Essential Reading for Technology in Student Affairs

Last week, a colleague asked me what I would recommend as essential reading for understanding technology in student affairs.  Others may also be interested in this topic so this is what I told him (with a few minor edits):

If we limit the list of essential student affairs technology articles to those written by student affairs scholars or professionals, published in student affairs journals or books, or about student affairs then I’m hard pressed to name an article that I consider essential.  There have been some good articles, books, and chapters that are important in particular, narrow contexts but I don’t think that I’ve seen anything essential or seminal.  The articles in these categories tend to be too narrow in scope either because they focus too narrowly on a contemporary issue or technology (and thus quickly fall out-of-date) or because they neglect much or all of the scholarship that lies outside of higher education and student affairs.

If we go outside of student affairs and higher education to consider literature produced in other disciplines then we have to be ruthless in culling the list to a manageable size.  Maybe we can do that by trying to list some of the big ideas and an accessible entry point or summary of each idea.

  1. Historical origins of the information age: I think it’s important to ground our understanding of technology by beginning…well, in the beginning.  This is especially true because many people think that technology or the study of technology is new, perhaps beginning with the microcomputer explosion of the early 80s or the development of the World Wide Web in the early 90s.  Much of the work in defining and exploring the information age has been done by economists who place the beginning of the information age in the early 20th century before computers even hit the scene.  Daniel Bell’s 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society is a classic example of this work.  However, I’d probably lean toward Kenneth Galbraith’s 1972 (2nd ed.) The New Industrial State because it’s also a seminal work and I think that everyone should read something written by Galbraith at least once in their life.  This book also changed my entire view of committee work which was very unexpected but very pleasurable.
  2. Technological utopia/dystopia: Many people, including scholars who should know better, write and think about technology in simplistic terms such as utopian (e.g., Friedman and the rest of the uncritical MOOC cheerleaders) or dystopian views.  Rob Kling was a powerful voice in this conversation and his 1994 article “Reading ‘All About’ Computerization: How Genre Conventions Shape Non-Fiction Social Analysis” in The Information Society 10(3) is a classic article on this topic.
  3. Technological determinism: Another popular but problematic way that many people think and write about technology is to embrace “technological determinism,” the idea that technology is such a powerful force that it plays the central role in social and cultural development; a weaker formulation is that we can readily predict and understand how technology is used and developed based only on the properties of that technology. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s 2002 instant-classic The Social Life of Information is a wonderful book that expertly addresses this well-debunked-but-still-prevalent idea.  Claude Fischer‘s 1992 book America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 is another fantastic and enjoyable book in this vein although it is more narrow in scope with its focus on some of the origins and early uses of telephones in the U.S.  (I also enjoy Fischer’s book because of the clarity with which he describes his research methods and limitations.)
  4. Computer-mediated communication (CMC): Much of the time when we are thinking about technology we are really focusing on a much more narrow use of some specific technologies and using computers to communicate with others is perhaps the most prevalent focus for people in the student affairs profession.  This is a large and rapidly growing body of research with many summaries and literature reviews.  Although it’s a bit old, I would suggest Susan Herring‘s 2002 Annual Review of Information Science and Technology article “Computer-Mediated Communication on the Internet.”  She touches on many different aspects of CMC and does so with a deep understanding of its history and social implications.
  5. Youths’ use of CMC: Although the majority of students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities are 22 years old or older, many student affairs professionals still focus primarily or exclusively on younger students.  There has been an explosion of research in this area in the last decade especially concentrated on youths’ use of social media e.g., Facebook, MySpace.  danah boyd‘s 2008 book chapter “Why Youth (Heart) MySpace: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life” in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media is a must-read in this area.  The 2010 book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media covers similar ground and has been critical in informing and forming some of my thinking on this topic. This book is also methodologically impressive as a large collaboration between a large group of ethnographers who tried to synthesize their different-but-complementary studies.
  6. Technology in U.S. higher education: Offhand, I can’t think of any really good, time-tested, and expansive articles or books about technology in U.S. higher education.  Perhaps the most commonly cited work is Chickering and Ehrmann’s 1996 article “Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever.”  It’s a followup to the classic 1987 Chickering and Gamson article (“Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education“) in the same publication.
  7. Contemporary sources of information: I regularly keep up on technology ownership, access, and use in the U.S. by reading the reports produced by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  Serving the same purpose but in the more narrow niche of U.S. higher education are the materials produced by EDUCAUSE, especially their annual survey of students and information technology and their public summaries of information collected in their Core Data Service.
  8. Disappointing but unavoidable assumptions: I’m sure you’re already familiar with all of the problematic assumptions and stereotypes of the “Millennial Generation” that play a disappointingly strong role in many of our assumptions about younger students’ use of technology.  On the same note, it’s also worth revisiting Marc Prensky’s original 2001 Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants article as that discourse is still prevalent today.






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