My Edinburgh

“… the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the interplay of signification ad infinitum.”
– Jacques Derrida

“This (Edinburgh) is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.”
– Alexander McCall Smith

ed viewIn their 2013 paper, ‘Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students’, Bayne et all consider ‘how online distance students enact the space of ‘the university’ (p569).  The paper explores the ‘topological multiplicities’ (p.571) which constitute what it is to ‘be at’ Edinburgh University on a course such as this:

‘…institutional formation and personal identity, location and diaspora, mobility and stasis are continually and creatively re-thought, re-formed and re-shaped’.  (p.571)

University is, the paper argues ‘recast as a complex enactment’ (p.571). As online distance learners, our social spaces are ‘fluid’ (Mol and Law 1994) and Law and Mol’s concept of ‘fire’ (2001) serves to denote the ‘complex intersections of presence and absence’ which comprise our experience, our spaces and our learning. So far so postmodern: online distance learning offers alterity to and the logos, the fixed and the physical. Academically and intellectually, this definition of our experience appeals: as with the metaphor of the rhizome, the rejection of sedentarist assumptions about what is normal – stability, meaning and place – for a definition of space as a ‘dynamic entity’ (p.572) reflects the role we have as creators of our own definitions of what our class is, what our university is and what our learning is.

However, Bayne et al state that, although distance students relish ‘their immersion in the networked, fluid and fire spaces of the online mode’ (p.573), they counter-balance this multiplicity with the construction of ‘their own version of the ‘certainties’ of bounded campus space.’ (p.573).

‘Not me!’ I thought.

And then, reading on, I rethought.

Bayne et al identify and define three key themes which characterise distance students’ conceptualisation and experience of ‘Edinburgh University’; of the ways ‘in which ‘university’ space is enacted’ (p.575). All had resonance for me:

1. Homing and the sentimental campus
I studied in Edinburgh from ’92 – ’96. I was determined to make a success of my time there having transferred from Oxford (where I was reading PPE) to read English which which was my passion. You can only imagine how delighted my parents were, especially as I was the first in my family to make it to university. Anyway…my love of literature was quickly augmented by my love of the city. I continued to live in Edinburgh after I graduated and, since then, have left and returned on a number of occasions. Starting this course feels like another return; I am once again experiencing a sense of connection with the city, ‘a conceptual homeward return’ (p.577).

2. The metaphysics of presence or ‘campus envy’.
Edinburgh University is, for me, ‘a kind of touchstone – a logos’. It is a point (albeit imagined) of fixity, of presence in our online experience of ‘the fire’: the ‘lambent interdependency of the ‘here’ and ‘not here” (p.582). Bayne et al record students’ ‘sense of the possibility of campus presence’ (p.583). I have enacted the same need for physical connectedness – registering for and receiving a student card which I am unlikely to use and making arrangements to attend – in person – the anniversary celebration at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 26th November.


3. The imagined campus
My Edinburgh University campus is multiple and varied, I ‘operate within a material space of ‘churn and flow’. This week, my class has been a restaurant table in a Best Western in Wilmslow, an office in Stockport and my spare room at home in Cumbria. Next week, it will be a hotel in Cornwall. Paradoxically, the complex ‘entanglements’ which ‘enact (this) institutional space’ (p.583) serve to provide me with a sense of constancy wherever I happen to be. Edinburgh University comes with me.

My experience being ‘at Edinburgh’ is one in which I feel both here and there; I feel connected and disconnected, absent and present and ‘somewhere in between’:

‘To be ‘at’ Edinburgh…is to be oriented in multiple ways to the institution, to be simultaneously inside and outside, in flux and in stasis, in presence and in absence’ (p.581)

I do, however, feel that I am in exactly the right place and space for me.

Bayne, S., Gallagher, M. S., & Lamb, J. (2014). Being ‘at’ university: the social topologies of distance students. Higher Education, 67, 569-583.

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.