Structured blog task

In his 2001 paper,  ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants’, and ‘Part 2: do they really think differently?’, Prensky posits that a significant discontinuity has occurred; this ‘singularity’ (p.1) is, he proposes, the emergence of a generation of students who have grown up with new technologies and, therefore, ‘think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’ (p.1). Prensky terms this generation ‘Digital Natives’. To extend his metaphor further, he proposes that those born prior to 1980 should be considered ‘Digital Immigrants’ who can never lose their digital ‘accent’ and can never truly ‘go native’. If students are the ‘Natives’, teachers are the ‘Immigrants’ and this is therefore problematic for education as, ‘our Digital Immigrant instructors…are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.’ (p.3).  Prensky goes on to outline some of the ‘Digital Native’ preferences for learning which don’t align with the pedagogical practice of their ‘Immigrant’ teachers. He claims that educators therefore need to adapt their methodologies and the nature of the content they deliver to attempt to bridge the gulf between the digital student and their analogue teacher. The former group, he claims, have ‘little patience’ (p.4) for current educational norms.  In the second part of his paper, Prensky expands on his proposition the ‘Natives’ think differently.  Basing his argument on concepts of brain plasticity, he claims that the ‘twitch-speed’ digital space which the ‘Natives’ inhabit results in their having ‘hypertext minds’.

Prensky’s paper is based on postulations and hypotheses but he offers little evidence other than suppositions and anecdotes to support his claims for a dichotomous division between the ‘Native’ and the ‘Immigrant’. His argument is formed around presumptions, assertions and declarations, ‘Digital Immigrants think that learning can’t (or shouldn’t) be fun’ (p.4.) rather than around research and facts. He refers to experiments which offer supportive evidence for neuroplasticity along with concepts from social psychology which indicate that ‘people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about different things, they actually think differently.’ However, it is more than a conceptual leap to propose, as he does, that this evidence can be applied to the impact that technology has had on the thought processes of the so-called ‘Natives’; no causal evidence is offered. Many of his assertions about the ‘Immigrants’ are, at best, questionable. Any student of modernist literature and the ‘stream of consciousness’ via which authors tried to represent the chaotic and disassociated nature of thought would have cause to question Prensky’s description of linear thought which supposedly characterises the immigrant. Additionally, defining ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking’ as ‘Legacy’ content (p.4) is an almost paradoxical proposition. Yes, multi-modal communication is a language which is offered by the Internet but how will the ‘Natives’ engage with or even create their digital world without these ‘legacy skills’?

Bayne and Ross, in their critique of a ‘poorly supported position paper’ (p.161) identify a number of other paradoxes upon which Prensky’s paper is founded. In ”Digital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant Discourses, A Critique’, they question the ‘over-simplistic binary’ of ‘Native’ and ‘Immigrant’ and highlight how this dichotomy disempowers the teacher, serving to commodify the transaction between student and instructor. Additionally, they tackle the problematic nature of Prensky’s colonial metaphor which has become a ‘conceptual given’ (p.161)

The binary and simplistic definitions of Native and Immigrant serve, they argue, to ‘homogenise diverse and varied groups of individuals’ (p.160). This over-deterministic stance can be dangerous; it ignores the differences and nuances in, for example, students’ use of technologies and ‘over-states the rift between generations’. They also criticize Prensky’s definitions as they create what Derrida would term a ‘violent hierarchy’, in this instance valuing the ‘Native’s’ position above that of the ‘Immigrant’. The ‘Native’, they state is associated with the future, the ‘Immigrant’ with the past; thus, the educator is not only disempowered but, they argue, ‘placed in a position which is both subordinate and impossible, within a discourse which situates her as both unable to change, and as being required to change in order to remain a competent, employable professional.’ (p.162′). This is the paradox which is at the heart of Prensky’s paper. If ‘Immigrants’ cannot lose their accent, can never become native, then how can they change to accommodate the requirements of the digital worlds dominated by the ‘Natives’? Teachers are, they claim, further disempowered by the discourse: they cannot criticize the ‘ruling’ digital power as ‘any critique of technology…as long as it comes from an ‘immigrant’…(belongs) to a marginalised, illegitimate voice’ (p.162). The violent hierarchy which creates the perception of the Native’s needs as being dominant also places the teacher in the position of service provider to the student; the past must capitulate to the needs of the future (even though, as they note, ‘there is little evidence…that students do desire more technologically-driven approaches to teaching and learning’ (p.163)).

