tech and lit practices research

A few days ago, I found out that the paper I submitted to the American Educational Research Association‘s 2006 conference has been accepted for presentation.  Yay!  Presenting at AERA is a big deal-ish thing in the world of education research, and the research that was accepted is the pilot study for my dissertation, so I’m both thrilled and petrified.  In addition to sharing that news, I thought this might be a good opportunity to finally share a little about the (other, non-social software specific) research that I’ve been doing for a little over a year.    Find below the text of the AERA proposal, and forgive the length. 

Title: (De)constructing the NetGen: A Spatial Analysis of the Technology Practices of Liberal Arts College Students

Objectives or Purposes

    The last two decades have seen a profound change in the way that our society operates and defines itself, thanks in part to the rise of the personal computer and other digital technologies. Today’s liberal arts college students are among the first to grow up fully immersed in this digital environment, a fact that has given rise to monikers such as “Net Gen” (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005) and “Millennials” (Gee, 2002).  As a result, many students are quite at ease with computer tasks such as communication via email and instant messenger, word processing, and searching for information on the web.  (Caruso, 2004) Indeed, for this generation of students, these tasks form the basis of their literate engagement in “the production of digitally mediated knowledge and culture.” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003)
    Increasingly, colleges have come to perceive that they will be required to adapt to new students arriving on campus.  In undertaking to educate the Net Gen, liberal arts colleges have to date primarily focused on student skill development; increasing faculty technology competence; and infrastructure. (Scott et al, 2002; Lyman, 2001; Gathercoat, 1999)
    Noticeably absent from this discussion, however, are the voices of the students themselves.  As a result, student needs assessments by faculty, technology staff, and administrators are often based upon broad assumptions about the role technology plays in students’ lives.  Given the discontinuity in the ways that technology is embedded in the lives of those in positions of power at the college and their students (Prensky, 2001; Hagood et al, 2002), the lack of empirical research that seeks to examine how today’s liberal arts college student interacts with technology and their environment is puzzling.
    Thus, this study has as its goal a rich description of the technology practices of liberal arts college students, particularly as they are situated within an expanded notion of their literacy practices.  Acknowledging that students are engaged in powerful practices of meaning making (Alvermann et al, 2004; Moje 2002; Hull & Schultz, 2001) as they shape and are shaped by the contexts and technologies that surround them, the study frames its inquiry with the following questions: How do students interact with technology across the geography of their everyday lives, both in academic and non-academic settings?  In what ways do these technology practices inform student engagement in reading and writing the world?

Perspective(s) or Theoretical Framework

    This study approaches the question of student technology practices from a spatial perspective, particularly as it relates to student’s literacy practices.  Informed by the New Literacy Studies, which sees literacy as multiple and fluid, and embedded in social, cultural, and material contexts,(Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004; Street, 1993), I take a broad view of the term literacy, aligning myself with Duncum (2004) who sees literacy as "the making of meaning with communicative modes" (p. 253).  This broad view allows one to consider a variety of dimensions of meaning-making that students bring to bear in their everyday lives.  This framework of literate practice provides a deeper context in which to consider the technological resources with which students engage.
    A recent strand of research in the New Literacy Studies has attended to space as a lens for analysis.  In this perspective, space is not just the static background of our daily lives; rather, it is continually made and re-made depending on the materials, people, ideologies, etc. that inhabit a space at a given time. (Soja, 2004).  Viewed through a spatial lens, the study of student technology use attends to both the material and ideological dimensions that are present in the creation of the social spaces in which the technology is used.  (Leander, 2004)
    This study posits that in thinking about the liberal arts college as a neutral backdrop to student technology use, we overlook the critical role that disparate campus spaces, both academic and non-academic, play in shaping student technology use.  The liberal arts college is treated as a specific context, in order that we may ask questions like, What role does the grand narrative of liberal education play in creating a specific space, and how do students collude in its production and/or resist it?   How does this interact with student technology practices?

