Beginning New Research: #sachat

I just received IRB approval to begin conducting research on the weekly student affairs-related discussions being held on Twitter.  The initial round of research is being conducted for Susan Herring‘s Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis class but I plan to expand the research and present and publish it more broadly once I’m done with the class.

For those who are unfamiliar with #sachat, here is how I described it in my first paper for this class:

Beginning in the fall of 2009, a group of American higher education administrators began using the micro-blogging tool Twitter to communicate, collaborate, and connect with one another.  Each week for at least one hour, these professionals employ Twitter as a public synchronous mass communication medium by marking each of their messages with the #sachat hashtag and discussing a predetermined topic of professional interest.

Each Wednesday, student affairs professionals use Twitter to vote on a topic of discussion.  On Thursday, these same professionals discuss this topic (and others) for at least one hour.  These discussions are loosely coordinated and moderated by one user associated with the TheSABloggers.org website.  Although the participants are highly-educated professionals and many of the topics are related to their professional interests, the tone of the discussions is informal and often playful.

Using Twitter for these conversations imposes particular properties and restrictions.  First, Twitter is nominally an asynchronous medium; by collectively participating at a prearranged time, these users are effectively using Twitter as if it were synchronous.  Second, to coordinate all of their discussions, including the voting and discussion outside of the established hours, participants must include in their messages the phrase “#sachat.”  This phrase – a Twitter “hashtag” – allows Twitter users to search for and categorize these messages.  Third, Twitter restricts messages to 140 characters.  Finally, although Twitter users can address particular users in their messages there is no threading or other advanced addressing functionality.

Since this class is focused on computer-mediated discourse, I’ll be analyzing patterns in these online conversations in terms of features such as participation, message complexity, speech acts, topic development, and politeness. I’m initially focusing on the discussion that occurred on January 21 so I can learn and begin to understand these methods used in discourse analysis.  Later in the semester, I’ll expand my analysis to also include January 14 and January 28 (daytime only; I can’t seem to locate an archive of the evening conversation) for my final paper in this class.  Eventually I would like to expand the analysis to include more discussions and to include content analysis in addition to discourse analysis so I can write a fully-formed paper for publication or presentation (I’m thinking maybe AERA 2011 if I can meet their submission deadline in late summer).

I am interested in conducting this research not because it focuses on Twitter but because it focuses on a grassroots community that has found a unique way to connect and communicate with one another.  It’s especially interesting because their method of communication is free and this is a time of financial stress with reductions to or eliminations of professional development budgets prominent at many institutions.

Many of the methods I’ll be using have been pioneered or extensively used by Susan Herring.  It’s terribly exciting to learn from and with her as she is probably the world’s foremost expert in these methods!  This is the second class I’ve taken with her and it’s a lot of fun to learn from someone who not only intimately knows the topic but is also still really excited about it and super supportive of new, young researchers.

If any #sachat participants have questions, concerns, or suggestions, please share them with me!  Although the data are all publicly-available, I will be using pseudonyms in all of my public presentations and papers so hopefully that will allay any privacy concerns.  Additionally, I imagine that I’ll eventually file an IRB amendment so I can officially talk to you about your experiences and opinions (because a study on this topic seems incomplete without actually talking to the participants).  But in the meantime I’m definitely open to informal discussion, especially if you have concerns about this research.

(And can someone throw a link to this post out there in Twitter and tag it with #sachat?  I would do so myself but I am trying to retain some distance as I study this phenomenon.  More importantly, I just don’t have time right now to jump into Twitter, at least not this month as I prepare for quals and begin preliminary work on my dissertation.  There are only so many hours in the day…)

Student Engagement and Technology

This post is a rehearsal of part of a presentation in which I’m participating in a few weeks at ELI.  The presentation is entitled “Using NSSE and FSSE to link technology to student learning and engagement” and I’ll be giving it with one my colleagues here at Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, Amy Garver.

The relationship between student engagement and technology is a hot topic right now.  The current issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly focuses on this relationship.  Both the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) have focused on technology.  NSSE most recently published technology-related findings in 2008 and 2009 Annual Results (CCSSE followed suit in 2009) but we’ve poked at this topic several times in the past ten years.

