Monday, 7 January 2013

The habitus of digital “strangers” in higher education

an article by Laura Czerniewicz and Cheryl Brown (University of Cape Town) published in British Journal of Educational Technology Volume 44 Issue 1 (January 2013)


Research into South African students’ digitally mediated learning and social practices revealed a subgroup termed “digital strangers,” students lacking both experience and opportunities, who had barely used a computer and who did not have easy access to technology off campus.

Using a Bourdieun framework, this group’s technological habitus and access to capital were considered within the field of higher education.

There was a focus on two forms of cultural capital: embodied cultural capital, specifically disposition and values; and objectified cultural capital especially computers and cell phones.

Social capital – in terms of personal connections and the values of those close to the students – was also considered.

The investigation showed a complex technological habitus, with a paucity of access and limited practices in relation to computers, while computers and their associated practices are highly valued within higher education Simultaneously, diverse practices and widespread indications of astute use of cell phones were described even though these remained under-acknowledged both by the students and the institutions in which they operated.

Students recognised what the field of higher education valued, but they also used what they had available in order to best operate within the field. The findings point to a contradiction between students’ practices and the field of higher education yet also show how student practices with an alternative form of objectified capital are pushing the boundaries of the field itself.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic
  • There is increasing agreement in the literature that the concept of students as “digital natives” with good access to and “innate” understanding of technology is a myth. Students across a range of contexts have varied skills, experience and interest in using technology.
  • There is some research on the non-use of computers, but it does not tend to relate to mobile use.
  • There is a great deal of recent literature on mobile use in education both in the UK and in South Africa. This is of special interest in developing country contexts where access to computers is still limited but access to the cell phone is widespread.
What the paper adds
  • The paper makes the link between computer use and mobile use. By unpacking the complexities of technological habitus. it shows how students who lack computer experience and opportunities navigate the complexities of using information and communication technologies (ICTs) at university.
  • The paper shows how Bourdieu’s theory of capital and habitus provides a useful lens for examining the challenges of ICT practices within the field of higher education. Through the concepts of cultural capital and social capital, the paper shows how students who would traditionally be considered non-users have access to forms of capital which they leverage, thus demonstrating student agency.
  • The findings point to a contradiction between students’ practices and the field of higher education in that cell phones are widely used as a core ICT resource yet under-acknowledged as a medium of learning by universities. The paper does this by providing empirical examples of cases of complex access and use rarely studied.
Implications for practice and/or policy
  • The findings for institutions imply that universities should take student access to and use of cell phones much more seriously, exploiting the cultural and social capitals student are able to draw on. This provides a way of focusing on existing literacies which is preferable to the deficit model which currently prevails.
  • There are implications for curriculum, courses and resource designers in terms of designing learning interventions which utilise mobile technology affordances.

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