Last year I wrote a blog (Lando 2022), about WhatsApp, where students go to organize themselves into study groups away from their formal online learning environments at university or college. In this blog, by looking at some feedback from a recent evaluation that we carried out in LEaD (Learning Enhancement and Development department) on the use of Microsoft Team spaces during the pandemic (Bowdler & Lando 2023), I want to follow up on this theme of online student only groups and explore what are some of the implications in terms of digital literacy skills.
According to Trapp and Martin (2019), the use of Microsoft Teams and other similar collaboration tools in higher education is just the latest iteration of Vygotsky’s notion of socially co-constructed knowledge (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky’s theory suggests that learning is a social process that occurs through interaction and collaboration with others. In other words, learning is not just an individual process but is influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place. Looking through the lens of Vygotsky’s theory, to fully leverage the benefits of online study groups, it’s important to consider how to support the development of digital literacy skills (Jisc 2022). This includes addressing some of the challenges of online groups to ensure that students have the necessary skills to effectively participate in this social process of learning.
Background to the Teams Evaluation project
This was a small evaluation project, carried out with 8 teaching practitioners and 12 students, on the use of Teams site for teaching during the pandemic. There were many positive comments, from both staff and students, about Teams and other 0356 tools. It was obvious that some students really enjoyed developing their digital collaboration and communication skills as part of their learning. One student noted that the Teams platform had a non-hierarchical structure and that it felt that no one was completely controlling the space, which in turn probably encouraged their active digital participation. In terms of digital proficiency, students commented on how Teams was an easier tool to access, and use compared to other platforms such as Zoom. Whereas, staff seemed to appreciate the ability to create smaller student groups on Teams and use the different functionalities such as breakout rooms. Furthermore, some academics saw the shift to online teaching during the pandemic as an opportunity to develop further their digital teaching skills. This was done by redesigning learning activities using active approaches such as flipped learning and small group presentations. Moreover, as Phillips (2018) asserted, some lecturers were happy that they could engage with students, both inside and outside the sessions, through the Teams mobile app. Students could get and respond to instant notifications of any mentions, feedback, or project updates from teachers and peers.
Student-only online groups and their benefits
Yet the evaluation also shows that despite the real-time collaboration and group messaging features of Teams, students still reverted to WhatsApp for chatting with their classmates, as one student suggested ‘WhatsApp is everyone’s go to’. Indeed teachers expressed disappointment that students preferred WhatsApp and not the Teams channels that had been allocated to them, yet were grateful that they were, at least, communicating with their peers.
In the main participating in an online study group can be a very good thing. Looking at this through Vygotsky’s theory, by collaborating with their peers, students can enhance their knowledge and prepare themselves for a digital world. Online study groups can also provide students with a sense of community and support and contribute to their digital wellbeing. By connecting with others who are working towards similar goals, students can feel less alone and more motivated to succeed in their studies, vital during a pandemic and forced isolation.
In terms of the actual learning, according to Dot Powell (2022), the use of online groups can also play a part in developing an understanding of difficult threshold concepts. For her research, Powell observed students in online study groups, using humour to play around with key concepts that they had learnt. Probably achieving a deeper understanding and confidence, with these concepts, in a safe space. Powell’s research also touches on the idea of the third space, coined by sociologist Oldenburg (1989). A space where people from different cultures and backgrounds come together to interact, communicate and create a new identity shaped by the interactions that take place in this third space. By participating in online study groups, building relationships with their peers, and by being playful; for example using insider jokes, students feel more connected to one another and motivated to work together towards their shared goals. All this ultimately contributing to an understanding of a new discourse and of their emerging professional identities.
The negative side of student-only online groups
Even though online groups are deemed to be very positive the fact that most students prefer to set up their ’off grid’ groups on WhatsApp rather than on an institutional platform such as Teams may not always be a good thing. One student in LEaD’s evaluation pointed out that as she had joined the course late, she was not aware that there were all these WhatsApp groups going on around her only to find out about them when the course was over.
‘Digital participation should always be safe and respectful, and not exclude other people’ (Jisc 2022)
There are more reasons why Teams, or a similar platform, may be better than WhatsApp. Teams offers a comprehensive set of features and tools, such as file sharing and real-time collaboration for group work, while WhatsApp is primarily a messaging platform. Additionally, Teams is integrated with other Office 365 tools, such as OneDrive and OneNote, which can provide additional functionality and convenience for students.
