Planning Pedagogy for i-Mode:

Some Principles for Pedagogical Decision-Making


Colin Lankshear (University of Ballarat)

Michele Knobel (Montclair State University)


Paper presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting,

San Diego, April 14, 2004.


The coming of i-mode

In his recent book, Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold (2002) explores likely and possible implications of the current explosion in wireless connectivity, which he refers to as "i-mode"—deriving from "Japan’s singularly successful wireless Internet service" (ibid.: 3). According to Rheingold, i-mode will almost certainly impact our lives in massive ways during the years ahead.

We are already familiar with mobile phones that have texting and, in mny cases, camera imaging capacity, radio reception, small multimedia file storage capability, and internet and email access. Texting—whether by mobile phone or two-way pager—has become widespread among young people across diverse social and economic groups. To date, outside of Japan, perhaps, full internet wireless connectivity has not arrived on a scale close to that of phone texting. Nonetheless, "always on", large scale, full internet wireless connectivity is just around the corner, with large scale projects in developing countries ensuring even the most isolated communities will have access to some form of internet and mobile communication media (cf., Warschauer 2003). Rheingold refers to this as the coming of "the mobile Net" (2002: 3). Much, if not most, of the world will experience the conjoining of mobile communications and the information processing power of networked computers during the current decade (2000-2010). In the very near future the number of mobile (wireless) devices connected to the Internet will surpass the number of internetworked personal computers.

Drawing on observations in leading-edge telephony cities like Tokyo and Helsinki, and on trends he has tracked in North America, Britain and Western Europe, Rheingold argues that "the personal handheld device market is poised to take the kind of jump that the desktop PC made between 1980 and 1990" (xv). This is the jump from merely being "a useful toy adopted by a subculture to a disruptive technology that changes every aspect of society" (xv). Today’s mobile phones, says Rheingold, "have become tiny multimedia Internet terminals" (xiv), and the "infrastructure for global, wireless, Internet-based communication is entering the final stages of development" (xv). We are looking at the imminent convergence on a large scale of "portable, pervasive, location-sensitive intercommunication devices" that are useful to groups and individuals alike (ibid.).

Within this context, what Rheingold calls "smart mob" behaviour will become increasingly prevalent and dominant within everyday life. Smart mobs are people who "cooperate in ways never before possible because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capacities" (ibid.). Even though the individuals who constitute a smart mob may not actually know each other they are able to act together for shared purposes. The mobile devices that galvanise and mediate their efforts to act in concert are devices that "connect them with other information devices in the environment as well as with other people’s telephones" (xii). Associated with smart mob developments are a range of practices mediated directly by mobile communications devices and other digital technologies. These include, for example, new ways of:

Rheingold’s question about how human behaviour is likely to change when we hold in our hands (or otherwise "wear") gadgets with super computing power that communicate with each other through "a wireless mega-Internet" (2002: xii) is timely, to say the least. Furthermore, it throws enormous weight onto the issue of how formal curricular learning can and should intersect with contemporary literacies in the world beyond the school. This question is especially important if we take seriously Rheingold’s prediction that by 2010 there will be a new "digital divide" corresponding to the line that marks off those who can mobilize wireless internet applications for collaborative-cooperative activity for mutual benefit and those who cannot.

To be sure, pedagogy and curriculum cannot be "hostaged" to every change in cultural tools and uses that appears on the horizon. At the same time, if limits to learners’ affinities, allegiances, identities and prior experience are transgressed beyond a certain point, even "successful" learners (with the right cultural and social capital) will decline the offers made by formal education.

A case in point

This is exemplified in a case recently reported by Steven Thorne (2003), who describes tensions between learning pedagogy and cultural practices and values integral to young people’s identities in the context of a French course at a U.S. university. The course had been designed to incorporate use of a range of CMC tools and activities, including in-class synchronous exchanges between French and U.S. key pals using Microsoft’s Net Meeting software and a video conferencing link. The U.S. students were also required to engage in email communication with their French key pal counterparts. Unlike the chat and videoconferencing, however, the email component was integral to course assessment.

Interestingly, emailing proved very unpopular with some of the students. In conversation following the final Net Meeting session and a follow up interview, two 19 year old female students (Grace and Stef) spoke disdainfully of email as a friendship communication medium. They associated email with "communication between power levels and generations" (Thorne 2003: 7).


Can you all follow up with e-mail or? [in reference to the final few minutes of the last chat session of the term]


Yeah, but I hate writing e-mails.




