Monday, 1 October 2018

Knowledge gaps in African design for my Post-doc research to address

Written for readers interested in the directions that my future Post-doctoral research will take (and won't!)

Doing a PhD helps one understand that there are many gaps in human knowledge. It helps clarify the existence of important gaps and challenges one to do appropriate research that help with closing them. As part of writing Post-doctoral Fellowship applications, it became important to reflect on what my inter-disciplinary media studies research contributions have been so far and how I might build on them, and move onto new topics, in the future:

In working for UCT's 'ICT Access and Use' project (2011/12), I explored how media students followed a form of connected learning for developing identities linked to creative industry as undergrads. Together with Associate Professors Cheryl Brown and Laura Czerniewicz, we addressed a gap in the literature regarding university students’ extramural creative production with varied online services. Three case studies illustrated how Connected Learning can be empowering: each student provided a vivid example of digital practices embedded within social contexts, exemplifying the processes students undertake when constructing meaning and knowledge in the digital world. Such cases have been lacking in the literature, especially from developing country contexts (GAP1). Future research can build on ours by exploring how Connected Learning is experienced in other South  African contexts and more broadly in the global South.

My PhD thesis contributed to closing a research gap concerning digital inequality. Its research described how the e-portfolios of young Cape Town visual arts students at two secondary schools were shaped by their privileged or marginalised circumstances. There is an opportunity to extend this pathfinder project by looking at completely underserved schooling environments. For example, what digital repertoires are young visual creatives in Cape Town's marginalised settings (poor suburbs in schools without support for visual art or design) developing (GAP2)? This focus also suggests an opportunity to combine research interests in connected learning and participatory culture for exploring the visual creative productions that occur in underserved contexts outside formal academic settings in Cape Town and how these repertoires link to academic cultural capital, or not (GAP3). Multimodal researchers could also explore the longitudinal changes to visual creatives' e-portfolios (GAP4). For example, how students change their e-portfolio styles after leaving school and preparing to apprentice in creative industries or helping justify future study).

I would like to continue developing longitudinal studies that range from young adult creatives in Cape Town that are heavily involved with online content creation to those that are scarcely involved. There are many related gaps for local researchers to explore:

  1. What are the advantages and pitfalls of young online content creators developing their technical cultural capital plus digital symbolic capital?
  2. How are social networks and technical cultural capital becoming more important as determinants of opportunity (see Jenkins, Ito and boyd, 2016).
  3. How are people being included, or excluded, in participatory culture based on their cultural, ethnic, gender or racial affiliation? 
  4. How might such differences be echoed or different in the global South? 
  5. How are inequalities of opportunity reproduced via schooling and how might this be or challenged? 
  6. How does cultural taste impact on what is valorised or dismissed and which identities and communities of practice are permissable in different creative contexts? 
  7. What novel forms of creative production result from new media literacies and how do creators perceive them to be successful, or failures?

I am currently preparing Post-doctoral Fellowship applications for Cape Town universities and the positions that might support research contributions to (1- 7) and tackling GAPS1-4 are very scarce.
A further challenge is that justifying a Post-doctoral fellowship position requires a narrow focus on the type of gap selected. One's post-doc work is required to develop knowledge that moves one's 'field' forward by addressing its 'critical knowledge gaps'. As an interdisciplinary researcher, whose PhD has spanned disciplines ranging from media studies to cultural sociology, the academic field I must contribute to seems blurred and difficult to address. Which 'field' and what 'gaps' must my interdisciplinary focus prioritise? Which unrelated threads of work can I link that might change current research? What concepts and approaches can be extended to address critical knowledge gaps in my field?

African design is an understudied and emergent field, which could benefit from more scholarship documenting its existing practices (Venter, 2018)}. After lengthy consideration, I have decided to develop an inter-disciplinary proposal for this field that addresses three distinct, but overlapping, concerns related to bitmap design, digital access and collaborative software design:

The first concern is what bitmap designs are marginalised young creatives producing and sharing online? This online content analysis will serve as a starting point for exploring the second concern- what does 'access' to digital design really mean in under-served contexts. For example: How accessible are apps and open source software to mobile-centric designers in highly constrained circumstances? What role does English as a 'global language' play in shaping Xhosa mother-tongue creatives' access and use to bitmap software? What cultural repertoires (i.e. fashion, gaming) seem to motivate interest in being a bitmap designer? The final concern is to contrast what happens when design thinking and design strategy approaches are used for collaborative software design focussed on localisation. I will describe the benefits and limitations of both, using workshops for aspirant, but under-resourced, visual creatives. They will be  consulted for understanding how Create With's new functional specifications for https://www.createwithpixels.com might provide better access for young South Africans.

By addressing these three concerns, my Post-doc research should make a solid contribution to the field of African design. It addition to its novel exploration of bitmap designers' content and circumstances, it should also generate interesting findings concerning the meanings of 'access', plus the differences between two design approaches' outcomes for collaborative software localisation.

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