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Abstract

While it has proved a useful concept during the past 20 years, the notion of ‘critical digital literacy’ requires rethinking in light of the fast-changing nature of young people's digital practices. This paper contrasts long-established notions of ‘critical digital literacy’ (based primarily around the critical consumption of digital forms) with the recent turn towards ‘digital design literacy’ (based around the production of digital forms). In doing so, three challenges emerge for the continued relevance of critical digital literacy: (1) the challenge of critiquing the ideological concerns with the digital without alienating the individual's personal affective response; (2) connecting collective concerns to do with social and educational inequalities to individual practices; and (3) cultivating a critical disposition in a context in which technical proficiency is prioritised. The paper then concludes by suggesting a model of ‘critical digital design’, offering a framework that might bridge the divide between critical literacy models and the more recent design-based literacy models.
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Reconceptualising critical digital literacy
Luciana Pangrazio*
Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
While it has proved a useful concept during the past 20 years, the notion of critical
digital literacyrequires rethinking in light of the fast-changing nature of young
peoples digital practices. This paper contrasts long-established notions of critical
digital literacy(based primarily around the critical consumption of digital forms) with
the recent turn towards digital design literacy(based around the production of digital
forms). In doing so, three challenges emerge for the continued relevance of critical
digital literacy: (1) the challenge of critiquing the ideological concerns with the digital
without alienating the individuals personal affective response; (2) connecting collect-
ive concerns to do with social and educational inequalities to individual practices; and
(3) cultivating a critical disposition in a context in which technical proficiency is
prioritised. The paper then concludes by suggesting a model of critical digital design,
offering a framework that might bridge the divide between critical literacy models and
the more recent design-based literacy models.
Keywords: critical digital literacy; digital media; digital practices; education; design
literacies; internet
Introduction
In the contemporary era, the success of young people as students, engaged citizens and
future employees has been linked to digital literacy. Some theorists claim that without
the skills to use and evaluate the digital tools now found in most informal and formal
contexts, students will be left behindin various aspects of their lives from
employment to social interaction (Chase & Laufenberg, 2011; Meyers, Erickson, &
Small, 2013). Defining what is meant by digital literacy however has proven complicated,
as the spaces, texts and tools which contextualise such practices are continually changing.
Perhaps for this reason, some commentators adopt broad definitions of digital literacies.
Thorne (2013), for instance, offers a broad definition of digital literacies as semiotic
activity mediated by electronic media(p. 192), which, while accurate, avoids outlining
the more specific skills and practices required. Other definitions of digital literacy have
tended to fall into the categories of either mastery and operational proficiency, or
evaluation and critique (Lankshear & Knobel, 2011). For example, Jones and Hafner
(2012) define digital literacy along proficiency lines, which involves operating digital
tools and the ability to adapt the affordances and constraints of these tools to particular
circumstances(p. 13). Whereas Gilster (in Pool, 1997, p. 9) argues digital literacy is
about knowledge assemblyand how to assimilate the information, evaluate it, and
reintegrate it.
*Email: luciana.pangrazio@monash.edu
© 2014 Taylor & Francis
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While these definitions have all been successfully operationalised in various settings,
there is a growing sense that they cannot account for the diverse and dispersed range of
digital practices and processes of everyday life. Indeed, the increased complexity of
contemporary digital contexts has caused several researchers to call for new frameworks
through which to study and develop these new literacies (Avila & Pandya, 2013; Coiro
et al., 2008). Further tensions arise when faced with the task of defining what it means to
engage critically with digital media. For example, it could be considered a set of skills
and practices(Avila & Pandya, 2013, p. 2), a form of curatorship (Potter, 2012) or
empowering consumers to shape content (Jenkins, 2008). Indeed, the multiple forms of
critical digital literacy reflect the array of academic disciplines involved with this area of
research and their different theoretical underpinnings and goals. Against this backdrop
there is clearly a need for continuing to challenge and test what we mean by critical
digital literacy in the complex, contemporary digital landscape.
