That Digital Natives Thing

February 20th, 2013 by Andy Coverdale

Several years ago, I attended an international summer school for PhD students working in educational technology. I remember being quite surprised at the number of students (and tutors) who used the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ in their discussions. Why? Because, in the relatively short space of time studying in this field, I had become familiar with – and well versed in – the critique of these and similar terms as commonly accepted tropes. I concluded that I was able to draw on a more informed and refined understanding of the discourse surrounding these terms. In hindsight, adopting such an attitude was not only arrogant but ignorant, exposing a lack of understanding of the cultural contexts in which these terms and their perceived meanings had come to be accepted. There are numerous blog posts and papers discussing the pros and cons of digital natives, but I mention this event because it is relevant when considering the use of terms like these and their rhetorical contexts.

At a more recent e-learning conference I attended, a delegate (who was from outside the ed-tech field) referred to digital natives during a post-presentation discussion. The presenter casually and somewhat rudely dismissed this with a reply along the lines of “well that’s all been proven to be a load of rubbish.” What’s interesting here is how easily some of us casually slip into this type of vernacular. Such sentiments are regularly replicated across the online echo chambers of the Twittersphere and Blogosphere. And whilst some of the digital native ‘klaxons’ may be ironic, the term can unleash genuine expressions of dismay, exasperation, hostility and derision. So it seems that for many, we’ve now got to the stage where routinely rubbishing digital natives has become a default position. In other words, the backlash against digital natives rhetoric has itself become rhetorical.

I realise the debate around the digital natives discourse is relevant to a much wider educational field than the scope of my own professional practice. Yet interestingly, it’s a term that crops up quite regularly in my social media workshops, from highly intelligent, well-informed postgraduate students and early career researchers. I doubt many are aware of the origins of the term or its contentious reputation, and to be honest, I’m not sure if they are necessarily using it to denote the generational differences we most associate it with. I therefore find myself having to give an appropriate and measured response without resorting to the type of knee-jerk reactions described above.

It seems digital natives ‘took off’ in wider academic (and non-academic) discourse because it tapped deeply into what seemed to instinctively describe significant differences in the emerging practices of digital technology users. Arguably, many of the subsequent (mis)interpretations of the generational binary that is regularly attributed to Prensky’s original papers (2001a; 2001b) owe as much, if not more, to other contemporary texts (such as Tapscott’s (1999) ‘Net Generation’) – a point raised by Pat Parslow. But it is the term digital natives that has stuck the most – and it seems, continues to stick, in the craw of so many of us. In other words, no matter how hard we try to dismiss it, the damn thing just won’t go away.

Friesen (2008) describes how myths emerge when ideological positions and arguments become integrated into common understanding and discourse, often encapsulated in catchphrases or buzzwords. Some of the best critical literature on the subject (for example, Bennett et al. 2008; Jones & Shao, 2011) suggests the proliferation of the digital natives ‘myth’ owes more to intuition and anecdotes than any considered insight or empirically-based evidence. More seriously, there is genuine concern that terms such as digital natives may have influenced ill-informed decisions affecting educational policy. Yet arguably, this is a backlash that has been driven as much by agendas as any rigorous empirical evidence proving otherwise. After all, challenging the generational binary corresponds with fundamental ideals conversant with progressive educational values regarding inclusivity and diversity.

The Visitors and Residents model (White & Le Cornu, 2011) quickly gained recognition (and PR mileage) within the ed-tech field as an alternative framework to digital natives, and seems to offer a more nuanced approach to addressing educational practice. At least this binary emerged from original research and is currently being subjected to further empirical examination by providing a framework for a series of interesting JISC-funded projects. And whilst the authors continue to stress its value as a continuum, they acknowledge the effectiveness of simple binaries as heuristics for communicating complex ideas.

For me, developing a critical stance as a researcher is partly founded on the ability to identify, expose and challenge rhetorical devices in academic discourse. I’m no expert in the study of rhetoric, but from a critical theory perspective, we should seek to expose knowledge claims characterised by idealist and reductivist positions by developing more complex dialectical framings (Kellner, 2003). In doing so, knowledge is seen as fundamentally pluralistic and incongruous, subject to multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives that have been shaped historically and culturally (Friesen, 2008). This requires us to recognise the type of orthodoxies and rhetoric inherent in the arguments around terms like digital natives, both for and against. This might seem hard to swallow when we are drawing on what we perceive to be a privileged and superior understanding. However, we cannot claim either ownership or exclusivity in the way we define, promote or dismiss such terms.

