As I wrap up my doctoral coursework at Johnson and Wales University this weekend, I wanted to share my pending dissertation topic and methodology in hopes for any feedback you may have as I start to write my dissertation proposal this summer. Certainly, I have had my mind on a technology in higher education related topic for quite sometime, bouncing around from ideas including “Retaining First Generation College Students Through Twitter” and “Shifting Faculty Perceptions of Classroom Use of Social Media.”

However, at the start of the term, a member of the Educational Leadership faculty approached me and offered up a winning suggestion. Given all the work I was (and am already) doing with:

… she suggested that I attempt a more unique (and somewhat sophisticated) dissertation methodology in educational research…

(Drum roll please…)

So, my pending dissertation topic and methodology is:

  • Title: Digital Technology Use by Student Affairs Administrators: A Ten-Year Historical Analysis
  • Research Design: Qualitative, historical study exploring contemporary problems in education (digital technology integration), and analyzing it from a social issues and trends perspective (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2007).
  • Purpose: To analyze and critique applications of digital technology from 2005-2015 by student affairs administrators and to project how the depth and breath of the analyzation could affect future student affairs practice.
  • Research Question: How has digital technology changed student affairs practice from 2005 to 2015?
  • Data Sources: Primary source data in historical research is documentary evidence (Gall et al., 2007). My primary source data will be through student affairs associations (ACPA, NASPA, ACUI, ACUHO-I, NACA) where my goal would be to analyze handbooks, policies, conference presentations, conferences and workshops that covered digital technology topics and utilize document analysis to uncover emergent themes. Additionally, I would interview key people in this emerging trend and analyze these first-hand accounts.

Certainly, this will take greater shape as I craft my dissertation proposal, but I would love your take on the topic and methodology. I can certainly send along other pieces (e.g. limitations/delimitations, proposed data analysis, etc.) if you are interested.

I’ll take my comprehensive exams on Wednesday, June 3, and plan to write and defend my dissertation proposal this summer! I’m thrilled that my coursework is almost over and that I am one step closer to becoming Dr. Ed Cabellon! 🙂

What are you thoughts on my dissertation topic and methodology? What else should I be thinking about as I prepare for a summer of research and writing?


Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2007). Educational Research: An Introduction (8th Ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.


    • Thanks friend! As I rise through the senior administration ranks, finding my new niche in the areas of SAtech will be critical. I have to grow from just being known as someone who is “social media” or “tech” person, but someone who can meaningfully lead utilizing digital technology. I appreciate your support, as always 🙂

  • Ambitious and awesome and if it ever becomes interesting and needed – I could tell you about how we engaged with students from Loyola U New Orleans via Facebook after Hurricane Katrina.

  • Ed,

    I like your topic and thinking around tech in student affairs (2005-2015). One thing that stands out for me in regards to your purpose is if you are doing a 10 year analysis of the past how will you incorporate your findings to inform the future? It maybe a good idea to ask the front-lines folks you mention if they can recall their thoughts from 2005 on what tech would do to/for their work. This way you could compare their predictions with reality. You also, may want to conduct a survey of student affairs practitioners on their evolutionary use of digital tech with some questions specifically looking for changes. Just some thoughts.

    • Jerrid, thanks so much for your feedback. I think that part of my primary source collection will be interviewing key professionals after I’ve done my initial analysis to help inform those important questions. I’ve also thought about doing it in a focus group setting, which may be more work, but could yield richer data.

      So much to consider… excited to get started! Thanks again!

  • Ed, how exciting to be at this stage! You are closer and closer to your goal. I think this topic is really great for you. I am guessing this is a bit exploratory to see if and how practices might have changed so this may be something for your future studies section. My looming question is what can we say about any practice changes? Did technology lead student affairs lead professionals to implement better practices? Do those lead to better outcomes for students? Good luck!!

    • Thanks so much Amber… these are things I’ve also given thought to as well. So many “rabbit holes” to go down… suffice to say that in my “implications for future research” I’ll have a few things to say 🙂 Thanks so much for your support, I’m grateful!

  • Fascinating and timely topic! As one who has recently completed her PhD, my only concern is that you not bite off more than you can chew. The historical analysis is a complete project, as is the interviewing of relevant individuals. Unless you have already done most of the historical analysis in your previous work, then that and the interviews are quite a bit of data to manage. Make sure that your committee includes someone familiar with your methodology to help you determine how deep to go into the data and when you have done enough for one study. Doubtless you will end up with enough data for several publications! Good luck!

    • Thanks Dr. Waltrip 🙂 It will be a fascinating endeavor on the road to my doctorate. I have done much of the initial analysis thanks to the writing projects I’ve been undertaking… it simply organizing it all and focusing in. And you’re probably right… the interviews may not end up part of methodology… my research eyes are probably bigger than my research stomach!

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

  • Ed! Great topic, well-thought out even at this early stage! I tweeted you George Steele’s (The Ohio State University) contact info – he’s done a lot of work evaluating over 25 yrs of tech presentations at NACADA conferences. He’s got a great model and comprehensive approach to evaluating hundreds of presentations.

    Also — I’m with Amber: We all need to know how our work impacts students. I advise grad students to make “impact on students” a critical piece of their theses & docs because that’s what is keeping Presidents, Chancellors, and Deans up at night these days! My two cents!

    Best wishes for a terrific process!!

    • Hi Jen, thank you! That will be very helpful as I seek out rubrics,matrices, etc. for the primary source analysis that I’ll be doing. The term “impact” will be interesting to define, as each institution, professional, student may look at it differently. Do I anchor this historical analysis in engagement theory, such as Kuh or Astin… or perhaps the better question is.. should I? The methodology I’ve chosen seeks to present what has already taken place and project what may happen next, given our history. Either way… it will be a lot to analyze, which I am excited about 🙂

      Thanks again!