Tensions within academic understandings of criticaldigital literacy
A critical literacy approach an ethical analysis
The development of a distinct critical digital literacyand its relationship with education
has been approached in a number of different ways. First, there is the straightforward
notion of the critical consumption of digital forms. Beginning in the late 1980s, a variety
of models provided theoretical frameworks for critical digital literacy education along
these lines. These models built on sociocultural perspectives of literacy and sought to
contextualise digital practice within history, culture and power. Within these models
criticality is framed in such a way that it can be translated across contexts and media. For
example, Bill Greens(1988) three-dimensional model of literacy involves operational,
cultural and critical dimensions, thereby scaffolding the individual into transforming and
producing meaning through their literacy practices. At the time, this represented an
expanded notion of literacy, with the operational concerned with effective language use,
the cultural with meaning and the critical with power (Green, 2002, p. 27). Janks (2000)
identifies an ability to understand and manage the relationship between language and
power(p. 175) as the key concern of critical literacy. She argues that issues of
domination, access, diversity and design should be seen as enterprises that are crucially
interdependent(p. 178) and that deconstruction without reconstruction or design
reduces human agency(p. 178). Similarly, Lukes(2000) definition of critical literacy
involves three components: the first is metaknowledgeof meaning systems and the
sociocultural contexts in which they are produced and embedded; the second involves
the technical skills to negotiate these systems; and the final involves the capacity to
understand how these systems and skills operate in the interests of power(p. 72).
In each of these approaches, the two components of digital literacy outlined earlier
the mastery of the technical and/or an evaluative or critical component are evident. Yet
there is little in these conceptualisations of critical digital literacy that appears specifically
digitalin focus, and as such, they can be applied across contexts and media. This
neglect of what is specifically distinct about the digital context is also evident in more
recent definitions of critical digital literacy. For example, Avila and Pandya (2013)
describe critical digital literacy as having two goals: to investigate manifestations of
power relations in texts, and to design, and in some cases redesign, texts in ways that
serve other, less powerful interests(p. 3). While design and production are considered in
these models, the more important component essentially what redesignrelies on is
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recognising how the forces and effects of ideology and power manifest in the text. In the
digital context, this presents a set of new and unique challenges to literacy. Nevertheless,
these critical digital models echo Freires(1970) critical pedagogy, where the goal of
literacy education is to overturn social and political inequalities. Some theorists like Area
and Pessoa (2012), for example, argue that digital literacy equates to no less than a civic
education therefore underscoring the social and moral obligations developed as part of
an individuals digital literacy competencies. In a similar way, Douglas Kellner (2001)
advocates a return to the instructional principles of Dewey by highlighting the connections
between education and democracy. He writes that without the proper resources, ped-
agogy, and educational practices(p. 68), technology has the potential to increase the
existing divisions of cultural capital, power and wealth. Indeed, a key feature of this
approach is that it focuses on analysing ideology, which requires the individual to adopt
an ethical perspective on their engagement with digital forms.
A critical media literacy approach acknowledging the personal
In response to this more objective approach to critique, another strand of critical digital
literacy has emerged which sought to highlight the personal experiences of the individual.
As part of this approach the ideological is downgraded, while the politics of pleasure
(Alvermann, 2004) is foregrounded. British media theorists like Buckingham (2003) and
Sefton-Green (1998) have drawn attention to young peoples everyday use of digital texts
in which a correctideological reading of these texts is less important than how they
connect with learners lives. The problem with contemporary forms of critical literacy,
Buckingham (2003) asserts, is that they tend to be based around one commonly perceived
reading of political correctness that an educator imparts to their students. In this model,
students are seen as victims of media manipulation(p. 118), while the educator acts as
gatekeeper over the knowledge and skills that will liberate them from the repressive
ideologies expressed through popular media. Buckingham (2003) describes this didactic,
politically correct approach to critical literacy as self-aggrandising(p. 108) on the part
of the researchers and educators involved. Drawing on the work of Masterman (1985),
Buckingham (2003) instead argues that the goal of critical literacy is not simply critical
awareness and understanding, it is critical autonomy(p. 107). In this approach, critical
analysis provides opportunities for identity work(p. 109) in which a variety of social
identities can be experimented with. Also highlighting the personal aspect of critique,
John Potter (2012) describes the production and representation of identity through digital
media as a type of self-curatorship. In a study on postgraduate students and blogging,
Potter and Banaji (2011) highlighted the ability of participants to work through how
learner and teacher identity plays out in an era in which self-curatorship is a key skill and
disposition in new media(p. 89). These researchers concluded that there was nothing
inherently new in this process; however, it was rendered newly visible(p. 89), thereby
offering points for reflection and analysis. Self-curatorship therefore emerged as a form of
critical consumption in which the axial point was the individual.
