Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Digital Identities as Composition: Thinking about School

I. Composing Digitally

It's late evening when my son asks me to listen to something on his iPad.  The something turns into six different versions of the Elder Scrolls v. Skyrim. He shows me the different versions commenting on what he likes about each and how each is different.  His comments are specific and he speaks with confidence about the use of vocals in one version, the beauty of string violins in another, the simplicity of the piano version and tells me that another is more Baroque in style and that he thinks of himself as being a bit Baroque.  He then shows me a synthesia version explaining that the colors have tonal quality and how this helped him to compose Skyrim in Minecraft.

"I could see the music as colors."

Last week, he played his version of Skyrim in Minecraft for his dad and me.  He had composed the song using note blocks (singles and doubles) powered by redstone circuits and is now editing a screencast of him playing the song. This is a complicated process as the note blocks are visually spaced to represent the time signature: the distance between blocks is equal to each note's duration. Each note block represents a sound and can be layered to represent multiple notes played simultaneously.

Hartmann's Hut of Baba Yaga
He next played the Promenade from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and told me that he planned to compose this as well in Minecraft and do so for me for Mother's Day.  He located a synthesia version and played it and explained that this would help him to compose. Delighted, I thought how the mother's day card evolves. 

II. Composing At School

My son is not a musician by the standard measure. He does not take music lessons although he did for a year (trumpet). He does not play in the school band. He does not have music this year at school.  He hears really well though and he knows how to teach himself by watching related YouTube videos, reading Minecraft wikis, and asking for help from those with whom he interacts with online on his server and in other gaming environments.  He also knows the power of pull (Hagel III, Brown & Davison, 2010).

Hagel III, Brown & Davison explain three levels of pull:
"At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. At a second level, pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you were not even aware before that they existed. Think here of serendipity rather than search. Finally, in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull—the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential. We can use pull to learn faster and translate that learning into rapidly improving performance, not just for ourselves, but for the people we connect with—a virtuous cycle that we can participate in" (pp. 9-10).
How is 'pull' being allowed and leveraged at school?  How are we altering school definitions of composing to include aspects of pulling (access, attraction, and achievement) and digital work?   How are we investigating the cognitive and social processes our children are using when they compose these digital works inside gaming worlds, as screencasts, as code, as how-to videos, as art works, as photographic works, as remixes? How do we understand the back story that informs the work?   How are we reconciling the 19th century school with digital learners who show up at the school door having composed multiple digital identities? How are we addressing immense equity issues for our learners who cannot show up at the school door having accessed significant hours of online leaning?

III. Composing Identities

We are always composing versions of ourselves.  Research by Sénéchal and LeFevre (2002) indicates that home literacy experiences contribute substantially to children’s success in learning to read.  These home literacy experiences are formed by the frequency and quality of talk between children and parents and the consistent engagement with literacy habits that are privileged (playing word and song games; singing; reading to children; having books, magazines, newspapers, e-readers, computers in use in the home; having available and in use different types of writing materials; listening to nursery rhymes and so on) in the home and at school.  These experiences form identities that inform how children function at school and how they are recognized by teachers.  These children show up at the school door speaking and acting with the school Discourse quite in hand.

The home literacy practices that Sénéchal and LeFevre discussed in 2002 were quite comfortable for our school worlds as they mimicked literacy values of the school.  As literacies are fluid and changing, the way we understand them at school must also continue to evolve.  And this is a conundrum worth thinking about.  There is an increasing gulf between what we value at school as learning and what the connected child experiences as valued learning outside of school.  Likewise there is a troubling gulf between the child who is connected and the one who is not.  The play and work inside digital networks (in)forms and is (in)formed by our emerging sense of identity.  To what end are we considering digital identities as compositions worthy of teaching at school?

