Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 Critical Review of Recent Dissertations: Down the Digital Rabbit-hole with Belshaw

(2012) and Boskic (2011)

The doctoral program I have embarked upon at UBC falls under the Literacy Education program with the Department of Language and Literacy Education, and digital literacy is one of the most intriguing yet elusive aspects of the many types of literacies introduced in my first year. For this assignment, to review recent doctoral dissertations on this topic, I sought research in my specific field of interest: virtual worlds in education. To my surprise, neither UBC dissertation database (Circle) nor a sample from international universities had much that directly related to virtual worlds in Literacy Education. A dissertation that came closest to this field includes UBC Curriculum Studies doctoral student Yi Fei Wang (2012) on Designing Immersive Language Learning Environment in Virtual Worlds. Related to this study are the Russell N. Campbell award winner Zhuo Li (2011) on Adolescent English Language Learners‟ Second Language Literacy Engagement in World of Warcraft (WoW) and the J. Estill Alexander Future Leader in Literacy award winner Michael Manderino (2011) on Reading Across Multiple Multimodal Sources in Historical Inquiry. These three theses have virtual worlds and digital literacy as part of their research design, but seem to treat them more as a vehicle for content delivery rather than investigating a virtual world‟s affordances. For this paper, I will explore two other dissertations that comment both on virtual worlds specifically and digital literacy in general: Natasha Boskic (2011) Ethics in Immersive Gameworlds: Personal Growth and Social Change and Douglas Belshaw (2012) What is „Digital Literacy‟?: A Pragmatic Investigation, and conclude with my reflection on how a fusion of their ideas may eventually lead to more research carried out on virtual worlds for Literacy Education.

Natasha Boskic completed her degree at UBC, with Teresa Dobson as her supervisor in the LLED department. She takes a philosophical stance on the relatively new area of activity in literacy, which can be traced back to arcade and console video games of the late 1970s and increasingly on-line gameworlds at the turn of the 21st century, and she conducts her virtual ethnography with participants worldwide. The model for this dissertation,

Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 according to Brian Paltridge‟s (2002) four templates, closely matches the traditional complex model, as she builds up to her study of the alternate reality game “Urgent Evoke” in her fifth chapter following investigations of play (Chapter 2) and digital environments for learning (Chapter 3) as well as an overview of her method (Chapter 4). Following the study are her discussion (Chapter 6) and conclusion (Chapter 7) with several appendices, including a “Master Code List” (Appendix H) plus a full report of code frequency (Appendix I) to supplement research codes used in earlier chapters.

Douglas Belshaw completed his Doctor of Education at Durham University, and according to the university‟s website, “though shorter and more focused than a PhD thesis,” both degrees have “exact parity” (Learning Outcomes, n.d.). A point that Belshaw repeatedly makes throughout his thesis, the 60,000 words that he has to describe his field of study, is not enough space to mention every topic. He leaves out Guy Merchant‟s (2009) work on virtual worlds, mentioning it only in passing. It should be noted, too, that in Boskic‟s longer PhD dissertation there is no mention of Merchant‟s work either. Both Belshaw and Boskic, interestingly enough, find inspiration from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‟s (1990) psychological study Flow and there are several other points of comparison in the two dissertations. There is a similar philosophical edge to Belshaw‟s thesis, and each chapter has quotation from a pre-Socratic philosopher in addition to a Wordle word cloud of key terms in each chapter. The topic-based thesis (Paltridge, 2002) states a strong case for recognizing digital literacies as a matrix of influences rather than a Tolkienesque “one literacy to rule them all” (Belshaw, 2012, p. 156) exemplified in other theorists definition of digital literacy. While still claiming to be short on the number of words, his dissertation closely matches with the authors Gerry Mullins and Margaret Kiley (2002) write about creative and elegant theses (p. 379). In comparison, Boskic‟s earnest attempt to write a traditional thesis on a related topic feels like it says less despite having more words.


Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 To call this difference between dissertations a weakness on Boskic‟s part is unfair, as Belshaw does not conduct any empirical research and in theory has more room to elaborate on his findings. The first three chapters of Boskic‟s thesis have similarly intriguing discussions on the nature of play and its digital counterpart. She positions herself in the introduction as a parent of a gamer son, and in her reaction to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG) World Without Oil, she reflects upon her own personal history in Serbia during the economic crisis in the early 1990s. The reality digitally represented in the ARG “had a disturbing, emotional impact” on Boskic (2011, p. 6), prompting her to conduct research in other virtual worlds. One issue for certain Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Game (MMORPG) communities, particularly in an ARG, is the timeframe in which an international assembly of gamers meets online. Urgent Evoke, the ARG she selected as her field study, would only last for ten weeks, and as she as not the game designer the ARG would begin with or without her participants. Recruitment of participants seemed a challenge, as none of the student populations at the four local post-secondary institutions signed up for her virtual ethnography. It seemed that she had to pool together more willing and perhaps familiar participants from other parts of the world: four of them were Serbian (two in Europe and two in Oceania) and the remaining two were native to Africa. Various online forms of communication: e-mail, blogs, Skype and the virtual world itself were the means of collecting data from her participants.