Other models have also focused on the individual in developing critical skills in
specific digital contexts. Burnett and Merchants(2011)Tri-partite Modelof critical
practice specifically targets social media. Building on Greenhow and Robelias(2009)
idea of advantageous online community practices(p. 136), Burnett and Merchant
advance a conceptual model that highlights the inter-relationships between identity,
practice and networks that take place around, through and outside social media.
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This shifts the focus of the model from the media to be critiqued to how the individual
engages with these, integrating identity with critical practice. They write:
Critical practice in this context may be less about digital technology as an abstract force
(one that considers how it might structure our thoughts and actions) and more about an
interrogation and evaluation of what we and others are actually doing on and off-line. (p. 51)
This model marks a shift in the locus of practice that may be more suitable for networked,
fluid texts like social media. They argue that using social media is a usually pleasurable
pursuit, so any critical practice needs to balance learner interest with more serious ped-
agogical aims (Burnett & Merchant, 2011). This approach treats the individuals personal
response to digital forms as a type of resourcefrom which to explore the formation of
their beliefs, values and responses. In this approach, critical literacy is therefore linked to
the process of shaping social identities.
Digital design literacies the importance of making
Sitting alongside the corpus of work on critical engagement with digital media is a more
recent perspective on how key issues of digital literacy can be addressed. The design
turnin literacy studies loosely refers to the idea that unpacking and examining the
processes of digital design in an educational setting lead the learner to a critical and
practical knowledge of digital text production a critical digital literacy. The New
London Group (1996) first introduced designas a key component of literacy education
in their work on multiliteracies to acknowledge, among other things, the changes in
communication brought about by new technologies. In its original instantiation, design
was seen as a key tool that learners might draw upon to devise their social futures(p. 4).
However, in recent years, the idea of design has focused more specifically on the digital
context and is becoming an increasingly popular method of digital literacy education.
Key to the latest design turnis the work of Gunther Kress (2003), but variations of this
theme have arisen in the work of Mary Sheridan and Jennifer Rowsell (2010), Henry
Jenkins (2006) and David Gauntlett (2011). Unlike the two approaches described earlier
that originate from non-digital contexts, digital design literacies respond more specifically
to the digital context and therefore represent a potential way forward for critical digital
literacy. While this approach is focused on the outcomes of making, creating and
producing, it provides an avenue for individuals to express their ideas, values and beliefs
and in this way can mobilise personal or affective responses to digital texts.
In Literacies in the New Media Age, Kress (2003) argues that the world of
communication is now constituted in ways that make it imperative to highlight the
concept of design, rather than concepts such as acquisition, or competence, or critique
(pp. 3637). This is not only due to temporal changes in communication and production
brought about by digital technology but also the dominance of the visual mode on screen.
Crucially, what design emphasises is the desire or interest of the text-maker, essentially
providing a relative point of reference in a seemingly unstable and chaoticsocial
environment. Kress argues that traditional forms of ideological critique are less important
as these were forged out of a particular time that relied on dynamic change to revivify the
system. While critique is oriented backward and toward superior power(Kress, 2010,
p. 6), design shapes the future through deliberate deployment of representational
resources in the designers interest(Kress, 1997, p. 77). In a study of professional
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designers, Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) elaborate Kresss notion of design to better
understand the aesthetic and logistical forces that are brought to bear through the process
of production. As they explain, becoming a producercan help instil positive literacy and
intellectual practices in learners, by moving beyond the typical schooling practices of
restating and critique(Sheridan & Rowsell, 2010, p. 111). In this way, it is argued that
design literacies provide a useful way to build individual agency via an immanent,
technical form of critique.
Indeed, there is growing interest in new literacy models based around the idea of
design. While appealing, it is important to consider how the focus of literacy has shifted
within this recent design turn. In a report for the Macarthur Foundation, Confronting the
Challenges of Participatory Culture, Jenkins (2006) identifies 12 skills as characteristics
for literacy in the digital environment. Much of what the report describes involves
negotiation of the tools and texts encountered in digital contexts, so young people are
empowered and active contributors. Underpinning Jenkinsnotion of participatory culture
is the fact that members believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of
connection with one another(p. 3), thereby highlighting the social and cultural aspects of
participation at the expense of any political aspects (Fuchs, 2014). Interestingly, of the 12
skills outlined in Jenkinsreport only one of these –‘Judgment’–is explicitly concerned
with what might be traditionally considered critical literacy skills. In this context, it
appears critique is concerned with the credibility and reliability of information and not the
more difficult questions of power, ideology and discourse. Jenkins12 skills scaffold the
individual to work within the current systemof digital media and technology, rather
than to challenge, question or critique it. Fuchs (2014) underscores this point when he
describes the skills as activities that can all work well in a company context(p. 56) and
do not include any critical thinking.