Methods, Techniques, or Modes of Inquiry

This qualitative study was carried out in two phases over the course of a year.   The setting for both phases was a new media institute for advanced student technologists.  The month-long institute was held on the campus of a liberal arts college in the Northeast.  During the institute, which the researcher also co-planned and in which she co-instructed, students received instruction in digital media production, in conjunction with sessions on topics relating to new media and technoculture.  As a culminating project, the students created a project on a topic of their choosing that encompassed the skills, techniques, and critical strands of inquiry to which they had been exposed throughout the month.
An exploratory phase was conducted in the summer of 2004.  The participants in this phase included ten undergraduate students from six small, private, liberal arts colleges in the Northeast.  All six of the colleges had a similar demographic profile, including a low student population, a low acceptance rate among applicants, and high average incoming SAT scores.  Students were chosen to participate in the institute on the basis of their resume, two recommendations, and a personal statement regarding their interest and experience in both digital media production and theory.
    The researcher engaged in participant-observation over the course of the month, during which she observed the students’ technology use in the setting of the institute, about three to four times a week on average, for several hours on each occasion.  In addition, nine of the ten students participated in a formal interview, on topics ranging from their personal and academic technology use, to their personal backgrounds and their future plans.  Informal interviews with the students were also employed to clarify or expand on observation.
    A second phase of this study was carried out in the summer of 2005.  Participants included nine students from eight liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest.  Based on themes that arose from the analysis of the data from the previous summer, the participant-observation was expanded to include a variety of academic and non-academic settings, include the institute, the dorm in which the students lived, and the town.  The researcher lived in the dorm with the students, and interacted with them informally on a regular basis.  Students participated in one on one interviews, informal interviews, and a focus group interview.  The participants chose the time and setting of these interviews. 
    Students were also asked to create two techno-biographies, once at the beginning and once at the end of the institute.  Techno-biographies provide a forum for the students to direct the representation of their relationship to technology (Cammack, 2004, unpublished research), giving them the control that is lacking researcher-directed interviews and observation.  The students were encouraged to use whatever mode of representation they felt most comfortable with.
    In addition, two students agreed to participate in the study as co-researchers, keeping a video diary a minimum of twice a week.  As a methodological tool, video diaries provide another means by which to detail the “socio-cultural mapping of the learning landscape.” (Noyes, 2004, original emphasis)  The decision to include the video diaries and the techno-biographies was motivated by a desire to more meaningfully involve the students in the research process, in ways that reflected their voices and their engagement with technology.

Data Sources or Evidence

    As described above, the data were collected across a variety of settings during the summers of 2004 and 2005.  Primary among these data were the field notes and field journal generated during participant-observation at the institute, the dorm, and other settings around the town.  The field notes also contain data generated during informal interviews with the students, undertaken periodically to clarify points or test assumptions.  Additionally, the field notes also include dated drawings of the students and artifacts in relationship to space.
    Data also include artifacts such as the video diaries and techno-biographies described above; the students’ final projects; and a project weblog.  Students were asked make entries in a weblog during the institute, as a way of documenting their progress through their final project.  These artifacts provided points of triangulation between the field notes and interviews.  The formal, one on one interviews conducted during the two institutes, as well as the focus group interview from the second summer, were videotaped and transcribed.  All of these various data points were entered into the qualitative analysis software nVivo, and coded recursively according to a grounded theory approach. (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) 

Results and/or Conclusions/Point of view

    While the exploratory phase of the study is complete, the analysis of data from the second phase of the research is currently ongoing.  These initial results challenged some common assumptions that are made about undergraduate technology use, and highlighted the non-neutrality of the spaces in shaping when and how technology is used. 
    In general, though they are constructed as being fully invested in technology use, these “Net Geners” appear to make more complex decisions regarding when, where, why, and how they use technology than we may have been led to believe.  Students may indeed be pushing the envelope in terms of their technology use, but this varies broadly across personal, social, and academic spaces. 
    This divide was seen most acutely when discussing the use of technology in the space of the classroom.  Although technology is used in many ways in their academic life – to write papers, to participate in online discussions, to email or instant message with professors – students constructed the space of the classroom as a place for lecture and discussion, and technology that doesn’t fit with that model is seen as disruptive and even unwelcome.  Therefore, faculty use of PowerPoint to support a lecture is acceptable, but the use of laptops by students was generally seen as “pretentious,” rude, and unnecessary.
    Although analysis of the second phase of the study is ongoing, preliminary results confirm the themes that arose in the exploratory phase.  The spatial framework described above, in conjunction with a literacy practices approach, may shed light on the issue of how technology is interwoven with the liberal arts college identity.  As was apparent in my discussions with students, the space of the classroom was imbued with a particular ideology – specifically, the grand narrative of liberal education at a liberal arts college – that played a role in shaping student technology use in that particular context.  It is the goal of this study is to uncover the ways in which liberal arts college undergraduates make sense of the technological spaces they create and inhabit.