Bon Stewart (@bonstewart) has a terrific post about digital identities, "Digital Identities: Six Key Selves of  Networked Publics" that I would recommend reading.  She outlines six key selves that emerge via participation in networked publics (Note: all quotes are taken from the Stewart's blog post):

  1. The Performative, Public Self: "The networked self is linked in multiple, complex, individual node-to-node relationships with others as part of an ever-shifting public."
  2. The Quantified – or Articulated – Self: "...our network contacts are visible and articulated, and our actions and contributions are quantified."
  3. The Participatory Self: "within my networks I am both a creator of my own content but also a consumer of that which my peers produce and share. My relationships are groomed by the constant iterative work of participation, and my comfort with working in isolation towards a final product – as was the paper model of creative work – recedes in the rear-view mirror."
  4. The Asynchronous Self: "Digital sociality practices and networked publics moved increasingly towards asynchronous mediated communications, rather than the interruptive, immediate demands of telephones."
  5. The PolySocial – or Augmented Reality – Self:"...digital identities not as virtual selves, but as particular subjects brought into being by our relational, mobile interactions in the world of bits and extending into the world of atoms."
  6. The Neo-Liberal, Branded Self: "Our social networking platforms are increasingly neo-liberal “Me, Inc” spaces where we are exhorted to monetize and to 'find our niche.'"

In thinking about Stewart's six key selves (also acts of composing and being composed, yes?), I wonder what are we doing locally, nationally and globally to guide children who are connected to understand the selves they compose and are composed by?  What are we doing locally, nationally and globally to address the enormous equity issues most felt by children who are not connected? I want to urge that we resist categorizing composing as simply a matter of ink to paper as is most commonly done at school.  This is simply no longer a sufficient definition.  I am not devaluing ink to paper, but do want us to consider that composing is much, much larger and via the Internet, the social aspects of composition along with the modes of composition become increasingly important, dynamic, risky, confusing, and collaborative.  The selves Stewart outlines is not limited to adults. Our children who participate in networked publics are composing and being composed. Should this not be essential school-based literacies as well?

So let me close with a challenge: Take a walk around the school where you work.  Notice how composing is being defined by the work children produce and the work that is displayed.  I tend to do these walks with my phone in hand. A picture says so much, yes?

I'd love to hear about what you find...

Works Cited:

Brown, John Seely; Davison, Lang; Hagel III, John (2010-02-23). The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Sénéchal, M., & LeFevre, J. (2002). Parental involvement in the development of children's reading
skill: A five-year longitudinal study. Child Development, 73, 445–460.


  1. So much to think about here. Love the way you've taken the composition metaphor in some many directions in relation to identity: absolutely, we compose ourselves and are composed at the same time by the affordances of our environments. Mutual constitution...and all six (plus the other plethora I could have named or parsed out differently) are all intertwined in our networked publics.

    One of the biggest challenges, I think, to the kind of work with "pull" that you describe is that we don't allow our kids real access TO networked publics, for the most part. Even where schools want to connect to the possibilities available, there are huge roadblocks. One of the reasons education has such a hard time not replicating itself, I think...we want to keep it safely in the realm of developing familiar identities, not these networked ones. We call it privacy and safety concerns, and these are real. But privacy concerns related to digital networks and identities almost always end up being able the individual vs. the faceless institution...they're power concerns and they have their place. But we haven't grappled yet with the capacities and power of peer networks.

    1. I agree Bon. Access is essential. As a mom, my concern is that my son (13) is fully participating outside of school. I love that he is connected with lots of kids from around the world and I worry some as well. The power of peer networks though is off the charts. What I have seen my son learn, the agency with which he acts is remarkable. Peer networks can be awesome. I did an interview with a teacher who plays on my son's server--he gave m some terrific insights. I just started transcribing the interview.

      Looking 4ward 2 tomorrow.

  2. love this:
    we are always composing versions of ourselves..

    non-definable.. non-programmable... non-measurable/provable..
    so why do we spend most of our hours on just that?

    spaces of permission/access with nothing to prove.
    if.. you're seeking the most breathtaking of compositions.

    1. Breathtaking compositions is lovely. Love your spaces of permission/access with noting to prove. What kinder world that is.

      love you, Monika.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.