Adopting a slightly different version of the design framework is David Gauntlett
(2011) who argues that reallearning takes place when people make and create. Indeed,
Gauntletts work is indicative of a wider maker movementthat will, according to some,
transform learning through its hands on, do it yourself approach. The overarching focus
of the maker movement is on the creation of newthings, while along the way learning
skills of mastery and critique. In this context, critique is seen as an ability to imagine
innovative and alternative creations and practices. It could be argued, however, that the
design turn in digital literacy mitigates the political orientations of critique under the
guise of creativity, which is, by nature, more social and aesthetic in orientation. Mark
Readman (2013), for example, describes creativity as a convenient cipher(p. 169) for
critical engagement at a time when criticality is a vital necessity(p. 161). While a digital
design model of literacy celebrates notions of individual agency, in its current form this
approach does not involve a critique of agentic issues such as the ownership of digital
media platforms or their governance leaving the underlying ideology of the digital
contexts largely unquestioned. Instead, in place of critique the object or creation of design
is fetishised and the critical dimension is muted(Wark, 2013, p. 302). Prioritising the
productsor outcomes of learning in this way certainly fits with the demands of a
knowledge economy(Readman, 2013). However, if critical thinking is to remain within
the digital literacy paradigm then an important question to consider is how digital design
can use creativity to move beyond the personal to consider issues of a political and
ethical nature.
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Overcoming the limitations within academic models of critical digital literacy
meeting the needs of the individual
While some models acknowledge elements of all three orientations the ethical, the
personal and the maker each orientation has a particular emphasis which, when applied
in teaching and learning contexts becomes even further accentuated. In the current digital
context, it therefore becomes difficult for any one of these models to account completely
for the increasing complexity and diversity of practices. As the contemporary digital
landscape is itself converging, diverging [and] complicating(Livingstone, 2013, p. 7),
the very definition of what critical digital literacy refers to is inevitably contested, leading
to a variety of academic approaches underpinned by particular values and priorities. As a
result, it appears difficult for any of the models outlined to explore affective and creative
responses to digital forms and critique broader concerns to do with discourse, ideology
and power in a specifically digital context. Crudely put, critical digital literacy has evolved
to become largely positioned as an either/or proposition: where critique of the digital
context is focused on either critical consumption or creative production; and builds either
the technical skills of design or the more general, theoretical skills of critique. Such binary
opposition has fragmented critical digital literacy along theoretical lines that ultimately
prevent the framework from meeting the needs of its target audience the individual.
In order to advance the abstract, academic debate surrounding critical digital literacy,
we might first begin by taking stock of the needs and practices of the individual. Of
course, the individual in everyday life does not divide their digital practices according to
binary oppositions, but instead moves fluidly between the ethical and the personal; the
objective and the subjective; the creative and the critical. Practices spread across digital
contexts and include social, cultural and political elements. Seen in this light, any attempt
to foster critical digital literacy with young people needs to reconcile these binaries.
However, in order to improve the efficacy of critical digital literacy, it is important to
examine the binaries upon which these academic approaches have been fragmented. In
doing this, future conceptions of critical digital literacy might overcome these tensions to
provide a framework that is more responsive to current contexts and practices. These
tensions can be seen as existing in at least three different ways:
The ideologicaland the personal
A significant challenge lies in reconciling an ideological critique with the individuals
personal and affective experiences of digital media. There are two strands to this challenge.
First, is how critical digital literacy can cultivate a dispassionate, critical disposition in a
context that invests deeply in the personal and affective. Second, is how a more nuanced
understanding of power and ideology within the digital medium might be developed.
Reconciling these priorities might begin by recognising that ideology is intrinsic to the
personal and affective experiences of texts. Misson and Morgan (2006) explain that it is
often the coherence that ideology provides that is the very source of emotional power(p.