In general, every time we’ve examined this relationship we find it to be positive.  The relationship isn’t always terribly strong but it’s positive and significant*.  More importantly, this relationship appears to persist no matter what we throw into the mix.  We’ve tried many different things (“controls”) to see if there is something tricky going on, such as a complex relationship with other variables.  For example, it’s possible that students from more affluent backgrounds both use technology more often and score higher on our measurements of engagement because they had better schooling.  But that doesn’t appear to be the case.  At the moment, however, it appears simply that “technology is good.”

That conclusion is neither satisfying nor likely.  It’s not satisfying because it seems very shallow and not at all explanatory (e.g. it doesn’t tell us what it is about “technology” that encourages more engagement and better learning).  It’s not likely because several decades of research has told us that it doesn’t matter which medium we use to deliver education (Clark, Yates, Early, & Moulton (2009), available as a pre-print, is an excellent overview of this body of research).

So if we don’t accept the overly-simple statement that “technology is good,” what do we do?  We did two things.  First, we focused on some specific technologies so we could move beyond broad conceptions of technology and look at some tools currently in use.  Despite the excellent research that tells us that technology itself should not have an impact, we must keep an open mind and explore that possibility, especially as technology advances and becomes more complex and ubiquitous.  Second, we asked faculty participating in the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) a nearly identical set of questions as we were asking the students participating in NSSE in the spring of 2009.  We even convinced 18 institutions to administer both sets of questions!  We wanted to draw faculty directly into the mix because the most likely explanation for our repeated finding of “technology is good” is that use of technology is associated with good teaching.  (That hypothesis also seemed to tentatively arise from one of our studies of distance learners, a study that didn’t seem to do much to cut through the clutter despite using sophisticated methodology.)

We presented some of our results at POD’s 2009 conference in Houston.  As mentioned above, we’ll be presenting some more at ELI’s 2010 conference in Austin.  And we’ll be presenting again at AIR in Chicago in a few months.  These are all different presentations focusing on different aspects of our data.  And there is still data we haven’t yet analyzed and presented!

I’m sorry that I haven’t give you any answers in this blog post.  We’re still working to find them and so far it’s been devilishly difficult.  It’s probably hard for us because our tools – voluntary, self-administered surveys administered to massively large groups of students and faculty – are blunt objects with limited capabilities.  And every answer we find raises more questions.  But it’s clear that there is positive relationship between student use of technology and student engagement, even if the relationship is more complex than it appears on the surface.

* – Statistical significance is tricky for us.  Our data sets are enormously large and since significance is sensitive to sample size a whole lot of things are significant.  So we often turn to other measures such as effect size and other contextual indicators to make sense of our data.

Just Released: EDUCAUSE Research and Implemention of Copyright Education Laws

Three documents have been released over the past couple of days that are important and interesting:

  • The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 is the latest report from EDUCAUSE’s research arm focusing on undergraduate students and their use and perceptions of technology.  It’s always a well-done study and EDUCAUSE makes the full study (2.7 MB pdf) freely available to everyone so you should take a few minutes to glance over at least the Key Findings (330 KB pdf).
  • The EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Fiscal Year 2008 Summary Report is another report released by EDUCAUSE this week.  As the name implies, it’s a summary of results from the last round of data collection in the Core Data Service, EDUCAUSE’s database of educational technology information.  This document is one of the best (and often the only) publicly-available empirical source of information on technology in higher education, particularly if you’re looking for campus-based statistics such as how much money is spent on technology, how many people are employed to support it, and what kinds of practices and technologies are being used.
  • The Department of Education has released its final rules (2.12 MB pdf; search for “copyright” to find the specific areas of interest) specifying how to interpret the laws passed this summer requiring (Title IV-participating) colleges and universities to actively combat online copyright infringement.  At first glance, the final rules do not appear to differ from the proposed rules.

I hope to find time to dig into all three of these documents in the next couple of days.  I recommend that you do the same.

Facebook and Grades: A More Critical Perspective

A real Facebook

Discussion about the possible relationship between college students’ use of Facebook and lower grades continued this week with the publication of a First Monday article addressing this topic.  This article follows up on previous discussions that followed the widespread publicity surrounding a poster session presented at AERA that found a correlation between Facebook usage and lower grades. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the research and related discussions have shed more light on this topic.  But it sure has been exciting to watch how quickly it’s all happened!

The discussions have followed two general threads: (a) the AERA research was poorly done and (b) the media got the story wrong. I’ll address the first thread in detail below.  The second thread has been relatively short-lived as there isn’t any real disagreement that many reporters and editors leaped (without looking, thinking, or corroberating) from “there appears to be a link between Facebook usage and low grades in this small sample of this very limited study” to “Facebook causes bad grades!!!”  That’s irresponsible and everyone agrees on that point.  There is also a third thread that focuses on “I can’t believe this is true but I don’t have any evidence!” but it’s not worth wasting any time on those ill-informed opinions.

In general, most of the current research into Facebook usage seems to lack sophistication (and much lacks rigor; how many of the articles based on surveys discuss or even hint at validity or reliability?). The researchers behind the poster session and this First Monday article both rightly acknowledge that they are discussing correlation but there is a whole lot going on that they don’t acknowledge or can’t account for with their selected (or mandated) methodologies and data.  In trying to understand college students, we go to great lengths at the shop where I work to isolate and separate the influence of different variables and we struggle with this mightily.  In many instances, we have to employ relatively-sophisticated analyses such as multilevel modeling to adequately control for different variables, particularly the institution-level and student-level variables.  In fact, I don’t recall seeing any mention of institution-level influences in any of the currently-available research even beyond this poster session and article (of course, one can’t do anything about this if one’s sample is only drawn from a handful of institutions, another significant limitation of nearly all Facebook research). I acknowledge that institution-level influences only account for a small proportion of the variance among most of the things we measure but omitting measurement and discussion of institutional characteristiscs altogether seems to indicate a lack of theoretical and methodological sophistication. To put it bluntly, this is the kind of thing that many non-higher education researchers often miss as it simply isn’t their area of expertise and why higher ed scholars desparately need to be actively contributing to this conversation.

What most people want to see is not correlation but causation.  In other words, we want to be able to say that (the use of ) Facebook causes lower grades.  That’s a damn hard claim to make.  Even under the best circumstances, establishing causation is fiendishly difficult.  It would require sophisticated measures and analyses. Given the previously-mentioned lack of sophistication in most of these studies I don’t know that these researchers collected the right kinds of data to even begin to do the work necessary to establish causation.  Frankly, I think it’s so complicated and the analysis would be so fragile and fraught with assumptions and caveats that it’s a fool’s errand.

Let me illustrate this with an example drawn from the work done by folks with whom I work.  We know, from several years of repeated data collection and analysis by different researchers, that more frequent use of technology is strongly associated with higher levels of student engagement.* But even with all of the data we have collected, the rigor of our data collection methods, and the sophistication of our analyses, we haven’t yet figured out what exactly causes these measures to be correlated.  In other words, although we know that students who frequently use technology do better in many different ways we don’t know why that happens.  There are many different possibilities but even after 10 years of poking at this we don’t have any explanations upon which we can hang our hat and say, “That’s it – that’s why!”

It’s interesting and instructive to read not only the First Monday article, the response from the AERA poster session author, and the response from the FM authors.  I am hopeful that we will see more sophisticated and better planned research and I am more hopeful that this will occur if those who are most knowledgeable of college students and American higher education continue working and contributing to this discussion.

* In the context of this discussion I must emphasize that although we do ask students about their grades our focus is almost always much wider than just that one measure; in fact, we see broadening discussions of educational quality beyond simple measures such as grades or rankings as one of our primary missions.  I also add that we typically don’t specifically ask in any of our surveys about SNS use.  We do have a set of experimental questions out right now that asks about this but if I recall correctly the question is limited to communication about academic issues as we’re exploring how students and faculty communicate and collaborate.  Our colleagues at UCLA have explored this general issue, however, and it’s worth looking at their work if you haven’t already done so.

Response to Student Affairs On-Line Letter to the Editor

In the current issue of Student Affairs On-Line, Frank Christ wrote a Letter to the Editor responding to my Summer 2008 article “Exploding a Myth: Student Affairs’ Historical Relationship with Technology.”  I’m writing my response here rather than printing it in Student Affairs On-Line as (a) such a response would take many months to be published and (b) I can use this as a springboard to discuss other interesting issues.