Crucially, academic rhetoric is interwoven with the disciplinary knowledge of what is ‘commonly known’ within specific fields and specialisms. Yet these have permeable and flexible borders. Communities of discourse are blurred, and understanding of key concepts is multilayered and subject to different degrees of peripherality and legitimacy. Those of you who feel ‘sure-footed’ in the academic terrains where digital natives is routinely rubbished might like to think about how casually you may use any number of other terms that have entered common academic parlance, but which might also have much more specific, nuanced, culturally loaded and contested interpretations in the research fields and disciplines from which they originated.

Perhaps we need to be particularly smart commenting on terms such as digital natives when addressing multi-disciplinary audiences, and be mindful of the assumptions we make about how others understand them. It is only right that we continue to expose and challenge terms we believe to be erroneous, but we should also acknowledge the rhetorical roles they play at all levels and areas of academic (and non-academic) discourse, and adopt both a critical understanding and inclusive approach when contributing to the ongoing dialogue.


Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5): 775-786.

Friesen, N. (2008). Critical theory: Ideology critique and the myths of e-learning. Ubiquity, 9(22).

Jones, C., & Shao, B. (2011). The net generation and digital natives: Implications for Higher Education. Higher Education Academy.

Kellner, D. (2003). Toward a critical theory of education. Democracy and Nature, 9(1), 51-64.

Prenksy, M. (2001a). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital natives, digital immigrants, part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6.

Tapscott, D. (1999). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

White, D., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9).

On being resourced

February 5th, 2013 by Andy Coverdale

Tomorrow I’ll be contributing to an Information Services training session at the University of Nottingham for PhD students in Engineering, Medicine and Science. Its theme is ‘keeping up to date’ with resources, and I’ll be presenting how social media might be used to augment the use of database search and alert systems for sourcing formal publications. In particular, I want to emphasise the role various social media can play in accessing and managing more informal genres of academic content, and explore how these emerging practices are challenging the notion of what it means to ‘be resourced.’ I’ve put together a few preliminary slides to help establish context.

I’m particularly pleased to support this session as it is an example of integrating social media practices into core doctoral training programmes; something which I argued for in a recent post.








January 27th, 2013 by Andy Coverdale

“conversations of everyday life… with structure and purpose that are defined and controlled by the researcher.”

Steinar Kvale on qualitative research interviewing (1996)

“real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way.”

Grace Dent on The Only Way Is Essex (2010)

Social Media Best Practices: Challenging Cultural Hegemony

January 22nd, 2013 by Andy Coverdale

As an educational researcher, I often find the notion of ‘best practices’ problematic. The effectiveness of any particular educational practice in one context may not necessarily apply to another.

When it comes to using social media in academic environments, we recognise that practices are emergent; subject to the relatively new and transient nature of the technology, and its tentative adoption by the academic community. As such, ‘good’ or ‘best’ practices tend to be instigated – formally and informally – by early adopters, and are therefore heavily influenced by the cultures of the academic disciplines and specialist fields in which they reside. This allows for biases, assumptions and prejudices – however unintentional – to factor, even to a point where best practice claims can become ritualised as forms of cultural hegemony. This risks marginalising those from less represented disciplines who tend to follow on later (typically under the influence and guidance of the early adopters themselves, who by this time have often ‘moved on’ to the latest technology or trend).

To an extent, this can be seen as a necessary process, particularly by the ed-tech community, who are actively engaged in adopting, promoting or integrating technologies and related practices into institutional platforms and pedagogies. It can be argued that, in contributing to best practices, early adopters are providing a service for other academics and researchers who are too preoccupied in their own work to do so themselves. Further, by drawing on their informed knowledge and expertise, they provide guidance that is both authoritative and trusted.

I’m particularly mindful of this as someone who – as an early career researcher loosely associated with the educational technology field – is active in advocating the use of social media through workshops and other activities, often to audiences from other disciplines. With this comes a responsibility to recognise the privileged position and perspective within one’s own social media practice, which are manifest in a number of ways:

  • Social media practices are culturally normalised within my field
  • I can draw on a critical mass of users within my online communities and networks
  • I have a professional interest, and am well–informed, in the latest advances in social media and related web technologies

A few points to note at this stage. Firstly, it is easy to homogenise the ed-tech ‘community.’ As Selwyn (2010) indicates, it often serves as a flag of convenience for a loose assortment of technologically minded educators, researchers and developers, with different and potentially conflicting roles, affiliations and policy agendas. Secondly, there are other academic disciplines and fields in which early adopters of social media predominate, such as Cultural and Media Studies and Journalism. Thirdly, influence is not exclusive to particular disciplines. For example, increasingly pervasive neoliberal models of networking, social capital and identity production are permeating research practices and academic training, often at the neglect of discourses on the participatory affordances of the social web, and the collaborative and egalitarian scholarly traditions it can potentially support.