88). Indeed, digital texts provoke emotion because they reference or reflect a reality shaped
by ideology that has particular meaning to the individual. Unpacking and understanding how
ideology is made affective and personal could therefore become a powerful method of
critique in the digital context. In this way the individual is the axial point; however, their
personal experiences might be a portalthrough which to explore the deeper ideologies that
structure the reality of the digital context.
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While digital practices are being married to broader social and political concerns in the
classroom (see Tate, 2011), a more difficult prospect lies in understanding the ideological
architectureof the digital, which by nature is more complex and opaque. However, if
critical digital literacy is to transform digital practices then developing an understanding of
these concepts is necessary. An ideological critique might therefore involve developing an
awareness of the dominant ideologies that underpin digital technology, the way ideology
and the political economy intersect to create power asymmetries in the digital context, and
how these processes are applied through targeted advertising and consumer culture.
Collective concernsand individual practices
Another tension lies in reconciling collective concerns around social and educational
inequalities with the more individualised practices that have been encouraged by digital
media. In many ways the word userreflects the libertarian and neoliberal ideologies that
underpin contemporary technology (Selwyn, 2014), positioning the individual as a user
or consumer of resources rather than an active, engaged citizen. Lovink and Rossiter
(2005), for example, assert that the useris the identity par excellence of capitaland
that ties to the collective are so looseonline that they are at the point of breaking up
(n.p.). This might, in part, explain the increasing interest in design literacies in which the
agency of the individual is prioritised. However, it is important to remember that using
technology is not in and of itself educational or revolutionary. Constructive use of digital
technology requires ongoing analysis and interpretation to not only ensure that we make
the most of our digital experiences but also that our practices are ethical and avoid the
exploitation or manipulation of others. To be transformative to the individual and society,
critical digital literacy should therefore provide opportunities to examine broader issues
associated with digital media use. This might include examining how digital technologies
reinforce issues of social class, race and gender and what might be done to challenge and
overturn exploitation and inequality.
Technical masteryand a critical disposition
If we accept that digital technology is part of a techno-social system, then digital literacy
has to encompass much more than a set of technical skills (Fuchs, 2014). Learning within
a techno-social system involves technical mastery and inquiry, analysis and critique.
However, a critical disposition is not often equated with productive and successful
behaviour in the digital context. As Lovink and Rossiter (2005) explain It takes effort to
reflect on distrust as a productive principle(n.p.). Perhaps this explains why school-
based digital literacy programmes are showing a clear preference for a technical, design
approach to digital literacy. In 2014, the UK national curriculum for computing aims to
teach students coding from Stage 1 (aged 57 years),
1
and in Australia, the National
Curriculum will introduce two new compulsory subjects for all students in primary and
secondary school which seek to develop design thinkingand the ability to define,
design and implement digital solutions.
2
Indeed, learning to code is considered by some
as not only important to an individualsfuture career prospectsbut also to their
countrieseconomic competitivenessand technological future (Gardiner, 2014).
While learning how to use and manipulate digital technology is important, without an
understanding of the role humans play in questioning, challenging and therefore shaping
this techno-social system, then the scope of digital literacy is limited. A reconceptualised
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critical digital literacy might therefore provide opportunities to consider and critique the
broader social, political and economic issues, alongside programmes that seek to develop
technical mastery. Rather than contextually bound notions of skillsand practices,a
critical disposition would be transferrable across digital contexts and consequently more
relevant to the fast-paced realities of everyday digital contexts and digital practices. A
critical disposition might encompass a form of curatorship, but would encourage the
individual to include a degree of scepticism in their approach so that the culture that
created such tools and practices might also be critically evaluated (Honn, 2013). This
prevents digital practices and tools from appearing as a series of natural, inevitable
processes which become uncritically inscribed into daily life. The challenge for critical
digital literacy, however, lies in encouraging the individual to move between these
mindsets (i.e., critical and technical) as part of their digital practices.
Critical digital design towards a new framework for digital literacy
This paper concludes by sketching out the beginnings of a framework that might go some
way towards addressing these issues what might be called critical digital design. In
addition to concerns of design, critical digital design can be thought of as a deliberately
political model of digital literacy in which complex and detailed understandings of
discourse, ideology and power in the digital context are scaffolded. It aims to analyse the
specific multimodal features of digital texts, as well as the general architecture of digital
technology and the Internet, so that a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of
these concepts is developed in the learner. In comparison to digital design models, critical
digital design focuses more on how this architecture manifests and maintains systems
of power and privilege; however, unlike more traditional models of critique it aims to
launchthis from a more personal position so that an individuals beliefs and emotions
might be used to guide the analysis. While critique begins with the individual there are
opportunities for collectivism not only through group reflection but also in considering
concerns around social and educational inequalities. This collective approach speaks back
to the more individualised practices that typically characterise digital technology use.
