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Sheffield Hallam University Creative Commons Licence Reflections on Digital Literacy

This case study raises questions about how we define digital literacies and how we see these as related to other domains such as art and design or technological competence. Throughout the project, the children spoke confidently about notions of colour and line, concepts associated with art and design. We could argue that the skills of visual composition, so much part of the composition of digital texts, should be seen as part of ‘digital literacy’, with ‘literacy’ including a wider range of communicative and expressive practices beyond the verbal or alphabetic.

We gain a different perspective on digital literacies by looking more broadly at this case study as a cluster of activities that include the children’s comments on the blog as well as Kate’s tweets and blog posts. Here we can focus on digital communication that enables Kate and her children to ‘do’ something different from what would be possible with paper – to share their thoughts and perspectives alongside their images. Their writing, in this context, enables them – like the children at Bradfield Dungworth Primary School [Case Study 7] Sharrow Nursery [Case Study 5], Winterhill [Case Study 4], and Halfway Junior School [Case Study 2] – to participate in broader communities.

5185 students and their iPadsThe comments also tell us something about the process of composition – and perhaps help us better understand the creative process that was occurring around the use of Brushes on the iPad. They tell us about the skills and understandings that children gained – about colour, about how to use the app, and so on; they also remind us that children were not just concerned with skills – how well they could represent their flower on screen; and finally, they provide an insight into other aspects of their experience. They liked the feel of drawing on screen with a finger and of playing with the iPad and of being allowed to use the screen by themselves. These choices by the children were not just shaped by their developing skills but intersected with their personal preferences, enjoyment of playing with the app and physical manipulation of the screen. The use of web 2.0  tools here helps us to understand the children’s experiences of meaning-making that perhaps enable us, as educators, to better understand how they approach this and what matters to them.

We can look at this case study in a variety of ways. First we can focus on the skills children were learning, which were analogous to those that might be developed in a more traditional observational drawing lesson: learning to look carefully and represent what they saw using available tools. The recordings of children’s peer interviews demonstrate how articulate they were about the process of composition using the iPad. These children are very clear about the decisions they make and how they could achieve the effects they wanted. Of course they may have been just as articulate had they been using crayon and paper. However, they do seem very able to explain what they did. This helps us think about what happens as we tackle a familiar task using a new tool? Does this help to raise our awareness of what the original tool did? Do these new awarenesses transfer back to using the original tool? Does this matter? Some evidence would suggest that when children communicate in forms analogous to – but different from – those normally associated with schooled literacy, this develops metaliguistic awareness, which may be useful in paper-based meaning-making. We can see this in research that has considered children’s writing on and off screen (Burnett, Dickinson, Merchant and Myers 2005). Maybe this is true for drawing too. When these children were prompted to compare drawing digitally and on paper, it is possible that the act of comparison helped them be more explicit about what they were doing in their use of colour and line for example. This is not to suggest that drawing digitally should only be used to support drawing on paper. Brushes provides a new and different media for children to use. It does, however, raise questions about relationships between creating on screen and creating on paper.

5185 students and their iPadsSecond, we can look at the iPad itself. While some children were excited about using Brushes, for others it was the opportunity to use the iPad that seemed significant. Some of the children had access to iPads at home or at least knew family members who had them. At home of course these devices became very much part of everyday life – one child told a story of an iPad getting scratched when a grandparent’s dogs came to visit; another told of not being allowed to touch her mother’s iPad. iPads are not neutral technologies but are already associated with specific contexts, events and experiences. Through this project, the children came to explore the iPads themselves and perhaps encountered new possibilities. For some, the attraction was that this gave them access to a whole host of familiar resources – playing Angry Birds was a favourite, for example. For others, being introduced to Brushes seemed to give them their own way of using the iPads, sometimes going beyond what their parents knew. We saw this in the competence and confidence with which they instructed their parents in the use of Brushes at the parent open days.

Third, we can look at this case study in relation to the digital texts produced around the composition of the flower: the children’s comments on the blog, their podcasts and videos and Kate’s tweets. The creation of the flower is just one of many compositions that formed part of this project. The digital interactions that happened around the flower paintings were also important. The children were not creating an image to be displayed in a classroom or sent home at the end of the day but an image to be added to a digital mural and displayed publicly in Sheffield and online. Their linked comments and thoughts – capturing the process and their own perspectives on the experience – all became part of the digital event. The significance here is more in how digital technology allows an over-layering of what happens in the classroom with happenings elsewhere. Their compositions seemed to ‘mean’ something different – or have an increased significance because they were accessible to a wider audience.

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