So are the e-mail exchanges just not as dynamic as this, or=


No [they aren’t]=


=But I think it’s also because we have, like we communicate with a lot of people now through AOL [instant messenger]. That’s so like that’s how I talk to all my friends at different colleges=


=and here=


=We don’t send e-mails back and forth to each other to like catch up. Like we just talk [using IM]. It’s very like=


=Yeah, it’s just, like, what we’re used to.


So you don’t use e-mail that much normally?


I almost never do. I just use it for teachers and stuff=


=teachers, yeah. Or my Mom [laughs]. (Thorne 2003: 5)

In a brief interview exchange Grace elaborated as follows:


Do you e-mail much?


No not that much. Just mostly for communicating with professors.


And for your key-pal?


I just e-mailed him a couple of things in English … and then I was like, I’m not talking to him any more except in the NetMeetings. And then [the Instructor] was saying how like we have to do that, but then I didn’t [laughs]. I didn’t e-mail him any more .... Like I just, it just wasn’t very convenient I guess. Like if you had AOL Instant Messenger I would just, you know, type in something every so often or whatever, but it’s different than e-mail .... It’s like, "Oh God, I have to write an e-mail now." Like it’s just like, you don’t want to, it’s like an effort.


So how many times a week do you e-mail friends?






Never. (Thorne 2003: 6)

Such power and cross generational associations intimated the inappropriateness of email as a medium for "age-peer relationship building and social interaction". Yet, these were the teachers’ main purposes for the intercultural exchanges. For Grace and Stef there were "right" (appropriate) and "wrong" (inappropriate) cultural tools for the kinds of exchanges occurring between them and their French key pal, François. Indeed, Grace’s belief that email was an inappropriate medium for mediating interpersonal age-peer interaction and relationship building meant that even though Grace (and Stef) liked Francois, and overall enjoyed the intercultural exchange project, she chose not to participate in the email component; notwithstanding "the coercive force of the graded assignment given by the instructor to continue e-mail exchanges" (ibid.: 7).

Through particular forms of cultural participation we all help to construct particular patterns of norms and forms for the use of specific artifacts (in the present case, software tools for communicative practices). These constructions have existential force. They mobilize certain kinds of personal "identity-related investments" and discourage others.

The meaning of cultural tools, and their perceived acceptability or appropriateness as media for teaching and learning activities are often closely linked to how individuals see themselves—their affinities, identities, etc.—and these associations may run deep. Grace, particularly, saw email as an unacceptable medium for social age-peer exchange: even within the context of artificial social interactions that had been induced for curricular purposes. Part of the way Grace saw herself was as a person who does not communicate socially in close and friendly ways by means of email. She would, however, have been prepared to use IM for the curriculum activities, had it been available as an option.

Of course, it does not follow from this that other (let alone all) students would be prepared to have IM used as a communication mode within formal educational settings. Many young people prefer to maintain a strong demarcation between modes and forms of communication (and other social and cultural practices) they associate with their lives outside of school—which are often the lives they experience as most authentic and meaningful—and what they do and how they do it within school. Even so, such examples behoove us to take seriously the possible pedagogical and curricular consequences of allowing the gap between X and Y to get too wide, and to seek principles for guiding decisions about how best to accommodate identity investments and affinities mediated by new technologies within formal learning contexts.

In this paper we will suggest some possible pedagogical principles and how they might be applied to "the coming of i-mode". Some things seem reasonably clear from the outset:

What is needed then are educationally appropriate principles and criteria on which to base judgments and decisions. These must reflect the status of formal education as ethically informed practice—such that education does not become simply a reflex of the values and interests of the most powerful social groups—while simultaneously holding education accountable to a society’s legitimate claims upon it. The entire history of educational thought is, of course, nothing less than the collective record of the search for such principles and criteria. So we won’t pretend to resolve the matter here! On the other hand, several educational principles and related criteria derived from a sociocultural perspective and to which we are committed seem especially relevant to our concerns here. Four stand out in particular. These are

We will describe these briefly in turn.

