National Awareness of a Local Issue

Many people view the Internet as a “disruptive technology.” For many people, that carries a negative connotation. Let’s take a brief look at one current example of this phenomenon.

The issue of privacy for students who live in on-campus residence halls is a familiar issue to most campus administrators. It’s a topic that nearly all student affairs administrators examine though their education and professional development as it makes for a great discussion of both a familiar ethical concept and unfamiliar case law. Another familiar issue that of students who are unhappy with their perceived lack of privacy in the residence halls, particularly when that perceived lack of privacy includes campus law enforcement personnel and their ability (or lack thereof) to patrol residence halls, make arrests, enter students rooms, etc.

Students at UMass at Amherst are unhappy about this issue. Instead of focusing on the legalities of this issue or how the campus is handling it, let’s focus briefly on how these events in Massachusetts are being reported to, noticed by, and discussed by folks from around the country almost in real-time.

This first came to my attention when someone on a discussion forum posted a link to Tuesday’s Boston Globe article. Within minutes, members of that forum read the article and began discussing it (later, updates to the discussion thread included posts from students on the campus and involved in the protests). Similarly, InsideHigherEd’s article from today has also been seen by many people far removed from this one campus, some of whom have left comments or engaged in discussion about the article at the bottom of the InsideHigherEd webpage. It’s to be expected that many who publicly participate in those discussions have very strong opinions but that, too, is not the topic of this discussion (but what a topic it would be!).

The point is that people who have never seen or read a physical copy of the Boston Globe and could not pick our Massachusetts on a map have heard about this incident. I don’t know what impression this incident has left on those people (Rowdy college students hold silly protest? Campus police invade privacy?) but that they have any impression at all of an event that is now occurring on a campus they’ve never visited involving students and administrators they’ve never met is quite remarkable. Without going to Friedman-like extremes and asserting that the world is flat, we can certainly conclude that we’re interconnected in unexpected and often-uncontrollable ways.

And don’t ever think that this is just an issue for your campus public relations or communications department! This specific incident involved policies set by campus police with significant input from housing and student affairs. Other incidents that have gained nationwide attention have focused specifically on other rules, policies, and related actions or reactions by student affairs staff. Just ask the Housing and Residence Life staff at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire or the deans of students involved in the affirmative action brownie sales. Will actions taken by or policies set by you or your staff be the next caught on a cell phone camera, uploaded to YouTube, written about in hundreds of blogs and discussion forums, and discussed by people around the world?

Update: Tom Glocer, CEO of Reuters, said that “there is no more local” in a recent speech discussing the transformation of the media industry and how people get their news. It’s not higher ed-specific but it is a speech well worth reading for those interested in those topics.

Virtual Tours

A few weeks ago, Xingpu Yuan and Mary Madden of the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a memo with the results of a recent survey they conducted about “Virtual Tours.” Although they don’t seem to give a strict definition of “virtual tour,” their data indicate that over half of American Internet users have participated in a virtual tour. They break down their numbers using some demographic variables but there are too many complicating factors to put a lot of weight into the demographic analysis. The authors even specifically mention “colleges and universities” as “areas of personal interest” for which “people are increasingly turning to the internet to get a feel.”

Within student affairs, this may be of the most interest to housing and residence life professionals. I don’t know of any data regarding the prevalence of virtual tours on university websites or as used by various departments on campuses. There do appear to be a sizeable number of institutions offering virtual tours of their entire campus and I also remember seeing several housing departments that offered virtual tours of their residence halls when I researched this topic a few years ago. In my experience, those two “arenas” (the main campus’ web presence and that of the housing department) differ from one another significantly on most campuses are more extensive and focused resources are typically available for the main campus web presence than for an individual department, with a handful of high-profile exceptions such as admisions and donor relations.  I also I imagine that the on-campus housing “market” differs from many other facilities on-campus as operations that are “forced” on students (required housing and meal plans is common on many American campuses, particularly for freshmen) are not necessarily responsive to market forces. In other words, a housing operation that is “guaranteed” occupants each year may not work as hard to advertise their spaces with “extras amenities” like virtual tours. Summer conferences, a (money-making) staple on many campuses, also play a huge role in this but that’s another complex topic altogether with management of and responsibility for those events sometimes resting in odd places or divided among different groups.