Bayne and Ross also tackle the presumptions and prejudices which inform Prensky’s ‘unfailingly negative descriptions of immigrants’ (p.164). They argue that it is necessary to explore the metaphor’s wider meanings and connotations; in doing so, they expose more paradoxical presumptions, such as the powerful ‘Native’s’ reliance on the powerless ‘Immigrant’ for their education. They further argue that both groups are subjugated by a notion of a digital terrain which must be conquered. Quoting Sandford, they posit that teachers and students are creators of the space in which they are defined as ‘Natives’ and ‘Immigrants’: ‘whatever we have, we built ourselves and we can continue to shape ourselves (2006, online)’.

Bayne and Ross offer a compelling deconstruction of Prensky’s argument. They expose its paradoxes and outline the dangers inherent in a stance which subordinates the teacher and posits the impossibility of an ‘Immigrant’ ever being able to achieve the position of ‘Native’.  Prensky fails to separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’ (Helsper and Eynon, 2010) and this determinism is damaging to both teachers and students.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants, from On the Horizon, 9(5): 1-6, and Part 2: do they really think differently?, On the Horizon, 9(6): 1-6.
Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2011) ‘Digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ discourses: a critique, in Ray Land and Sian Bayne (eds) Digital difference: perspectives on online learning, Rotterdam: Sense.

Thought snippet: absence and presence

This mini-post is just to note that a lot of my thinking this week has revolved around “Being in a sense present while apparently absent” (Shelley and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm, ibid, p.208)

The prompt for this strand of exploration was the story of ‘The Invisible Student’ and the comment that Rory made about online environments offering, on occasion, the chance to take a ‘holiday from the self’.

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

I started to think about what the last few weeks have been about is how to establish our presence and to feel present when, in essence, absent. Currently, we’re establishing our MSc selves in words, creating our presence in text; this reminds me of one of my favourite Beckett quotes, “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words” (Endgame). There’s the sense that words are not quite enough. Indeed, many of the issues highlighted in this week’s stories could be accredited to that Derridean gap between the sign and the signified. It will be interesting to see how our online selves and our community morphs as we develop our presence using other media – once we see others on Skype and engage through voice and video.

Slightly tangentially, this article was in The Guardian this week: maybe it’s harder than we think to escape from our ‘real’ selves when online.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993



Discussions and Debates

Many of the discussion threads about the ‘stories from the dark side’, have circled around conflict. Conflicts in expectations, conflicts in communication and internal conflicts. Codes of interaction and defining the rules of engagement have been explored and debated. Amongst many other things, we have examined notions of the online self, of the danger of the gap between word and intention, the role of the tutor and the rights and responsibilities of the student.

One of the most involved discussions came about as a response to ‘The Black Hole’ story and offered an insight into a particular reaction to Hamish’s WebQuest. Yoyu’s response to what I had perceived as a light-hearted task offers a salient learning point. We cannot predict learner responses nor rely on learner engagement. Even with much scaffolding, encouragement and reassurance, online students may still feel disengaged, alienated and discouraged.

The disconnect between Hamish’s intention and Yoyu’s response highlights many of the issues which are explored within transactional distance theory.

Definition of transactional distance from:

Interestingly, in Yoyu’s case, dialogue didn’t help, in fact it served to further alienate her from the task and from her peers.

snipFrom the online discussion:

It is interesting to consider if the medium of the discussion board – the medium which we are using and reflecting on this week – compounded the issues which Yoyu experienced. Yoyu herself questioned the use of the forum in her response to ‘The Black Hole’ story: the online discussion:

The key advantages of forums, as the Blackmon paper notes, include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this is particularly useful for our international cohort of students.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction.

The key disadvantages include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this can cause anxiety. Yoyu highlighted that she felt ‘behind’ in the WebQuest as she came to it two or three days behind some others.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted: this can cause stage-fright – students may feel inhibited about contributing anything other than well-crafted responses in this public and permanent space.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction, thereby excluding those who don’t feel able to participate or co-create.

It’s interesting to consider if a synchronous communication stream, such as Skype, would have mitigated the issues which Yoyu encountered. If she had been been able to express her concerns immediately and receive instant feedback and reassurance, that may have lessened her feelings of exclusion. Hrastinski (2008) suggests that synchronous e-learning is a more effective communication tool for such ‘getting acquainted’:

Asynchronous versus synchronous
Hrastinski, ‘Asynchronous and Synchronous E-learning’,

Perhaps the transactional distance between Yoyu and us, her peers, could have been lessened if we had been working together at the same time: the temporal gaps in the slow form discussion forum certainly appear to have been spaces where Yoyu’s anxiety and uncertainty grew.