There was no need for an internationally wide and chronotopically tight schedule with Belshaw‟s research, yet this did not prevent him from seeking data far and wide. His second chapter looks at governmental and institutional policies towards digital literacy on four continents. He proceeds to problematize print literacy in Chapter 3, mentioning various scholars and theorists who view reading and writing as traditional skills. In the fourth chapter, his discussion continues to build to an evolution of digital literacy from New Literacy Studies and new literacies, and it is here that his introduces the eight “essential elements for digital literacies” (p. 90) that he returns to in Chapter 8. By the mid point of his thesis, Chapter 5, Belshaw encourages his readers to embrace the ambiguities of digital literacy rather than attempt to pin it down to one thing or another. While all of his chapters 3

Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 reach back into Ancient Greece for their inspiration, he settles on a more contemporary yet still remote period for his methodology: early 20th century Pragmatism of William James and John Dewey in Chapter 6. For both Boskic and Belshaw, their methodologies present two equal yet entirely different approaches to conducting research, reaching for me the most intriguing crux for research in digital and virtual worlds, and as I consider my own research in these topics myself.

An appropriate analogy for the situation I find myself is Lewis Carroll‟s Alice falling down the rabbit-hole: a bit frightening not to know where these contrasting methodologies will lead me, but there are many things to notice and consider as I tumble deeper into this subject. For Boskic‟s Virtual Ethnography, there are numerous examples she draws upon, Sherry Turkle (1995), Anne Beaulieu (2004) and editors Nancy K. Baym and Annette N. Markham (2009) being the most familiar that she mentions. Many potential participants for a study of virtual worlds would already be familiar to other electronic forms of communication (most MMORPGs typically require an e-mail address to register a user account) and there is usually a strong online attached to the virtual world games. It would be the responsibility of the researcher to match the gamers‟ web knowledge in order to adapt to their virtual world. To this end Boskic makes an earnest effort, as mentioned above, but a couple of telling mistakes show that she does not have the basic understanding of video game history: listing the video game “Super Mario [Brothers]” (2011, p. 43) as belonging to Sega instead of Nintendo might be a minor mistake, but comes across as stating the Eiffel Tower is located in Pisa, Italy. This is not to say that there are not mistakes and typos in Belshaw‟s dissertation, latter chapters seem to have numerous punctuation errors and the occasional spelling mistake, the type of “sloppiness” Mullins & Kiley (2002) warn against in thesis writing (p. 378). And yet, these telling signs of last-minute revisions reveal the possible reworking of possibly longer portions of the thesis (one hint to these changes is passing naming of Guy Merchant‟s study (mentioned above) without citing his work, yet his Literacy in Virtual Worlds article still appearing in the reference section).


Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 An earlier version of Belshaw‟s research proposal failed, as Belshaw mentions in an appendix to his present thesis that chronicles the public sharing of his “lived” document (2012, p. 239) on blogs and open source document-sharing websites. Not having participants‟ identities to protect might allow him to crowdsource the thousands of like-minded individual who offered advice throughout his thesis writing. If Boskic‟s more scholarly approach to conducting research includes the bookshelves, cupboards and marmalade jars Alice can grasp at as she descends down the rabbit-hole, Belshaw‟s version of this same free-fall has only the uncertain bottom that might eventually lead to a digital wonderland. In describing the ambiguity of digital literacies, Belshaw includes a reference to the Queen of Heart‟s “six impossible things before breakfast” (Carroll, 1865, cited in Belshaw, 2012, p. 97) and it provides an otherwise brilliant counterpoint to the Pragmatism needed to determine his methodology as well as his essential elements of digital literacies.

Belshaw represents what is exciting and paradigm shifting about research into digital literacies, and Boskic builds a stable foundation for her research, supported by an impressive Virtual Ethnography that can be repeated and enhanced by others. It may prove challenging for future researchers to combine the two contrasting methods of research: ethnographic and non-empirical. Strangely, perhaps even impossibly, a virtual world seems to be the right sort of place for such a combination to occur. Rather than wait for someone else to design a virtual world, as Boskic does with the ARG Urgent Evoke, that explores the untold possibilities of digital literacies, the researcher will need to create a virtual space that meets all ethical and functional requirements. And instead of creating a matrix for digital literacies based solely upon theorists old and new, as Belshaw does, the researcher must populate this self-created virtual world with a populace of actual people, willing to drop down a digital rabbit-hole and explore the virtual world‟s “curiouser and curiouser” (Carroll, 1865) possibilities.


Kyle Stooshnov February 25, 2014 Reference Baym, N. K. and Markham, A. N. (Eds.). (2009). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Los Angeles: Sage. Beaulieu, A. (2004). Mediating ethnography: Objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the Internet. Social Epistemology 18(2). 139-163. Bershaw, D. (2012). What is „digital literacy‟?: A pragmatic investigation (EdD thesis). Durham: Durham University Boskic, N. (2011). Ethics in immersive gameworlds: Personal growth and social change (PhD dissertation). Vancouver: University of British Columbia. Carroll, L. (1865: 1997) Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Kindle version, accessed 15 August 2011 from Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row. EdD: Learning Outcomes (n.d.). Durham University School of Education website. Accessed on 25 February, 2014 from Li, Z. (2011). Adolescent English Language Learners‟ Second Language Literacy Engagement in World of Warcraft (WoW) (PhD dissertation). Gainesville: University of Florida. Manderino, M. L. (2011). Reading across multiple multimodal sources in historical inquiry (PhD dissertation). Chicago: University of Illinois at Chicago. Merchant, G. (2009). Literacy in virtual worlds. Journal of Research in Reading 32(1). 38-56. Mullins, G. and Kiley, M. (2002). „It‟s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize‟: How experienced examiners assess research theses. Studies in Higher Education 27(4). 369-386. Paltridge, B. (2002). Thesis and dissertation writing: An examination of published advice and actual practice. English for Specific Purposes 21. 125-143. Turkle, S. (1995). Life on screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster. Wang, Y. F. (2012). Designing immersive language learning environments in virtual worlds (PhD dissertation). Vancouver: University of British Columbia.


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