These observations also raise fundamental questions over the nature of the relationship between technological developers and invested communities. Critical theorists such as Andrew Feenburg (2002) argue for more participatory and inclusive forms of technological design and development. As Friesen (2010) reminds us, social media represent an ecology of tools and platforms that are essentially founded on a ‘commercial imperative.’ Yet it has been suggested that the ‘perpetual beta’ of social media development – shaped by user trends rather than necessarily ‘hard-coded’ into original technological design – presents a more democratic process. Think of how the emergent practice of retweeting became formally integrated into the Twitter toolset. However, this only emphasises that it is often the early adopters who establish the most sustainable shifts in design change.

So whilst a professional elite of technologists and the ‘media savvy’ will invariably be the first academics to engage in new technologies, they should recognise the cultural baggage that comes with how they use them, and support opportunities for inclusivity, engagement and discussion in establishing best practice claims. In summary, I draw on my own research into how PhD students are using social media to offer a few suggestions relevant to the context of academic training:

Focus on ‘shared’ rather than ‘best’ practices

Adopt critical approaches to considering what constitutes best practices by incorporating multiple subjectivities and perspectives. Above all, support opportunities for sharing practices that may be comparative or conflicting, and include experiences of discontinuation or non-use of social media.

Promote inclusive and participatory approaches

Develop opportunities for cyclical, ongoing processes of shared practice that are participatory and culturally inclusive of different research cultures. Identify the cultural norms of social media practices in specific academic disciplines, whilst recognising the advantages of sharing practice in interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary environments. Engage sources of expertise such as learning technologists and educational researchers, whilst encouraging opportunities for participation from other disciplines. In particular, champion early adopters from under-represented disciplines.

Provide timely and sustainable support

Make opportunities for shared practices relevant as social media are adopted and used. The identification of key concerns, problems and potential solutions that characterise good (and just as importantly, bad) practices should emerge from experiencing the everyday use of social media in real case situations. Here, social media practices are authentic and essentially peripheral to ongoing academic activities, unlike many training scenarios where, as the focus of attention, they are abstract and prioritised tasks. Mentorship programmes can be particularly useful here.

Integrate training programmes

We should work to integrate (basic) social media practices into established training programmes. How often, for example, is the use of social media considered in graduate training sessions around conferences? Such a joined-up approach to training can be effective in normalising social media practices, contributing to their wider adoption and integration, as well as potentially enriching professional development in specific academic activities.


Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology: A critical theory revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Friesen, N. (2010). Education and the social web: Connective learning and the commercial imperative. First Monday, 15(12).

Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: Notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65-73.

#srheconf12 Presentation

December 14th, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

I’m on my way to the last day of the SRHE Annual Research Conference at Celtic Manor where I’m presenting a paper as part of a symposium on social media with Pat Thomson, Inger Mewburn, Anna Tarrant and Jeremy Segrott. Here’s the presentation.

Social media practices: Benefits and risks for doctoral researchers from Andy Coverdale

SRHE Symposium

December 7th, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

This time next week I’ll be presenting a paper at the SRHE Annual Research Conference as part of a symposium on social media with Pat Thomson, Inger Mewburn, Anna Tarrant and Jeremy Segrott. The conference takes place at Celtic Manor where I presented for the Visual Learning Lab a few years ago. All the conference papers can be viewed here.

Have I mentioned before that Miranda July is brilliant?

December 2nd, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

Miranda July | A Handy Tip for the Easily Distracted (A deleted scene from The Future) (2011)

Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim

November 21st, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

I’ve commented previously on how sites like Twitter provide researchers with explicit interactions and user relationships that lend themselves to network-based data mining methods and visual analytics. These help us understand frequencies and patterns of use up to a point, but fall short in indicating the complex, inconsistent and selective viewing behaviours and strategies that underpin how we actually engage with Twitter.

These are partly determined by how we access Twitter, and how we may adopt ‘filtering’ systems (within Twitter and third-party). But what I’m particularly interested in here is how we ‘scan’ or ‘skim read’ our Twitter timelines. When new users express concern about the apparent content overload, experienced users tend to reassure them by explaining they don’t have to ‘read everything’ and that they will ‘get used to’ scanning tweets. It’s fairly clear why we do this, but how?

Observational methods (remotely or through screen recordings) can provide limited data, but for a more accurate insight, eye-tracking technology can record how we actually ‘read’ sites like Twitter, as demonstrated here. Supplementary methods such as the think/talk-aloud protocols associated with usability testing, and follow-up memory tests might offer opportunities for triangulation.

