Good Reads from 2021: Our NIDL Top 10 Journal Articles – Part 1

We are pleased to bring you another edition of our annual list of the top 10 “good reads” published over 2021 in the form of open access journal articles. This is the 6th year that our NIDL team has produced this list based on what we found as valuable professional reading over the previous 12 months. 

Once again, this year we have decided to separate out COVID-related articles reporting on the pandemic experience from those focusing on other more enduring and/or new and emerging aspects of digital learning. This decision helps to ensure our selections are not overly skewed by the COVID pandemic, without ignoring the lessons and implications arising from the crisis. It follows that we will be sharing our 2021 list of top 10 COVID “good reads” to add to those from 2020 in a separate blog post early next week. 

In the meantime, this is the first of a series of three blog posts that help to introduce and contextualise our 2021 top 10 “good reads” in the general field of digital learning. 

We hope you find the discussion that foregrounds this year’s selections both useful and informative and our top 10 articles provide valuable pointers for your own professional reading and critical reflections as we begin 2022. 

Why does professional reading matter? 

The underlying assumption of this exercise is that critical reading and staying abreast of the literature is a hallmark of being a scholarly professional. This is not an easy task given the number of new journal articles published every week and the increasingly diverse range of online information channels. A related concern is the difficulty of finding sufficient time for close reading as we struggle to keep on top of the daily morass of emails whilst zooming between meetings and managing our busy schedules of teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.

According to Mahon and Henry (2021), this is a common problem as they often hear colleagues bemoaning how difficult it is to find quality time for professional reading. Although this observation lacks any solid empirical evidence, we suspect it resonates with many people and reflects our own experience. By challenging the new ‘culture of speed’ in academic work and calling for a return to reading more slowly, Mahon and Henry (2021) ask us to reflect on the point and purpose of reading itself. Consider:

  • Why do we read? 
  • What role does it play in our professional learning?
  • How does it contribute to new knowledge and understandings? 

They argue that quick, hasty and casual modes of reading limit the opportunity to expose yourself to the limits of your own imaginings and to open yourself up to transformative possibilities that come through slow reading and deep critical reflection (Mahon & Henry, 2021). Moreover, reading is arguably the foundation to being an author, which Van Petegem, et al. (2021) identify as one of the key dimensions of being a digital scholar in the broadest conception of the term. It also helps to ensure that our practical actions and educational interventions are grounded in theory and contemporary research, crafted from the shared experiences of other educators.

Are we doing enough slow reading?

This line of discussion raises a question of whether today’s educators are spending less time slow reading reputable peer reviewed works? Instead of finding time to purposefully read and peruse through scholarly journal articles are they now relying on and devoting more of their attention to short information bytes contained in tweets, popular blog posts and audio/video play lists?

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

Currently, there is limited evidence to answer this question or substantiate whether there is reason for concern, and it should be noted that privileging only one source of scholarship and new knowledge runs the risk of academic elitism. After all, new channels of online professional learning available through social media are not mutually exclusive from traditional forms of scholarship. 

This point recognises that today’s evolving digital scholar needs to be “…agile or flexible enough to jump around, to find the right balance and maybe to combine different aspects together in… daily practice” (Van Petegem, et al., 2021, p.31). To repeat the words of Dr. Seuss (1978) that we borrowed last year…

(I Can Read With My Eyes Shut, 1978)

How does reading take you to new places?

From a critical perspective, what we choose to read is not neutral and how we read and interpret the literature may limit or expand our horizons. Thus, simply doing more reading by itself does not take you to more places. Our pre-existing theories also matter in terms of how we make sense of what we read and whether we push boundaries and remain open to new ways of knowing (Shearer, 2021). For this reason, we elaborate in our next blog post in this series on the selection criteria that we adopt, which offers insights into our implicit theories and what we value in terms of our own professional reading.

We also explain the imperfect process that we follow in identifying the collection of articles that make up the sample. In a similar vein, we explain why each article was selected to provide an open and transparent rationale. 

As previously reported, this yearly exercise began with an internal focus to help share good articles and foster a culture of professional reading amongst the NIDL team. This goal remains at the heart of the exercise. However, by sharing our “good reads” with a wider community of digital scholars we also open ourselves up to external critique, which, in turn, helps to simultaneously validate and challenge our own thinking. It also serves to widen the value and depth of our critical reading and stretches through further critical dialogue our imaginings of transformative possibilities.

Hence, following many hours of reading, critical review and pondering over what makes the final cut, we do not expect that everyone will agree with our final top 10 selections.

Indeed, we encourage debate and hope that our “good reads” trigger other people to ask what is missing from the list and what would you include in your own personal selection and reading bag? In reflecting on this question, the key point is:

“…who we read, what we read, where we read, when we read, why we read and how we read has effects on the kinds of relations we build with one another, with ourselves, and with the world” (Mahon & Henry, 2021, p. 8).


Dr. Seuss (1978). I can read with my eyes shut. Random House, Inc., New York.

Mahon, A., & Henry, S. (2021), But who are all these journal articles for? Writing, reading and our unhandsome condition, Cambridge Journal of Education, DOI: 10.1080/0305764X.2021.1933903

Shearer, R. L. (2021). Why do our theories matter? Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 25 (1), 4–12.

Van Petegem, W., Bosman, JP., De Klerk, M., & Strydom, S. (2021). Evolving as a digital scholar: Teaching and researching in a digital world. Leuven University Press.