Negotiation, participation, and the construction of identities and autonomy in online communities of practice : a case study of online learning in English at a university in South Africa.
This study is located at the interface of online learning within a context of English language studies and academic literacy and is underpinned, from a critical theoretical perspective, by an understanding of the implications of the digital divide for South Africa. The thesis includes an exploration of online learning, as mediated by information and communication technology (ICT), in an undergraduate English language and academic literacy classroom at a university in Johannesburg, South Africa. The study draws on research and theorising by Warschauer (2002a, 2002b, 2003), who argues for the need for technology in developing countries as a means of social inclusion. The aim is to explore the extent to which communities of practice (COPs) are enabled in an online environment, among English non-mother tongue speakers, who have minimal previous access to ICT. To achieve the aim the study examines the extent to which the learners participate, negotiate meaning, construct identities, and perceive themselves as autonomous in online spaces. This is a case study that explores asynchronous lCT practices such as the use of the Internet (Net), e-mail, and discussion threads in an online Web course management system. From a sociocultural perspective, and recognising that learning does not occur in isolation, the work of Lave and Wenger (1991, 1996,2002) is used to frame the study, concerned as it is with learning, technology and empowerment. Lave and Wenger (1991, 2002) locate learning as a form of interaction and co-participation, and argue that learning occurs within specific contexts or communities of practice. Thus they focus on how individuals become members of 'communities of practice'. The study suggests that practice and participation are underpinned, and to some extent determined, by the identities constructed by participants In the on line communities. Participants' ICT practices are examined from the perspective of literacy, in this case electronic literacy, as a social practice and New Literacy Studies, where the work of Gee (1996, 1997, 2000), Street (1984, 1993a, 1993b, 2003), Barton, Hamilton and lvanic (2000), and Lankshear and Knobel (1997, 2004) are drawn on to examine the use of technology. Constructions of identity are examined from Hall's (1992) post-structuralist view that old identities, which stabilised the social world as we knew it, are in decline, giving rise to new identities and fragmenting the modem individual as a unified subject. From observations, participant-interviews, questionnaires, written data, and the analysis of messages posted to discussion threads over the duration of a year, the study demonstrates that the online environment facilitates the construction of communities of practice, by enabling participants to develop and sustain local and global relationships, construct identities, and engage autonomously in the medium. My findings suggest that online environments be considered, not merely as alternative modes of delivery in the language classroom, but for social inclusion, provided that facilitators and learners are adequately prepared for the use of digital technology. The study further suggests a model for the adoption of ICT in relation to learning within the South African context.