If I understand Frank’s letter correctly, he is pointing out some resources from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that  describe student affairs’ use of technology during those years. Rather than in any way refuting my main point, these documents provide further evidence supporting my main point: student affairs staff made regular and often innovative use of technology throughout the 20th century. The documents and events described by Frank are valuable additions to our collective bank of resources and knowledge and it’s wonderful that he has described them for us!

I add two additional comments, one in response to Frank’s letter and one more general in nature. First, it’s not at all surprising or unusual that these particular sources were not included in my original article. Logistically, it sounds as if some of these documents are a bit off-the-beaten-path, particularly for research that was physically conducted in the Midwest (I’m at Indiana University and the bulk of this research was conducted at the National Student Affairs Archive in Bowling Green, Ohio). In addition, all researchers must place realistic and workable limits on their research. In historical research, this means that we specify from which documents and sources we are going to pull information when we tell our story. In this instance, I am satisfied with the sources selected to best tell this story (ACPA and NASPA conference proceedings and journal articles); there are certainly additional sources that could be added (I would particularly like to get into the conference proceedings for the Association Personnel and Guidance Association (APGA), the umbrella organization to which ACPA belonged for several decades) but I have to place limitations on the sources used if I am to make sense of them. In other words, I can only ready and synthesize so much and I must select my sources and use my time wisely. Of course, if there were sources that could really change, shape, or inform the story then I would be remiss to not include them even if they were not originally on my radar!  Based on the available evidence, I don’t think this is the case here as these documents seem to fully support the story as I already understand it.

Second, it’s also useful to know a little bit about the impetus for my article and the context in which it was published. For scholars, it’s often useful for us to “put our mark” on topics on which we are actively working to let others know what we’re doing and in what topics we consider ourselves to be knowledgeable. One of the ways in which we do this is by publishing shorter pieces when we’re not quite ready to publish longer, intensive pieces. In this instance, I was ready to make public that I’m doing this historical work while I continue to work on the longer detailed pieces in which I present my full arguments and supporting evidence. Student Affairs On-Line is not, in my opinion, the right place to publish a fully-developed and lengthy scholarly article but it’s a great place to publish shorter, more informal pieces. And one consequence of this being a shorter less formal piece is that I did not present all of my arguments and evidence; it’s a careful balance to present enough to be interesting, engaging, and accurate without going too far and making the piece too intricate and detailed for the medium and the stage at which I’m at with the research.

2008 ResNet Survey Results Released

Yesterday, my colleagues and I posted the following message to several higher education IT support listservs:

Earlier this year, the ResNet Applied Research Group solicited participation in the 2008 ResNet Survey. This comprehensive survey focused on residential technology support groups, their responsibilities in supporting technologies to residential students, the service issues they addressed, and their organizational structure. Over 100 institutions participated and we are pleased to inform you that we have publicly released data from the survey at http://resnetsymposium.org/wiki/index.php/RARG:2008_ResNet_Survey.
We are profoundly grateful to those who participated and we look forward to answering any questions you may have as we continue this and related research.

It’s taken us quite a bit longer to release these results that we hoped and anticipated. We’re a tiny (3-person) volunteer group so when life and work call it’s easy for our research projects to become lower priorities. And we have other things going on, too, within the group.

Despite releasing data from most of the survey, we still have some work to do with the open-ended questions. Making sense of that data is more involved than tossing data into SPSS and running some calculations. We’ve done some of that work but have more to do.

Responding to and Expanding on “Exploding a Myth” StudentAffairs.com article

In the current issue of Student Affairs Online, I have an article titled “Exploding a Myth: Student Affairs’ Historical Relationship with Technology.” The contents and premise of the article should not be a surprise to anyone who is reading this blog. I’m very appreciative to Stu Brown, StudentAffairs.com’s head honcho, for inviting me to publish a regular article in Student Affairs Online.

I’d like to 2 points make about the article recently published:

  1. Del Suggs pointed out to me that I made at least one mistake in the article. In the article I write:

    Radio has also seen use as an civic engagement tool as demonstrated by a program hosted by Furman University’s Dean of Women where women students were given explicit permission to “stay up late” to watch and listen to returns from the 1970 presidential election (Furman University, 1970).

