Tuesday 13 December 2016

Multimodal education for inequality: exploring privilege in visual arts students’ e-portfolio personas #8ICOM

Written for researchers interested in how technological and material inequalities become evidenced in young people's digital personas.

Here's the 19 minute 8ICOM conference talk that accompanied my Multimodal education for inequality presentation. This talk aimed to be a concise overview of my PhD research and its contribution:

"My research serves as a cautionary tale concerning the inequalities evidenced in visual arts students’ curation of digital personas. By contrast to often celebratory accounts of teaching contemporary digital media literacies, I describe how the technological and material inequalities between students at a government and an independent school became mirrored in digital portfolios.

My thesis’ research contributions are as an Action Research project that enabled the recording and analysis of students' differing negotiations of arts studio personas for up to three years. It included students from very different social backgrounds with contrasting access to media ecologies for digital curation. I explore how young people’s e-portfolio styles mirror inequalities in their digital curations and connections to varied affinity spaces. I also highlight other challenges youths faced in articulating interest via e-portfolios. For example, remediating “unofficial” cultural repertoires, such as fashion and Manga.

In South Africa, just doing ICT, visual arts or visual design subjects is a rare privilege. The Department of Education’s technical report on the National Senior Certificate reveals that a low percentage of students do subjects likely to support access to study options in visually creative industries. In 2012, Equal Education reported that Cape Town’s schools offering art or design until grade 12 (Matric) are predominately those serving the middle- and upper-classes. Anecdotal experience suggests that very few students have curricular opportunities to experiment with online content creation. A narrow subject focus tends to exclude inter-disciplinary productions, such as visual arts students using ICT technologies to curate their productions. Such rigid silos ignore the importance of hybridity in domains such as contemporary art or graphic design. My action research project makes a small contribution to building bridges between silos.

I helped teachers develop syllabi that appropriated online portfolios for e-portfolio curation. Online portfolios emerged in 2003 and visual creatives increasingly use such services to reach web audiences. Digital portfolios are used for varied forms of capital exchange: For example, securing academic and vocational trajectories. Some portfolios also support commercial transactions, such as auctions or art catalogues. Portfolio portals provide a resource to develop extensive knowledge about the numerous domains in visual culture. Visual creatives can also develop in-depth knowledge by learning from others in digital affinity groups. For emergent creatives, experimenting with portfolios can help with developing intent around who they want to be.

My action research project aimed to enfranchise students with fair opportunities for formally experimenting with online content creation. I helped two educators appropriate Carbonmade for their students to produce e-portfolios. E-portfolios were taught conservatively as an aid to prepare for matric exhibitions. A Bourdieusian field analysis reveals why: it was easy to source the well-resourced sites supporting digital media prosumption. By contrast, e-portfolio curricula had to dovetail with the DOE’s visual arts syllabus requirements. It was a process to gain approval from the DOE, WCED and to secure buy-in from educators.

Youth were taught and assessed on their self-presentation as visual arts students (or "disciplined" identities) and in organizing curricular showcases. Students' Carbonmade entries were used by the service’s database in creating four types of page: A 'homepage', ‘artwork project folder’ pages, an ‘about’ page and ‘search page’ results.

Carbonmade’s use was part of a broader digital curation process, which Potter defines as new media literacy involving intertextual meanings and strategies for different audiences. E-portfolio curricula saw students practice the steps A. to C. of collation, production and sharing in their digital curations. Twenty nine students curated e-portfolio; seventeen pupils came from an elite, all-boys, independent school’s Class of 2012. They were taught e-portfolios from grades 10 to 12. Twelve volunteers came from a less well-resourced, mixed sex, government school, where ICT broadband failure delayed the bulk of my lessons to grade 11 in 2014.

The independent school’s speedy adoption mirrored its material and technological advantages versus the government school. van Dijk identifies five different types of inequality and their properties shaping digital media’s usage. My research focuses on the material and technological aspects:

Technology wise, the independent school had a one-laptop-per-learner-policy and conspicuous consumption of electronics was evident. Varied societies, workshops and extra-mural leisure activities received the independent school’s support. By contrast, the media infrastructure available to government school learners in its Khanya computer lab were old. As an Arts and Culture Focus school it offered some co-curricular activities, but most students needed to leave early for safe public transport.