In the evaluation not all students ignored the potential of Teams for student-only study groups. One student said she used Teams with her group to do project work because it was more professional. The same student also mentioned that she was happy that she did not have to share her phone number with a group of people, showing an awareness of another key quality which is keeping digitally safe. This is because Teams offers enterprise-grade security that provides an additional layer of protection for students’ personal information and data.
Why do students want to use WhatsApp groups?
There could be several reasons why students might prefer to use WhatsApp groups rather than Teams or other online collaboration platforms.
WhatsApp is free and widely used and therefore many students are already familiar with it. It is very convenient as it available on both mobile and desktop platforms, making it easy for students to access and use it from any device. WhatsApp’s widespread use and availability fits in well with the idea of people being constantly connected to the internet and to each other through their digital devices, known as the “permanently online – permanently connected” theory (Vorderer et al. 2018). This has resulted in people being constantly reachable and able to communicate with each other instantly, no matter their location or activities. For this reason, the ease of adding additional groups to one owns already active WhatsApp network is probably why it is the ‘go to’ for most students.
Another important reason for WhatsApp’s popularity is its end-to-end encryption, which means that messages are secure and private. This may be attractive to students who value privacy and want to keep what they talk about away from institutional eyes, a space where they can be themselves and not be judged or assessed, even if informally, by lecturers maybe. However, one student in the Teams evaluation mentioned that for some students the reason they choose WhatsApp is because it is ‘safer’ for collusion.
The evaluation shows then that students are turned off by something like Teams because it is an institutional formal space, and they would rather set up their own informal student groups. To counteract this some universities have set up Discord to support the creation of student-led online groups within the institution (Bills.2021). Discord is a platform initially designed for gamers and so has a more causal feel about it and is seen as a compromise between WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams. It offers some features that are similar to both platforms. Like WhatsApp, Discord is a communication platform that allows users to send messages. However, it also has some features that are more similar to Microsoft Teams, such as the ability to create multiple channels. Yet even organisations who use Discord report challenges with engaging students, particularly if it was a platform that students had not already had access to, or in other words were not permanently connected to. Furthermore, even when it was successful a lot of work was needed by staff to start building an active community. Possibly then it is probably not the technology itself that is the issue but more one of how the space is perceived, are students already permanently connected somewhere else and therefore do not have the mental ‘bandwidth’ to have other connections? Should students be made more aware of the benefits and challenges of the different platforms so that they can make fully informed decisions?
What does this mean in terms of digital literacy skills?
To sum up, online peer group work, whether on institutional platforms like Teams or popular ones like WhatsApp, are a great way of getting students to develop key critical digital skills such as collaboration, participation and so much more. Furthermore, the emotional and intellectual support that these online spaces offer can really motivate students to work together and achieve their individual and common goals, thus contributing to their well-being. Yet, it seems to me that for such a key part of a student’s learning experience, there needs to be a more active recognition of its importance. For example, from LEaD’s evaluation, it was obvious that some students were not aware of the limitations of the different platforms. Furthermore, some did not know that they could create student-only online study groups on Teams that were not accessible to their teachers. In addition, the availability of a Teams app, for mobile devices, would enable them to be connected to their learning communities when they are on the go, much like WhatsApp. Therefore, I think that it is important to routinely support students to fully assess the different options, possibly as part of their university’s induction or onboarding process. By being more informed when setting up their own online study groups, students will not only enhance their own learning experience, and that of their peers, but would also develop important skills to navigate an increasingly complex digital landscape that affects all aspects of their lives.
Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Vygotsky, L. S. 1978
An Evaluation of Teams at City, UoL. Bowler and Lando. 2023
Teaching with Teams: An introduction to teaching an undergraduate law module using Microsoft Teams. Trapp & Martin 2019
What goes on in Students’ WhatsApp groups. LEaD Light Lunch with Dot Powell, Warwick Business School (Dec 2022)
Permanently Online, Permanently Connected. Living and Communicating in a POPC World. Edited By Peter Vorderer et al.2018
Taking the University community online with Discord. Oli Bills.2021 (accessed 04/01/2023)