This kind of data may also be of interest to others who manage facilities on campus, many of whom are in student affairs. Potential spaces include interviewing space, entertainment venues, meeting spaces, dining spaces, and recreational spaces. As noted above, virtual tours may be of high value for those who manage revenue-generating spaces.

Still, this research seems to be pretty clear: A majority of American users know what virtual tours are and use them. It’s natural to assume that they may come to expect them, too.

ResNet Outsourcing

I’ve recently been thinking about the state of ResNet outsourcing. There is very little data about this topic and it doesn’t seem to come up very often in the ResNet community but it’s out there. Allow me to take you on a brief tour of the available data and my thoughts.

A few recent items have mentioned this topic. Actually, they’ve more generally mentioned IT outsourcing. The first of these is the just-released EDUCAUSE Core Data Service FY2005 Summary. I (briefly) discussed this in my previous post. This document notes that “the use of external suppliers to run a campus IT function appears not to be a common practice overall.” More specifically, only 3.1% of respondents are outsourcing their ResNet. Another recent item that mentions outsourcing is the just-released results of University Business’ Technology Spending Survey 2007. The reported results of this survey are more general but 20% of respondents outsource their “IT Support” and 15% outsource their “Help Desk.” The extent of the outsourcing and other details don’t appear to be available in either of these documents (they’re broad, general surveys; there is no way to construct them to answer the questions or concerns of every niche or specialty).

The EDUCAUSE data are very similar to to the data in the 2005 ResNet Survey. Only 2% of the respondents to that survey indicated that they were, at the time of the survey (spring of 2005), outsourcing their ResNet; an additional 22% have considered or were considering it.

In addition to these surveys, I also recall seeing several EDUCAUSE programs and presentations related to ResNet outsourcing. The vast majority of them, however, are all related to one company: Apogee. While I am, in general, very skeptical of outsourcing ResNet, almost everything that Apogee’s clients have said about Apogee has been very positive. While it doesn’t appear that Apogee has a large number of clients, some of them are very large and significant (University of Texas (see clarification below in Update 3) and Florida State University). Their list of clients is certainly larger than I remembered it from the last time I looked into this issue and this company and they appear, from my outsider’s perspective, to be experiencing some level of success.

So that’s the trail that I followed when trying to figure out the current state of ResNet outsourcing. If I wanted to be even more thorough, I would search the archives of the ResNet listserv and perhaps post a message asking for help, insight, or input. I monitor that list pretty carefully and have been doing so for several years and thus consider such a search unnecessary for this brief, non-scholarly overview.

I don’t care to go into a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of ResNet outsourcing. As mentioned above, many of my colleagues who have actually pursued this option appear to be pretty pleased with their decision. I’m sure that of the 4,000+ institutions of higher education in the United States nearly every possible decision is the right decision for some of those institutions. I am wary of surrendering the incredible (but often untapped) educational value of an institutionally-run ResNet program, including the student employment and leadership opportunities possible through a well-run ResNet program. On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to those institutions whose priorities differ and who do not have or care to dedicate the resources to maintain a ResNet.

Please accept my apologies for not being able to give you a succinct, well-written, and well-researched discussion of the causes, effects, and viability of outsourcing your ResNet. As a ResNet researcher, I am acutely aware of the dearth of data in this area. I am also aware of the immense variety among American institutions of higher education. Without a significant amount of data, attempting to generalize the few focused, single-institution discussions to every institution appears to be very foolhardy and unwise. We have quite a bit more work to do in conducting descriptive research before we can think of making prescriptions.

Update: The Chronicle has a short article about the perceived increase in IT outsourcing based on data from the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service and the Campus Computing Project (a survey I did not mention as it (a) doesn’t really have much ResNet- or student affairs-specific material and (b) has only a brief executive summary with the rest of the data reserved for paying customers). The Chronicle article isn’t bad for what it is but some of the numbers are pretty small and do I have to wonder about statistical significance as the article does appear to be trying to extrapolate these surveys’ findings onto the entire population. But the gist of the article – outsourcing is slowly increasing – appears to be correct, in general.