    Del correctly notes that “there was no presidential election in 1970, at least not in the United States. The election of 1968 pitted Richard Nixon against Hubert Humphrey, and the election of 1972 was Richard Nixon against George McGovern.”

    Guilty as charged, Del; that is definitely a mistake on my part. The document was in a folder labeled “1970” but the document itself is not necessarily from that year. The document explicitly says that the event was held on Tuesday, November 7, which seems to point to it actually being from 1972, and I should have caught that. The joy of working with undated primary sources, eh?

  2. In the article I also write:

    Many campuses began student-operated radio stations in the late 1940s but these stations were typically associated with academic units, primarily electrical engineering or broadcasting and journalism programs (Bryant, 1981).

    As I continue my research, I am becoming less sure of this conclusion. I’m not yet sure if I am running into a difficulty caused by a gap in the existing literature or merely my own ignorance. What is causing me to become unsure of this conclusion is that I have come across a number of documents from the 1960s and 1970s that indicate that, at least on some campuses, the student government organizations in residence halls played significant roles in creating and funding student-run radio stations.

    In the 1960s, students at several institutions began radio stations, typically serving only one residence hall by transmitting over the electrical wiring (“carrier current”), including the University of Missouri (NACURH, 1963), Kansas State University (NACURH, 1966), Long Beach State College (NACURH, 1965), the University of Missouri-Columbia (NACURH, 1974). The radio station begun in the residence halls at the University of Missouri-Columbia later became “the first totally student owned and operated FM station in the country” (p. 4, NACURH, 1997).

    These radio stations were owned and funded by student groups or associations (often the Residence Hall Association) and run during limited hours. These stations were described by students as important parts of their communication strategies (NACURH, 1965). A 1966 report of a NACURH group discussion of radio stations in residence halls concluded that “[radio stations] could be an excellent way of improving communication and publicity on residence hall projects and people” (p. 1, NACURH, 1966). At least one institution, Georgia Institute of Technology, began using sub-carrier and carrier current radio in residence halls in 1978, ostensibly with an academic focus (“any student who can afford an AM radio can have a language lab in his own Residence Hall room” (p. 3, NACURH, 1978)).

The work in these areas – student-used technologies in residence halls and the broader topic of student affairs’ relationship with technology – continues. The documents referenced in this post and in the article illustrate one approach I am taking to get at these topics. Right now, much of my work in these areas is focused on locating and analyzing primary historical documents located in various archives. The NACURH documents referenced above are one particularly rich as they are all student-written documents and I haven’t found many of those in the traditional archives I’ve visited.


References

Brant, B. G. (1981). The college radio handbook. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: TAB Books.

Furman University. (1970). Potpourri [newsletter]. Greenville, SC: Furman University. Furman University Special Collections and Archives, Assistance Vice President for Student Affairs 1974 & Before, Box 1, Communications with Student 1970 folder.

NACURH. (1963). Residence hall communication at the University of Missouri. NACURH Nation Information Center document 63.41. National Student Affairs Archives. NACURH box, folder 6-89 Radio Station.

NACURH. (1965). Communications – Where & why do they break down. NACURH National Information Center document 65.37. Bowling Green State University Center for Archival Collections National Student Affairs Archives. NACURH box, folder 6-11 RH Communication.

NACURH. (1966). Group discussion report: The campus radio station and the residence hall. NACURH National Information Center document 66.22. Bowling Green State University Center for Archival Collections National Student Affairs Archives. NACURH box, folder 6-11 RH Communication.

NACURH. (1974). KCOU 88.3 FM. NACURH National Information Center document N25G-74-006-02.

NACURH. (1978). Uses of sub-carrier radio in residence hall. NACURH National Information Center document N25G-78-003-04.

NACURH. (1997). KCOU and RHA – How poor communications helped members re-evaluate their needs University of Missouri-Columbia 22 May 1997. NACURH National Information Center N16-181.

Collecting Historical Evidence

I’m doing at least three things with this blog post:

  1. Participating in the NASPA Tech Tools program that asks participants to try out Flickr by creating an account and uploading a photo.
  2. Discussing my current research.
  3. Providing some hard-to-find information about the use of a digital camera and a copy stand to copy historical documents.

