Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education


The expanding role of technology in supporting teaching and learning in higher education has prompted educators to consider how young people engage with technology across the multiple contexts of their lives. Early discussion of this topic was heavily influenced by generational assumptions, based primarily on anecdotal evidence. Labels such as ‘digital natives’ and the ‘Net Generation’ were used to refer to a generation of young people who were said to have a natural ability with and motivation to use technologies in all aspects of their lives (Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 1998). Over time, the homogenous nature of this group was challenged by several large studies that found diversity in the patterns of students’ access to and use of technology (Kennedy et al, 2006; Kvavik, Caruso & Morgan, 2004; Oliver & Goerke, 2007). From these findings, researchers advised caution in relying upon rhetoric about a set of common technology-related characteristics of this generation of students (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008; Helsper & Eynon, 2009).

This study investigated how first year university students engage with technology in their everyday and academic lives with a view to informing learning and teaching practices in higher education. It examined the extent to which the patterns of technology use of university students reflect the notion of digital natives and how students select and adapt technologies to support their learning goals and strategies. It also considered how students’ uses and preferences for particular technologies related to the identities they adopt in everyday and academic life contexts. The design of this research was informed by a theoretical framework incorporating theories of technology appropriation and identity to advance understanding of what motivates students to engage with technology.

A mixed methods approach was used to allow an in-depth examination of the diversity and complexity of students’ technology-based activities. The research was conducted in two phases during the 2008 academic year. The first phase involved the administration of a survey of students’ access to and use of technology across the contexts of their everyday lives and academic study to 470 students. This survey was used to identify trends and patterns of students’ technology engagement and to identify participants with different levels of technology access, activities and ability for the second phase of the research. Phase 2 involved 14 case studies examining the nuances of participants’ technology engagement in detail. Participants were first interviewed about their engagement with technology. They then took part in a three-week experience sampling method activity. During those three weeks, participants were prompted three times a day to record the activity they were doing at that time and whether technology played a role in the activity. Then at the end of each day they were asked to complete ya short survey summarising all their daily technology-related activities. Observation of participants’ online social networking activities was also undertaken throughout the three-week period. This was followed by a second interview which took place a week after the three-week experience sampling method activity during which they were asked to comment on their activities throughout the data collection period.

The research found that students engage with technology in their everyday and academic lives in very diverse ways, influenced by their lifestyles, personal interests, social priorities, career aspirations and personal values. The key differences were that for their everyday life students had developed for themselves a customised set of technology practices whereas in their academic lives they relied almost exclusively on technologies and practices directed by their instructors. and the requirements of their course. Participants were not found to be using technology in new or innovative ways to support their study, instead using technology to supplement common study practices. These findings suggest the need to move away from the assumptions inherent in the notion of digital natives, towards a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of young people’s technology use that moves beyond labels.

The findings from this research provide in-depth insights into the motivations and influences on the diverse range students’ engagement with technology. While few previous studies have used theory in considering young people’s technology use, this study used the theoretical constructs of technology appropriation and identity to provide new perspectives that extend the current knowledge in the area. The study also makes a methodological contribution to research in this area by demonstrating the usefulness of a mixed methods research design and to reduce reliance on retrospective, self-reported data and account for the dynamic nature of technology engagement by collecting data over time. The outcomes of this research provide evidence that can be used by teachers and administrators in higher education to support decisions about the effective integration of technology into teaching and learning practices.