What role do social media play in educational experiences of access to higher education students in England?


  • Anna Piela University of Leicester, United Kingdom
  • Hugh Busher University of Leicester, United Kingdom
  • Nalita James University of Leicester, United Kingdom
  • Anna-Marie Palmer University of Leicester, United Kingdom




It is argued that digital media have transformed informal learning practices (Bull et al. 2008; 2009; Selwyn 2009), including peer and group learning, although there is evidence that amongst traditional university cohorts, sites such as Facebook are seen more as ‘social glue’ than as sites of learning (Madge et al, 2009). This paper, reporting on a study which is work-in-progress, investigates the importance of social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, for students studying on Access to Higher Education courses in England. Its goal is to better understand the increasingly complex and relatively under-researched ‘mediascape’ which defines contemporary education (Orgad 2007). Access students study to gain formal qualifications to be able to apply to study at university; they construct their identities by contrasting their educational objectives (i.e. increasing employability) and character traits (i.e. maturity) with those of’ traditional’ university students, whom they perceive as more immature and keen to socialise. With this self-ascribed distinctiveness and goal-orientedness in mind, we trace the usability of social media for educational purposes for Access students. In particular, we look at the role social media may play in engagement in out- of-class learning, and we examine whether they encourage students to be reflexive about their learning experiences (Archer, 2007). We also trace the ‘boundary crossing’ and identity-forming cultural practices (Giddens, 1991; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Holliday, 1999) as students progressed through their Access course towards its completion and applying to university. Data used in the paper originates from varied social media sites, including Facebook pages, Twitter and blogs to which Access students contribute. It has been collected with the help of Internet searches and through observation of online discussions which we joined thanks to contacts in Access student cohorts who were interviewed for a different study. It was our intention to collect online-based data that reflected locally situated, everyday practices and musings of participants (Hine 2000). The data was then analysed using thematic analysis, identifying emerging themes and constructs (Mason 2002). The digital ethnographic approach that we have adopted in this paper offers distinct advantages in studying Access students’ mediated experiences, as it helps to throw light on multimodal, localised mediascapes in which they live and study (Kozinets 2010; Busher and James, 2013); it also offers insights into informal learning practices of Access students.

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