Social Semiotics & Multimodality

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Social Semiotics & Multimodality

Like Jenkins, Loveless’ stance is largely celebratory of the affordances of ICTs in schools, emphasising process over more goal-oriented rhetorics associated with the pro-economic or Romantic text reification. Drawing on her work with Fisher & Higgins (2006) Loveless proposes certain “clusters of purposeful activities” (2007:7) for learning with digital media, many aspects of which chime with Burn’s synthesised conceptual framework.

Loveless’ four clusters seem to mirror Kress and van Leeuwen’s “schema of semiotic strata” (Burn 2009: 7) indicated below (IN CAPITALS), with Burn’s INTERPRETATION layer added to the cycle. The model also recalls Buckingham’s condensed ‘Circuit of Culture’: production (1 & 2) > text (2) > consumption (3 & 4). All the activity clusters are represented in my case studies, however, highlighted in red are aspects which appear most salient to my account:

1. Knowledge building

  • Adapting & developing ideas
  • Modelling
  • Representing understanding in dynamic & multimodal ways (a)

2. Distributed Cognition

  • Accessing resources
  • Finding things out
  • Writing, composing & presenting with mediating artifacts and tools (b)

3. Community & Communication

  • Exchanging & sharing communication (c)
  • Extending the context of activity
  • Extending the participating community at local and global levels

4. Engagement

  • Exploring & playing (d)
  • Acknowledging risk & uncertainty
  • Working with different dimensions of interactivity
  • Responding to immediacy
Clusters of purposeful activities for learning with digital technologies (Fisher et al 2006) meshed with Kress and van Leeuwen’s “schema of semiotic strata” & Burn’s adaptation

a) Representing understanding in dynamic & multimodal ways – the monomodal written word is one way of demonstrating knowledge, by contrast the fluid, provisional and plastic nature of multimodal text-making, for example digital film production or animation, increases opportunities for peer-to-peer conferring and immediate feedback. It is written into ‘digital DNA’ for data to be ‘always on beta’, “always a set of instructions … waiting to be rewritten” (Burn 2009:65); the skill is to develop the confidence to go with the gut and intuit when to stop and deliver the audiovisual oeuvre. There are those who derive comfort from the fixity of finished thought or intervention-free print and those who respond more keenly to open-ended, mutable modes of self-expression, that is, to the “electronic word” (Lanham, 1993) in its widest sense.

b) Writing, composing & presenting with mediating artifacts and toolsthese are three cognitional skills familiar to traditional literacy, however, the capacity to ‘write’ multimodally, make infinitely editable compositions, present to innumerable numbers and immerse oneself in “digital bricolage” (Burn 2009:78) are core 21st century skills to which all children have a right. The challenge is for educators to achieve consensus on disseminating scales of semiotic and multimodal progression and assessment – such as the UKLA’s “Beyond Words” (2010) – according more value to the meaning-making properties of voice, gesture, dress, visual design, music, sound and movement and their integrated articulation, in short to the “kineikonic mode” (Burn & Parker, 2003).

c) Exchanging & sharing communicationthe extent to which an audience is ever passive is a moot point but it becomes less relevant in a “networked public” (d. boyd 2008) where dialogic media exchange is the norm. Dialogue is no longer confined to the spoken, it is the defining asset of social media, even if it is only a potential audience with whom one is motivated to share, such as within the blogosphere. For some groups, digital interactivity creates an irresistible arena for the pleasurable rehearsal and spectacle of ‘self-performance’ or ‘self-filtering’.  This ubiquitous form of digital identity play is succinctly expressed in John Potter’s notion of “Curating the Self” (2009)

d) Exploring & Playing – in the traditional school context, time for these is often sacrificed in the name of top-down, easily assessed,  goal-oriented activity informed by a tick-box mentality. Burn problematises this way of working suggesting that a more hands-off teacher approach that scaffolds, values pleasure, uncertainty and aesthetic experimentation, allowing it to flow within set constraints, will have pay-offs in terms of intellectual engagement, enriched social identity, being primed for risk-taking and going beyond one’s comfort zone.

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