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Smells Like Teen Spirit: Generation CX

John Cook
London Metropolitan University

This paper develops the following ICE3 Wiki questions:

  • Do we now have to think in terms of a ‘Generation C’ – a generation of content producers?

  • What teaching environments, what pedagogical practices, might work for these learners?

The first half of the paper title is a song by US rock band Nirvana which is “commonly regarded as the song that ... marked the cultural emergence of Generation X” (Wikipedia, 2006). I will argue in this paper that learner generated context (ConteXt: CX) and not the Content mentioned in the first question above, ‘is king’! Indeed, I will theorise that a productive pedagogical vision is one that views the cultural emergence of Generation CX in terms of what Bakardjieva (2005, p. 34) calls “technology-in-use-in-social-situations”, and what I am terming learner generated contexts. In order to reify my perspective, this research has adopted the goal of investigating how the post-compulsory use of mobile devices can provide integration between these areas: (i) learners’ informal/private ‘space’, and (ii) learners’ formal education. Space here means a learner’s mobile device and the social networking that surrounds it. In particular, I am interested in exploring the contexts for the appropriation of new mobile communications/content generation devices by self-motivated learners.

Like email, mobile devices such as mobile phones and PDAs, are used mainly for the purposes of person-to-person messaging. However, modern mobile phones combine the converging functionalities of voice, text, cameras, live pictures and, increasingly, Global Positioning Systems (GPS); just think of the Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS) and 3G video clips. Mobile phones are thus part of a trend where digital devices can enable ‘user generated content’; e.g. YouTube, MySpace and Flickr. However, whilst accepting that this trend does enable creativity, I argue that generating content will not in and of itself enable learning or generate new pedagogical practices (the second Wiki question above). Consequently, I propose that the notion of learner generated contexts is a more productive way to conceptualise this area, and that these new contexts involve self-motivated learning that incorporates attempts to fill specific knowledge gaps. Provisionally, I define a ‘mobile learner generated context’ as being conducted by learners who may be communicating or individually reflecting ‘on the move’ and who, in the course of a dialogue with another person or interaction with multimedia resources, raise questions that create a context; when an answer to this context-based question is generated this can give rise to knowledge.

In the talk I will spend some time outlining the theoretical perspective adopted to investigate the above goal. My approach is an extension of Cook and Light’s (2006) analysis of power and participation in e-learning; plus an appropriation, for the purposes of this research, of Bakardjieva’s (2005) notion of innovation by ordinary Internet users. Cook and Light (2006) drew on empirical work in order to discuss how to design digital media that plug into the motivations of ‘real people’ in a way that empowers them. Specifically, Cook and Light illustrated how the careful design of Information and Communication Technology can contribute to learner empowerment by looking at some new design initiatives in the field of reusable learning objects. Bakardjieva’s (2005) complementary theoretical framework combines concepts from several schools of thought (social constructivism, critical theory, cultural studies and phenomenological sociology) in an attempt to overcome some of the limitations of these perspectives. For example, the social construction of technology (SCOT) approach was developed by the likes of Pinch and Bijker (1987). The SCOT framework postulates that new technological systems emerge through a process of negotiation and struggle by different social groups over meanings and the material shapes involved. Due to the ‘interpretive flexibility’ (Pinch and Bijker, 1987, p. 27) of technological artefacts, ultimately, certain interpretations or solutions will become more widely accepted than others, and the shape of the artefact will stabilise. Thus, possibilities initially evolved by users die out if they do not fit the dominant paradigm. However, SCOT has attracted criticism because it pays little attention to groups that are deliberately excluded or that have no social voice. Furthermore, SCOT may not take adequate account of structure and agency. Winner (1993, p. 370), for example, suggests that Constructivists disregard the dynamics involved in technological change beyond the social actors involved; for example, what about deep-seated political and/or gender biases in a social system? In order to address these and other criticisms, Bakardjieva (2005, p. 34) characterises her approach as “technology-in-use-in-social-situations”, or technology extended to include the acts of use in social situations. This is where a user enacts or invents ‘use genres’, i.e. they mobilise available cultural tools to respond to a social situation. Briefly, Bakardjieva’s framework (2005, pp. 34) involves (i) exploring a variety of use genres emerging around a particular technology, (ii) examining the selective stabilisation of certain genres from a social and cultural perspective, and (iii) identifying ways to retain richer use genres, e.g. in political terms, the technological democratisation (or lack) of these genres.

I have conducted empirical work (Cook, Holley and Bradley, in preparation) aimed at identifying and documenting the possibilities for mobile learning in terms of this question: What features should mobile learning have if the use genres discovered by ‘ordinary users’ (learners and tutors) are to be taken seriously and on an equal basis with the visions of engineers, managers and marketers? At the outset of this work, I expected to find that early users actively discover the relevance of mobile learning to their own context (social-biographical); and that they were actively initiating mobile device-based practices that designers and promoters of these technologies have not been able to imagine. Indeed, I expected users to incorporate mobile devices into their own informal/private and formal practices. Finally, like Bakardjieva (2005, p. 8), I was particularly interested in users’ personal stories and contexts (use genres).

Because of both the exploratory nature of this work and the above focus on use genres, in the talk I will outline why I have used qualitative methods to explore the above research questions. Specifically, I used Biographic-Narrative-Interpretive-Method or BNIM (Wengraf, 2005). BNIM was chosen because it: (i) focuses on the way in which people talk, (ii) provides a detailed narrative that is very close to the experience under study, and (iii) could potentially allow me to see what is happening in context and across a range of possibilities. The talk will conclude by presenting brief extracts from an analysis of the biographic narratives gathered from three students from a post-graduate module in Events and Live Media Industries. These students provide vivid accounts of mobile learning practice from the perspective of Generation CX.



Bakardjieva, M. (2005). Internet Society. The Internet in Everyday Life. London: Sage Publications.

Cook, J., Holley, D. and Bradley, C. (in preparation). Biographic Narratives of Mobile Learner Generated Contexts.  Reusable Learning Objects CETL Research Report, London Metropolitan University.

Cook, J. and Light, A. (2006). New Patterns of Power and Participation? Designing ICT for Informal and Community Learning. E-Learning. Special Issue of ICE2 Symposium, 3(1), 51-61. Available:

Pinch, J. and Bijker, K. (1987). The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other. In W. Bijker, T. Hughes and T. Pinch (Eds.). The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press.

Wengraf, T. (2001; reprinted 2002). Qualitative Research Interviewing: Biographic Narrative and Semi-Structured Method. London: Sage Publications.

Wikipedia (2006). [accessed June 2006].

Winner, L. (1993). Upon Opening the Black Box and Finding It Empty: Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Technology. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 18(3), 362-378.

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updated 24 January 2007