T. Simmons

University of Leicester (UNITED KINGDOM)
This paper sets out some of the key findings of a pilot project which explores students’ use and participation in web 2.0 platforms as part of their formal and informal learning in Higher Education (HE). The aim of this project is not only to identify the way students’ use these platforms but to identify the level of web literacy, awareness and skills in their use of information resources. The context of this research is against initiatives at UK policy level and broader theoretical work related to ‘participatory culture’. A key document at policy level in the UK is the Digital Britain Report (2009), which recognises the importance of people having the ‘…capabilities and skills to flourish in the digital economy’ (DCMS, 2009: 1). The issue of web literacy and the importance of having requisite skills to participate in the information society has also been identified as a crucial area by the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience heeded by Prof. Sir David Melville (2009). Research commissioned by this committee found that though students in HE may well be pervasive users of social networking sites, blogs, virtual environments and other multi-media forms, but they lacked deep critical skills to analyse and validate information on-line. The pilot research is also shaped by the concept of what Jenkins et al (2008) considers as a ‘participatory culture’. A participatory culture is a ‘a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed to novices’ (p. 3). It is also ‘one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care about what other people think about what they have created).’ (p. 3). Access to such a participatory culture has a number of beneficial effects for learners including: opportunities for peer to peer learning, the diversification of cultural expression, development of skills valued in modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship (Jenkins et al, 2008). Therefore, this research makes connections across perspectives related to media literacy and that of participatory cultures in the HE context.The questionnaire (53 students responded) shows that students use a range of electronic devices from laptops, iphones, and MP3 players. Students use these devices in multiple ways, to E mail other students in their class, checking availability of books in the library or to arrange to meet off-line. Through follow up focus groups a number of interesting insights have been gained. Firstly, our sample of students are all international students mainly from China. They therefore, have a familiarity and preference for Chinese based web sites and platforms e.g. Chinese versions of social networking sites such as Facebook. These students are embedded in virtual structures from their country of origin and therefore bring them with them whilst studying at Leicester. In addition, students are engaged in ‘participatory culture’ on-line especially in terms of peer to peer learning. This has further implications about how students understand the status and authority of this information, lecturers are no longer the gate keepers of what is deemed ‘expert’ information.