Student communities of practice: what virtual models can engage and address the needs of a diverse student environment

Joanne Smailes, Pat Gannon-Leary

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


A report commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC 2008) found that the two most regular activities undertaken by students are, firstly, use of university systems which support their learning and, secondly, accessing social networking sites. Kirremuir ‘s (2008) EduServ Foundation study highlights the increasing number of UK universities which have a presence in the virtual world Second Life. University Systems are aware of student engagement with their own in-house technologies, such as virtual learning environments (VLEs), but knowledge of student engagement with social networking and virtual worlds is often derived from anecdotal evidence. This paper seeks to redress this by trying to increase understanding of three technological models for enhancing learning and student engagement: “established” technologies, e.g., VLEs; “populist” technologies, e.g., Facebook; and “emerging” technologies such as Second Life. This paper takes as its premise the notion that universities should strive to design peer support systems for students to engage in, and focuses its investigation on the potential use of virtual communities of practice (CoPs) to support peer-based student interactions. Evidence to substantiate this premise is derived from the literature which has explored areas of student diversity such as students from lower-income families, older students, first-generation students and international students. The work of Harvey et al. (2006) indicates that students from lower-income families have less peer support to draw on and suggests that there is some correlation between socio-economic groups, first-year grades and probability of withdrawing from study (especially where family problems intervene). Farmer et al (2008) found that older students perceived peer support as less supportive, with similar findings found for first-generation students – an alternative measure of socio-economic status. The study also found that international students experienced difficulty integrating into the university community. These studies, taken in conjunction with the findings of Eggens et al. (2007) that personal networks affect student attainment and Farmer et al. (2008) that academic marks achieved correlate positively both with degree of satisfaction and of supportive peer activity, provide evidence that substantiates the premise of this paper; in addition it endorses Smith and Bath’s (2006) suggestion that, since peer interactions (including social interactions) are essential determinants of graduate outcome, the notion of a learning community or a CoP should be reinforced within any innovations for supporting student learning. This suggestion prompted this investigation of the potential use of virtual CoPs to support peer-based student interactions. The approach taken includes a consideration of the relevant literature combined with analysis of primary data designed to gain more definitive evidence of student activity in different technological domains. In the light of this evidence, the advantages and disadvantages of the three virtual models in respect of supporting peer based student interactions within a CoP are considered.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2009
EventiPED 2009, 4th International Inquiring Pedagogies Conference - Coventry
Duration: 1 Sept 2009 → …


ConferenceiPED 2009, 4th International Inquiring Pedagogies Conference
Period1/09/09 → …


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