Educational or Scientific Importance of the Study

    Despite the chorus of voices eager to paint a picture of the digitally-immersed, multitasking college students of today, there is a surprising dearth of research that provides a rich description of the complex ways in which technology is situated with the literacy practices of undergraduates.  Furthermore, the context of the liberal arts college is all but ignored.  Research such as that undertaken here is a step not only towards understanding the technology practices of the Net Geners studying at liberal arts colleges, but also towards including these students in the process of the research that aims to describe them.
    At a broader level, the lack of such research has implications for technology integration on campus.  Colleges and universities are spending enormous amounts of money on technology initiatives aimed at improving the student experience.  As Oblinger and Oblinger (2005) point out, such “massive investments…for the sake of meeting students’ wants and needs…bas[ed] on assumptions is risky.”  (p. 2.15) The results of this study may inform a variety of decision-making around technology integration on campus in areas from infrastructure to curriculum, and can help assure that such investments are based in an understanding of how students actually engage with technology on campus. 


Alvermann, D., Huddleston, A., Hagood, M. (2004). What could professional wrestling and school literacy practices possibly have in common? Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 47(7), pp. 532-40.

Cammack, D. (2004) Webs of our own: Tracing literacy and technology practices across a variety of spaces. Unpublished dissertation proposal.

Caruso, J. (2004) ECAR study of students and information technology, 2004: Convenience, connection, and control. EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research.

Gathercoal, P. (1999). Technological literacy and its effects on first-year liberal studies college students. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

Gee, J.P. (2002). Millennials and bobos, Blue’s Clues and Sesame Street: A story for our times. In D. Alvermann (Ed.), Adolescents and literacies in a digital world. New York: Peter Lang.

Hull, G. & Schultz, K. (2001). Literacy and learning out of school: A review of theory and research. Review of Educational Research, 71(4), pp. 575-611.

Lankshear, C. & Noble, M. (2003). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. London: Open University Press.

Leander, K. (2004). Reading the spatial histories of positioning in a classroom literacy event. In K.Leander & M. Sheehy (Eds.), Spatializing literacy research and practice. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Lyman, P. (2001). Information literacy. Liberal Education 9(1). 28-37.

Moje, E. (2002). But where are the youth? On the value of integrating youth culture into literacy theory. Educational Theory, 52(1), p. 97.

Oblinger, D. & Oblinger, J. (2005). Is it age or IT: First steps toward understanding the net generation. In D. Oblinger & J. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the Net Gen. EDUCAUSE: available online

Scott, H., Chenette, J., & Swartz, J. (2002). The integration of technology into learning and teaching in the liberal arts. Liberal Education 88(2), 30-35.

Street, B. (1993). Introduction: the new literacy studies. In B. Street (Ed.), Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Soja, E. (2004). Introduction. In K.Leander & M. Sheehy (Eds.), Spatializing literacy research and practice. New York: Peter Lang.



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5 responses to “tech and lit practices research

  1. Guy

    Well done, Sarah. That sounds great…I’m still wondering about coming to AERA (just as a spectator this time!)

  2. Sarah

    Thanks, Guy! Oh, come along… it’s San Francisco, how can you resist? 🙂

  3. Hey, this study sounds interesting. I’m intrigued by your use of ‘video diaries’ – you give the citation but not the reference (Noyes 2004).
    My own PhD is a similar study with 15-16 year olds.

  4. Sarah

    Hey Scott,
    Whoops – nice catch on the citation. Here it is:
    Noyes, A. (2004). Video diary: A method for exploring learning dispositions. Cambridge Journal of Education, 34(2). 193-209.
    Sarah Pink also does quite a bit of work on visual methods in ethnographic research. Here are a couple of those refs:
    Pink, S. (2001). More visualising, more methodologies: On video, reflexivity, and qualitative research. The Sociological Review, 49(4). 586-599.
    Pink, S. (2004). Introduction: Situating visual research. In S. Pink, L. Kürti, A. Afonso (Eds.), Working images: Visual research and representation in ethnography. London: Routledge.
    I haven’t done a thorough coding of the video diaries yet, but from my first impressions they seem more to provide confirmatory data for the observations and interviews, rather than totally new data. At the same time, coding the visual aspect, rather than just the content, may well provide some interesting things.

  5. Scott

    Hey, thanks for this Sarah, I’ll check this out for sure. I’ve also come across the ‘Pink’ work before but haven’t yet read it so thanks for the helpful push/memory jog.

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