Challenges of Web Residency by Dr Becky Thomas

We are living in an increasingly digital world; many of our students grow up immersed in this way of life, having access to a wealth of information online, often accessible wherever they are. But how do they use this appropriately in their learning, and how do we help them harness all of this information? These are some of the questions that Alice Mauchline, Alastair Culham, Mark Fellowes and I had when we applied for the HEA funded ‘Challenges of Web Residency’ project. All of us are interested in the use of various digital technologies, especially in their use for fieldwork, but we want to know more about how we can improve our practice in this area.

To kick off the project we attended the first introductory HEA workshop in London where we were introduced to the basic idea; that the way people use the internet can be categorised into either a ‘visitor’ or ‘resident’, although in reality these categories are more of a spectrum. The visitor uses the internet as a tool, accessing it for information when it is needed and logging off without leaving any real trace, whereas the resident lives a proportion of their lives online, using the internet in most parts of their lives often socialising and leaving a digital trace. (Further information here: http://goo.gl/Wom15).A second, interesting dimension is to consider how the internet is used differently in our personal life compared to institutional contexts and how this can be important for professional development.

How is this relevant to us as academics? In our first workshop we were asked to make our own maps and the intricacies of the idea began to make sense. Although many of us and our students use Facebook on a regular basis, if our profiles are private then our digital trace is restricted to those who we allow access, or our ‘friends’. This means that for most people Facebook would appear in between visitor and resident, along the spectrum. The other consideration is whether our use is personal or institutional; I use Facebook for my work (to communicate with students) and as a way of keeping in touch with my friends, so it appears all along this horizontal axis. I use Twitter in the same way, but it’s much more public, so appears closer to the resident side of the spectrum.

‘Visitor and Resident’ map that I produced in the first HEA workshop

‘Visitor and Resident’ map that I produced in the first HEA workshop

In order to explore this within a teaching context, we ran a workshop in early March 2014 at the University of Reading with 35 Biological Science undergraduate and postgraduate students, asking them to complete their own maps and the results were really interesting. Many of them are ‘resident’ internet users, but the postgraduate students seemed to use this to their advantage by residing more in the institutional area (so they are increasing their online profile to benefit their future careers).
 

‘Visitor and Resident’ map produced by a postgraduate student in the workshop we ran at Reading

‘Visitor and Resident’ map produced by a postgraduate student in the workshop we ran at Reading

The mapping process was useful for the students and staff, forcing us to think more about our web presence (or absence!).  It was also evident that the majority of students use the web for personal purposes much more than for their learning (upper half of all diagrams was more densely filled than the lower half).  We did see a progression among students from year to year in their academic life towards more ‘resident-institutional’ web use, but how should we support this transition? We feel that we need to have a discussion with our students about their web identity and build this into the routine of student education with emphasis on employability. This is something that we have begun to explore on a recent residential microbiology field trip to Iceland (another post to follow soon).

Another interesting element was discussed at our final HEA workshop – with ever increasing class sizes, applications like Twitter and Facebook, could be used as a way for our students to ‘get to know us’ on a more personal level, which also opens up a discussion about whether staff have considered the implications of students ‘following’ them on Twitter or becoming ‘friends’ on Facebook.

We are discussing the idea of running a workshop early next year, to facilitate discussion across the University about digital literacies of our students and how we communicate with them following our participation in the project. If this would interest you then get in touch: rebecca.thomas@reading.ac.uk.

 

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