A Jabber

On Tuesday evening, I participated in our group Skype chat which was focused on the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants.

It was a big conversation in many ways, not least because there were nine participants*, including Sian. Towards the start of the conversation, Karen, commentating on just how many of us were involved, asked if there was a collective noun for such a large Skype chat and Sian suggested a very apt epithet.


What followed was indeed a jabber. The conversation was multi-threaded and pacey. Some contributions were picked up and responded to, others were not: ideas disappeared into the stream of interaction, unacknowledged and lost. Dialogues weaved through broader conversations and some voices were lost in the babble.

One of the features of Skype is the alert which tells you who is typing. I found that this discouraged me from offering my views at times as I could see that there were already a number of people preparing their contributions for the thread. It was useful that Sian had laid out some ground rules in advance, thereby helping us to set our expectations about the frenetic and frantic nature of the conversation. This ensured that I didn’t feel anxious about the disjointed and hectic threads:


A number of key issues around the digital native/immigrant dichotomy were discussed. Firstly, Sian asked us to consider why the terminology persisted. Paul and Sai offered a concise rationale for the terminology’s refusal to die:


We went on to explore the problematic nature of using colonial metaphors and the fact that, if we are to engage with and critique the simplistic binary we have no choice but to use the terms.


The conversation moved on to exploring what other factors, other than Prensky’s reductive argument about age, might impact on whether we could be termed ‘native’ and some interesting points were made. Stig posited the notion that our ability to manage technological breakdowns defines the divide:


We explored who benefits from the embedding of the native/immigrant distinction. Both Joy and I have experienced teachers using the supposed divide as a way of abdicating responsibility, a way of avoiding trying to use technologies in teaching and learning:


The discussion broadened to consider the benefits and disadvantages of using technologies. As a technophile, I was surprised by some of the stances which my peers have adopted to technology. Stig, for example, is considering banning laptops from his lectures. Currently – and I’m sure that this will change as the course progresses and my understanding deepens – my stance is that we should, as educators, be inculcating good practice in using the medium rather than not allowing it to be used. Personally, I would be at a loss in Stig’s lectures as I don’t use paper and pens any longer: I rely on my iPad for note-taking. Sian pointed us towards a thought-provoking article about a ‘no-tech’ school and Joy mentioned a book ‘Toxic Childhood’ which also, in part, criticises the pervasive nature of technology within children’s lives. The notion of ‘solutionism’ was posited by Sian as a useful concept to explore when considering these arguments. Morozov claims that many of the problems for which we strive to find technological solutions might not require solutions as they might not, really, be problems. If we apply this line of thought to our examination of the introduction of technologies into schools, we might be advised to consider whether we are engaged in the folly of solutioneering where no solution is really required.

Some of the papers were discussed in a little more detail too, particularly Helsper and Eynon’s distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’; there was general consensus that this particular binary was helpful as it acknowledged the possibility of  acquiring what Paul termed ‘digital citizenship’ rather than excluding on the basis of age alone.

The last part of our discussion explored how to define what ‘nativeness’ is. Many of the definitions were considered reductive and Sian suggested that we shouldn’t perhaps, be trying to nuance – and thereby give life to – such a problematic term.

With regards to the dynamics of the conversation, Stig made some challenging and at times provocative points and it was interesting to see how the group managed this. Some of us quietened and some of us aimed to diffuse using humour. We also allowed Sian to step in as tutor to manage this:


Looking over the transcripts from others conversations, it’s interesting to see other dynamics at play. The Monday afternoon conversation, which had just four participants, was a more sociable conversation where the participants reflected on their technology use in less theoretical and more personal terms. The Tuesday afternoon conversation was focused on the readings but, with fewer (six) participants, the threads seem more coherent. What was also interesting was how the participants in this group supported one another in developing their knowledge and understanding of the tool (Skype) that they were using. Rory pointed out this ‘incidental learning’ as worthy of note. The Wednesday afternoon chat was another one which was characterised by personal reflections on technology use. One concept which I hadn’t come across before but which is of interest is that of the ‘digital tattoo‘, a far more effective metaphor than digital footprint.

Skype as a tool for discussion this week has allowed us to engage in wide-ranging discussions. However, by necessity, this synchronous medium doesn’t facilitate the detailed, rich, exploratory conversations which the asynchronous forums. There were practical difficulties too. Some participants were unable to join the discussions and others felt that they were not able to fully participate:


With regard to ‘presence’ I do feel that this week’s conversation enabled a greater sense of connection with the other students on the course. It will be interesting to see how our digitally connected community develops as we hear one another’s voices on Skype in a few weeks’ time.

*Sian, Stig, Sai, Karen, Sarah, Lorenzo, Joy, Paul and me.

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_distance

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: https://www.moodle.is.ed.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=9810

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:

https://www.moodle.is.ed.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=9760From the online discussion: https://www.moodle.is.ed.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=9760

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’, https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0848.pdf

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