Our discussions around the stories from the dark side have, therefore, contained much consensus and some conflict. I have learned a lot from reflecting on the conflicts in the stories and from the conflicts in our own discussion forums. The stories and our reactions to them highlight that it is, indeed, important not to be ‘nice all the time’. ‘Disputational talk’ (Mercer, 2008 – thanks to Renée for the reference), debate and disagreement enhances our learning.


Moorings and Black Holes

We have, in the past week, been establishing our own community of IDEL students, our own network, our own web of connections, communications and knowledge. We have been developing moorings. We have been provided with/pointed towards multiple streams via which to do this: Lino, the Moodle forums, the WebQuest and Twitter. We have been engaged in developing ‘patterns of concentration that create zones of connectivity, centrality, and empowerment in some cases’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001, quoted in Shelly and Urry  ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.210).


This is my first experience of a fully online course and the experience  of connecting only virtually has been stimulating and curious. I’m not sure, however, that ’empowerment’ is accurate at this stage. I am more anxious, circumspect and reflective about what I write than about what I would say. That is, perhaps, inevitable. As Mary noted in her reflections on ‘The Black Hole’ story, discussion forums are public and permanent spaces and it is this permanence which can, for me, induce inhibitions. The lack of paralinguistic signals is also difficult; emoticons just don’t fill that gap ;-). At the heart of many of these concerns is, I think, the notion of what ‘self’ I’m creating and presenting and how that ‘fits’ within the wider community of users. How can I be ‘in a sense present while apparently absent’? (Shelly and Urry, ibid, p. 207). Additionally, when it comes to the ideas I’m presenting, I fear that this is the case:


From Information is Beautiful – David McCandless

This has been a salient learning point for me and one which I must bear in mind as I encourage the network of teachers I work with to interact on the various forums which are available to them. Many of them, too, will be nervous about contributing and being empathetic to this and considering ways in which I might support and encourage is vital. Lino is an ideal ice-breaking medium and a WebQuest will provide focus for the discussion and for collaboration and community-building.

However, I cannot abstract from my subjective response to this medium to all learners’ responses: it’s not all negative, of course. As Stig points out, one of the many benefits of engaging via discussion forums is that we become more reflective, taking our time in responding and returning to and reconsidering points that we wish to make. Some learners will find the slow, asynchronous nature of such forums reassuring: they can construct and draft before contributing.

The ‘Black Hole’, the first story I’ve focused on in detail on the forum this week, threw up many questions connected to community and self. Discussions around this story moved to explorations about how we interact in spaces and how interactions can be moderated, guided and enhanced. Given that many of us are, or have been, teachers, the discussion quickly moved to assessment and whether assessment would enhance or diminish effective discussion. Threads also hovered around the notion of what is ‘authentic’ and whether assessment would mean that discussions would become less ‘real’ and would become parallel grandstanding threads. (As an aside, concerns and worries about the calibre of contribution are intensified within this assessed forum. I must acknowledge what Rory helpfully defined as a form of stage-fright when it comes to constructing blog posts. I’m sure that this will lessen with time.)

Additionally, the story also highlighted the human ‘will to connection’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215). The community of learners, without direction, followed their will to connect and formed a hub around their shared love of cats. As Simmel highlights, people are attracted to each other simply for ‘free-playing sociability’ and, without guidance, moderation and intervention, online forums can become unfocused and, to quote Joanne, ‘cliquey’.

In our IDEL community, we have, so far, reached broad agreement on the following principles which could mitigate some of the issues outlined in ‘The Black Hole:

  1. Tutor presence is key. They help to set the tone, to ‘model’ appropriate interaction and they can guide, encourage, moderate and help to structure discussion. A tutor’s presence shifts the context of the discussion from peer-to-peer and ensures that the community is more explicitly defined as a learning community.
  2. Guidance and ‘rules of engagement need to be established.
  3. Forums should have an explicit purpose.
  4. Multiple streams of communication, including those which facilitate more informal socialising, should be available.

As digital technology use is, as Shirky notes, a ‘hybrid of tool and community’ (Shirky, 2008, p.136), we must, when designing online courses/content, be attuned to:

  1. what tools should be used when and for what purpose;
  2. how communities are established and created within online environments.

We need to facilitate positive and meaningful communication and support the construction of healthy learning communities. We have to become builders of bridges, as the ‘achievement of connection reaches its zenith with a bridge that connects two places; it ‘symbolizes the extension of our volitional sphere over space.’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215).

bridge header

A thought snippet: Pigs in (Cyber) Space

smart_pigI’ll not go into the details of *that* Cameron story but, one of the articles about the ‘scandal’ which I read this week used a phrase which struck me as interesting “…the Internet has decided…”. Now, I’ve probably happened upon that phrase hundreds, if not thousands of times before but my engagement with this course is having the effect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (Selwyn 2011, p.16).