I’m not experienced in these tools, or familiar with how they are being used in research, and I would question how much the ‘laboratory’ conditions in which these types of investigations are typically undertaken reflect everyday use. But it is interesting to speculate on the contribution they can make to our understanding of user engagement with Twitter. Given such an approach, the type of questions one could explore might include:

  • How much consistency / variation in skim reading do we exhibit over different periods of engagement?
  • Do we navigate tweets in a generally (reverse) chronological order or more randomly?
  • How ‘far back’ do we check tweets since we last looked?
  • What are our dominant focal points – specific users or specific content?
  • How much do we focus on specific components – in particular URLs, hashtags?
  • How important is the colour coding of these components?
  • Do we focus more on specific types of tweets (e.g. those with links)?
  • Do we notice specific words or terms (that are not hashtagged)?
  • What about capital letters, symbols, exclamation marks, expletives etc?
  • Do we primarily identify our followees by their user names or avatars?
  • Are some (types of) avatars more instantly recognisable?
  • How much does the unfamiliarity of original authors of formal retweets (not RTs) attract our attention?
  • Do we take much notice of who retweets them?
  • Are we more likely to ignore multiple tweets from excessive users?

Free Academic Books Here!

November 14th, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

Informal file sharing practices amongst academics are not widely discussed. George Veletsianos blogged about how researchers use crowdsourcing on Twitter to access academic papers – an activity I also discussed a couple of years ago. The #ICanHazPDF hashtag has been created specifically to facilitate such exchanges. What I’m particularly interested in here is the role of file storage sites in the exchange of academic content, and specifically, academic e-books and their various digital formats (PDF, ePub .azw etc.)

Following the introduction of the SOPA and PIPA bills, the authorities began flexing their muscles early this year, most notably in the shutting down of the file storage service Megaupload for facilitating copyright infringement through open file sharing. Some of the most popular file storage services immediately responded by disabling their file sharing functionality, and thereby restricting downloading to the personal files of registered users. Some sites however continue to operate open sharing services, providing potential access to digital content (including academic books), most effectively sourced through third-party search engines. As with all content on these sites, specific books are routinely removed – presumably at the request of publishers or the authors themselves (see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) – and then reposted. Cat and mouse.

For affiliated academics, there are legitimate avenues for obtaining books and other texts that are not readily available institutionally. In the UK, the Inter-Library Loan (ILL) service enables university students and staff to request any book from the British Library, though it may take several weeks or even months to receive the most sought-after books and loan periods can be very short. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see a PhD student stood for hours at a photocopier meticulously copying every page of a weighty volume of text.

I recently went to a university training session on academic copyright, in which it was specifically stated that we are expected to copy only a ‘reasonable amount’ of any text, without indicating what a reasonable amount might be, or on what ethical or legal grounds such an evaluation may be determined.

In addition, dedicated ‘e-library’ systems can provide institutional access to digital books and texts. Though typically restricted to online viewing only, some enable the printing of one or a limited number of pages at a time. Therefore, an entire book can feasibly be saved to PDF or other formats in this way, but it is a repetitive and time-consuming process.

It is perhaps assumed that the technological limitations ’embedded’ in these various methods of copying (Latour would have something clever to say at this point) are sufficient to deter wholesale copying. This might apply to busy and waged academics, who will probably just buy the book instead (or at least try and convince their department to). But what about the research student, who is (relatively speaking) time-rich and financially poor? Academic textbooks are notoriously expensive, especially niche or out-of-print titles.

Under these circumstances, we might not feel we are flouting the ‘rules’ (however ambiguous they are) by engaging in the practices described here, particularly in a climate increasingly dismissive of academic publishing hegemonies and supportive of open publishing / access agendas. But is it fair that a book that may have been written by a professor in your own department, a colleague or supervisor, or yourself for that matter, can be obtained in this way?

Thinking about durability…

November 6th, 2012 by Andy Coverdale

It’s easy to fall into the trap of equating different publishing genres or formats with one-dimensional perspectives of what constitutes academic ‘quality.’ Further still, we often make assumptions about their durability.

Academics have the right (and the inclination) to question their ideas, change perspectives, and even – especially in the formative years of their training – challenge fundamental epistemologies. Yet I’ve found early-stage PhD researchers in particular have a tendency to assume they will never come to question anything they have or will formally publish. Conversely, they suggest there is every chance of them regretting virtually anything they might blog.

Of course, the not inconsiderable process of writing and articulation required in getting formally published (not forgetting the accompanying peer review) cannot be overlooked. This indicates that such texts have been well considered and argued. However, the perceived reliability of the format does not guarantee the durability of the relevance or inclination of key arguments contained within them over any given time. Whilst it is equally possible that some blog posts – however informal and unstructured they may be – will continue to resonate and influence.