Dissertation Journal: The Basic Idea

This post will serve two purposes.  First, it will be useful to have one post that explains the basic, big ideas of my dissertation.  Second, our qualifying exam is structured such that our advisor writes the second question and my advisor has asked me to summarize my dissertation ideas and thoughts so he can use them to write the question.  So this post will be a good first draft for that summary.

I haven’t yet figured out how to work in the big theoretical constructs that inform this research – socio-technical systems, digital divide, and participation gap – into this brief, non-technical summary.  I’m not even sure that I *should* work those ideas into such a short, non-technical summary although they play key roles in my research.

I am interested in the experiences of undergraduate students – traditional and non-traditional – who come to our campuses with little experience with or knowledge of technology.  We too often assume that all students, particularly traditionally-aged students, have significant experience with, knowledge of, and comfort with technology.  For many students, that assumption is correct.  But that assumption is likely false for some students and it is likely that those students have different and possibly difficult experiences, especially during their first year.

Although little is known about these students, there are tantalizing glimpses.  The 927 institutions surveyed by EDUCAUSE in 2008 for the Core Data Service reported that between 80% and 90% of their students own their own computers, indicating that between 10% and 20% do not (EDUCAUSE, 2009).  In its most recent study, ECAR reports that 98.8% of the 30,616 students at 115 colleges and universities who participated in its survey (ECAR researchers also conducted focus groups) reported owning a computer (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009).  In their 2007 Net Generation survey of 7,705 undergraduate students at seven institutions, Junco and Mastrodicasa reported results similar to ECAR’s when 97.3% of their respondents indicated that they own a computer.  It’s worth noting that both of those studies relied on web-based surveys, possibly inflating their computer-ownership results.  Studies of Facebook usage among college and university students have yielded similar results (Ellison, 2007).  So it is clear that there are some students who neither own computers nor use them in ways that most of their peers use them.

But we don’t know how many of these students are on our campuses.  We don’t know who they are.  And we don’t seem to know anything about their experiences and how their technological aptitude is shaping their academic and social experiences.  We don’t even know if our current methods of assessment – methods that often rely exclusively on web-based surveys advertised via e-mail – are gathering adequate information from these students.

To keep this study manageable, give it direction, and capitalize on resources I have at hand, I will focus on two specific questions:

RQ1: Are there an appreciable number of students in (this sample of) American institutions of higher education who have matriculated from environments in which they had little or no access to the Internet?

RQ2: If “yes” to RQ1, do those students exhibit a significant non-response (after controlling for confounding variables) to a Web-based survey advertised primarily through e-mail?

To answer the first question, I will construct a brief survey of previous computer ownership and use to be administered to some students participating in the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE).  The precise nature of the survey instrument and the number of students/institutions that will be invited to participate are both undetermined right now.  I will answer the second question will be answered using data from the same institutions who participate in the web-based version of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).  Using the data obtained from BCSSE, I will be able to see if students with less exposure to technology respond in numbers proportionally similar to other students (a linked-records approach (Porter & Whitcomb, 2005)).

If my population is sufficiently diverse, I expect to find a significant number of students who have had less experience with technology than the majority of their peers.  I also expect that those students will be disproportionately from lower SESes and racial/ethnic minorities.   Finally, I expect to find a small but significant non-response bias to the web-based version of NSSE.

(If one wanted to be crass, which I want to be on occassion, this study could be summed up as another “Are we ignoring or screwing poor students?” study.  Of course, I can’t write that in my proposal or my dissertation although it is accurate.  Another way of describing the study, especially the second research question, is to compare our web surveys with surveys administered via telephone, surveys which obviously don’t capture information from people without phones.)


EDUCAUSE. (2009). EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Fiscal Year 2008 summary report.  Boulder, CO: Author.

Ellison, N. (2007). Facebook use on campus: A social capital perspective on Social Network Sites.  Presentation at the Sixth Annual ECAR Symposium, Boca Raton, Florida.

Junco, R., & Mastrodicasa, J. (2007). Connecting to the net.generation. Washington, D.C.: NASPA.

Porter, S. R., & Whitcomb, M. E. (2005). Non-response in student surveys: The role of demographics, engagement and personality. Research in Higher Education, 46(2), 127–152.

Smith, S. D., Salaway, G., & Caruso, J. B. (2009). The ECAR student of undergraduate students and information technology, 2009.  Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE.