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Exploring Undergraduate Perceptions of Meaning Making and Social Media in their Learning Open Access


Other title
mixed methods
undergraduate students
higher education
educational technology
meaning making
digital natives
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Smith, Erika E.
Supervisor and department
Kanuka, Heather (Educational Policy Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Hunter, Darryl (Educational Policy Studies)
da Costa, José (Educational Policy Studies)
Newton, Paul (Educational Policy Studies)
Reeves, Thomas C. (Learning, Design, and Technology)
Department of Educational Policy Studies
Adult, Community and Higher Education
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Those concerned with teaching and learning in higher education and the Net generation’s perspectives on and uses of technology must address calls to move beyond the digital native debate (Bennett & Maton, 2010; Kennedy, Judd, Dalgarno, & Waycott, 2010) by asking students directly what they see as a meaningful part of their learning. This study aims to move beyond the digital native debate by developing research-informed understandings of the ways in which Net generation students may perceive technologies, specifically social media, to be a meaningful part of their undergraduate learning. The research questions guiding this study include: (RQ1) In what ways do undergraduate learners from different disciplines view social media to be a meaningful part of their university learning? (RQ2) What characteristics of social media do undergraduate learners see as contributing to their meaning making during their university learning? This study uses a social constructivist approach, thereby employing two main premises: learners actively construct their own knowledge, and social interactions are an important part of knowledge construction (Woolfolk, Winne, Perry, & Shapka, 2010, pp. 343-344). The research design is a mixed methods research (MMR) methodology, a methodological approach where a combination of methods is intentionally used to best address the research questions (Creswell, 2008; Creswell, 2015). This study’s MMR design involved a first phase qualitative component of intensive, semi-structured interviews with 30 undergraduate students enrolled in full-time studies at the University of Alberta, a large, Canadian, research-intensive university – with ten students from each of the three disciplinary areas of 1) humanities and social sciences, 2) health sciences, and 3) natural sciences and engineering, analyzed using a generic qualitative approach (Merriam, 2009) incorporating constructivist grounded theory techniques (Charmaz, 2014). The second phase quantitative component was comprised of undergraduate students across disciplines with survey responses (N = 679) regarding their perspectives on and uses of social media technology in their university learning. This phase included two pilot surveys conducted before the final survey was distributed to ensure the reliability and validity of the instrument developed. Survey responses were collected electronically via SurveyMonkey, and analyzed via descriptive statistics. The findings in this study shed new insights into student perspectives and uses of social media, and the variety of ways in which undergraduates intentionally chose (or, chose not) to incorporate social media into their university learning in meaningful ways. The interviews provide a detailed picture of undergraduate perspectives regarding the specific ways in which social media can help and hinder learning, comprising what students consider as a double-edged sword. Student perspectives and descriptions formed key recurring themes, which emerged into several core characteristics of social media, as well as core categories of meaning making in undergraduate university learning. Within the qualitative interviews and the open-ended survey results, there is an overarching theme of social media as a double-edged sword that both informs and distracts, having the potential to both help and hinder learning. Together, the qualitative and quantitative results demonstrate that several contextual relationships exist, including an important relationship between the particular ways of meaning making identified and the specific social media technologies undergraduates use for their university learning. For those concerned with social media in higher education, these results show how factors such as age and digital native claims should not be seen as primary, deterministic elements of technology use. Rather than taking an approach founded upon technological determinism, the idea of a generational zeitgeist should be considered, where learning context and social media affordances become key.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
Smith, E. E. (2012). The digital native debate in higher education: A comparative analysis of recent literature. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 38(3), 1-18. Available at
, E. E. (2013). Are adult educators and learners ‘digital immigrants’? Examining the evidence and impacts for continuing education. Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education, 39(1), 1-13. Available at

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