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Case Study Analysis

Essay by   •  February 2, 2011  •  Case Study  •  1,177 Words (5 Pages)  •  1,287 Views

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Must students who increasingly depend on electronic technologies such as e-mail become more isolated, as some have claimed and many fear? Or what is the potential for computer-mediated communication (CMC) to complement and extend other forms of interaction and become a tool for building, rather than destroying, social relations? How is CMC used similarly and differently when participants actually live together in a face-to-face (f2f) community, instead of only communicating at a distance? These questions are increasingly relevant beyond academia, as many employees combine electronic and f2f communication in their jobs and many communities based on physical proximity have established electronic networks with extensive online resources and discussion areas. See 01: Questions, claims, and assumptions about CMC, students, and community for my specific research questions.


Rinconada House (Wilbur Hall) at Stanford University is an all-freshman residence of 94 students (89 frosh plus 5 upperclass staff members) where my wife and I served as faculty Resident Fellows (RFs) for seven years, from 1990-91 through 1996-97. Rinconada -- which also claims to have been the first college dorm in the world with a home page on the Web -- has maintained an active e-mail discussion list since 1993-94. Based on a study of that list for the academic year 1995-96, I will analyze how college students who lived together used and perceived this form of electronic discussion; I will emphasize constructive, community-building uses of CMC and higher-level uses of CMC I define as "critical dialogue."

Stanford was one of the first residential universities in the nation to achieve the "port per pillow" standard for network wiring, meaning that all or nearly all students have an individual ethernet connection in their room in addition to shared, networked dorm computer clusters. The student residences combine a well-developed technological infrastructure and technical support with a very active residential education system. The freshman dorms are composed, demographically, as multicultural microcosms of the entering class, and they generally form cohesive and enthusiastic communities. These communities are by no means conflict-free, however, and during 1995-96 Rinconada residents negotiated a number of challenging social, political, and personal issues, including pornography, free speech, a potential grape boycott on campus, a sexual harassment allegation within the house, and the sudden death of one of their dormmates. These and many other issues found both moving and controversial expression on the dorm e-mail list, along with the more accustomed and pedestrian (at least to e-mail veterans) assortment of announcements, chain letters, forwarded college humor, and occasional "flaming" or swapping of insults.


The study is based on

a complete archive of the 1995-96 e-mail list

a survey filled out by 75 residents in May, 1996, exploring their perceptions about the usefulness of electronic media in the context of other communication forms used by the dorm community (see 02: Survey and responses)

my anecdotal experience and judgment as a participant-observer of the list and the dorm community, leader of the residence staff, former composition teacher with extensive classroom-CMC experience, and current information resources specialist

Once I obtained support for the study from the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Residential Education, and Residential Computing (see 20: Acknowledgments), I followed the Stanford protocol for human-subject research and requested consent from all the participants to use (a) their e-mail postings to the dorm list, and (b) their survey data. I promised to keep their identities private and have used pseudonyms here and in all reporting of the study.

I obtained consent to use e-mail data from 85 of 89 of the (former) freshman residents and all five of the former upperclass student staff members. With the able help of my student assistant Jason Herthel, I organized the e-mail and survey data into a FileMaker Pro database from which we obtained all the measures and averages reported in the study. The staff members' messages to the e-mail list (along with my wife's and mine) were eliminated from most of the statistical measures, insofar as it was part of our job to monitor and actively make announcements and other postings to the e-mail list.

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Despite prominent gender disparities in participation and the heavy proportion



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