Following Spotswood et al. (2015), the findings from the focus group interactions have been categorised into the three elements of Shove et al.’s (2012) social practice theory to discuss their interrelationship and to analyse any changes in practice of the mobile messaging service over the two-year teacher education programme. Where appropriate, features of the socio-technical interaction between the participants are also highlighted in relation to Wenger’s (1998) community of practice framework.
Each member of the social network had access to a mobile phone and the internet, both essential to the practice of WhatsApp. One participant was still able to interact with the year one group whilst travelling in Bangladesh, thus highlighting the capability of the mobile messaging service to transcend spatial and temporal boundaries.
It was interesting to note why WhatsApp had been chosen over another mobile messaging service. This links to the “meanings” element of the social practice framework, namely the participants’ shared understanding of its significance. The groups cited familiarity, cost and convenience as the main reasons for its selection: “it’s at your fingertips”; “it’s the only one I know” and “there’s the advantage of sending pictures and they’re free so long as you’ve got the group broadband”. One group associated WhatsApp with the older generation because of its ease of use in comparison with other multimedia mobile applications:
LEFootnote 1: I think it’s maybe a generational thing because (.) had we been sixteen it would have been um
PR Instagram no =
DM = Facebook
LE not Facebook
AB Snapchat [something similar
LE [Snapchat or something
AB Snapchat but older age (..) I think they are more into WhatsApp (.) it’s =
LE = it’s easier
AB it’s easier
PR definitely easier
On the surface, this discussion suggests that the community can agree on and assess the appropriateness of products as outlined in Wenger’s (1998) community of practice framework. Although there is a slight disagreement in the group when LE dismisses the suggestion of Facebook as the primary means of digital communication among the young, the other participants appear to accept the alternative, Snapchat, without argument. The use of repetition is evident in the discourse and this plays a central role in maintaining personal relationships (Tannen, 1987). “Snapchat” is repeated several times, indicating a human desire to participate in the conversation and show interest in the topic. The repetition of “easier” with the addition of the emphatic “definitely” reinforces the group’s attitude towards WhatsApp. However, this discussion may also highlight the unequal power relations within the group. The more confident and dominant members of the group such as LE are not afraid to express their opinions whereas quieter individuals may support a view out of a desire for conformity rather than genuine agreement.
Generally, the extent to which users adopt new technology will depend on their private and professional lives and the limits they wish to place on these domains (Lehtonen, 2003). One participant highlighted the importance of keeping the social and professional aspects of his life separate:
I try to switch off everything from work when I’m in social mode (…) so then I don’t like getting reminders about work
He associated the study group with the professional sphere of his life as a teacher and was reluctant to blur these boundaries. Most participants, however, had little reservation about bringing WhatsApp home with them; they did not consider it to impact too heavily on their privacy. Nevertheless, one member’s comment that she felt a certain pressure to respond to messages produced murmurs of agreement:
LE I think the only disadvantage with the WhatsApp group it’s that(…) I think it may be a slight invasion of privacy
LE because you get all these messages that you have to [look at
LE and [just in case people think
LE well (..) she’s too busy or important to (.) respond sort or and it’s only so-and-so answering and [you feel
LE a little pressure of guilt
Increased rapidity in communication enables the participants to keep in contact but it also encroaches on their daily routines. The frequency of postings will depend on the time individuals have in their everyday schedules and the importance they attach to the practice.
From the discussions, the year one teacher training cohort was clearly more emotionally invested in the WhatsApp group than the trainees on the second year of the course. For the latter group, the mobile messaging service was peripheral to other practices. They appreciated its existence, but its primary aim was not to construct their knowledge. They commented that the WhatsApp group had consistently served two main functions over the two-year programme: as a reminder, for example of assignment deadlines, and as a more rapid and efficient means of disseminating information than other forms of communication such as email:
NS if people have missed a class for whatever reason quite often will put some quest (.)