The results from my sites are not comparable due to these large differences, as well as the shorter e-portfolio syllabus at the government school. There were also important differences in students’ vocational interests, with the government school volunteers being more motivated to pursue visual creative studies. Working in a creative industry seemed a prized social trajectory to them. By contrast, many independent school students perceived such choices to be low in prestige, versus say, finance or medicine.

After four years of fieldwork I amassed a lot of data and my analysis followed Potter’s (2015) example. He researched digital curation through a combination of Social Semiotics and Cultural Theory. Given the potentially strong role of ICT infrastructure and capital resources on youth’s curation, I added insights from Digital Materialism (especially Infrastructure studies) and also Social Interactionism. I also adopted Sen’s (1992) inequality approach.

I did a multimodal content analysis on the representational and communicational choices of all students. I then wrote 12 case studies, covering student’s diverse circumstances and e-portfolio styles. The content analysis revealed particular patterns in the disciplinary, extra mural visual creative and other personas at each site. For example in self-presentation, no government school students wrote self-descriptions over 10 sentences long or used formal genres. Similarly, informal mobile genres were used for self-representation in their images. Here, youth tended to differentiate themselves through the “unofficial” visual culture personas they shared.

Notable patterns at the independent school included the impact of strong assessment on students’ presentation of their disciplined identities, which predominately featured formal styles. Most students added lifestyle personas to differentiate themselves. Several drew on differentiated practices in tourism, watersports and music for subject matter.

Students’ contrasting e-portfolio styles marked their unequal access to ICT infrastructures. The content analysis showed that youth did not have equal opportunities, but the formal and extra-mural advantages of the better-off were amplified at both schools. For example, students from homes supporting “free” internet access created better organized and more extensive showcases than under-, or non-, connected classmates. Young people’s disciplinary and “unofficial” e-portfolio personas evidenced privilege. Youth’s online access for developing academic cultural capital online could be likened to museum visits. As can be seen across all these digital curation practices, limited internet access seriously hampers one’s opportunities to engage with exhibits or in developing one’s own.

This points to the importance of each young person’s digital hexis in developing e-portfolio styles. Young people with a history of access and use of ICT were advantaged in having foundational digital literacies for e-portfolio curation. By contrast, those inexperienced with scanners, desktop computers, internet browser use and local area networks, had to play ‘catch up’ in class.

To situate how material and technological inequalities become evidenced in e-portfolio curation, my research links young people’s habituses to their affinity spaces. Each individual's habitus comprises different habituses. My research focuses on four; the secondary school habitus, a primary home habitus, a vocational habitus and the mediated preferences in the digital information habitus. The secondary habitus links directly to the legitimated affinity spaces supported in classroom arts studio practices. Other affinity spaces tend to relate to “unofficial” personas.

Here follows case studies for five enthusiastic students, who differed in terms of the material and technological resources available in their habituses and affinity spaces:

A White, independent school student, George went beyond want his educator expected by using a fine arts gallery metaphor while closely reproducing the disciplinary identity. His benchmark example evidenced a fandom for fine art, which was unusual amongst his peers. George was privileged to attend both international and local galleries, and also pursued this fandom in online affinity spaces. Keen to do Medicine, George’s assessment strategy foregrounded his observational drawer and painter personas to achieve the best possible grades from his markers. Although he published extra-mural photography and designs to Instagram, Deviantart and shared them via social networks, George’s assessment strategy avoided mentioning such “unofficial” accounts in his e-portfolio.

Nathan, was a Black, government school student. Despite also being a fan of art, Nathan could not do visual art or e-portfolio production outside class. His digital information habitus was heavily constrained and this was mirrored in an e-portfolio curation of four images and a brief self-description. Privacy concerns also shaped his concise profile and decision not to add a self-image. Unusual in expressing dissatisfaction with his e-portfolio at the curriculum’s end, Nathan did ‘not really’ believe his e-portfolio might support his vocational objectives in design.

Masibulele also attended the government school. His case highlights some assimilatory challenges that Black students might face in producing visual arts e-portfolios: a first-language isiXhosa speaker, Masibulele chose to use English instead for an international audience. He did not share traditional mixed-media productions as he perceived that these productions were not what was expected in arts class. For the same reason, he also did not initially share his fashion labels’ creations. Despite his educator’s inclusive approach, exclusion of traditional and fashion repertoires shows how students might conceal cultural capital from home. This suggests strategies of assimilation in respect of the predominately taught Western fine arts canon and observational drawing and painting studio practices. His case also highlights how particular types of visual culture (surface, media and genre) embody social distinction, albeit moderated within “multi-cultural” repertoires.

