Student engagement in digitally–mediated communication and collaborative learning: Tensions, constraints and cultural practices

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


In higher education, peer support is an important aspect of student learning, acknowledged by institutions and students’ themselves (HEA, 2008, NUS, 2008) and students’ regularly report that they use digital tools frequently as part of their everyday lives to communicate with their peers. What is less well understood is how students employ digital tools to support their peers and collaborate as part of their studies and formal university work, what impacts on and constrains their engagement with such activities and how institutional practices and regulations influence this engagement. Both learning and communications are above all social activities that take place within a community and cultural context. This has always given rise to the production of local practices and tools right from the earliest examples of rock paintings (Säljö, 2007) and where studying can be considered as a socio-cultural practice (Crook & Light, 2002). This seminar draws on a recent study of digitally-mediated communication activities amongst undergraduates who were asked to collaborate on a research project in online special interest groups using a variety of personal and institutional digital tools. The seminar reports on the different ways in which the students communicated, the digital tools they used and the kinds of peer support and collaboration that were produced. The ways in which social factors such as home circumstances, friendship patterns and groupings, together with institutional rules and policies, teaching allocations and task and tool design all influence student engagement will be demonstrated. Tensions that emerged between different elements of the context, created a series of conflicts that impacted severely on the student engagement with the collaborative task and their abilities to provide peer support. This contrasted with more informal peer support that students provided independently within existing friendship groups using personal digital tools and where such conflicts were mitigated by the existing common ground between friends and their regular cultural and communicative practices. The audience will be invited to discuss these findings, their implications for institutions, staff and students and the potential for addressing such conflicts and dilemmas in the design of collaborative group work and for fostering informal peer support mechanisms amongst higher education students.
Period6 Sept 2010
Event typeConference
LocationEdinburgh, United KingdomShow on map


  • engagement
  • higher education
  • digital technologies
  • collaboration
  • communication