Inequality in digital personas - e-portfolio curricula, cultural repertoires and social media

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Digital and electronic learning portfolios (e-portfolios) are playing a growing role in supporting admission to tertiary study and employment by visual creatives. Despite the growing importance of digital portfolios, we know very little about how professionals or students use theirs. This thesis contributes to knowledge by describing how South African high school students curated varied e-portfolio styles while developing disciplinary personas as visual artists. The study documents the technological and material inequalities between these students at two schools in Cape Town. By contrast to many celebratory accounts of contemporary new media literacies, it provides cautionary case studies of how young people’s privileged or marginalized circumstances shape their digital portfolios as well. A four-year longitudinal action research project (2009-2013) enabled the recording and analysis of students’ development as visual artists via e-portfolios at an independent (2009-2012) and a government school (2012-2013). Each school represented one of the two types of secondary schooling recognised by the South African government. All student e-portfolios were analysed along with producers’ dissimilar contexts. Teachers often promoted highbrow cultural norms entrenched by white, English medium schooling. The predominance of such norms could disadvantage socially marginalized youths and those developing repertoires in creative industry, crafts or fan art. Furthermore, major technological inequalities caused further exclusion. Differences in connectivity and infrastructure between the two research sites and individuals’ home environments were apparent. While the project supported the development of new literacies, the intervention nonetheless inadvertently reproduced the symbolic advantages of privileged youths. Important distinctions existed between participants’ use of media technologies. Resourceintensive communications proved gatekeepers to under-resourced students and stopped them fully articulating their abilities in their e-portfolios. Non-connected students had the most limited exposure to developing a digital hexis while remediating artworks, presenting personas and benefiting from online affinity spaces. By contrast, well-connected students created comprehensive showcases curating links to their productions in varied affinity groups. Male teens from affluent homes were better positioned to negotiate their classroom identities, as well as their entrepreneurial and other personas. Cultural capital acquired in their homes, such as media production skills, needed to resonate with the broader ethos of the school in its class and cultural dimensions. By contrast, certain creative industry, fan art and craft productions seemed precluded by assimilationist assumptions. At the same time, young women grappled with the risks and benefits of online visibility. An important side effect of validating media produced outside school is that privileged teens may amplify their symbolic advantages by easily adding distinctive personas. Under-resourced students must contend with the dual challenges of media ecologies as gatekeepers and an exclusionary cultural environment. Black teens from working class homes were faced with many hidden infrastructural and cultural challenges that contributed to their individual achievements falling short of similarly motivated peers. Equitable digital portfolio education must address both infrastructural inequality and decolonisation.