The Internet as artefact cannot ‘decide’ anything. As artefact it is, as Shelly and Urry note, composed of ‘multiple fixities or moorings on a substantial physical scale that enable the fluidities of liquid modernity’ (Shelly and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.207).

The phrase ‘the Internet has decided’ highlights Selwyn’s repeated proposition that ‘technology’ is not just the artefact, the thing, but also activities, practices, and context (Selwyn, 2011, p.8, p.17). The ‘Internet’ is a community and it is the epitome of ‘liquid modernity’.

“Ow! My brains!” ― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

‘…education is on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies; however, it has been on that brink for some decades now.’ – Laurillard (2008, p.1)


This picture was produced by my 12 year-old nephew in Art today:


He brought it home and it was posted up on Facebook by my sister (ignore the lack of capitalisation – she’s grammatically lazy on social media):


10 minutes later, I had stolen acquired it, messed around with it a little in Photoshop and had it posted on here as my new blog header:


The process by which I discovered, acquired and used this image is quotidian, mundane; we stumble across, come upon or seek out knowledge, images, help and companionship daily via the web, and we share, disseminate, communicate and engage instantly. It’s the norm. It’s obvious. But, in a week in which I’ve been asked to reflect on why I’m doing the course and what I hope to get out of it, I began to think about this knowledge exchange in different terms.

The image of the bird was purloined by gifted to me via technology. But, as Selwyn notes, ‘technology’ – etymologically at least – ‘has always referred to the processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge’ (2011, p.7). So, nothing too different here then. Is what is really different the digitisation of knowledge, of images, of self? That’s where the immediacy is after all, isn’t it? But again, it’s more than that. This digital bird flew in from the internet and ‘when people talk about the internet they are usually referring to the activities that they engage in online, the cultures that can be said to surround these social activities, and the knowledge that results from these activities. As such, it is far more useful to describe the internet in terms of its social ‘content’ rather than its technical forms (Wessels 2010).’ (Selwyn, 2011, p.8). I got the bird from my nephew, via my sister via the internet. And many other people in our particular social milieu got that bird too.

I first graduated from Edinburgh University in 1996. When I left, the most advanced piece of technology I had used to help me in my studies was my much loved Brother electronic typewriter. A few months after graduating in English, I was at Napier studying multimedia technology. It was a dizzying and exciting shift. After being a (contented) reader and writer, I now felt like a maker, a producer. We used Macromedia Director and Authorware to produce interactive content. My first product was a little programme which used Mr Men characters to teach spelling. I remember the thrill of making things move after years of (wonderful) passivity. From Napier, I went to SCET and worked on a CD-ROM to teach children Gaelic. My Gaelic was non-existent and my programming skills weren’t too much better, but it was exciting. I worked with teachers and pupils for the first time, collaborating with them to determine what worked and what didn’t; what helped them to teach and to learn. And I was hooked: education was surely ‘on the brink of being transformed through learning technologies…’ Laurillard (2008, p.1)

Since then, I’ve spent most of my career in educational technology. I’m a qualified teacher, but I now work as an ‘EdTech consultant’ (“whatever that means” – thank you Mother). I like a lot of the work that I do. It’s thrilling to work with augmented reality, with 3D technologies and with apps and it’s good to share that thrill with teachers and pupils. However, a phrase which really stuck when I came across it in this week’s reading was ‘the realities of technology use are often more mundane and compromised’ (Selwyn. 2011, p.32). A lot of the time, I am called into schools to deal with broken kit, broken budgets and broken enthusiasm. I see more dead, unused and under-used technologies than I see ‘guides on the side’ or ‘flipped classrooms’. The artefact has, in too many instances, been confuted with change. Technological determinism has ensured failure from the outset. And, therefore, we remain, after decades, ‘on the brink of change’.

So, I guess that’s why I’m here. I want to be able to reflect on my own practice. I want to work with others to discuss what educational technology and digital education mean. I also want to reflect on what is seemingly mundane – a picture being shared on Facebook – and see that, once again, for the complex and vital interchange which it really is.

I am hoping that I can keep up: it’s a vibrant, talented and global community of IDEL students.  I’m concerned about the limits of my own creativity: I am diligent, industrious and organised but my creative capacity pales in comparison with some of the artists and musicians on the course. And writing this hasn’t been easy: I’ve spent years writing IT strategies, business plans and training plans, so my reflective, engaged, academic prose is, to say the least, rusty. Still, it’s written, it’s done. My first blog post finished. And the process hasn’t felt mundane at all.