Aisha Walker

Thinking onscreen

Misleading Metaphors


I have written elsewhere about White and Le Cornu’s (2011) metaphor of digital residents and visitors. The metaphor is reiterated by people such as Gavin Dudeney (for example and is used to categorise people into two groups: those who make extensive use of digital tools and those who do not. However, when used in this way this place-based metaphor is as false as the language-based metaphor (Prensky 2001) that it replaces. Place metaphors are widely used when talking about technology for example, the widely used term ‘cyberspace’. Gee (2005) talked about ‘social semiotic spaces’ and ‘affinity spaces’ arguing that these might be physical or virtual. Stevenson (2008) looked at ‘environment’ as a metaphor for learning technologies. However, as both Gee and Stevenson acknowledge, digital technology is not a single place but is instead a category of places. It is not generally assumed that people who reside in a city are automatically familiar with other cities and will have no trouble finding their way around if they find themselves in a city that they have never previously visited. There will be aspects of cities which are familiar and which may lead to frustration if not available. For example, residents of London are accustomed to an underground railway system and to supermarkets with 24-hour opening. This does not mean, however, that Londoners will automatically be able to navigate Montreal’s streets and ‘underground city’. Residents of Bangkok (or even Birmingham) may struggle to reconcile the London tube map with the geographical relationships between places in the city.

In the digital world, people who reside in, say Facebook, will not automatically be able to navigate a virtual learning environment (VLE) such as Blackboard. Indeed, anecdotally I have encountered a large number of students who are habitual users of digital tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Google sites, MSWord, email etc and yet struggle with our university VLE. This is not because the VLE is poorly designed or intrinsically difficult to use but simply because it is unfamiliar. In addition, the VLE contains context specific materials/activities and students are expected to use the VLE in particular ways that focus on learning (and a curriculum).

Metaphors that imply overarching digital competence (or otherwise) are problematic because they lead to an assumption that people who fall into the ‘competent’ category do not need to be taught how to use digital tools. This, in turn, can lead to learners struggling because they are not able to access essential information and/or using tools in ways that are inefficient or ineffective. Given that digital tools are widely used in 21st Century education this can put students at a serious disadvantage. Kennedy et al (2010) propose an alternative paradigm. They identify four categories ranging from ‘basic user’ to ‘power user’ but argue that each category applies only in relation to a specific tool. Thus, an individual may be a ‘power user’ of Facebook but a ‘basic user’ of Blackboard. In rejecting easy metaphors Kennedy et al have developed a way of looking at digital competence that is far more useful because it acknowledges that an individual can be both expert and novice in the various ‘places’ that constitute the world of digital technology.

Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarno, B. Waycott, J., ‘Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students’, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, vol. 26, no. 5, 332-343 (2010).
Prensky, M. (2001) “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” On the horizon. Vol. 9 No. 5,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
White, D.S. and and Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

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