E-Learning and Digital Media
ISSN 2042-7530

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Volume 1 Number 3 2004


CONTENTS [click on author's name for abstract and full text]


Editorial, pages 336‑340
Guy Merchant. Imagine All that Stuff Really Happening: narrative and identity in children’s on-screen writing, pages 341‑356
Angela Thomas. Digital Literacies of the Cybergirl, pages 358‑382
Neil Anderson & Michael Henderson. e-PD: blended models of sustaining teacher professional development in digital literacies, pages 383‑394
Sonia Livingstone & Magdalena Bober. Taking up Online Opportunities? Children’s Uses of the Internet for Education, Communication and Participation, pages 395‑419
Kevin Leander & Barbara Duncan. Community Construction in the Virtual: reconceptualizing joint action, pages 420‑436

Literacy in the New Media Age (Gunther Kress), reviewed by Catherine Kell, pages 437‑445 VIEW FULL TEXT



This third issue of E-Learning has been organised around the theme of ‘digital literacies’. It is the first of two consecutive issues that will be devoted to this theme. The articles span a wide range of research interests and types of practice that can reasonably be construed in terms of digital literacies.

The opening article in this issue is by Guy Merchant, who invites us to ‘Imagine All that Stuff Really Happening’ by addressing aspects of ‘narrative and identity in children’s on-screen writing’. Merchant begins from the observation that

the dominant paradigm for digital writing in the classroom [can] still be characterised as an enclosure of bookspace [and] despite a rapid rise in the use and popularity of new technology in the world outside the classroom ... the educational potential of interactive electronic communication has yet to be realised.

Notwithstanding this relative stasis, pockets of classroom activity exist that provide a basis from which to anticipate possible lines of evolution in school-based digital writing. Drawing on archived email messages and excerpts from student stories written in class, Merchant shows some of the ways primary school learners draw on a range of texts from popular youth culture and blend them with more familiar classroom material to generate hybrid narratives that ‘transform the writing practices and voices of others’. From this basis he argues in the manner of Glynda Hull and Katherine Schultz that the capacity of schools to provide accessible and relevant educational opportunities will depend significantly on teachers’ willingness to integrate children’s out-of-school identities and social practices, and the literacies associated with these, into classroom life. Merchant’s work is at the forefront of a growing corpus of activity that is doing the important job of mobilising a strong empirical base from which to urge a serious overhaul to conventional forms of classroom pedagogy.

Angela Thomas’s article, ‘Digital Literacies of the Cybergirl’, extends the focus on digital literacies into the world beyond the classroom, and focuses the research lens on adolescent females. Thomas reports research from a four-year virtual ethnography concerned with the performance of identity within a particular kind of digital setting: an online graphical chat space (the ‘palace’). Her working problematic is that

In the digital world ... the performance of identity is divorced from a direct interaction with ... cues from the physical [world], and instead relies upon the texts we create in the virtual worlds we inhabit. These texts are multiple layers through which we mediate the self and include the words we speak, the graphical images we adopt as avatars to represent us, and the codes and other linguistic variations on language we use to create a full digital presence.

Thomas argues that for girls who have a ‘high command of digital literacies’ by dint of their capacity to ‘use and manipulate words, images and technology’, the visual interactive environment of the palace becomes a site for the cultural production of ‘a new type of body’.

The theoretical burden of the article is carried by recent and contemporary advances in our understanding of ‘identity and language’, ‘identity and image’, ‘embodiment’ and ‘identity performance’. Ranging over diverse fields of work that include recent developments in psychoanalytic theory, post-structuralist accounts of ‘discourse’, explorations of ‘self’ in relation to ‘image’ undertaken in film studies, constructions of embodiment within post-structuralist feminist and cyborg studies, and eclectic approaches to issues of power and representation, Thomas draws on work by such key contemporary theorists as Lacan, Foucault, Haraway, Haynes, Hall, Derrida and Butler to build an illuminating theoretical frame.

