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Technology and College Access: Exploring the Relationship Between the Internet & College Knowledge

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Listen and learn : Research paper
Lecture presentation

Friday, December 4, 11:30 am–12:15 pm PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 1 of 3
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Dr. Sharla Berry  
The internet has the potential to connect students with valuable information about college. In this qualitative case study I draw on interviews with first-generation, low-income high school students of color to learn about their experiences using technology to build college knowledge.

Audience: Teachers, Teacher education/higher ed faculty, Principals/head teachers
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Windows, Android, iOS
Topic: Equity & inclusion
Grade level: 9-12
Subject area: Career and technical education, Higher education
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Shape, advance and accelerate a shared vision for empowered learning with technology by engaging with education stakeholders.
  • Advocate for equitable access to educational technology, digital content and learning opportunities to meet the diverse needs of all students.
For Students:
Empowered Learner
  • Students articulate and set personal learning goals, develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them and reflect on the learning process itself to improve learning outcomes.

Proposal summary


To explore students' experiences with using websites to research and prepare for college, I use van Deursen and van Dijk’s (2010) Internet skills as a theoretical framework. van Deursen and van Dijk identify four critical internet skills -- operational, formal, informational and strategic. Operational skills refer to the ability to use a computer (hardware and software). Formal skills are the ability to navigate the structures of the Internet (e.g. finding files, using hyperlinks). Information skills refer to "the ability to find, select, process and evaluate information in specific sources of computers and networks” van Deursen and van Dijk (2010, p.3). Strategic skills are "the capacities to use information as the means for specific goals and for the general goal of improving one’s position in society” (p. 3).
Van Deursen and van Dijk (2010) argue that an Internet skills framework allows researchers to push past simple conceptions of technology use that focus simply on having or not having access to technology. Instead, such a framework helps researchers understand how individuals can use the same tool, the Internet, in different ways. Such a perspective is particularly important in understanding the technology experiences of historically marginalized populations (Park, 2012).


The study took place at a college preparatory organization in Northern California that will be referred to by the pseudonym Pathways to College. The organization provided college preparatory support to students in grades Students attended weekly college preparatory sessions, where they learned about college admissions and completion. Students also had access to daily tutoring in academic subjects. At the time of the study, the program served approximately 120 students.

Data was collected from high school students in the Pathways program who met the following criteria --- they identified as students of color, they were in the 11th grade, and they qualified for free or reduced lunch. High school juniors were selected because they are likely to be actively engaged in the process of researching colleges to apply to (Roderick, Nagaoka, Coca, 2009). All students who met the criteria were invited to participate in the study. To date, the researcher has interviewed four girls and four boys. Five of the eight participants were first-generation students. Data collection still continues, and the researcher hopes to add 7 more participants, for a total of 15 students.

To collect data, I conducted 45-minute, semi-structured interviews with each student. The interviews covered a range of topics related to the students’ experiences with technology. Questions were asked regarding students’ access and use patterns with computers, tablets, mobile devices and the Internet at home, at school, and in the Pathways program. I asked a series of questions to learn about how students used technology to socialize and engage in fun and information-seeking behaviors. After understanding students’ experiences with technology broadly, I sought to understand how students used technology to develop college knowledge. I asked questions about how students used websites, mobile apps and social media to learn about college and to find resources for post-secondary education.
I engaged in on-going data analysis throughout the project. I began coding data with a coding scheme aligned to the research and interview questions. After coding data by device type (computer, tablet, mobile device), source (website, mobile app, social media), activity (information seeking, interaction with peers, browsing for entertainment), I sought codes that emerged from data. These codes included negatives and positives of the Internet and social media, peer support, community support, and college-bound friends. I used the established and emergent codes to develop the case study.


Findings indicate that students had strong operational, formal and informational skills in regard to Internet usage. However, students struggled to strategically apply their Internet skills to their search for college information.
Operational skills refer to one’s ability to use computer hardware and software. Students described themselves as frequently and skillfully using technology. While students preferred smartphones to computers, it was clear that they were savvy users of technology on the whole. Students used technology, especially mobile devices, to complete a range of tasks, including doing research, using social media, and occasionally, doing creative projects.

Informational Internet skills refers to the ability to select websites or search engines to search for information. Students relied on two websites to find information, California Colleges and the Google Search Engine. Using the California Colleges website was strongly encouraged by the Pathways program. The website featured profiles of colleges across the country, and students could use it to quickly compare information about college location, costs and admissions requirements. However, while students could access important information via Internet, they had many questions regarding the authenticity of online resources. Strategic internet skills proved to be difficult for most students.

Strategic Internet skills are about developing goals and finding information that leads to action. It is in this area that students struggled. While students were able to use the Internet to find general information about college, they struggled to find answers to their specific questions about the college experience. Students had many questions that centered around what college was like for low-income students of color. Some of the questions were around cost and affordability, others were around social engagement and daily life. Students could not name any websites or online resources that provided answers to questions about what college was like for “students like them”. Students were interested in descriptive and varied accounts of college life from people who had gone to college. For students in the program who were first-generation, such accounts were hard to come by offline.


This data problematizes the idea that information gaps are easily filled with increased access to technology or the development of Internet skills. Students in the study had varying levels of both, but still struggled with using the Internet as a tool to build college knowledge. While websites provided an important entry point to developing college knowledge, students were not able to use the Internet to find information about what college would be like for them as underrepresented students. More research needs to be done on the benefits and limitations of the Internet as a tool for helping low-income students of color develop college knowledge. This work assists researchers in taking a more complex look at the relationship between technology and college access, one that does not focus on simply expanding access to technology, but critically considers differentiated use. This work lays the foundations for physical and digital interventions that benefit underrepresented youth.


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Dr. Sharla Berry, California Lutheran University

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