Update 2: InsideHigherEd also mentioned the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service and the perceived increase in outsourcing. I’m puzzled why a topic that is only briefly mentioned with no fanfare a handful of times in a 121 page document is attracting so much attention (relatively speaking).

Update 3: William C. Green, Director of Networking at the University of Texas at Austin, asked me to clarify his institution’s relationship with Apogee: “The University of Texas at Austin residence network is provided by university.  It is not now, nor has it ever been, outsourced to Apogee….Apogee does provide services to off campus private dorms and apartments.  And at one point had a contract to market that service through the university.”  Thanks for the clarification William!

NASPA Technology Knowledge Community

Earlier this week, NASPA approved a new Technology Knowledge Community. Within NASPA, Knowledge Communities are self-organized groups dedicated to particular topics or areas of knowledge. Knowledge Communities gain access to NASPA resources such as webspace, listservs, and limited funding for educational programs and resources. Apparently there was previously a Technology Knowledge Community but it folded after a few years after struggling to define itself and its focus. Leslie Dare published an article in Student Affairs On-Line entitled “Technology in Student Affairs: Seeking Knowledge, Craving Community” describing the previous NASPA Technology Knowledge Community and the need for it to be revived and reinstated. Several NASPA members, including myself, contacted Leslie after reading the article to offer our assistance. We recently organized ourselves, formalized our proposal, and submitted it to NASPA.

The NASPA Board of Directors unanimously approved our proposal during their December meeting. Leslie and I are co-chairing the Knowledge Community and busily trying to organize the rest of the leadership. Putting together the leadership team is a rather bureacratic process involving many people from across the nation; I’m sure it works once it’s in place but it’s a bear to get set up initially.

We’ll likely have an open meeting at the 2007 ACPA/NASPA Joint Meeting in Orlando among other opportunities to publicize this new group. I don’t think we’ll have trouble attracting interest or members but we must carefully define our scope and define our focus lest we suffer the same fate as the previous Technology Knowledge Community. We’ve got some ideas on how to do that but we don’t have much time before the Joint Meeting to get those ideas rolling.  I’m really eager to get past these initial steps so that we can to the business at hand and use NASPA’s resources to collaborate with one another on common challenges and interests involving student affairs and technology.

EDUCAUSE Core Data Service FY2005 Summary Released

EDUCAUSE’s Core Data Service is the premiere source of data for and about information technology in higher education. Their very-cool web interface that allows you to generate custom reports is only available to those who submit data for each institution but each year they release an Summary Report chock full of details and tables. The fiscal year 2005 Summary Report has just been released. It’s not exactly the kind of material you print out and read for fun (unless you’re a higher ed IT geek – like me!) but it’s a fantastic resource to which one can periodically refer as it’s often the best or only source of data for many of the statistics it catalogs.

There is (literally) no mention of student affairs or even student services in this summary. That’s okay – it’s a focused document with voluminous document about IT services, support, funding, staffing, infrastructure, and other IT-related topics.

There is, however, mention of a few topics that overlap with student affairs or student affairs concerns. The most prominent of these are:

  • Legal online entertainment services (Ruckus, Cdigix, etc.), perceived by many as an answer to the challenges posed by accusations that students are engaged in widespread copyright infringement, rose again in prominence on this year’s survey. The authors of this summary note that while the absolute number of respondents employing these services is low (8% of all respondents), that is nearly twice the number as last year. That’s also a pretty significant uptake of a relatively new class of services. Also of note is that the percentage of respondents classified as doctoral institutions who replied that they are employing a service is much higher than the other types of institutions. Based on previous research in which I have participated on this very topic, I hypothesize that the larger research institutions are the ones who (a) perceive that they are the more likely targets of lawsuits and pressure to “do something” about this perceived problem and (b) have the resources (money, staff, infrastructure, etc.) to dedicate to fielding a potential solution.
  • Several questions were specifically asked about residential computer networks. The index lists these for ease of reference although a few areas in which questions about residential networks and residence halls were asked are not listed in the index (e.g. the brief wireless section makes a mention of residence halls and the relative paucity of wireless access in them). None of the questions asked specifically about ResNet are surprising to those knowledgeable in this area. I have had not yet had time to make a thorough comparison of the results of this survey with current and recent ResNet-specific research but there are definitely several areas where the research overlaps. The most prominent of these were the questions dealing with security, particularly those about required software and network authentication. As a ResNet researcher, I am very surprised that this is the first year that EDUCAUSE has asked in the CDS about network authentication as it’s been an active area of development and deployment in residential computer networks for many years now (likely over a decade but I don’t have a reference available to clarify this point – anyone know when NetReg was first developed and deployed? It was certainly some time in the mid ’90s.).

Like other important and foundational research, this is not necessarily exciting stuff. But it’s critical and when you need it there is no substitute. It’s worth glancing at to become familiar with the kind of information that is available. If you’re interested in conducting research, it’s also worth looking at to see what kind of information is not available.

Speech codes

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently released a report entitled “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on our Nation’s Campuses.” The data that underlie this report come from a FIRE survey of “over 330 schools” with findings that “an overwhelming majority…explicitly prohibit speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” FIRE is careful to note that private institutions are not typically beholden to the Constitution but usually claim similar protections or values and thus are effectively held to similar legal and ethical standards. Interestingly (and, to some, controversially), they also exclude from their analysis institutions that explicitly state that they do not assure unlimited free speech or academic freedom to their students, faculty, and staff.

Without addressing whether the claims made by FIRE are correct, there are definitely some ties between technology and speech codes. Whether they are legal or ethical, speech codes or similar policies most certainly do apply to messages communicated via electronic means. By some measure, this is actually good news as it seems logical and fair that messages communicated via electronic media be treated similar to messages communicated via any other media; that the message in question should not be prohibited regardless of the media used to communicate it is another issue altogether.

The really interesting part is when prohibitions or restraints are extended to or created specifically for messages communicated via electronic media. Over a year ago, Fisher College expelled a student for “conspir[ing] to and [sic] damag[ing] the reputation” of a police officer after the student wrote disparaging remarks in Facebook. According to Erik Brady and Daniel Libit’s March USA Today article, Florida State University and the University of Kentucky “issued ultimatums to their athletes to be careful what they post” (good) but Loyola University banned athletes from joining Facebook (bad). According to a press release and other documents distributed by FIRE, a University of Central Florida student was charged with (but found “Not In Violation” of) harassment through “personal abuse” for creating a Facebook group entitled “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.”

I understand the perceived-dilemma posed by wanting to preserve free speech and academic freedom while also maintaining an open, collegial, and welcoming community. However, I often worry that my friends and colleagues in student affairs place too much emphasis on trying to protect their students and communities from “dangerous” or “bad” speech, even speech that occurs off campus or online. Their heart is in the right place but their actions are misguided. You can’t fight hatred or intolerance by banning it, even if technology seems to give you the tools to do so. Education is the answer; we know that, it’s our business. Rather, we should know that. We forget sometimes and even when we find them annoying or believe them to be wrong it’s great that organizations like FIRE exist to help remind us of some of our responsibilities.

Successful podcasts for Student Affairs?

If we podcast, do they listen? Brock Read of the Chronicle recently touched on this topic when he mentioned a recent Business Week article and a Chronicle article both detailing some research and statistics about podcasts and how people listen to them (much of the data in the Business Week article comes from a recent Pew Internet & American Life Project study – if you’re not familiar with the Pew Internet & American Life Project then you need so spend some time on their website as they do very exciting, up-to-date, and important research about Internet use). More accurately, the articles are about how people don’t listen to podcasts. While the number of people downloading and listening to podcasts has increased significantly we must carefully consider the potential costs and benefits before committing to this new technology.

