22 SES 05 E, Students' Participation and Communication
This paper connects three themes: widening participation in higher education, boundary crossing, identity and agency and online social networking practices amongst undergraduate students. Increasing participation and equity in higher education is a strong focus of policy, research and practice in many countries (Osbourne, 2003, Hinton-Smith, 2012) and critical to the expansion of higher education globally and to changing international economic and social contexts (David, 2010). This has led towards a wider conception of participation with more emphasis on who goes where and what that experience involves (Reay, David and Ball, 2005). Yet, surprisingly little attention has been paid to how informal networks and interactions and the interweaving of social and study dimensions of university life both online and offline might contribute to under-represented students’ successful participation in HE.
Online social networking is a global social practice, including within university contexts (Madge et al, 2009). Social networking sites (such as Facebook, Instagram) allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded space, share connections and establish group spaces for specific purposes. Within higher education, research has focused mostly on the potential for formal educational activities (e.g. Sanzhe et al, 2013), transitions to higher education (e.g. DeAndrea et al, 2012) and for sustaining social interactions amongst students (e.g. Madge et al 2009). Yet what is less clear is how these online spaces and the associated practices of students might shape or influence studying and participation throughout university. Säljö argues that digital technologies allow possibilities for new ways of learning and new forms of knowledge (Säljö, 2010). However, digital technologies are neither neutral nor necessarily positive influences (Selwyn, 2011) and online social networks can reinforce existing inequalities and exclusion (Hughes, 2009) and therefore contribute negatively towards some of the challenges of diversity.
We take a sociocultural positioning which combines sociological, psychological and anthropological perspectives to investigate the social, cultural and educational activities that university students engage in. In particular, we employ Holland et al (1998)’s work on agency and identity in cultural ‘figured worlds’. Drawing on Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Bourdieu, they understand figured worlds as social encounters (such as universities or connected networks or groups) where the positions of those taking part matter. Developing a figured identity within a learning community involves agency through improvisational acts that help to overcome cultural and historical constraints that powerful structures and positions embody (ibid). Increasingly participating in higher education necessarily involves both online and offline interactions, for work and social activities, highlighting the changing spatio-temporal dimensions and continual boundary crossings across social and academic spaces involved in university life. Lemke (2004) argues that spatiality and temporality are related to action or material processes and that we experience space and time as we construct them and therefore they can be mobilised as resources for learning.
This paper draws on a study investigating under-represented undergraduate experiences over one academic year (2013/14) at a UK university. The research questions focus on the extent to which ‘a culture of belonging’ is experienced and how this impacts on informal support and peer relationships, how digital technologies are being mobilised and what challenges or constraints are encountered. This paper highlights the students’ online social networking practices in particular and the extent to which such practices amongst under-represented students expand or limit cultures of belonging and offer potential as socio-academic spaces for supporting participation and identity construction.
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