Dissertation Journal: Dissertation Synopsis

A few weeks ago, I wrote a brief synopsis of my current dissertation topic.  With the help of some of my wonderful friends, I have continued to revise this synopsis.  Here is the current version, the version I am sending to my advisor for him to use in writing my second-day question on my qualifying exam.

Higher education scholars, policy makers, and administrators know little about the experiences of undergraduate students – traditional and non-traditional – who matriculate with minimal experiences with or knowledge of technology.  It is easy to 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 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.  National surveys of institutions or students indicate that a significant number of students do not own a computer.  National surveys of students have reported different numbers of students without computers, from 1.2% of respondents (Smith, Salaway, & Caruso, 2009) to 2.7% of respondents (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007).  EDUCAUSE member institutions report that between 10% and 20% of their students do not own computers (EDUCAUSE, 2009).   Similarly, studies have revealed differences in how college students and youths use computers, differences that are significantly influenced by economic and cultural factors such as how easily and often they can use Internet-connected computers (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008; Ito et al., 2010; Watkins, 2009).  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 no one knows how many of these students are on American college campuses.  Little is known about who they are.  And very little is know about their experiences and how their technological aptitude is shaping their academic and social experiences.  Moreover, no one knows 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 and adequately representing their experiences, opinions, and needs.

This study will explore the response rates of first-year undergraduate students to a self-administered web-based survey.  Specifically, this study will examine the impact of those students’ previous computer ownership, access, and use on their response rate.  The specific research questions guiding this dissertation:

RQ1: In this sample of first-year students at American institutions of higher education, how many students have matriculated from environments in which they had substantially different patterns of Internet-connected computer ownership, access, or use?

RQ2: Do those students exhibit a significant non-response 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 students participating in the on-campus, paper administration of the Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement (BCSSE).  I will answer the second question 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 (a linked-records approach (Porter & Whitcomb, 2005)), I will be able to see if students with less exposure to technology respond in proportional numbers.

If the 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, a finding that may be generalizable to other web-based self-administered surveys.


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

Ito, M., et al. (2010). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

Palfrey, J., & Gasser, U. (2008). Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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.

Watkins, S. C. (2009). The young & the digital: What the migration to social-network sites, games, and anytime, anywhere media means for our future. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.