Against this rich and complex theoretical backdrop the empirical component of the research is explored in two steps. First, data in the form of words (‘cybertalk’) through which participants perform their textual bodies are addressed in terms of the relationship between written language and speech, and of the use of symbols, abbreviations and descriptions to provide information about emotions, movements and the like. Second, the performance of the graphical body through the use of avatars is discussed using semiotic tools derived from the work of Kress and van Leeuwen. The analysis here includes a comparison of the avatar choices made respectively by girls and boys in the overall study population.

The argument highlights ‘the particular ways that girls are creating cyberbodies that are encoded surfaces of the girls’ fantasies and desires’. According to Thomas, ‘the palace is a site that produces new forms of femininities through allowing girls the space to explore, experience a sense of empowerment and find new ways of reinventing themselves’.

Neil Anderson and Michael Henderson address the theme of online professional development in the third article: ‘e-PD: blended models of sustaining teacher professional development in digital literacies’. They begin from research evidence that single session and short series approaches to teacher professional development in the use of information and communications technology (ICT) have little or no significant impact on classroom take-up of new technologies. Researchers have responded by trying to identify design principles for effective professional development (PD). Sustained engagement in PD has emerged as a foremost principle among those most commonly recognised. According to some of the researchers involved in this work, however, few if any of the principles identified are evident in most school and college-based PD programs. In response to this some researchers and practitioners have turned to community-based approaches to teacher PD in the use of ICT.

Regardless of where PD is undertaken, however, the principle of sustained engagement is costly. Accordingly, some administrators and trainers are turning to electronic Professional Development – or e-PD – as a means for providing sustained engagement at a manageable cost. Yet online PD remains among the least popular training methods. This partly reflects recognition that within group training approaches social context is a key factor in long-term success: ‘Sustained engagement in the PD process appears to be best supported by social ... processes like negotiated meaning, authentic activity, collaboration, community and identity.’ The importance of social context and social presence in PD has sparked interest in the potential of ‘blended’ models of PD, which combine face-to-face and online learning in varying measures to try and provide an effective balance between cost factors and social context.

With particular reference to the Australian context, Anderson & Henderson argue that ‘the connection between sustained activity and social processes could usefully be explored from the theoretical perspectives of situated learning, CoP [Communities of Practice], reflective practice and social presence theory (and its interrelated theories of social affordance and transactional distance)’. They present a very interesting illustrative case study of a blended model of teacher PD in the use of digital tools to create student support materials for online learning that is informed by this theoretical framework. The authors claim that this case ‘provides some sturdy evidence for the potential of VLEs [virtual learning environments] to extend and sustain professional development ... in areas ... where ICT training is involved as well as in areas where it is not’.

In ‘Taking up Online Opportunities? Children’s Uses of the Internet for Education, Communication and Participation’, Sonia Livingstone & Magdalena Bober discuss a range of findings from the UK Children Go Online research project (www.children-go-online.net). This is an important and timely investigation of Internet uses made by 9 to 19 year-olds in Britain. It compares participants of different ages, backgrounds, and across genders to inquire how the Internet may be transforming and transformed by family life, peer relationships, and formal and informal learning.

The overall project involves three phases, two of which have been completed at the time of publication. It aims to balance an assessment of two areas of risk – namely, (1) access, inequalities and the digital divide, and (2) undesirable forms of content and contact – with two areas of opportunity – namely, (3) education, informal learning and literacy, and (4) communication, identity and participation. Underpinning the project is an interest in making informed contributions to developing academic and policy frameworks about young people’s uses of the Internet.

The focus in the present article is on the two areas of opportunity. Findings are drawn from the first two (completed) phases of the project. In Phase 1 the researchers conducted focus-group interviews, family visits and in-home observations with selected participants and interacted with a children’s online advisory panel. Phase 2 comprised a large-scale national ‘in-home, face-to-face survey of 1511 9‑19 year-olds and 906 parents ... selected using Random Location sampling procedures’. The final project phase, underway at the time of publication, involves conducting further focus-group interviews and observations to follow up the findings from the recently completed quantitative phase.

Core findings to emerge so far include the following:

  • Whereas other interest groups like parents and government may see the value of Internet access for the young mainly in terms of providing access to resources for learning, and invest in it under that description, ‘children and young people themselves are ... far more excited by the Internet as a communication medium’.
  • Children and young people are adept at using the Internet (instant message, email, chat) and mobile phone (talk, text) ‘to manage the intimacy, embarrassment, trust and privacy demands’ of close personal communications.
  • While children and young people use the Internet and mobile phones to sustain their peer networks, this is not necessarily generating ‘a wider interest in community or civic participation’.
  • The researchers detect a potential new digital divide based on inequalities in quality of Internet use. On one side of this divide are those for whom ‘the Internet is an increasingly rich, diverse, engaging and stimulating resource of growing importance in their lives’. On the other are those for whom the Internet remains ‘a narrow, unengaging if occasionally useful resource of rather less significance’.

Kevin Leander & Barbara Duncan provide the concluding article in this issue, ‘Community Construction in the Virtual: reconceptualizing joint action’. The context for this article is a group of students participating in an online university course in a simulation environment. The authors want to problematise the idea of ‘virtual community’ and its relations to learning. They begin by acknowledging the fact that celebratory and critical appraisals of the possibility of ‘online community’ exist side by side. Both are plagued with the problem that ‘community’ has multiple and, in many cases, implicit meanings.

To demonstrate what they see as some key tensions in theorising ‘virtual community’, Leander & Duncan adopt two complementary lines of critique. First, they explore some key characteristics typically associated with the idea of organic community and examine these in light of ‘the dynamics of virtualization’ to see how ‘different’ is constructed under conditions of technological mediation. Second, they critique understanding of ‘virtual spaces’ as the negation of ‘real spaces’. They construe the virtual

not as an opposite of the real, but as a different ‘mode of being’ from the actual. Virtual communities ... facilitate and emphasize particular qualities of the community experience. In so doing, we hope to challenge some current assumptions about what constitutes ‘community’ in a virtual environment as well as explore the ways that virtual communities are interpreted, conceptualized and constructed as democratic learning environments. Indeed, both real and virtual communities can be better understood in relation to a discussion of technological mediation.

At the same time, however, people involved in building and sustaining virtual communities often differentiate between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ experiences, not least in order to demarcate appropriate from inappropriate responses, actions and activity. This seemingly comes into tension with eliding the relations between the virtual and the real theoretically. Leander & Duncan argue, however, that the relations between the virtual and the real are also elided ‘during the interpretation of activity in the virtual’. In other words, ‘both ‘deliberate distinction’ and ‘elided relations’ of the virtual and the real appear to be common modes of participant practice that are meaningful for the development of virtual communities and their possible benefit to the education community’.

As with Angela Thomas’s article, Leander & Duncan build their argument around a substantial empirical inquiry into participant practices in online communities. In their investigation of students building community and meanings within the virtual space of their online course, Leander & Duncan ‘explore how virtual and real spaces and materials are both counter-posed and blended in practice, and how these spaces pose significant boundaries and challenges for the democratic learning environment’.

The issue concludes with Catherine Kell’s review of Gunther Kress’s 2003 book Literacy in the New Media Age. It is planned that book reviews become a regular integral component of future issues of the journal. Readers interested in contributing reviews are invited to contact the book review editors, and publishers are cordially invited to send books to the journal for possible review.

