Janette HughesFostering Globally and Culturally Sensitive Adolescents: Social Action Through Digital Literacy

Early Researcher’s Award (2011-2014) - Funded by the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation


The study explores the impact on adolescents’ learning when given opportunities to create digital texts for a wider audience and engage with social justice issues on a global scale. The research positions adolescents as agents of change as they produce digital texts based on issues identified through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as the impact of war, child labour, poverty and environmental concerns. They will share their work in a variety of venues, both within and beyond the classroom context, including on a class blog, on the project website, at community art galleries, and on community organizations’ websites, such as War Child Canada.

The research questions are: (1) what is the relationship between digital media and adolescents’ understanding of global issues, while immersed in using digital media; (2) how does a critical literacy approach shape what students learn and how they view themselves and their roles in their community; (3) how does a critical literacy approach through participatory dialogue encourage students to challenge one’s assumptions about democracy, while at the same time promote meaningful literacy engagements and (4) how do the public performances of students’ digital texts reshape the relationship between educational stakeholders (students, teachers, parents, schools) and the wider community (both locally and globally)?

The role of community, and the public sharing of knowledge and understanding, is a key component of the proposed research. Although creating awareness of problems in the world around us is an important first step, it is not enough. As O’Neil (2010) asserts, “At the heart of social justice is the realization that things do not have to continue as they are but can be changed, and that this change occurs only when individuals act to create it” (p. 48). The performative potential of digital media (Hughes, 2008; 2009) facilitates exploration and creation of digital texts lending voice to the local and global issues that adolescents are most concerned about. These texts can, in turn, be shared with others as a way of engendering social change.  Emancipatory actions can encourage students to write, read and re-write the world and the word, linking literacy to human agency and the power to “effect social transformation” (Janks, 2010, p. 161).

There are important implications for education if we view knowledge generated in educational settings, as something to be shared with others in our community: (1) it enhances a sense of audience, motivating and giving purpose to student learning; (2) it increases the importance of skills needed to communicate with wider audiences; (3) it provides an opportunity for youth to give voice to the things that concern them; (4) it creates school-community links by opening public windows into school learning; (5) it creates self-community links, especially for youth; (6) it reconnects youth in a classroom as part of a caring community working to address the needs of others; and (7) it creates a setting for a meaningful application of the multimodal broadcasting capacities of digital media.

The goal of this research is to give students voice and agency in the context of community, and thus provide opportunities for students not only to learn subject matter but also to explore its and their place in the world around them. Building on my SSHRC-funded research on digital poetry (Hughes, 2007; 2008; 2009a; 2009b; 2010), the proposed research project extends the use of digital media beyond the classroom, and immerses students in the act of producing digital media on social justice issues in their local and global communities.  I will examine current educational understandings and pedagogical practices with regards to how digital texts may critically engage learners to become socially and globally conscious of the plight of others in our world. When students gain understanding of other communities using contemporary media texts, it affords them the opportunity for agency and change in their own lives, within school, the community and beyond. Creating digital texts for a global audience, in conjunction with nationally and internationally recognized advocacy and change organizations such as War Child Canada, encourages Ontario students to become leaders on the world stage.  The target audience of their text production shifts from an audience of one (their teacher) or a few (their classmates) to a great many.

This research, which capitalizes on students’ nascent digital literacy skills through the use of iPod touches, iPads and Smart Phone technologies, as well as through digital texts found on YouTube and various other internet sites, promotes the use of emerging technologies as an asset rather than as a deficit.  Currently, many school boards are approaching the use of technology in their schools from a protectionist stance, instead of tapping into the pedagogical potential of digital media.  This research aligns with Ontario’s commitment to invest in our future generation of digital media artists, designers, developers and entrepreneurs, who will need to be proficient with new digital media of all kinds.  It is imperative that our students be able to read and write or construct texts in multiple genres and to be able to express themselves through multiple modes that go beyond print text. 

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