The principle of efficacious learning

According to this principle, for learning to be efficacious it is necessary that what somebody learns now is connected in meaningful and motivating ways to mature or insider versions of Discourses. Discourses are understood as sets of related social practices composed of particular ways of using language, acting and interacting, believing, valuing, gesturing, using tools and other artifacts within certain (appropriate) contexts such that one enacts or recognizes a particular social identity or way of doing and being in the world (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: 4). This involves thinking of education and learning in terms not of schools and children (place-related and age specific) but, instead, in terms of human lives as trajectories through diverse social practices and institutions (ibid.). To learn something is to progress toward a fuller understanding and fluency with doing and being in ways that are recognized as proficient relative to socially constructed and maintained (proper) ways of "being in the world". Participating in Discourses are things we get more or less right or more or less wrong. Mature or insider forms of Discourses are, so to speak, "the real thing": the way a Discourse is "done" by "mature users" who "get it right". They are "authentic" rather than "pretend" versions of the social practices in question. In this sense, for learning at times to be efficacious it must involve doing something that genuinely puts the learner on the right track toward becoming a competent participant in "the real thing"—whatever the Discourse in question might be.

The principle of integrated learning

From a sociocultural perspective, learning is integrated to the extent that three conditions are met. These all relate to the key idea that learning is inseparable from Discourses.

The first condition is that integrated learning occurs inside a practice rather than at a distance (as where one learns something about a practice at remove from participation in the practice itself, with a view to applying the learning in situ at some subsequent time). This is not to say that worthwhile learning cannot be decontextualised and subsequently applied; only that to this extent the learning is not integrated in the sense intended here.

The second condition extends the first. Learning is integrated when the various "bits" of social practices that go together to make up a practice as a whole—and where the various "bits" of related social practices that go together to make up a Discourse as a whole—are learned in their relationships to one another, as a consequence of learning them inside the practice(s). In integrated learning we learn to put the various "bits" (the speaking bits, tool and artifact-using bits, action/behaviour bits, valuing and believing and gesturing and dressing, etc., bits) "whole" and "live". We learn them organically in their relationships to each other, not as "chunks" to be articulated later.

The third condition is that our learning is the more integrated the less it clashes with who and what we are and do in the other discursive dimensions of our lives. The less the "identity" we are called to be in this learning instance is in conflict with the identities we are called to be—and are at home with—in the rest of our lives, the more integrated the learning can be. Thorne’s example of Grace is apposite here. Trying to get Grace to learn conversational-friendship French by means of email could not be integrated in this sense. Grace was, in effect, being asked to "mean against" some of her other social identities and values that were (more) important to her. Other things being equal, the less conflict learners experience between their social identities, the more effectively and willingly they learn.

The principle of productive appropriation and extension in learning

This principle is partly an extension of the integrated learning principle, and partly the time-honoured principle that learning should build on what learners already know and have experienced. With respect to the first aspect, this principle involves looking for ways to reduce or ameliorate conflict between social identities during learning. For example, if an educationally acceptable appropriation of Grace’s cultural construction of age-peer/friendship communication (e.g., via IMing) could be made within the French course, this would help integrate and strengthen learning by putting cultural, personal, technological, and epistemological aspects in sync.

With respect to the second aspect, if learners already know how to perform discursive roles and tasks that can legitimately be carried over into new discursive spaces, this can be used to advantage to enable learning and proficiency in a new area. For example, knowing how to archive downloaded music onto an MP3 player like an iPod for personal entertainment purposes can readily be transferred to archiving interview data files that have been recorded digitally for research purposes, without compromising either practice. The kinds of clash between cultures of use evident in the example of Grace are not likely to arise in this case. Of course, this aspect of the present principle—building learning on, and integrating into present learning, relevant knowledge and competence the learner already has—is practically self-evident. It is certainly widely recognized by educators. At the same time, it is systematically ignored or subverted on a massive scale within classroom learning.

The principle of critical learning

In various places, Jim Gee (1996; Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996) states very clearly a major dilemma with respect to effective learning construed socioculturally as processes of achieving fluent mastery of Discourses. This concerns the fact that becoming fluent in a Discourse is best achieved through processes of learning inside the Discourse. But the more effective this learning is, the less critically reflective the learner’s perspective on the Discourse will be. The more effective learning inside a Discourse is, the more deeply "indoctrinatory" it is likely to be. As Gee notes, Discourses cannot countenance criticism from within, since that would be to invite their own demise or transcendence.

This is problematic if we believe education should help prepare learners to understand the limitations and constitutive nature of each and every Discourse, and to be committed to and capable of playing active roles in trying to shape social practices in progressive and expansive ways on the basis of what they believe and value. From this standpoint it is necessary to create spaces for developing and negotiating differing points of view on social practices, social identities, social institutions, and the like. This means creating spaces for experiencing different and competing Discourses and deciding how to handle this divergence.