RA if they’re running late
DC yeah that’s the main thing (.) I’m not going to be there
I can’t find a parking space
GN which I think is good because (.) if you have to go through all the emails and stuff like that (.) you know it’s more instant (.) to let your tutor know that you’re going to be late
It is interesting to observe the effect of laughter in this conversation in respect of Wenger’s (1998) views on what lends coherence to a community of practice. Laughter plays an important role in interaction (Jefferson, Sacks, & Schlegoff, 1987) and, here, the participants demonstrate a shared understanding of its purpose. Over time WhatsApp had been appropriated in a different way than was possibly originally intended and this “knowing laughter” (Wenger, 1998) suggests this is recognised by the group. It also demonstrates a kind of intimacy between the members even if this may not stretch beyond the boundaries of the community of practice.
The participants mentioned that they were members of multiple communities of practice including work, church and family groups. They brought their different experiences and attitudes of networking in other communities to the WhatsApp group but did not necessarily have a close affiliation with their co-members:
The tutors in the hairdressing department they created one in December and I kind of exited that one straightaway because (….) we haven’t really got anything in common apart from teaching (….) we don’t talk outside the classroom so I thought why am I going to be part of a group chat.
This highlights one potential limitation of applying Wenger’s community of practice framework (1998) to the WhatsApp group. Although Wenger recognises that individuals can “participate in multiple communities of practice at once” (ibid, p105), the concept does not sufficiently consider individual differences and their motivations. The term “community” implies both inclusion and exclusion (Jewson, 2013). Individuals will have alternative commitments and, therefore, are unlikely to give one group their undivided attention. If it is not meeting their needs or they feel excluded, this will result in withdrawal from the community.
For the year one group of trainee teachers, there was a more positive attitude towards the mobile messaging service. One of the primary reasons for using WhatsApp appeared to be strengthening social relationships to gain access to emotional support and resources:
PR I think we are mainly using it for sharing =
AB = sharing ideas and resources
DM yeah and also passing on information particularly for those who missed the lesson (…) there are times when someone’s ill or (.) JillFootnote 2 graduating or I might send a get well soon and
LE so this is the sympathetic ear
However, although the year one trainees mentioned they had “bonded as a group” and worked “well as a team”, there were comments about some members’ lack of participation within the community. One practitioner felt dejected after reaching out to support one of her peers on WhatsApp and receiving no response:
She didn’t respond at all … and in the end (..) I even sent her private messages I called her and she still didn’t respond
Clearly, not everyone had the same sense of allegiance to the group; they were willing to give their mobile number and join the group chat, but rarely contributed and did not expect anything in return. Because WhatsApp is a ‘virtual community’, individuals can easily lurk in the background, only dropping in when they see fit. They may not want to leave the group completely in case they miss out on something, but they avoid becoming too heavily involved. They still want to create their own personal space and mobile technology can interfere with this.
One practitioner commented that he intentionally kept a distance from the group to avoid becoming embroiled in “silly things”:
DM I like to listen and whatever goes on in the WhatsApp group I’ll read
PR I don’t ()
DM and I don’t think I need to contribute to that =
PR = mm
DM because it’s nothing to do with me (…) even when miaow was going on
[sounds of laughter]
I just left it alone and it took care of itself
The “miaow” is a reference to an “inside joke” (see Wenger’s, 1998 indicators of a shared repertoire in a community of practice), a shared history between the participants, relating to an incident as to whom should be appointed course representative. The way the discussion was conducted on WhatsApp caused disagreement and resentment, but the group felt they had learned important lessons from this episode and attributed it to a “settling in period”. Community members will monitor each other’s behaviour (Harris & Shelswell, 2005) as they adjust to new norms and familiarise themselves with the technological artefact. This also, however, highlights the social dynamics at play within groups. Some individuals will feel the need to adopt the role of “controller” or “enforcer” of appropriate message content for the good of the community, but this may cause practitioners to feel restricted in their postings. They may appear to accept these power inequalities but inwardly feel resentful and withdraw from participation in the group. In this case, although the incident was resolved, it had clearly not been forgotten and unquestionably led to tensions. The interactions within a community will not always be indicative of participants’ true feelings: “communities are defined by as much by whom and what they exclude as by what they contain” (Harris & Shelswell, 2005, p. 168).
Both the year one and two teacher training groups agreed they were comfortable exchanging resources and ideas for the good of everyone rather than for individual gain. Generally, they did not expect tangible returns, for example a copy of an assignment, but benefited from peer collaboration, as highlighted here:
DC I think information should be shared
DC so (.) if you’ve done something and (..) someone’s struggling well (.) have you tried this have you tried that (.) would you like me to have a look at it
However, several practitioners on year two of the programme agreed that WhatsApp was not the best forum for more “serious” topics, implying that mobile interactions are not necessarily meaningful for educational purposes:
GN talking about theories and have arguments over it or discussions in class (.) that would help me (..) to actually get (..) more (.)