For me, this has come to my mind as my institution works to implement a new web support team. Our content management system supports podcasting. But do we need to immediately utilize this technology? If so, in what areas? Let’s stick to the topic of this blog by focusing on student affairs.

In my experience, the utility of podcasts is greatest for those who travel and thus have time on their hands as they commute. As my current campus is 100% residential, our students don’t do much commuting. Even most of our staff don’t seem to commute very far. That’s why I don’t own a new mp3 player – when would I listen to it? I know that many of our students own mp3 players and listen to them often (you can’t help but see the white iPod earbuds stuck in their ears, especially in the library while they are studying). So of course to bring this discussion home to my campus we would need to talk to our students and find out what they really want and what they really do and use. But without that data we’re left speculating.

We’re back to the original question: Should we embrace this technology? To create quality podcasts requires (technical and human) resources, training, and planning. Excepting Stuart’s efforts, most of the discussions about podcasting have focused either on the academic uses (i.e. recording classes or similar material) or admissions/public relations (Dan Karleen at Thompson’s is a great source of info on these particular uses). In a paragraph entitled “Tech gimmick?” in a recent Campus Technology article, Dr. Hank Edmondson from Georgia College & State University noted that even in academic affairs, an area that arguably has greater access to IT resources and support, “[Podcasting will] make [classes] worse if you’re not ready for it. You can be a whiz technologically but shallow academically.”

Given the resources and circumstances necessary for creating podcasts, is anyone out there creating successful student affairs podcasts? I know that there are student affairs folks podcasting but are they successful and to what do they attribute their success? Is this a technology that we can all embrace or is it one that we must all selectively weigh and judge for ourselves (I bet you know where I stand on the issue!)? What are the factors we must weigh and judge?

I ask these questions because I perceive there is significant value in this technology and method of media delivery (Pew reported that 12% of all American Internet users have downloaded a podcast – that’s still several million people) but I also believe that it may be of very, very different value to different institutions and student bodies and thus the decision to dedicate resources must be made carefully. As the quote at the top of this webpage notes, technology is a tool – we must not embrace new technology merely because it is available and trendy but because it is truly beneficial for us and our students. Neither should we avoid new technologies out of fear, trepidation, or perceived lack of resources.

Update: Here’s some discussion about this topic from a higher ed marketing perspective. You can follow the trail of links and comments to find more.

A Tenuous Connection With Digital Rights Management

One topic of interest among a small group of academics and students is the emerging technology known as “Digital Rights Management” or DRM. As explained by Sean Captain in his New York Times article “So Much Music, So Few Choices,” DRM is “technology that protects copyrighted works by preventing unlimited duplication.” It’s a bit more nuanced that just preventing duplication but that’s an okay generalization. One of Captain’s key points is that “the many conflicting approaches to rights management can also limit choices.” He’s right. Most people encounter DRM for the first time when files won’t move, copy, display, or print as expected: copying DVDs, fast-forwarding through the FBI warning and previews, or moving music purchased online to another computer or player.

What does DRM have to do with student affairs? Alright, it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s definitely a topic that is usually limited to discussion among computer geeks and music industry executives. It is sometimes discussed amongst librarians and scholars as they wonder about how they will continue to access resources and scholarship that are increasingly hidden behind DRM, a discussion that not only revolves around access costs but also publisher lifespans and changes in technology. Luckily for them, new rules are being put into effect to alleviate some of those problems. But others still exist.

One strong connection with student affairs and higher education is the continuing discussion about students’ online copyright infringement and possible solutions. One “solution” pushed hard by the RIAA is the employment of legitimate online entertainment services like Napster, Cdigix, and Ruckus. Those services employ DRM; it’s how they’re able to convince the publishers to allow them to “sell” the music. And what does that mean for students who are in some cases forced to pay for these services whether they use them (or are able to use them) or not? It means they’re renting the music (which is not necessarily bad). It also means no fair use rights (which is necessarily bad).

