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Lessons from personal photography: The digital disruption of selectivity and reflection

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Abstract

Recent technological, cultural and economic factors have shifted the balance between recalling and reconstructing internalised information and accessing externalised information. While digital artefacts constitute an enormous and valuable set of resources, human engagement and reflection are important to the meaningful synthesis and application of knowledge in specific contexts. This is particularly clear in the case of personal photography, where recordings of life events are used to cue not just the facts and details of what happened, but associated subjective, sensory and emotional memory. This article draws on research into personal photography to highlight contrasting drivers of engagement and detachment with digital media, and applies these to students’ use of digital media within education. The posing of complex, situated problems that require the use of technology to construct creative, collaborative, multimodal projects is suggested as a way of cultivating social obligation and encouraging selectivity, engagement and reflection with digital media.
Lessons from personal photography: the digital disruption
of selectivity and reflection
Tim Fawns
Digital Education, University of Edinburgh
tfawns@ed.ac.uk
0131 242 6536
University of Edinburgh
49 Little France Crescent
Chancellor's Building, GU315
Edinburgh, EH16 4SB
Keywords: digital media, distributed cognition, memory, multimodal
assessment, photography, reflection, selectivity
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Running head: LESSONS FROM PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Abstract
Recent technological, cultural and economic factors have shifted the balance between
recalling and reconstructing internalised information and accessing externalised information.
While digital artefacts constitute an enormous and valuable set of resources, human
engagement and reflection are important to the meaningful synthesis and application of
knowledge in specific contexts. This is particularly clear in the case of personal photography,
where recordings of life events are used to cue not just the facts and details of what happened,
but associated subjective, sensory and emotional memory. This paper draws on research into
personal photography to highlight contrasting drivers of engagement and detachment with
digital media, and applies these to students’ use of digital media within education. The posing
of complex, situated problems that require the use of technology to construct creative,
collaborative, multimodal projects is suggested as a way of cultivating social obligation and
encouraging selectivity, engagement and reflection with digital media.
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Running head: LESSONS FROM PERSONAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Introduction
Consider that, if asked “do you know the time,” people will often reply in the
affirmative before they look at a watch or other timekeeping device. To Andy Clark (2003), in
his book “Natural Born Cyborgs,” this is part of a human capacity to incorporate external
objects into our thinking, one that can lead us to consider externally-held information to be
our own knowledge. The notion that cognition can be distributed - beyond the body and to
the environment - is supported by evidence such as that produced by Betsy Sparrow and
colleagues (2011), who found that if students expected to have easy access to information in
the future, they were less likely to remember it. Rather than retaining knowledge itself, their
efforts were directed at remembering how to access information.
In a similar vein, Linda Henkel (2013) has recently shown that photographing objects,
rather than simply observing them, impairs subsequent recall of their details unless those
photographs are reviewed. In other words, recording on our cameras comes at a cost to
encoding in our memories. In this sense, photography is not just a way of remembering, but
also of forgetting. Indeed, it is possible that we are slowly becoming dependent on
photographs for remembering life events just as many of us seem to have become dependent
on calculators for calculating and spellcheckers for spelling (Fawns, 2013). Even if this is the
case, rather than being inherently bad, it would be an efficient use of mental resources that
should, under most circumstances, enable us to perform effectively. After all, calculators
allow most people to solve much more difficult problems and spellcheckers help us to
conform to general rules of spelling (Fischer & Konomi, 2007). In the same way,
photographs give us the potential to remember more about what we have experienced
(Koutstaal et al., 1999). There are, however, potential risks with this particular adaptive
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function of our minds. In this paper, I consider some challenges – highlighted through the
study of personal photography - that digital media present for engaging with information.
To begin with, the way we engage with information has implications for the meaning
we take from it. For example, photographs can increase the perceived precision of our
memories by providing evidence of the details of past experience (Henkel, 2011), just as
other kinds of documents can be used to verify - or substitute - cognitive recall. However,
meaningfulness (or perceived significance to our identity or situation) and usefulness
(influence on our goal-systems and decision-making) are also part of the value of memory
(Fawns, 2013). While it may seem that more information should lead to more meaning and
more utility, it can also, in some cases, reduce the necessity and, therefore, the incentive for
reflection and interpretation (Sellen & Whittaker, 2010). In their critique of lifelogging (the
continuous attempt to record as many images and elements of lived experience as possible),
Sellen and Whittaker raise concerns that creating a comprehensive archive of representations
of experience is at odds with the primary function of memory in supporting reminiscence or
reflection. Personalised construction of memory, they argue, involves selection, effort and
attention. A similar issue exists for education, where a balance is needed between accessing
comprehensive archives of information and meaningfully constructing personalised
knowledge in relation to the learner’s perspective and experience.