James Cook University, Australia
Montclair State University, USA


Imagine All that Stuff Really Happening: narrative and identity in children’s on-screen writing


In the world of work and in the social lives of many, new technology plays an important role in establishing and maintaining relationships and exchanging information. The school system varies in its response to this new technology and particularly to the popular communication of email and mobile phone users. In schools and classrooms, policies, practices and pupil cultures influence how on-screen writing is seen and used (Holloway & Valentine, 2003). Drawing on data from a series of school-based projects which have involved the use of interactive email, this article explores the relationship between narrative and identity in children’s on-screen writing. Using archived emails, and story fragments, the article shows how children borrow and transform the writing practices and voices of others. The study illustrates how children draw on popular culture texts and blend them with classroom material to produce hybrid narratives. Children’s agency is an important aspect of this work, which shows that, despite the institutional constraints of time and space, access to new technology can promote innovation and creativity.


Digital Literacies of the Cybergirl


This article explores the nexus between digital literacies and identity in the online graphical chat environment of the ‘palace’. With a focus on the adolescent cybergirl, it examines how girls use words and images to create a digital presence, and in so doing, ‘write’ their bodies and their selves. I discuss how the cybergirl is discursively constructed as well as self-produced within discourses of sexuality and idealised beauty. A grammatical analysis of both words and images is presented to describe the resources girls are using to construct their identities. In doing so, I highlight the particular ways that girls are creating cyberbodies that are encoded surfaces of the girls’ fantasies and desires. I argue that the palace is a site that produces new forms of femininities through allowing girls the space to explore, experience a sense of empowerment and find new ways of reinventing themselves.


e-PD: blended models of sustaining teacher professional development in digital literacies


It is commonly agreed that professional development of teachers in the use of information and communication technologies should be sustained over time. Most professional development, however, is delivered in single or short sequences of face-to-face sessions, paying little heed to this requirement. Once the face-to-face training is completed, a large proportion of teachers seemingly succumb to entropy. Often there is limited application of the proposed outcomes of the professional development in the classroom and few (if any) opportunities to share examples of successful programs or student work examples, particularly when teachers return to isolated or regional areas. With particular reference to an Australian context, this article suggests one way within a pragmatic approach to extend the traditional boundaries of face-to-face training and sustain professional development.


Taking Up Online Opportunities? Children’s Uses of the Internet for Education, Communication and Participation


The research project, UK Children Go Online (UKCGO), is conducting a rigorous investigation of 9‑19 year-olds’ use of the Internet, comparing girls and boys of different ages, backgrounds, etc., in order to ask how the Internet may be transforming, or may itself be shaped by, family life, peer networks and school. It combines qualitative interviews and observations with a major national survey of 9‑19 year-olds (n = 1511) and their parents (n = 906). This article focuses on two of the key opportunities the Internet affords to children and young people: first, education, informal learning and literacy and, second, communication and participation. While education and learning represent the ‘approved’ uses of the Internet, which is often the reason for which parents and governments invest in domestic Internet access, children and young people themselves are far more excited by the Internet as a communication medium. However, not all the opportunities available to children and young people are being taken up equally. Hence the article concludes by charting the emergence of a new divide, signalling emerging inequalities in the quality of Internet use, with children and young people being divided into those for whom the Internet is an increasingly rich, diverse, engaging and stimulating resource of growing importance in their lives, and those for whom it remains a narrow, unengaging if occasionally useful resource of rather less significance.


Community Construction in the Virtual: reconceptualizing joint action


Analyzing the activity of a group of students involved in an online university course with a simulation environment, this article considers and problematizes the idea of online community and its relations to learning. The analysis builds upon Dewey’s conception of organic community and related perspectives. In valuing ‘joint action,’ such perspectives bury the relational nature of community construction under more concrete and stable notions of common mediating artifacts, geographic locations and membership among diverse communities. When the held-in-common is destabilized in the virtual, relations of student learning to community construction must be significantly reconceptualized. Moreover, for participants the meanings of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ activities and communities are interwoven within the process of interpretation, and should be understood as developing through this tension. Students and instructors alike face significant challenges in forging new online democratic learning environments.


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