Is that important to the students? For most of them, it’s not yet important. Many of those who take issue with DRM do so almost exclusively because the music won’t play on their particular mp3 player (see this USA Today article from earlier this year for a typical example). Rarely do students take the wider view (however, I suspect that this view may gain some traction if Jenkins’ Participation Divide ever begins to close as DRM does pose a large hurdle for many reuses of culture – remixes, mashups, etc.). And it’s hard to fault them. It’s partially an issue of maturity and experience, qualities traditional college students lack by definition. But it’s also an issue of education and that’s where many of us are failing. Our institutions will fight to protect the intellectual property “owned” by our institutions and our faculty will fight bitterly to protect their fair use rights in the classroom (even to the point of going too far and unethically ignoring copyright). But who fights for the students’ fair use rights? Who tells them that they even have those rights (certainly not the Boy Scouts and the MPAA)?

So that’s my weak tie-in with student affairs: legal rights and culture trampled and unmentioned by educators bullied into “doing something!” about students’ copyright infringement. That’s why I worry about NASPA’s recently-announced RIAA partnership. One could go further and accuse institutions of literally “selling out” but given that instititution have (a) paid money to employ many of these services and (b) acted primarily out of fear (of legislators, recording industry lawsuits, and bad public images) I don’t think that’s an accurate accusation to make. But there is certainly a discussion to be had about commercialism and its role in this debate as recording industry executives push the use of services that in turn pay the recording industry for the use of their music. There are legitimate ethical, moral, and legal issues but students aren’t the only ones who should be under the microscope.

Inspired by Rejection? Or Merely an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Like several hundred other ACPA and NASPA members, I submitted a program proposal for the upcoming Joint Meeting. Like many other programs, the main topic of my proposed program was Facebook. My program specifically centered on two points:

  1. Introduction and discussion of relevant historical and contemporary computer-mediated communications (CMC) research. This is important not only to bring home the point that this emerging phenomenon is not as new or emerging as many people think it is (relevant research has been conducted for several decades) but also to illuminate particular findings of interest to student affairs practitioners.
  2. Discussion of proposed linkages between CMC research and student development theory.

In September, NASPA published a paper (article only available there to NASPA members; download it from my website here) that I wrote several months ago in their e-zine NetResults. In this paper, I laid out thoughts rem,similar to the ones I was proposing to layout and expand in this program. I’m pretty confident that my thoughts are important, original, and significantly contribute to the community and its understanding of this perceived new challenge.

My program proposal was rejected. Although I am stung by this rejection, it’s not so much the rejection that bothers me. My primary concern is that there was consideration given for balance, diversity, and creativity in those programs that were approved. I reviewed programs this year and I don’t recall any of the programs that I reviewed as being heavily based in theory; to the contrary, the programs I remember reviewing were heavily based in recent experiences with some including only a token mention of theory or relevant scholarship. I also know another person whose *incredibly cool* theory- and original research-based technology proposal was also rejected. These scant (!) data points combined with my own experiences are enough to make me start wondering about the value that these professional organizations place on original research and theoretical constructs that are related to technology.

Eric Stoller echoes some of my thoughts in a blog entry in which he writes: “Can someone please inform ACPA and NASPA that technology is not an ’emerging discussion.’ It is this kind of language which causes student affairs administrators to remain stuck in 1995.” In another entry he discusses an online professional development course he (accurately, judging from the description) labels a “fear session.” His question “Why do we not think holistically about technology?” is a fantastic question that I believe most have at best ignored and at worst disdained. Eric is presenting a session at a two-day professional development opportunity in January but judging by the titles of some of the other sessions (“Virtual Affliction: Understand the Power and Addiction to the Internet” and “Crossing the Line Online: How Cybersex, Cyberaffairs, and Pornography live in the shadows of the Net”) it’s clear that we have a lot more work ahead of this to counterbalance these fear sessions.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the student affairs world in practical experiences and discussions but I really think we can (and in many ways are working to) back ourselves into a corner unless we remain open to wider viewpoints. We owe it to those who have come before us to apply what they discovered to emerging phenomena. Consciously and deliberately applying these old theories to new phenomema and situations allows us to measure what we know of new phenomena using measuring sticks of known length. Further, it allows us the unique opportunity to reevaluate our assumed and received knowledge and, as appropriate, build on and modify that knowledge.