Flickr photo of a portable copy standThis is a photo of my new portable copy stand. The photo was uploaded to Flickr and it tagged with NASPATechTools; I hope others participating in the Tech Tools program will follow suit and upload some interesting photos.

This device is a copy stand. I would have liked to take the photo with the camera attached to the stand but I had to use the camera to take the photo. The stand that allows me to attach my new camera so the lens faces downwards. Why would I want to do that? The answer lies in the name of the stand – copy stand. I place documents on the table below the camera and take high quality photos of them. More on the specifics in a bit.

But let’s ask “why would I want to do that?” again: Why would I want a portable copy stand?  It’s so I can more easily and quickly conduct some of my current research. I have two strands of research that both focus on locating and analyzing the contents of historical documents. First, I am aiming to discover how American student affairs professionals have used and related to various technologies throughout the history of the profession. One way I’m doing that is by looking through documents in the National Student Affairs Archive at Bowling Green State University. Those documents include program guides from ACPA and NASPA conferences going back to the 1930s and other documents from those organizations related to technology. Second, I am continuing my research into student-used communications and entertainment technologies in American residence halls. To do that, I’m looking through various documents (building design specifications, housing regulations, meeting minutes, etc.) in Bowling Green’s university archives.

If I didn’t have a camera or if the wonderful people at Bowling Green were not letting me use it then I would be (a) carefully poring over each document to fully ingest it, (b) taking many, many notes, and (c) asking the archives staff to copy (probably for a fee) many, many documents. By using my camera to copy documents, I can work much more quickly and, in the long run, cheaply (since I don’t have to pay for copies). I still have to read everything but I am very liberal with what I copy since it’s quick and cheap. Of course, when I say “copy” here I mean “copy for personal research use.” These documents and photos are still copyrighted so I still need to seek permission before I can use these documents for some purposes.

The specific camera I am using is a Canon Powershot S5 IS. I could probably use a cheaper camera but I am very ignorant of photography. One reason I like this camera is that flash must be physically flipped up before it will work. That means that I can’t accidentally forget to turn the flash off before using it to take photos of old documents. Just as important, like many Canon cameras this one came with a USB cable and software that allows me to control the camera using my laptop. Among other things, that eliminates any possibility of me jiggling the camera when I press the button to take photos. The software also automatically sends the photos to my laptop so I can take as many as my hard drive will hold.

It’s not a perfect system. First, being unable to use a flash or external lights means that I am forced to rely on the light in the room. Second, I haven’t begun to figure out all of the settings and options and I know there is some automatic setting that is fouling up the color of the document photos. That’s okay because (a) I can correct that afterwards and (b) it’s not important to get the color correct when I just want to copy a text document.

Sample image from ACPA 1935 Annual Meeting ReportThe image to the right is a sample image. It’s a page from the Report of the Twelfth Annual Meeting of the American College Personnel Association; the meeting was held in Atlantic City on February 20-24, 1935. You can click on the image to view it full size. The only edit I made to this image was to rotate it 180 degrees and crop it. You can’t see the discoloration that I think is being introduced by some automatic setting in the software in this particular image as the pages in this book are already very yellowed with age.  But you can see the quality of the image and how it compares to a photocopy or scan.

With respect to content, this document is of interest to me because of the presentation of original research by AT&T. There are several examples in the early ACPA conferences where representatives from giant corporations – AT&T, General Electric, Westinghouse, and American Steel – gave presentations or read papers. I don’t yet know what to make of those presentations and papers. And that is part of the point: Because it was quick, easy, and cheap, I was able to copy this document so I and file it away so I can read it over in more detail later and continue to think about it and process what it might mean. Without my camera, I would have to weigh whether it would be worth the cost and time to either take very detailed notes or request this document be copied.

I’m finding all sorts of cool things in the National Student Affairs Archives: technology-related presentations from the early 1960s, ACPA and NASPA task forces and ad hoc organizations formed to analyze technology and dissolved within the space of a few years, and the sad story of a comprehensive student affairs information database system jointly created and funded (and then killed) by ACPA and NASPA in the early 1980s. I look forward to being able to digest all of this, make sense of it, and share it with everyone.

Resident Students’ Communications and Entertainment Technologies: From Communal to Personal (And Back Again?)

