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Critical web literacy: a study of six Chinese university students

posted on 09.02.2017, 05:29 authored by LI, XiaoChun
This study investigated the ways in which six Chinese university students, who were studying English as a compulsory component of their degrees, used the Internet in their everyday lives. The focus was on how their online activities contributed to the development of their critical literacy capabilities. The notion of critical web literacy provides the study’s conceptual framework. It draws on a range of theoretical resources associated with the New Literacy Studies, critical literacy theories and the traditions of critical thinking in China. Although there are some tensions between the ways of seeing and producing knowledge integral to these resources, together they proved most useful to illuminate and explain the findings. The research employed a qualitative case-study approach with an ethnographic orientation that extended over 15 months. The site for the project was a Chinese university with a focus on six students, three male and three female, in their second and third years of study. The main data sources were observations, interviews, online communications and blog writings. Discourse analysis techniques, based on Gee’s D/discourse theories, were adopted to analyse the data. The study’s findings suggest that the students’ proficiency with English, as the lingua franca of the Internet, together with their mastery of digital technologies, influenced their critical web literacy development in important ways. For several of the participants, their critical engagement with web discussions and activities motivated them to enhance their foreign language facility, especially English. The findings also suggest that the students’ national identity influenced their critical thinking when they engaged in web literacy practices, in particular, when they encountered ideological conflicts between China and the west. By taking account of Confucian scholarship and the traditional heritage of Chinese culture, as well as the political and social context of contemporary China, the study explored the challenges of importing notions of critical literacy from the west. It concludes that, at least for the present, there is not much space for the application of such critical literacy approaches in Chinese higher education. However, the Internet opened a new window for the Chinese young people who participated in the study to engage with broader social and political activities across geographical barriers. The study also provides English language teachers in Chinese universities with a new lens through which to consider young people’s everyday digital literacy practices. As the students’ online activities outside of the classroom proved to be useful in developing both their language learning and critical thinking, teachers might explore the possibilities for including critical approaches mediated by the use of digital technologies in their programs.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Ilana Snyder

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education