Introducing My Dissertation Topic: College Students, Social Media and the Self

This Thursday, I will (finally) have my dissertation proposal hearing.  This means I will present my proposed dissertation research to my committee and seek approval to move forward into the data collection and analysis phases.  Proposals  generally include the “first three chapters” of a dissertation.  These chapters are typically an introduction, a review of literature, and a research plan including methods of data collection and procedures.  Below you will find a sample from my proposal as well as the presentation I will be using when I present it to my committee.  Enjoy!

The following study attempts to inform an understanding of this generation of traditionally aged college students and their relationship with digital and social technologies. Specifically, it aims to understand how college students navigate environments that are saturated by digital and social technologies and how these environments impact students’ psychological sense of self. In these new saturated environments, where social and digital technologies are omnipresent, the boundaries between virtual and physical spaces, relationships, and contexts are increasingly blurred. Students must navigate complex environments both online and off. Mobile technologies, like smartphones, are also increasing the pace and frequency at which students must make sense of these new realities “on the fly.” It is hypothesized that the pervasiveness of social and digital technology, along with the demand that students nimbly navigate the environments saturated by these technologies, may be impacting the way students’ come to understand themselves. Specifically, this research asks the fundamental question:

How do college students construct concepts of “self” in social media-saturated and hybridized contexts?

Much of the prior research conducted on social and digital technology usage and its impact is largely quantitative in nature. This quantitative research has contributed to an understanding of how social and digital technologies, as tools, are impacting educational and related outcomes including campus engagement and academic grades. Although this quantitative research on college students and digital and social technologies is beginning to reach a critical mass, it still leaves many questions unanswered. Particularly absent is a qualitative understanding of digital and social technologies’ impact on student development. In other words, how, at a more fundamental level, might social and digital technologies be changing the student experience from the “inside?”

Undertaking exploratory qualitative research on college students and social and digital technologies requires working in a contested space that potentially challenges traditional paradigms, which might need to be modified, revised, or completely rewritten from a new base of assumptions. This research attempts to understand college student interaction with social and digital technologies not just a life stage event, or interactions that can be explained within the application of existing theory, but as a generational evolutionary or revolutionary change. It is possible that social and digital technologies are qualitatively changing developmental and learning patterns. Of particular interest is how this technology might be disrupting, changing or modifying self-construction or identity. Digital and social technologies, by their very nature, occur in what might be called virtual as opposed to physical spaces and inherently draw into question concepts of reality and boundaries that were previously neat and tidy under Cartesian and modernist paradigms. If humans are reaching towards a period of postmodernity, where these previously held dichotomies are broken down and experienced in a way that is fluid and technologically powered, this necessarily changes the human experience. Education, as a human-driven, human-consumed enterprise must necessarily change or risk alienation.

In order to be effective educators for this generation, college student educators must better understand the impact of technology and social media on student learning and development. Understanding this impact at a fundamental level will inform how educational practices must change (or not) in this new era. This study begins an attempt to understand the impact of social and digital technologies on college students qua college students from a qualitative perspective—what is happening to the way students understand themselves in fragmented virtual environments and how this impacts their expectations for and navigation of educational environments. Specifically, this research focuses on a central feature of many development theories, the concept of identity.

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