TC but not on WhatsApp
DC it’s too fiddly to do on WhatsApp
This links to the “materials” element of Shove et al.’s (2012) social practice theory. The small size of mobile phones exemplifies portability and convenience but also proves to be a challenge for learning (Kress & Pachler, 2007). Other digital technologies such as laptops and iPads are better equipped to dealing with large amounts of data and the group recognised that there were limitations to using WhatsApp to discuss aspects related to pedagogy.
Several participants highlighted the importance of reciprocity in maintaining social relationships (Blau, 1964;). There was an expectation that their co-members would feel a sense of moral obligation to willingly share knowledge and information on a continual basis. They also expressed some irritation with the more passive members of the group whom they felt were not “pulling their weight”:
LE some people on the group they’re just not responding =
DM = yeah
LE I think that’s not good behaviour =
AB = yeah I tried to challenge Michael on that
AB you are a part of the group so you should just chip in something
However, one focus group agreed that this “altruistic reciprocity” (Diekman, 2004) depended on what was at stake:
MA I don’t think there is much to benefit from holding onto anything and the beauty of this course is that you pass by a pass
MA it’s not like by a percentile (..) that the top two are going to pass or get a distinction or something (..) everybody gets a pass
FACILITATOR so do you think it would be different if there was a grade
WG it would be different
MA there isn’t one and I feel that when I was doing my deGREE (…) I was holding on (.) I was very competitive
WG uh huh
MA and I wanted to get the top mark and I did [laughs] but that’s because I wanted to push myself (…) but I wouldn’t show my assignment (.) I would show the resources that I’d be using but I wouldn’t say like here’s my (..) essay
From these discussions, it was clear that reciprocity and social capital are interlinked but participants might refrain from sharing information if it affects their personal interests such as an assessment outcome. This idea is not typically associated with the notion of a community where reciprocal social relations are central to forging relationships and building trust (Putnam, 2000). In the WhatsApp group, individuals made a choice whether to collaborate: they balanced the concepts of equity, the degree of participation by all members; reciprocity; and competition (Bolton & Ockenfels, 2000), comparing their performance with others. This view suggests that identity formation is more fluid and complex than proposed in Wenger’s community of practice framework (1998, p. 11): the notion of an “inseparable duality” between the individual and the situated learning experience. Power relations, the rituals of the practice and external structures play a significant role in the management of knowledge through social interactions (Contu & Willmott, 2003). The trainee teachers’ interactions on the WhatsApp group were shaped by their own motivation, ambitions and external constraints of time, space and circumstances (). The group only met once a week on the teacher education course and access to institutional resources was problematic. The extent to which the practitioners learned from each other can, thus, not be analysed in isolation from the social structures and power relations inherent in the local context.
All the practitioners were proficient in the basic functions of WhatsApp and how to.
participate in group chats. They made use of their existing knowledge of texting and their experience of interacting on other mobile messaging groups. However, for the year one WhatsApp group, there was initially some confusion over how to display names rather than just their phone numbers. Some people may have wanted to preserve their anonymity but given this is a social network comprised of individuals who know each other and have face-to-face contact at least once a week when they attend their course, this seemed unlikely. It was more probable that they didn’t possess the “know-how” (Shove et al., 2012) to adjust the settings on their mobile phones. Some felt that this skill was essential to the effective performance of the practice, which links again to the “meanings” aspect of Shove et al.’s (ibid) social practice theory, particularly at the beginning of the course to build social relations:
LE at the beginning that was the biggest problem not knowing who’s who
PR and what do you teach and where do you teach [and what’s your specialism
LE [and people just have their numbers and there was no profile picture (.) and I’m thinking at the beginning I need to know who I’m speaking to
Here, LE associates the practice of WhatsApp with strengthening social ties but to engage in any meaningful discussions, she needs to feel secure. If practitioners do not divulge their identities, there is a barrier between them and the rest of the group. They are not conforming to the norms of the community and full participation, often seen as a prerequisite for building trust and group solidarity, will not be possible.