Selectivity – the process of making decisions about what information should be
engaged with - is made more difficult by the ease with which digital media can be collected
or produced. Shirky (2008) describes barriers such as effort, time, money or storage capacity
as important filters that can prevent information overload and cautions against the erosion of
these filters that is often produced by technological advancement. In the case of pre-digital
photography, it was common to wait days for rolls of film exposures to be professionally
developed. This expense in terms of time, money and convenience curtailed the number of
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photographs produced. The evolution of digital technology has led to a significant decrease in
the barriers to producing and storing images and, consequently, to an exponential increase in
personal photography (Mayer-Schönberger, 2009). Some recent studies (e.g. Van House,
2009; Whittaker, Bergman & Clough, 2010; Whittaker et al., 2012) suggest that there is now
a trend of producing large photograph collections which are subsequently neglected,
highlighting the potential for people to be overwhelmed by information even when it is of
personal significance.
The phenomenon of encountering more information than can be engaged with is not
new. In 1525, for example, Erasmus (2001, p.145) complained of the printing press: “is there
anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” The situation became even
more intolerable during the subsequent print “explosion” of the 1550s, leading some scholars
to adopt strategies of “skimming” and “superficial reading” (Rosenberg, 2003). Now, the
expansion of digital archives is an extension of this situation that allows exponentially larger
amounts of information to be collected but not understood in depth.
In education, a compulsion to collect may come about from an accompanying feeling
that progress is being achieved despite minimal effort. Discussing the sort of automatic, non-
reflective thinking that is associated with information skimming, Norman (1993, p. 17)
warned that its enjoyment “…is also its danger. It seduces the participant into confusing
action for thought. One can have new experiences in this manner, but not new ideas, new
concepts, advances in human understanding. For these, we need the effort of reflection.” This
notion that effortful reflection is key to advancing understanding is supported by a number of
scholars. Gibbs (1988, p. 9) claimed that “it is not sufficient simply to have an experience in
order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its
learning potential lost.” Likewise, Kolb’s (1984) influential model features reflection and
abstraction as crucial processes in the cycle of learning from experience. Dewey (1933)
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claimed that reflection is necessary for making mental connections between ideas and focuses
not on gathering information but on reprocessing what is already known to arrive at new
conclusions. Indeed, what we do when we reflect might be more accurately conceived as
refraction: generating new ways of seeing by examining information through different lenses
or, as we will consider later, exploring its characteristics and possibilities via the properties of
different media.
A need for complex problems
Despite his awareness of the risks of experiential (non-reflective) thinking, Norman
(1993, p. 25) claimed that “…the use of external aids facilitates the reflective process by
acting as external memory storage, allowing deeper chains of reasoning over longer periods
of time than is possible without aids.” Storing information externally frees up cognitive load,
allowing mental resources to be directed toward reflection on the information that is
accessed. However, there is evidence from psychology (e.g. Kahneman, 2011) and
neuroscience (e.g. Doidge, 2009) that our minds tend to choose the path of least resistance
when solving a problem. If we can find a solution by accessing external information, we may
prefer to do so rather than go to the effort of recalling internalised information (as in the case
of Sparrow et al.’s 2011 study described earlier) or constructing new meaning. Thus, to
encourage reflection, we need a complex problem to solve, one which involves an
advancement in our thinking. As Moon (2001, p. 1) argues: “we do not reflect on a simple
addition sum – or the route to the corner shop. We reflect on things for which there is not an
obvious or immediate solution.”
Opportunities for confronting these sorts of subjective, situated problems are
naturally-occurring within the personal and social identity construction that takes place
through reminiscence (e.g. Rathbone, Moulin and Conway, 2008). For example, family photo
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archives can be powerful cues to personal meaning-making and reflection (e.g. Chalfen,
1987; Musello, 1979; Slater, 1995). However, it seems that having the opportunity to engage
with personal images is not enough. For most people, reviewing or organising photographs
happens only in relation to social expectations, such as when they are to be shared with others
(van House, 2009). According to van House, sharing photographs with friends and family
facilitates the co-construction of memory narratives and aids an important part of the memory
consolidation process. In constructing such narratives, people are not simply recounting what
happened but are negotiating a subjective and selective account of past experience (Neisser,
1988). Through such processes, we are not only constructing stories of our past, we are also
progressing our present view (Conway, 2005). Yet, despite the best of intentions, without a
social trigger – and preferably one for which there is a specified date by which others expect
it to be done - photographs remain unorganised on cameras, phones and hard drives
(Whittaker, Bergman and Clough, 2010; van House, 2011).
In education, assessment functions as a powerful social trigger since it generally
involves repercussions and a sense of obligation to others (e.g. teachers, other students,
family and friends) (Rowntree, 1987). Assessments that require collaboration (such as in
group work) might create even stronger triggers because of the added social responsibility
and the increased requirement to present and negotiate work in progress (Davies, 2009).
Through collaborative assessment, we can not only pose engaging, complex problems for
students to solve by working together, we can also create social pressure to do so and set
parameters against which they can judge the quality, relevance and provenance of digital
media. While it may be difficult to stop students collecting too much information
(particularly where teachers are prone to this themselves), carefully designed assessments can
help them engage with and reflect on what they collect. Note that I am not advocating the
assessment of reflection - that discussion is outside of the scope of this article. I am, however,
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advocating assessments that require reflection to create a satisfactory solution, as well as the
demonstration of subjective understanding of what has been created, how it has been created
and its potential for situated meaning.
Effective assessment problems can highlight the difference between access to
information and knowledge, synthesis, meaning-making and application. They can
demonstrate that information held in digital artefacts is not understood until we do something
with it that connects our current context with already-held, relevant knowledge (Carroll,
2009). Alongside possibilities for unselective practices, new technologies open up
opportunities for effortful, creative acts that involve sustained attention to the content and
meaning of information. Turning once more to photography, an extreme example is Deb
Roy's (2011) algorithmic analysis of 3 years of home video. By recording the various rooms
of his house for 8-10 hours per day, totalling 90,000 hours of video, Roy and his colleagues
were able to observe normally inaccessible phenomena such as the processes involved in his
son's learning to say the word "water". Ethical concerns aside, this project facilitated
reflective, engaged meaning-making through the creative use of technology and digital
artefacts. Another example is the project of Jonathan Harris (2011), who forced himself to
take one photograph every day and post it on his blog. Harris grappled with issues of personal
representation and performance in a public setting and gained insight into how, through his
project, his life was increasingly constructed by photography. Even more mundane examples,
made easier by the affordances of digital media, such as creating photo books, collages, or
multimedia slideshows, require time, effort and the considered use of technology. Their
creators must select and organise a subset of images for a particular purpose and audience,
then judge their qualities against personal criteria and discuss these with others. In addition,
the projects described here involve the integration of different modes of information (or
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“multimodality”) to create interdependent meaning that is more than the sum of its parts
(Kress, 2009).
According to Bezemer and Kress (2008), we learn differently from different modes of
communication because they create alternative opportunities for expression. In other words,
modes cannot simply be substituted for one another to produce the same meaning but instead
allow us to draw new meaning from the same issue (Kress 2009). As such, a range of modes
together can make a richer meaning than a single mode by itself. Roy’s and Harris’ projects,
described above, produce a richness of meaning by combining images, audio, text and
dialogue. A simple example from education might include the adding of diagrams and
illustrations to an academic text to develop the understanding of the topic for both reader and
author (Bezemer and Kress, 2008).
The projects above also involve construction of complex, integrated multimedia.
Papert and Harel’s (1991) account of constructionism suggests that knowledge is particularly
effectively developed through the creation of objects, theories or artefacts, since in doing so,
the creators come to understand the workings and processes of the various components and
how they interact. Multimodal artefacts involve the construction of meaning between modes
(e.g. image, text, animation) and analysis of the message to be conveyed in relation to the
media used to convey it (Kress, 2009). Meaning constructed in this way is more ambiguous
than in standalone text because the reader must combine different elements so that “each not
only complements, but is dependent on, the others” (O’Shea and Fawns, 2014, p. 259).
Hence, in sharing multimodal constructions (e.g. with peers or assessors), learners
must strive to enable others to understand what they have done. Multimodal works (digital,
hypertextual ones in particular) problematise the position of author and audience in relation
to meaning making because the author’s purpose when creating an artefact is not always clear
in many contexts that draw more on the reader’s position. This is as true for me, reminiscing
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via a photograph that was originally taken to report the arrival of my child, as it is for the
reader of a 200-year-old quote included in a blog post on digital photography.
Yet this does not relinquish responsibility for meaning from the creator. Kirschner &
van Merriënboer (2013, p. 171) liken unselective digital practices to “…butterflies fluttering
across the information on the screen, touching or not touching pieces of information (i.e.,
hyperlinks), quickly fluttering to a next piece of information, unconscious to its value and
without a plan.” Such thoughtless positioning of elements of information in relation to each
other undermines the “convincingness” (Ross, 2012) of the resulting multimodal
constellation. In constructing a collection of digital artefacts, it is easy to be distracted from
reflection by the activity of superfluous information gathering and, subsequently, to struggle
to make sense of this information. Rather than being unreflective scatterings of disparate
entities, convincing multimodal works such as those of Roy and Harris comprise selections of
media organised such that they are conducive to creativity and experimentation in the
generation of meaningful new connections. Selectivity is important not just because it
prevents us from being overwhelmed but because it focuses our attention on what is
important. It involves reflective decision-making, an evaluation of information in relation to
its source and how it fits with other elements. Here, the concept of refraction - the
multifaceted potential for new perspectives - problematises source evaluation: the same
source can be viewed differently depending on what is being created.