Toward criteria for decision making

These principles suggest a number of criteria for helping us decide the extent to which and manner in which characteristically contemporary literacies—comprising technologies, artifacts, practices, and cultures of use—practiced by young people beyond the school might become integral components of school-based learning in ways that strengthen education. These include (but are not exhausted by) criteria like their conduciveness to "promoting approximations to expert practice", "authentic/non- contrived uses", "collaborative activity", "recognition of distributed knowledge and expertise", "efficacy for in situ use", "capacity to mediate whole practices", and so on. If some of these criteria are not immediately apparent as derivations from our principles, the links become readily apparent when we acknowledge that Discourses are distributed networks of knowledge, expertise, and competence. Without collaboration and expertise there can be no Discourses, and without Discourses there can be no learning.

This brings us to a crucial point in the argument we are trying to develop, which concerns the purposes of school-based learning and participation in school-based Discourses and the relationship between school-based learning and participation in the "mature" Discourses to which the school Discourses are presumed to relate. Apart from when it is a senseless activity, learning is always "a process of entry into and participation in a Discourse" (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996: 15). School learning certainly involves entry into school Discourses, but the further question is: "To what end?" If school learning is simply for initiation into school Discourses, that is one thing, and we are left without a significant problem here – since there is no reason why school learning should have to take account of non-school practices.

If, on the other hand, we believe that school-based Discourses of learning (school projects, school history, school science, physical education, etc.) should contract significant relationships to "mature" Discourses beyond the school, we have an issue of major proportions. This is because schools separate learning from participation in "mature Discourses" and, moreover, "render the connection entirely mysterious" (ibid.). Hence, our immediate questions about whether and how being in "i-mode" can, with integrity, be taken into account in school-based learning becomes a subset of a much larger and more fundamental question.

In the remainder of this paper we will take the view that school Discourses of learning can and should relate transparently and efficaciously to learners’ lives as trajectories through diverse social practices in myriad social institutions and, therefore, should relate to "mature" or "insider" versions of Discourses.

Some vignettes of non-contrived possibility: mobile, cooperative, contemporary, expert knowledge production

Elsewhere (Lankshear and Knobel 2003a: 105-108; Knobel and Lankshear 2004: 78-105) we have described a small scale initiative that has been under development for several years now in Australia, called Knowledge Producing Schools (KPS; see also, Bigum 2002). The schools in question have begun to develop new and interesting relationships with groups in their local communities, by engaging in processes that generate products or performances that are valued by the constituencies for which they have been produced. An important part of negotiating the production of such knowledge is that the product or performance is something that students see as being valued by the consumer or audience of their work. The students know their work is taken seriously, and that it has to be good or else it will not be acceptable to those who have commissioned it. The level of engagement and the quality of work and student learning to date have been impressive. To date all the participating schools have been in the K – 6 range although efforts are currently being made to enlist high schools.

The examples that follow are not teacher-centred projects with peripheral student involvement. Rather, they are projects—in the sense in which the task of developing and producing a commercial movie or a new motor car are often called "projects"—that are sometimes presented to students as problems to solve or, as has frequently been the case, problems the students have raised themselves with a view to solving them. For example:

From such examples, and using the principles we developed earlier in this paper, the following kinds of fictional vignettes are but a short and plausible jump.


Soloranzo High School has assembled a research team of students drawn from History, English, and Social Science subjects across grade levels 8 to 12. The team is working in collaboration with three History professors at a local university. The project, commissioned by the municipal council, is to develop an oral history of long established migrant groups within the city. It involves conducting life history interviews with elderly residents, focusing on their experiences of settling in their adopted country.

Ben (8th grade) and Monica (11th grade) meet at McDonalds to go over their interview questions. Their information about the couple that they are to interview has given rise to doubts about two of their proposed questions. Unsure what to do, they call their university research partner on Monica’s mobile phone and ask her advice. They talk for five minutes and revise the interview schedule accordingly. The university professor tells them she will be in her office the next 2 hours and asks them to call her back when they reach that part of the interview. When they arrive at the house Monica text messages the teacher coordinating the project to confirm that they have arrived and everything is ready for the interview.

