Students make a plan: understanding student agency in constraining conditions

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ALT-J Research in Learning Technology

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Taylor & Francis


University of Cape Town

Drawing on Archer's perspectives on the agency/structure relationship, this paper explains situations where students in varied, challenging circumstances find ways to negotiate difficult conditions. It reports on a 2007 study undertaken through a survey at three quite different universities in three South African provinces, addressing inter-related questions on access and use. Our findings are that on-campus access is generally reported favourably, and off-campus access is problematic and uneven. There is a cluster of students using their cell phones to access the Internet, and using their cell phones for academic purposes, and this is true across socio-economic groups (SEGs). It is especially striking that students from low SEGs do so. The findings show the choices students are prepared to make and the strategies which they find in order to engage online or access the Internet to support their studies. Archer's nuanced approach to agency and structure helps us begin to make sense of the way that students exhibit a more complex and nuanced way of engaging with the availability of different kinds of technologies, as well as making considered decisions about using ubiquitous technologies in unexpected ways and for purposes for which they may not have been intended. Her concept of reflexivity provides a way of describing how those choices are made in relation to structural conditions and enables us to explain how students are 'persons' showing an inventive capacity to circumvent the constraints imposed by structures.

This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in ALT-J Research in Learning Technology of Higher Education in 2009, available online: