Digital diversity in higher education

Within a mass higher education system, participation and equity are critical concerns and attention is now focusing on what happens once students get into university, what that experience involves and how it differs for those from more diverse backgrounds.

Participating in higher education increasingly involves both informal as well as formal online and offline interactions and continual boundary crossings between physical and digital spaces and different time:space configurations (Timmis & Williams, 2014) in what has been termed by some to be the ‘digital university’ (Jones, 2013). The seminar will bring these two themes together and explore the digital and cultural resources and practices that students employ in their learning lives and their potential for expanding participation, knowledge creation and identity construction. It will draw in particular, a current study of digital diversity learning and belonging (DD-lab), which is investigating how digital technologies are influencing the engagement of under-represented undergraduates. The framing of ‘digital diversity’ highlights both the proliferation of digitally mediated opportunities and the potential for more diverse communities to engage in digital practices for distinct purposes or outcomes and the dialectical tensions these two dimensions embody (Timmis et al, forthcoming). Holland et al (1998)’s work on agency and identity in cultural ‘figured worlds’ and Bakhtin’s concept of a chronotope (Bakhtin, 1978; 1981) or a time:space configuration are employed to understand and analyse the patterns of participation and boundary crossing, their relations to identity development and cultural diversity and how spatiality and temporality can be mobilised as resources for learning and meaning making (Lemke, 2004).

The seminar will show how students orchestrated spatial resources for creating alternative educational spaces for peer-led activities oriented towards shared goals and how they participated in multi-site online collaborations and knowledge creation practices both within and outside of formal learning spaces. It will also highlight some of the challenges and tensions experienced by diverse groups in engaging in a ‘digital university ‘ where expectations of ‘sameness’ are embedded and where fitting into the social and cultural expectations of an online university life are more challenging. Finally, it will argue that the mobilisation of online social networks and the Internet offer opportunities for more than social connectedness or ‘social glue’ (Madge et al 2009), showing how such activities can establish alternative ‘figured worlds’, enabling a stronger sense of agency, opportunities for collaboration and co-constructed resources and the emergence of repositioned or expanded academic identities. In conclusion, it will be argued that such spatio-temporal orchestrations offer opportunities for empowerment through the mobilisation of new forms of social and cultural capital which can contribute to expanded models of participation and success in higher education.

Dr Sue Timmisis is Senior Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning and Director of the PhD programme, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, UK. Her research investigates the learning lives of higher education students and the role of digital media in learning, collaboration, identity and student agency. She is particularly interested in the potential of digital media for furthering social justice and empowerment in education. She is currently PI on the DD-lab project ( on digital diversity learning and belonging and co-directs (with Dr Jane Williams) the Tel-Me project (technology enhanced learning in medical education). Sue is also particularly interested in methodological innovation and has pioneered community of inquiry and co-researcher methodologies, working alongside undergraduate students across several previous projects. She contributed to the recent Stellar Network of Excellence on Technology Enhanced Learning, including as a member of the Scientific Capacity Committee. She has led numerous previous national and international research projects related to technology and learning over the past twenty years.

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