacts for mere consumption and passive reception (industrial approach of Web 1.0).

All the researchers of new literacies, as I have discussed so far in this and the previous entry, tend to agree in the examples of the sociocultural practices that they describe in their respective studies. For instance, whether they talk about participatory culture, new media ecologies, or new ethos, they all recognize that that digital remix practices are one of the most representative new literacies. Practices such as photoshopping remixes, music remixes, machinima remixes, moving image remixes (anime videos, fan videos), fan fiction writing, original manga and anime fan art, television/movie/book remixes, serviceware mashups and videogame remixes, have been studied by the researchers highlighting their social, learning, and aesthetic qualities.

Although some of these practices are not unique of digital and networked media, they were not as popular and pervasive before the increase of access to new technologies and networks. For instance, fan fiction, manga fan practices, fan videos, and popular music remixes existed in analogue form but they were less visible to the public and sometimes more difficult to practice without access to the right tools. With networked digital media, and in particular the Internet and computer editing and publishing software, these new literacies have become more popular, easier to learn and practice in informal contexts, and easier to find among specialized communities online.

The Disconnection between Formal and Informal Learning Contexts

The energy and creativity emerging from the informal contexts where the new literacies are taking place, contrasts with the more passive formal contexts of educational institutions where young people is learning traditional literacies. As Ito et al. have noticed, young people are developing specific forms of learning when they are given authority over their own learning and literacy. These types of informal learning are interest-driven and allow young people to structure their education around their own individual passions for creating media. Informal learning thrives in environments that embrace both the “new technical” and “new ethos” stuff that Lankshear and Knobel (2007a, 2007b) have thoroughly described.

In contrast, formal education institutions are stuck in the old ethos of the physical-industrial mindset, with physical/material and industrial principles and logics such as property and forms of ownership, physical textbooks, hierarchies, closed spaces, stable textual orders, notions of expertise and authority “located” in individual and institutions, narrow notions of literacy (mainly print-based), standardized tests and core curriculum standards. As Jenkins et al. explain, “while formal education is static, the informal learning within popular culture is innovative. The structures that sustain informal learning are more provisional; those supporting formal education are more institutional.

Informal learning communities can evolve to respond to short-term needs and temporary interests, whereas the institutions supporting public education have remained little changed despite decades of school reform. Informal learning communities are ad hoc and localized; formal educational communities are bureaucratic and increasingly national in scope.” (3)

The disconnection between formal and informal education has made difficult to support new literacy practices in formal institutions. Gutierrez and Tyner have pointed out that “students transverse a polarized existence of formal and informal learning environments.” Young people, especially the ones who attend to public institutions, are experiencing in their own the huge gap between two radically different kinds of learning environments and mindsets (industrial vs post- industrial, old vs new), and usually are becoming frustrated and disengaged with schooling because they are not being able to exercise the agency, autonomy, and control they are experiencing in informal learning contexts.

There is an urgent need, therefore, to build bridges between informal and formal education. Educators, researchers, and policy makers, need to start establishing connections between the two worlds in order to support contemporary literacy practices in formal institutions. Such bridges need not only to implement the “new technical stuff” by bringing digital networked media to the classroom, but also the “new ethos stuff” by embracing the post-industrial mindset and promoting a cultural shift. Although there are many barriers to create such bridges, there are also many opportunities. Those bridges can be built by the design and implementation of innovative and responsive learning environments in the classroom. Such new learning environments can be built by the developing appropriate and innovative pedagogic relationships around new literacies and technologies.

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