K. Duffy

University of Sunderland (UNITED KINGDOM)
The aim of this ethnographical study was to illuminate the experiences of mature part time degree students in the use of online social media. The media was used as a means of supporting students in their transition from their respective Further Education (FE) colleges to their ‘on campus’ University (HE) year. The transition involved students moving between institutions to study in a new location and in new peer groups which had historically contributed to dips in confidence and performance and sometimes led to students withdrawing from the programme. The open access, online site was introduced to allow students to engage with learning activities as a stimulus for online discussion and dialogue with each other through a series of non-assessed ‘blog’ postings (Dawson 2008). Its purpose was to encourage both the students and the teacher to share their ideas and views and begin ‘talking’ to each other prior to meeting in the new term. Noddings (1984), Gholami and Tirri (2012) recognise the importance of strengthening positive relationships between students and teacher and advocate that this is an essential element towards fostering conditions for learning and building a sense of community (Lave & Wenger 1991, Castells 2004, Yang 2009). It also aimed to address Oloffsson’s (2007) suggestion for the design of online communities in the 21st century, that any pedagogical approach to online learning must rely on the ‘…social and collaborative and ethical aspects of learning as a starting point for design’ (pg 28). A thematic analysis (Gobo, 2008; Bold 2012) was undertaken with the ‘blog’ postings over the course of the academic year, by a cohort of 35 students. This data was supported by conversational and thematic analysis (Bold 2012, Denzin 2000) of two video recorded focus groups, held at the end of the year, to evaluate the site and its effectiveness to support student’s transition and develop relationships and community. Analysis suggested that students still stated issues of trust as being central to their engagement, however there was clear support for the informal and non-assessed nature of the online community.

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