These complexities are multiplied in multimodal group projects, where students must
discuss issues and processes of creation and collaboration, thereby reflecting on
metacognitive aspects of the related learning. It is, therefore, not just the artefact that is
important but also the dialogue and interaction that emerges around it and helps students to
form more questioning and sophisticated understandings of the interplay between contexts.
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Conclusion
While new technology makes it easy to access information, trends of unselectively
collecting and creating large archives of digital artefacts can distract us from thinking about
what is contained in them. Reflecting on what we collect, and making connections with what
we already know, is vital to the development of sophisticated understandings, new ideas and
solutions.
If we accept the importance of reflection in education, then we should design
challenges for students that cannot be solved by the regurgitation of information but instead
require the integrated application of multiple sources of information to specific situations. In
this way, access to media archives opens up opportunities to enhance reflective capacity by
solving problems through the meaningful connection of information to situated contexts.
Alongside the potential for unselective collection, digital media and technology
provide powerful opportunities for reflective thinking. By encouraging the construction of
multimodal artefacts within assessment, we can give students projects that use technology to
engage their creativity and that require them to reflect on different forms of information by
placing them in relation to a central message. This can be helped by adding social triggers,
such as the deadlines and social motivations that accompany collaborative projects, to
encourage students to work with information in effortful ways.
Of course, there are important differences in how we interact with digital media in
relation to personal photography and formal learning. For one thing, in a personal context,
shared understanding can be continuously developed over time, through ongoing dialogue,
whereas in multimodal assessment the scope for negotiating shared meaning is often limited
by the temporal boundaries of the course and the political boundaries of the teacher-student
relationship. However, just as creativity within personal photography can lead to new insights
into identity, perspective and the place of the personal within society, the authoring of
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multimodal content can be used in education to generate new understandings of complex
concepts (O’Shea and Fawns, 2014). The key message here is that the way we use
information is important, and carefully designed triggers can help students to maintain a
healthy balance between internally and externally-held information, between experiential and
reflective modes of thinking (Norman, 1993), and between the collection of new information
and reflection on what we have already acquired.
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... For them, digital media have become a means of motivation for independent research in classes (Gleen, 2015). Besides, they also developed an interest for new knowledge in classes, which is not directly related to the teaching contents that are taught (Fawns, 2015). ...
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Frequently writing is now no longer the central mode of representation in learning materials—textbooks, Web-based resources, teacher-produced materials. Still (as well as moving) images are increasingly prominent as carriers of meaning. Uses and forms of writing have undergone profound changes over the last decades, which calls for a social, pedagogical, and semiotic explanation. Two trends mark that history. The digital media, rather than the (text) book, are more and more the site of appearance and distribution of learning resources, and writing is being displaced by image as the central mode for representation. This poses sharp questions about present and future roles and forms of writing. For text, design and principles of composition move into the foreground. Here we sketch a social semiotic account that aims to elucidate such principles and permits consideration of their epistemological as well as social/pedagogic significance. Linking representation with social factors, we put forward terms to explore two issues: the principles underlying the design of multimodal ensembles and the potential epistemological and pedagogic effects of multimodal designs. Our investigation is set within a research project with a corpus of learning resources for secondary school in Science, Mathematics, and English from the 1930s, the 1980s, and from the first decade of the 21st century, as well as digitally represented and online learning resources from the year 2000 onward.
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The 21st century is awash with ever more mixed and remixed images, writing, layout, sound, gesture, speech, and 3D objects. Multimodality looks beyond language and examines these multiple modes of communication and meaning making. Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication represents a long-awaited and much anticipated addition to the study of multimodality from the scholar who pioneered and continues to play a decisive role in shaping the field. Written in an accessible manner and illustrated with a wealth of photos and illustrations to clearly demonstrate the points made, Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication deliberately sets out to locate communication in the everyday, covering topics and issues not usually discussed in books of this kind, from traffic signs to mobile phones. In this book, Gunther Kress presents a contemporary, distinctive and widely applicable approach to communication. He provides the framework necessary for understanding the attempt to bring all modes of meaning-making together under one unified theoretical roof. This exploration of an increasingly vital area of language and communication studies will be of interest to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students in the fields of English language and applied linguistics, media and communication studies and education.