During the two-year higher education programme, the mobile messaging service was used to express a range of emotions (see Additional file 2 for some typical postings by both groups). The practitioners agreed that messages should be connected to matters concerning the course, only using WhatsApp occasionally to “share snippets of each other’s lives”. One participant commented that she felt supported by the group after suffering a bereavement, but others felt there was a tendency for individuals to reveal too much about their ailments. This point arose several times in the discussions and was clearly a source of amusement:
LE some of the things are just so irrelevant like last week there was a little too much information about um I’ll be going to the toilet
AB every second [laughs]
PR just a general I’m [ill
LE [I’m ill
PR I won’t be in
This emphasises the view that communities of practice do not always fulfil their original aim, in this case to consistently share meaningful information and knowledge. The content of the WhatsApp interactions was frequently perceived by its members as mundane, thus contradicting the idealised view of communities of practice as highly functional and collaborative learning spaces (Lea, 2005).
Finally, the practitioners also used non-verbal means of communication such as images and emoticons to negotiate meaning and maintain social relationships. These symbols are “specific representations” (Wenger, 1998), recognised by the communities of practice, to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact. An example of a text message where graphic displays are used is shown below:
The hearts accompany a user’s request for a lesson plan. They act as a “softener” (Skovholt, GrØnning, & Kankaanranta, 2014), a more tentative way of asking for something. This conveys the idea the sender of the message does not wish to be a burden, and the image, the abbreviated form of please: “pls”, and the reason given for the request: “will be helpful”, are all instrumental in emphasising the sender’s positive intentions. This highlights the role of language and literacy practices in understanding how social relationships are sustained within a community of practice (Barton & Hamilton, 2005). Participation in the WhatsApp group relied on making sense of these “semiotic markers” (ibid) in addition to understanding the history of interactions and power relationships within the community.
Interestingly, the aforementioned WhatsApp message is addressed to the “ladies” of the community even though there are three male members in both the year one and two groups. By their own admission, the men tended to adopt a more passive role in the WhatsApp groups. There was a suggestion that at times they felt marginalised or felt the WhatsApp postings had little or no relevance to them as indicated here: “it’s nothing to do with me”; “I don’t interact as much as the ladies … ..there are only two men in the group” and “I’m the ghost”. Although this was beyond the scope of the research project, it would be interesting to note whether these gender patterns of interaction were also present in the face-to-face sessions on the programme.
The relationship between WhatsApp and other communicative practices
In this local context, innovations in mobile technology signified a change in other communicative practices. Email was still used by the tutors to maintain social ties and send reminders and notices to the group. However, it was rarely used by the practitioners: the mobile messaging service had replaced email as the primary mode of communication outside the classroom: WhatsApp was viewed as a more instant, informal and convenient means of self-expression. The trainee teachers also had the benefit of face-to-face contact in their weekly sessions on the teacher education programme which provided an opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings that had arisen from the WhatsApp group interactions. It enabled them to build on their personal relationships away from their mobile phones; this, in turn, incentivised them to continue interacting via WhatsApp. Face-to-face communication was thus essential in maintaining personal relationships outside the “virtual community” (Kimble, Hildreth, & Weight, 2000).
In addition, the strength of the relationship between individuals and the nature of communication had a significant impact on the practice used by the trainee teachers. There were instances when it was deemed appropriate to contact individuals in the group privately via SMS (short message service) or by a phone call because the practitioners wanted to share information relating specifically to their teaching discipline which they felt was not relevant to the whole group. This raises the question as to whether the WhatsApp community necessarily evoked feelings of unity. From their list of contacts, users could select the individual who best met their personal needs, ignoring the rest of the group, to increase “social efficiency” (Kopomaa, 2002). The desire to be part of a group, therefore, functioned alongside an individualistic need for control.
Overall, on the teacher training programme, WhatsApp complemented other forms of social interaction rather than replaced them. The practitioners balanced the advantages of using it with other communicative practices and deemed it a practice worth pursuing. Its use did not change significantly over the course of the programme but was modified as individuals became more confident with the course requirements and protocols and craved more independence. As highlighted by Shove et al. (2012), if a practice is perceived to be “internally rewarding”, it is more likely to persist, and this appeared to be the case here.