The practices that distinguish critical digital design from other digital literacy models
involve practical attempts to reconcile the binary oppositions evident in critical digital
literacy and digital design literacies. While any approach is likely to involve a range of
practices and pedagogies, the aim here is to explain the techniques that are new in this
context and that might therefore reconceptualise critical digital literacy. Rather than
focusing on specific technologies, these practices aim to explore and expand on the
human, interpretative process associated with digital media use. These include:
Transcendental critique
Fundamental to critical digital design is the reinstatement of a transcendental critique or a
critical distance from digital networks (Taylor, 2006), in which social and political issues
related to digital media might be examined. The speed and ephemerality of information in
the digital era have caused many theorists to argue that the separate spacefrom which to
launch critical analysis has been lost; critique must be immanent and take place from inside
of the information order(Lash, 2002, p. 176). Like others (e.g. Kress, 2010), Lash equates
critique with the ability to exert control from within by refashioning and reappropriating
digital media to suit our needs and desires, marking what some call a decidedly affirmative
170 L. Pangrazio
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Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education
version of critique (Taylor & Ruiz, 2007). There are intrinsic difficulties associated with
critique in the digital era; however, a transcendental perspective enables a different kind of
analysis. Cultivating a transcendental position external to digital media might encourage the
examination of social and political issues related to digital media use, and provoke critical
reflection on personal digital practices and identities. A transcendental critique might be
achieved by creating a sense of distancefrom digital media through a series of activities
and provocations that decontextualise everyday use and therefore encourage the individual
to reassess, reflect and renew their engagement with it. Subsequent to this, technical skills
might then be used to realise positive changes, not only to individual digital practices but
also to society more broadly. Indeed, the success of each of the practices described below is
reliant to some degree on the cultivation of a transcendental perspective.
Visualisation
Visualisation of digital networks might increase the cognitive tools with which the digital
context might be conceived and approached. It would draw on digital aesthetics and data
visualisation (Manovich, 2013) to decontextualise or defamiliarise digital texts, tools and
practices with the goal of suspending or interrupting commonly held assumptions and views.
This might lead to a clearer understanding of the architecture of the digital context and its
ideological underpinnings, countering the neosymbolism(Galloway, 2011) that has come
to dominate thinking in and around the digital. At the same time, visualisation would expand
the realm of possibilities available for daily digital practices and redesign. As a practice,
visualisation could also help to unpack and understand the metaphors which organise our
interaction with digital media and networks. As van den Boomen (2014) argues:
If metaphors structurally encapsulate digital practices we may wonder what they do to our
understanding of digital code, and what this means for digital codes far reaching
implications for culture and society. (p. 13)
The main purpose of visualisation would therefore be to develop a more practical and in-
depth understanding of digital networks, while at the same time questioning the concep-
tual tools that shape our engagement. However, visualisation could also be used to chart
reimagined and restructured digital networks.
Critical self-reflection
Critical self-reflection might be used to explore the relationship between personal,
affective responses to digital texts and broader ideological concerns. Rather than seeing
these two aspects of digital media as oppositional, through critical self-reflection the
personal becomes a conduitto the ideological. This practice might begin with analysis
of personal digital practices, but through analysis, discovery and provocation these practices
become, in a sense, objectifiedand are therefore seen as symptomatic of the wider digital
context. Exploring personal digital histories with particular focus on how these are shaped
by particular digital discourses is one way in which dominant ideologies might be
questioned. Such a process might also encourage the individual to see their identity as
fluid thereby resisting the inclination to essentialise identity to any one community (Janks,
2010) or digital platform. Critical self-reflection therefore becomes a way in which the
individual can move between the personal and the ideological while exploring and analysing
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concepts that are embedded in digital technologies and networks. Such a process is not
simply the cataloguing of digital practices, but involves some degree of discomfort, as
broader social and political issues are drawn into the exploration and ultimately linked to
individual practices. As Megan Boler (1999) writes, without the critical dimension self-
reflection can be reduced to a form of solipsism(p. 178). While critical self-reflection
involves discomfort, it has the potential to be genuinely transformative to the individual
and society. Indeed, discomfortmight be the result of relating the personal to the
ideological; nevertheless it is perhaps the only way in which critical digital design might be
genuinely transformative. If successfully implemented critical self-reflection encourages the
individual to see personal digital practices as a form of political engagement.
