Pushing the Boundaries of Text and Sensual Curriculum

It is clear that society is immersed into an environment rich in information that is accessible, interactive, and visual. With an ever growing focus on connective technologies that allow for enhanced and easier means of communicating, creating, connecting, and contributing, all facets of life are attempting to adapt to this phenomenon.

A quick review of  the Registered Virtual User Data from Kezero highlights this very point. The data shows how corporations are blending their physical products into a virtual representation to enhance the sensual nature of these products. From Hot WheelsBarbie GirlsBeanie BabiesWebkinz to BuildaBear(ville), Hello Kitty, and UpperDeckU, once clearly defined boundaries are being shattered and the notion of sense making had multiple dimensions barely fathomed just a few years ago.

What attracts individuals to such environments? Why is the physical realm not enough to make sense of our realities?

The aforementioned companies have their roots in the physical offering toys for children to create, build, and play. At the same time, these companies recognize the social trend that places relevance in virtual worlds where community, connections, collaboration, and distributed knowledge are norms. The key, it seems, is not the displacement of the physical and all it values, but a blurring of it with the virtual.

Thus, the creation of a powerful experience that blends together the value of both into one seamless world held in the hands and at their fingertips. How much fun must it be to still hold the baseball card in your hand, build an album, and trade with your fellow neighborhood kids yet also manipulate your digital persona or avatar in greater communities and global neighborhoods where teams are built, challenges ensue, and more trading and interacting take place.

How does this alter our sensual understanding of the world, a blended world of physical and digital spaces? How does education and curriculum need to transform to capture this phenomenon and augmented approach to sense making?

Yet, many in education still seem only concerned so much as to discuss the digital and the physical as separate entities.

James Paul Gee discusses in Henry Jenkins‘ Convergence Culture (2008) the  idea of affinity spaces and his fears that classrooms are hindering the skills students are developing:

Learning becomes a personal and unique trajectory through a complex space of opportunities (i.e., a person’s own unique movement through various affinity spaces over time)and a social journey as one share aspects of that trajectory with others for a shorter or longer time before moving on (who may be very different from oneself and inhabit otherwise quite different spaces). What these young people see in school may pale by comparison. It may seem to lack the imagination that infuses the non-school aspects of their lives. At the very least, they many demand an argument for “why school?”

Instead of trying to understand Gee’s notion of affinity spaces and exploring the social phenomenon that is the Internet, too many educational leaders and organizations continue to focus on their feelings of discomfort with a world they fail to understand. They discuss the loss of connections. They talk about the false sense of reality. They discuss the idea of being out of touch with nature. They discuss the loss of meaningful relationships. They speak of the dumbest generation. They discuss unhealthy ties to “fake” worlds.

All the while, the social phenomenon associated with emerging technologies, social networks, and mobile computing continues to fracture the very notion of learning and social spaces creating blurred realities and edges where powerful experiences await learners.

It is clear that there is a tremendous gap between this social phenomenon and education, which is both disappointing and nerve-wracking. Society has gravitated towards this “different”, blended world yet too many in education have not. Thus, schools must begin to have the discussion about what it means to be well-educated and literate in the 21st Century. This inevitably leads to the most important question for schools: given what it means to be well-educated, how are we to educate so that our students become well-educated, literate citizens whose passions are ignited and fostered?

This shift in education towards one that is participatory and connective needs to include a strong understanding of the social phenomenon that is the Internet. This phenomenon is one in which we are seeing the blurring of spaces: physical and digital spaces, social and working spaces, formal and informal spaces, and so forth. In many ways, it is exhausting to think about a participatory society that is shaped by the ability to navigate and interact with hyper speed information flow, create and maintain networks, embrace the notion of sharing, engage in creation, live in a continuous state of partial attention, and actively socialize in various spaces across multiple identities.

Literacy and Sense Making

One critical shift is in the area of literacy. The National Council of Teachers of English identified this shift and released a new definition of literacy preferring now to call it literacies:

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable.

it is important to see literacy in a social context, to take into account that it is socially constructed. As Freire (1987) noted, “literacy had to be viewed as a social construction that is always implicated in organizing one’s view of history, the present, and the future” (p.2). Thus, literacy is situated in the cultural understandings of effective communication and communication needs and those skills are deictic.

This means seeing the skills and skill sets that make up a literate person as organic and rooted in what is happening socially, politically, and even economically. In fact, Barton would say literacy is “a phenomenon [that] requires for its explanation the attention of at least eight academic disciplines: physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, technology, political science, history, and anthropology”.

In other words, the rapid pace of technological advancement is the target for literacy becoming a deictic term: “literacy is inescapably a social phenomenon” (Holme, 2005, p. 3).  However, because as Heath (1980) states, “the concept of literacy covers a multiplicity of meanings, and definitions of literacy carry implicit but generally unrecognized views of its function  and its use” there lies a need to define our scope of discussion if we are to convince someone of a need to evolve or expand their scope (p.123).

This social phenomenon and a new view on literacies brings forth the notion of sensual curriculums in an online context. How are online texts with embeddable media, hypertexts, personas/avatars, and participatory components shaping how we shape meaning through the senses?

A critical aspect shaping the answer to this question is the shift from consumption to production. This shift also includes a move from “text centrism to media collage” (Ohler, 2009, p. 10). To this point, individuals are reading and writing more frequently but in bursts and bits that allow room for diverse media outlets. This level of creation and diversity of media provides unique connections to the senses in particular sight and sound.

But, original creation is not the only area impacted. Those consuming on the screen are experiencing the world differently than in the past and then have the opportunity to add to the collective knowledge. As Kelly said,

“Screen reading encourages rapid pattern-making, associating this idea with another, equipping us to deal with the thousands of new thoughts expressed every day…. A screen both records and displays this database of activities. The result of this constant self-tracking is an impeccable “memory” of their lives and an unexpectedly objective and quantifiable view of themselves, one that no book can provide. The screen becomes part of our identity

This shaping of identity is at the heart of these new literacies and text creation. One’s authorship becomes one’s identity shared, shaped, and manipulated by the contexts of online experiences. With avatars from diverse settings like Second Life to 140 character tweets on Twitter, identities are being shaped by the content created and spaces navigated by the individual but also by the sense making of an online, global network (Buckingham, 2008).

The creation of multidimensional learning spaces that fractured previously held mindsets on literacy, well-educated, teaching, and learning afford new opportunities for sense making. In this day and age when content is available anytime, anywhere and to anyone, classrooms can no longer be tethered to the content-driven, physical spaces defined by 20th-century methodologies. The time is now to rethink curriculum, instruction, assessment, and spaces.

— Instead of a Voki Guide, Existential Paine is happy to provide an exploration into Second Life to explore the notion of text and the sensual.


Barton, D. (2006). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. WileyBlackwell.

Buckingham, D. (2007). Youth, Identity, and Digital Media (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning). London: The Mit Press.

Freire, P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the world and the world. Routledge.

Gee, J.P . (1996) Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London and NY: Longman (never directly referenced but a lot drawn from including deictic and semiotic domains)

Heath, S. (1980). The function and uses of literacy. Journal of Communication.

Holme, R (2005). Literacy: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press

Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press.

Kelly, K. (2010). Reading in a Whole New Way | 40th Anniversary | Smithsonian Magazine. History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved July 29, 2010, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/40th-anniversary/Reading-in-a-Whole-New-Way.html?c=y&page=1&device=ipad&c=y

Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2006). New Literacies. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Ohler, J. (2009). Orchestrating the Media Collage. Educational Leadership66(6), 8-13.

Seeking Outside Dissertation Committee Member

My dissertation chair, Dr. Brian Husby, and I spent a considerable time yesterday talking about my committee. One thing became quite clear: given the context of my study, I needed to leverage social media and the concept of learning networks in adding a person to my committee from outside my university that is connected to me via my personal learning network.

It only makes perfect sense!

Thus, I am seeking a person to serve on my dissertation committee for a year long (tentative) study. The distribution of the proposal and defense is targeted for July with IRB approval in August. The study would be conducted throughout the 2010-2011 academic year.

Brief Synopsis of Study

The social phenomenon of social media, digital networking, and emerging technologies is fundamentally shifting notions of communication, community, and the lived experience at astounding rates as it blurs digital and physical spaces. This phenomenon is creating experiences and opportunities where connecting, growing, learning, and teaching are amplified and possible across time, space, place, and size.

As social media continues to become part of daily lives, it is imperative that education explores this phenomenon to understand its influence on the profession and to identify themes critical to the complexity of 21st Century education system. Telling the story of my lived experience as an administrator immersed in social media and its shaping of my professional identity and mindsets provides education the opportunity to rethink the notions of adult learning, community, professional development, and leading, learning, and teaching.

The purpose of this Cyber AutoEthnography is to explore and analyze the virtual and physical cultures of my life to understand how these shape my identity, culture, and mindsets as a professional: leader, learner, and teacher.

This study is guided by fundamental questions aimed at understanding leadership in the 21st Century from the perspective of an administrator immersed in social media and the traditional culture of public, secondary education. Through the exploration of these divergent cultures, these questions aim to find the intersection between the virtual and physical as an administrator striving for 21st Century learning and teaching environment. To that end, the following questions frame this study:

  1. How has the blurring of virtual and physical cultures shaped my identity and my practices as a professional: leader, learner, and teacher?
  2. What are the cultural norms, habits, languages, and entry/exit points within these cultures and what barriers exist in attempting to cultivate a 21st Century learning environment in the school?
  3. How do I develop my professional knowledge and leadership skills through participation and content creation in digital spaces?
  4. How does digital participation and creation relate to current theories of adult learning and professional development?
  5. How do my participation patterns and creations with social media and digital spaces influence or enact organizational change on teaching, learning, and leading within schools?

Requirements for Involvement:

  1. Hold a PhD or EdD
  2. Serve either at the university level or in an administrative position in secondary education
  3. Interest and involvement in social media
  4. Interest (for or against) in autoethnography as a research methodology
  5. Commitment to engage and facilitate the development of a deeply complex and messy study that is relevant to leading, learning, and teaching.

I understand this is a big commitment and one that brings with it a considerable dedication of time on the part of the person that elects to serve on said team. I hope our work brings with it the reward of meaningful growth to each of us and more importantly, the field of education.

Please contact me directly or leave a comment here if you are interested in further discussing this exciting opportunity.

Ryan Bretag