      • You’ll need to find and use some sort of framework whether it’s something related to “impact” or something else. Early in my dissertation brainstorming, one of my committee members-to-be recommended I look into actor-network theory (ANT); that didn’t fit with the final direction I took but it might work for you depending on what you’re going to focus on. As a historical piece focusing on technology, I really like “America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940” and I think that the author was rewarded well with awards since the book is very clearly written and the methodology so very clearly and convincingly described. I’m not sure if the narrative-focused-on-individual’s-stories approach will work well for this topic (especially since it’s recent and a relatively short time frame) but interviews would feed well into that especially if you focused on a few especially interesting and important people who can provide enough useful, relevant context. A critical analysis would also be another approach to take and I imagine that focusing on social justice or accessibility would make your dissertation very appealing and marketable especially for a student affairs crowd.

        Such important and fun decisions to make!

  • “Research Question: How has digital technology changed student affairs practice from 2005 to 2015?”

    Since you have to define “student affairs practice” anyway, I highly encourage you to center students in your work. Yes to looking at student engagement or attrition or learning (e.g., Kuh, Astin, Bean, Gibbs) or whatever moves you. It may be hard but use your immense visibility to be a voice for future researchers on this. I travel everywhere talking learning and graduation and there’s not a higher ed president or chancellor in the world who cares what the cool kids have been doing if what they’re doing isn’t about students. That’s just the reality of HE today.

    Ok — rant over! 🙂 Good luck and don’t hesitate to let me know if I can help in any way!


  • I love that you are looking at this from a qualitative place! If I may, I want to throw out the idea of you utilizing a few, in depth, narratives, to highlight and demonstrate the points brought forth by your historical analysis. I consider my own practice of research to be in the Narrative area, and have found that those stories often compliment a more formal analysis. If you have not done a lot of work in this area, my I suggest the research of Thomas Barone. A good place to start would be is 2007 ‘A Return to A Gold Standard?’ in Qualitative Inquiry, 13(4).

  • My initial thoughts are similar to Laura’s in that this seems like a lot for one dissertation so I’ll be curious how you refine and bound your topic and method(s). Topically, your initial net seems to be really, really big so I imagine that you’ll need to draw some bounds. You can do that in many different ways and you’ll need to figure out what is most interesting to you and what is most accessible in your sources and methods. This was part of my thinking in my (slow to come to fruition) work in the history of student affairs professionals’ uses and views of technology in the 20th century and why I decided to restrict my focus to materials published in NASPA and ACPA conference proceedings (and later conference programs) and their two primary journals. I think it was a very workable and defensible approach although it required me to venture beyond just the materials in Bowling Green since they don’t have all of the early 20th century conference proceedings (but luckily Indiana University had nearly all of them just sitting in the stacks!).

    Methodologically, I’m not a professional historian but I’m not certain how well the standard approaches of historiography can be applied to such a recent time frame. That’s certainly a question you’ll have to pose to the committee member(s) who you recruit for methodological expertise and guidance. You’re also in the awkward position of trying to write recent history without there being significant older history upon which to build. That makes your job more difficult but also more exciting! It gives you more freedom at the cost of having to do more work and having to strike out on your own without necessarily having significant foundational materials upon which to build your conclusions.

    If you don’t do (many) interviews, it still might be worth corresponding with a few of the people who have been doing work in this area or thinking about these issues in the last fifteen years or so. Kevin Kruger should be at the top of that list as someone who has written in this area several times e.g., a New Directions in the late 90s (I think), the technology chapter in the 3rd edition of the Handbook of Student Affairs Administration, etc. Stu Brown and Gary Malaney have certainly been thinking about and been in the midst of this topic for many years through their involvement with and its associated journal. Lesley Dare has not only been involved in this topic hands-on for many years at NC State but she was also the primary impetus behind the revival of the NASPA Technology KC about ten years ago. And if you do decide to conduct interviews as a part of your dissertation I’d be happy to share more ideas that you’d be free to take or ignore!

  • Hi Ed
    As a faculty member who engages in social media, I wonder about SA faculty and how they use social media in their courses and their opinion regarding social media.
    You already have some nice suggestions above.

  • I would agree with Laura & Kevin’s sentiments – it is a great topic and research area; however I would scope your analysis to a specific area within that 10-year period to assess. Are you more interested in the knowledge development and transfer among student affairs educators (professionals, researchers, and faculty)? Or are you most concerned about the information that is being shared among the community in SA? I would follow Jennifer Joslin’s lead and reach out to George Steele – his 25-year assessment and data mining of conference topics and program assessments in NACADA was very revealing. Or you could even review publications (journal, conference proceedings, and other peer-reviewed publications) to identify how technology is being researched for Student Affairs. I would suspect you will continue with this research thread beyond your EdD, so decide what will help you best work on this specific research area and help to move the discipline forward. All the best and let me know how I can be of support!

  • Congratulations on getting to this stage! We haven’t met, but yours is among some of the work I follow related to tech and student affairs. This is particularly interesting to me as a youngish professional whose career trajectory has straddled your proposed historical plotted points – junior/senior in college in ’05, M.A. in ’08, and professional ever since in various capacities. What I look forward to reading about is how the student affairs practice has informed the academic practice and vice versa, in that time span, as it relates to tech. We know they’re connected! I realize that may be outside your scope though. Kudos though, and good luck! I offer my support in any way possible!

  • Hi Ed,

    Great stuff! I am curious if your interests might include how Universities today are leveraging CRM systems to improve student engagement? We are all trying to help students to get what it is that they need out of their higher education and with all of the communication ‘noise,” how do we know what students are paying attention to?

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