I assert that, like nearly everyone else, our viewpoint is rather narrow. What we view as emerging and new phenomena are rarely as emerging or new as we may believe. Most are, like all other inventions or innovations, built on earlier works. And guess what? There are pretty good odds that several people have conducted significant and insightful research focused on those earlier works! The works and insights by danah boyd, Fred Stutzman, Nicole Ellison, and others did not spring forth from their head fully-formed and -armed like Athena from Zeus; like other scholars, they have built on what has come before them (the “References,” footnotes, and endnotes ain’t there to pad their papers!).

And that’s all I want to do: build on what others have built before me. Those others may not necessarily be or have been student affairs practitioners, student development researchers, or higher education scholars. Some are psychologists, sociologists, or IT practitioners. Some ply their craft in communications, new media, informatics, or information science. But they’ve all discovered and proposed insights that can help us understand what are to us “emerging phenomenon” because to them it’s old hat and merely the next step in an evolution they’ve been tracking for a long time. We, in turn, can contribute our hard-earned understanding of young people and the pervasive culture of higher education to view their findings in the unique lens of our own education and experiences.

If this sounds like a deep insight or a desperate plea to link these disparate fields, it’s not. It’s merely an idea whose time has come. Some are undoubtedly already doing it. Some have already done it. If they’re out there, I want to find and join them – it sounds like a lot of fun!

Divisions and Gaps

Jakob Nielsen‘s latest “Alertbox” article is entitled “Digital Divide: The Three Stages.” In this (very brief) article, Nielsen posits three types or stages of divides that “alienate huge population groups who miss out on the Internet’s potential:”

  1. Economic Divide
  2. Usability Divide
  3. Empowerment Divide

Nielsen argues that the Economic Divide is largely a non-issue in modern America. His other two divides are very similar to Jenkins’ Participatory Divide. In short, both of these researchers believe that significant divides still exist between (a) Internet users and non-users and (b) different groups of Internet users. The two researchers differ in some ways on the exact form and causes of those differences but those differences appear to be more in point of view than significant and substantive differences. As a usability researcher, Nielsen concentrates largely on the user experience and how users interact with particular tools, suites of tools, and technologies. Thus his focus is often on how someone can or cannot use something to perform a particular task. Jenkins, on the other hand, is a communications researcher whose focus lies more on the sociological impact of technologies and societal changes or influences caused, aided, or disrupted by technologies.

One subtlety that is masked by the label “divide” is that these divides are more like continuums than binary, black-and-white issues. Whether one speaks of Nielsen’s Usability Divide or Empowerment Divide or Jenkins’ Participatory Divide, these are areas in which one can have more or less (understanding, power, or rates of participation). Even the seemingly-black-and-white issue of access is a continuum wherein no possible access and high-speed, always-available, unfiltered and uncensored access lie at the endpoints of a continuum with different levels of access in between (borrowed access, slow access, filtered or censored, etc.).

For us, it’s very important to remember that our students will come from both sides of these divides and all places in between. I don’t have good data at my fingertips but I have no doubt that traditional measures of diversity such as race, ethnicity, SES, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. play huge roles in where one lies in these issues. The role of SES should be obvious. In his exploration of fan culture, Jenkins has noted the role of gender and the differences in how men and women interact with and use technology to interact and collaborate. danah boyd, herself a noted researcher in these areas, speaks of the role that communications technologies (specifically, IRC) played in her experiences as a young queer woman, technologies that may not been available to her had circumstances (location, finances, experiences, etc.) been different. It’s very important for us to begin to understand how (a) access or lack of access to, (b) understanding or lack of understanding of, and (c) use or non-use of these technologies – technologies ubiquitous and essential for many young people – is shaping and influencing youths in America (see the recent debate about DOPA for a great discussion of these issues). I assert that we don’t understand this right now as it’s complex and changing very rapidly. I further believe that applying what we know about young people (both through our experiences and through our research i.e. student development theory) we can uniquely contribute to this discussion and begin to understand its importance.