Interpretation and re-articulation of digital concepts
Reconciling collective concerns with individual practices might also involve questioning
the rhetoric that has come to shape the way we think about digital media. For example, to
describe web 2.0 as a participatory culture(Jenkins, 2006) and social media as a
networked public(Boyd, 2014) automatically link these platforms to concepts of
freedom, democracy and civic engagement. Such descriptions develop positive associa-
tions that ultimately conceal some of the more complex and confronting issues of digital
media use (Fuchs, 2014). Peeling back this rhetoric to understand the reality of
digital systems is therefore an important part of developing a critical disposition towards
digital media. In addition, questioning what concepts like free, friend, link, like,
community, share, collaboration and open actually represent in the digital context might
result in a more conscious and knowing mode of engagement. This practice would not
only question assumed definitions but also explore how and why these phrases have been
redefined in the digital context. A second step in this process would involve the re-
articulation (Apple, 2013) of these concepts, where they might be applied in alternative
ways that seek to counter hegemonic discourse.
Towards a future research agenda
Given the tensions evident in the approaches outlined in this paper there is clearly a need
for future research in this area. However, with the recent hype surrounding coding in
schools, the makermovement and the shift to design approaches to digital literacy, there
is the possibility that research investigating social and political understandings of digital
media will be deprioritised. Indeed, there are many approaches to critical digital literacy
and these require ongoing evaluation and exploration to ensure the model is responsive to
the dynamic nature of the digital landscape. From this perspective the following questions
point to some areas that require further ongoing and in-depth research and investigation:
.How does the digital context reconfigure critical literacy practices?
.What is meant by critical digital literacy and how might it be practised?
.What sort of critical understandings do young people have of digital media?
In what ways are these applied in daily digital practices?
.What sorts of practices and techniques have successfully developed critical digital
literacy?
.What are the short- and long-term consequences of a digital literacy that does not
include an ideological critique?
172 L. Pangrazio
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Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education
This paper has presented a speculative framework for critical digital design that
inevitably raises more questions than it answers. However, the viability of the framework
is currently being tested through a study in which visualisation, critical self-reflection and
transcendentalism are explored as techniques of a reconceptualised approach to critical
digital literacy. It is hoped that the studys findings will lead to the formulation of an
evidence-based framework for critical digital design.
Acknowledgements
The author would like to extend her sincere thanks to professors Neil Selwyn and Ilana Snyder for
their intellectual and editorial contributions to this paper, and to the two anonymous reviewers for
their insightful feedback on earlier drafts of the paper.
Notes
1. See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-
programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-computing-programmes-of-study
2. See http://consultation.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Static/docs/Technologies/Draft%20Australia
n%20Curriculum%20Technologies%20-%20February%202013.pdf
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Despite the vast differences between the Right and the Left over the role of education in the production of inequality one common element both sides share is a sense that education can and should do something about society, to either restore what is being lost or radically alter what is there now. The question was perhaps put most succinctly by the radical educator George Counts in 1932 when he asked "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?", challenging entire generations of educators to participate in, actually to lead, the reconstruction of society. Over 70 years later, celebrated educator, author and activist Michael Apple revisits Counts’ now iconic works, compares them to the equally powerful voices of minoritized people, and again asks the seemingly simply question of whether education truly has the power to change society.
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In this paper we look at what the critical tradition in education has to offer to the phenomenon of social media. Through an overview and evaluation of the approaches advocated by practitioners of critical literacy and critical media literacy, we illustrate the limitations of applying these frameworks to the fluid and densely interwoven spaces of social media. In particular we focus on the problematic nature of textual analysis and textual production as foundations for a critique of new media. By proposing a conceptual model that maps the inter-relationship between practice, identity and networks, we make a new contribution to the field, suggesting that this approach may provide a more fruitful analytical tool for educators. Drawing on the work of Greenhow and Robelia (2009), and particularly their notion of advantageous practice, we work towards a model for enabling children and young people to move from a consideration of what they do through social media to a view of what they might do. We suggest that this may be a more fruitful way of approaching social media, but one which remains faithful to the overall project of the critical tradition.