Melissa’s case illustrates the influence of global youth culture and gendered strategies on self-naming practices. She used a well-resourced home environment to explore “unofficial” Japanese Manga, Anime and calligraphy practices. The influence of Japanese pop-culture was also evident in the pseudonymous identity choices she made. Such privacy choices reflected shared concerns with her female classmates about unwanted audiences and the dangers of cyber-bullying and sexual harassment. Her well-developed digital hexis had a downside; while she did use a pseudonymous identity, her contact email address featured her full name. Melissa linked to a separate deviantArt profile to share Gothic and other interests with potential to be misinterpreted by a religiously conservative audience.

Kyle’s case highlight the ease of extra-mural interests dovetailing with dominant cultural capital being remediated into e-portfolios. A White, independent school student, Kyle shared exclusively resourced sports and photographic productions that dovetailed with his school's institutional cultural capital. Kyle could easily access professional photographic and videographic equipment and focused on ‘point-of-view’ work in extra-mural productions from grade 11. He took travel photography and combined his enjoyment of wave-boarding with technicity to shoot and edit professional-looking videos. YouTube was used to research video techniques, such as achieving the right frame rates to show a giant wave break. Kyle also used Flicker to research productions by photographers with similar lenses and cameras to him.Kyle linked to his Flicker and Vimeo accounts from his e-portfolio. After matric, Kyle became the most successful prosumer amongst his peers with over 30,000 followers of his Instagram account and high quality prints of his work are available to buy via society6.com. While Kyle and Melissa’s examples show what is possible for young people as prosumers, it also suggests the reproduction of advantage via high volumes of capital needed to develop a prosumer identities as a semi-professional photographer or aspirant animation producer.

I had hoped that my action research would support new literacies and equality. By contrast, it seemed to contribute to the reproduction of symbolic advantage: Under-resourced students did not create disciplinary showcases and faced challenges in adding cultural repertoires. Well-resourced students created showcases, adding distinctive prosumer identities, while negotiating their disciplinary personas with more exclusive ones. While e-portfolio production is still being taught at the private school, it’s NOT for government school students. That is a pity; both Masibulele and Melissa used their e-portfolios to successfully apply for tertiary studies - Masibulele did surface design and Melissa Fine Art. Despite her passion for animation, Melissa went on to study Fine Art, evidencing the importance of educational investment in dominant high culture. Similarly, Masibulele's parents would like him to transfer to studying architecture.

Both Melissa and Masibulele are fortunate relative to their government school peers in being able to progress into tertiary habituses rather than being unemployed. Ironically, despite facing the least challenges in e-portfolio curation, Kyle and George went on to study outside visually creative industries: George entered medicine and Kyle business science.

My content analysis and case studies suggest the importance of material and technological resourcing in young visual artists’ e-portfolio curations. In particular, resource-intensive communications may not accurately reflect young peoples’ intensions and abilities: inequalities in some teenagers’ digital information habituses meant that under-resourced sign-makers could not fully express their curricular interests. In addition to missing social information, inexperience with software also led to mis-identifiers misrepresenting what youths wanted to express.

As a pathfinder project, mine has opened up much to explore:
> How can the middle-class underpinnings of the initial pedagogy be adjusted to better accommodate all students?
> How do online portfolio styles change as youth become professionals or hobbyists?
> My research took place in relatively well-resourced English secondary schools, but what about other languages and resourcing?
> Digital portfolios increasingly serve to access tertiary education, but how are they assessed?
To close with a speculative proposition; Bourdieu foregrounded disinterested aesthetic dispositions as a key marker of Distinction in 1979.  As prosumers increasingly make both their tastes and work digitally visible, are we not witnessing an emergent form of social distinction, a ‘Distinction 2.0’? Perhaps researching individuals’ distinctive curations of digital personas can provide as interesting insights into Postmodern societies, as understanding French people’s contrasting aesthetic dispositions once did in the Modern!

If you have any suggestions or concerns, please comment below, ta.

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