Ben takes the digital voice recorder from his pocket and gets it ready for recording. The recorder has a built-in camera that Ben will use throughout the semi-structured interview, having obtained the necessary formal consent from the couple. On this occasion Monica will play the main interviewing role, although both will prompt and probe when appropriate as the professor has coached them to do. They call the professor at the arranged point in the interview. She talks with the couple by means of the loudspeaker function built into the mobile phone, recording the conversation at her end, while Ben continues recording the conversation in situ. When the professor has finished, Monica and Ben conclude the interview, thank the couple, negotiate a follow up if needed, and leave.

They have one hour before their next interview, so they go to a nearby public library they know has wireless internet access. Ben uploads the digital audio and visual file from the voice recorder to the small Apple notebook on loan to them from the university. When the upload is complete Monica logs on and FTPs the file to the project website for archiving. Ben simultaneously logs on using a PDA from the school set and posts a short message to the team blog, notifying that the interview has been completed and the files uploaded. He also lists the artifacts shared by the couple during the interview and records the professor’s participation during the interview.

When they have finished, they text message their teacher again and set off for the next interview.


Karl (10th grade) oversees Soloranzo High School’s project reputation system and maintains a registry of community expertise that has been made available to project teams. He and a group of peers researched a range of well-known formal rating systems (eBay,, and developed a five point rating scale and a component for brief feedback statements. At the completion of each project Karl and his teammates email the clients, providing a brief explanation of the rating and feedback system, a reference number, and politely inviting them to log their evaluation on the automated form on the school’s project website. (Karl’s team developed this form in collaboration with some undergraduate university students in computer engineering.) The clients enter their project reference number into the form (feedback cannot be left without this number), select a rating from a drop down menu, and provide up to 50 words of descriptive feedback in the text window. Karl then updates the project reputation web page, which is public.

These ratings provide the formal public record of the school’s level of performance as assessed by clients, as well as evaluative data on individual projects that contribute to team members’ assessment portfolios. This public record of reputation is an integral part of the process by which the community develops a new perception of the nature and role of contemporary school education. Karl’s school recognises that to function effectively as a KPS it (and other KPSs) needs to be "at least partially remade in the minds of the local community", and that "project by project it [is] possible to build up a repertoire of [publicly recognised] research skills and products in consultation with local needs and interests" (Bigum 2002: 139).

Karl also maintains a registry of community expertise that has been made available to the school in its project work. This registry is public and serves multiple purposes. In part it is a record of resources that might be available to the school and/or other (non-profit) community groups for appropriate future activities. It is also a mechanism for community networking. In addition, and very importantly, it provides a public statement of the community service/collaborative-cooperative dispositions of those who have demonstrated their recognition that education is a whole of community responsibility. Of course, the record of projects on the school website simultaneously identifies those community groups and organizations that have supported the reconstitution of education as "mature" knowledge production by commissioning projects.


At Soloranzo High the research teams have each been assigned server space for project weblogs (blogs) and websites. Sarah (10th grade) is "responsible" for the oral history project blog. This blog works in tandem with the project’s archival web site (for which Sarah is also responsible). The blog is used to document the team’s research process as it unfolds. As we have seen, student interviewers in the field can use the blog to update their teammates in real time (e.g., by PDA from a wireless hotspot).

Sarah has general oversight of the blog, although all team members are registered and can post to it. Sarah follows up on comments, organises the structure of the blog, edits spelling, maintains the URL hyperlink lists and annotations, and generally performs the kinds of tasks undertaken by webmasters. The blog serves as an audit trail for the project and as a repository of the team’s thinking over time. For example, team members blog ideas about patterns they are starting to see in the data, post links to online resources relevant to an aspect of the study, and list brief summaries, citations, and location details of relevant offline resources (books, newspaper articles, artifacts in people’s homes) etc. The blog also accommodates ideas, information and suggestions (e.g., things to follow up on, other people to interview, locations of documents and artifacts) relevant to the study posted by members of the public at large.

The website is a password-protected database containing all digital archival material generated in the project. It can be accessed by all team members for the various research purposes from any location with internet access. These purposes include uploading new data, keeping tabs on what has already been collected (and not), to prepare data for analysis and printing out data to be analyzed, and generally maintaining a record of progress to date. It is not only the main digital database for the project, but also a potential future source of secondary data for subsequent projects upon approval subject to ethical consideration. Sarah maintains this website, in collaboration with her counterpart in the university and her History teacher (who is the staff member assigned to this project).

Concluding remarks

Such imaginary examples are in no way farfetched. At the same time, they show how a range of characteristically contemporary computer and communication technologies and out-of-school social practices and cultures of use can be incorporated into learning on terms that satisfy the principles and criteria we have outlined above.


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