My biggest project during my first semester at Indiana University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs PhD program was a research project focusing on the history of student-used communications and entertainment technologies in the IU residence halls throughout the 20th century. I relied almost exclusively on archived historical materials, including memos to and from various administrators, strategic plans (and drafts of those plans), student and popular media reports, and meeting minutes. Although my initial hope was to document not only what technologies were used but also why those technologies were introduced and maintained, the second question (“Why?”) proved to be difficult and elusive. Nonetheless, it was exciting and interesting and I was able to draw some relatively sound conclusions.

First, there is no unifying force or explanation to explain or account for the adoption of every technology. Although I expected to find a strong thread of consumerism and competition driving the adoption of most or all of the technologies, an expectation shared by prominent education historian John Thelin (in response to a query posted on my behalf to a historian listserv by IU professor Andrea Walton), those do not appear to have been significant driving forces. This may be explained by the lack of meaningful competitive pressure felt by a service that IU students were forced to fund (even today, first-year IU students are required to live on campus). Moreover, each technology has a unique history. Telephones and buzzers were initially installed almost exclusively as convenient communications devices. Their popularity and widespread presence throughout Indiana and America seems to have been the primary driving force in expanding telephone access in the residence halls and there is little evidence that students regularly demanded the continued expansion of telephone-related services and access. Radios and record players were originally furnished by the university as they could only be used in common spaces. They were integral parts of communal and social activities, roles that were gradually assumed by television and other activities and media. Computers and computer networks were explicitly introduced in large part to address computer literacy and provide residents with access to academic technologies.

Second, and more interestingly, is the pervasive trend common among all of these technologies that their origination in the IU residence halls as a shared resource in a common space was followed by a move into the individual rooms as private ownership of the technologies become more affordable and common among residents. In other words, each of the technologies either migrated from a shared communal location and experience to a more private and personal one.  In many cases, the technology initially played an important role in the communal social life and activities of the residents. Telephones were initially placed in lounges and hallways while residents were reminded to keep their calls short out of consideration of others that may be disturbed by the conversation or need to make a phone call. Radios and record players began as furnishings in lounges and significant social events were organized around them. Televisions were only allowed in specified common lounges, sometimes advertised as “TV rooms.” Computers were available only in clusters.

Each of these technologies, however, moved into individual residence hall rooms and shifted from enablers of communal activities and gatherings to more private and personal uses. Telephones migrated from hallways to suites and eventually were installed in each individual room. As newer residence halls were constructed with more modern electrical systems, radios, record players, and televisions were permitted in individual rooms. The university even made provisions to assist residents in obtaining good reception with the television sets as indicated by the drama surrounding external antenna that culminated in cable television in each room. Even before networking equipment was installed, computers quickly moved out of the clusters and into individual rooms as microcomputers became powerful and commonplace. Although vestiges of each of these technologies remained outside the rooms, the migration of these technologies into the individual rooms mirrors a more general trend towards more personal space and more individual amenities as well as a decreasing cost for once-expensive technologies.

This semester, I am pursuing independent study under the supervision of Andrea Walton in which I will seek to expand on the finding that these technologies historically began as shared communal resources and have migrated to personal ones. In particular, I need to expand my research to encompass:

  1. Other American universities and colleges.  I need to know if these findings are unique to IU. I strongly suspect that the history is similar at many institutions that were large and resourceful enough to remain technologically advanced. However, I also suspect that at institutions that could not or did not “keep up” found that simply “keeping up” and meeting demand, driven in part by institutions like IU and in part by larger American societal and cultural expectations, became a large part of their motivation for employing these technologies. This will not be an easy task as I do not expect these topics to be covered in any detail, or at all, in the available histories of most institutions. I hope to explore the history of the professional housing officers’ association ACUHO-I, particularly its publications, IT committee, and the titles and abstracts of presentations at its conferences.
  2. University and college operations other than housing and residence life. I’m not sure how this will pan out but I feel it would be helpful to look beyond this one operational area. I am not hopeful as I am already working in this direction and so far I am finding virtually nothing about students’ non-curricular use of technology until the 1980s when computers really entered the picture. There is material in the student affairs literature addressing use of technology dating back to at least the 1960s but much of the literature I have located concentrates on administrative uses and not students’. There is some that addresses the use of technology in training student employees and some that addresses the use of telephones and computers in counseling (of both the career and the psychological kind). The best source for this kind of info may be the titles and abstracts of the programs and presentations presented at the large national conferences, particularly ACPA and NASPA, as they have been active for many decades.
  3. American life off campus and outside of academia. I suspect the trends I identified at IU reflect larger societal shifts as these technologies moved from the living rooms of the wealthy to the bedrooms, kitchens, and dens of nearly every American household. Many of the forces that allowed or encouraged this to happen in the IU residence halls such as declining costs, increased familiarity, and general cultural expectations, also played out in American homes. I hope this will be the easiest lead to follow as I expect and hope to find a significant number of secondary and tertiary sources on this topic unlike the other two topics which will likely consist of some secondary sources and a whole lot of primary sources.

I should have something interesting to say to a much larger audience if I can expand my IU-specific research along those three paths.

One thing I may not be able to say or that I will need to say in a different manner is that it seems that for at least some of these technologies, particularly telephones and computers, the trend away from communal use to personal use is now taking a path to a different kind of communal use. This may be even more true as those two previously-disparate technologies continue to converge. My original research focused exclusively on the twentieth century so I haven’t yet figured out how to work these thoughts into my research. It will fit in there somewhere…

Finally, I have not figured out where “pure” entertainment technologies such as game systems and lower-tech devices such as pinball machines, ping pong tables, and pool tables fit into all of this. Those technologies have certainly had a historical presence in some residence halls but I don’t yet know how they work into the bigger picture. I don’t even know how widespread they were in residence halls although I know they were in some.  Did they originate primarily as revenue generators? How do the modern game systems differ? They appear to have primarily been introduced, supported, and maintained by students; is this true and how has it affected their impact on students and residence halls? How has the impact of computers changed as gaming on them has changed (a task that probably was not widespread when word processors and dumb terminals ruled the roost)?

And I haven’t even gotten in depth with my budding obsession with the breakup of AT&T, its impact on colleges and universities, and how that ties into the current discussions about network neutrality and telecoms mergers. It seems that I have my work cut out for me this semester!

New SNS Resources and Research: JCMC, OCLC, ENIAS, and Facebook Pages

Several new resources and articles focusing on social network services (SNSs) (Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, etc.) have been recently published or released:

  • A special issue of the Journal for Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC) focused on SNS edited by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison has finally been published. All of the articles are available online for free. Of particular interest to me are “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” by danah boyd and Nicole Ellison and “Whose Space? Differences Among Users and Non-Users of Social Network Sites” by Eszter Hargittai. Hats off to danah and Nicole for pulling this together and seeing the project through to completion!
  • The Online Computer Library Center, better known as OCLC, released the 280-page document “Sharing, Privacy, and Trust in Our Networked World.” Although the report focuses in part on libraries and library directors, it also includes significant sections on (a) User practices and preferences on their favorite social spaces, (b) User attitudes about sharing and receiving information on social spaces, commercial sites, and library sites, and (c) Information privacy: what matters and what doesn’t. The research appears to be largely based on surveys of several thousand individuals from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
  • The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) released the 36-page document “Security Issues and Recommendations for Online Social Networks” (1.8 MB pdf). Contributors to this document include many familiar names for those who have browsed my bibliography: Alessandro Acquisti, Fred Stutzman, Nicole Ellison, and Ralph Gross, among others. While the focus of this document (threats and recommendations) may be slightly different than that of interest to many of you, the perspective is very valuable and many of the issues identified will be familiar. Among the issues addressed are: difficulty of complete account deletion, SNS spam, profile-squatting and reputation slander through ID theft, stalking, and bullying.
  • Karine Joly discusses a new Facebook feature, Facebook Pages, in the context of institutions of higher education seeking to market their institutions and connect with their constituents. Although intended primarily for commercial marketing purposes, Joly sees utility in this tool for higher education. Personally, I am becoming wary and weary of marketing efforts, particularly as they continue to infiltrate our personal lives and spaces. I recognize that much of that infiltration is occurring simply due to the blurring of boundaries between our personal and private lives but that does not make my any more comfortable with some of these developments.  Nor am I comfortable with the commercialization of higher education despite my understanding of the economic and social forces driving it.