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Engagement in Computer Science and IT -- What! A Matter of Identity?


Abstract and Figures

In this paper, we develop and illustrate the use of a new theoretical framework to systematically investigate the development of student identity in Computer Science and IT. Identity has been identified as a critical issue in the endeavour to increase students' engagement in Computer Science and related areas. Findings from earlier studies indicate that students' doubts about future engagement are often due to an unfortunate perception of the discipline, that it lacks meaning, which leads to a tendency to dissociate themselves from IT and Computer Science as an area of further study. To understand different ways of experiencing engagement in the discipline as personally meaningful, we have integrated aspects of Lave and Wenger's social theory of learning, especially Wenger's notion of meaning, with a model developed by Entwistle that describes how conceptions of learning and knowledge expand and evolve in the context of the educational experience. We explore the use of this theoretical framework on reflections that we collected from all novice students of the Computer Science and IT engineering programme at Uppsala University, in which the students reflect on their choice of study program, goals, and expectations for education. The theoretical framework is furthermore discussed with respect to our broader research project to study students' identity development in Computer Science and IT as well as the role of education, how it supports or hinders students and how this can be used to inform educational development.
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Engagement in Computer Science and IT –
What! A Matter of Identity?
Anne-Kathrin Peters, Arnold Pears
Department of Information Technology
Uppsala University
Box 325, 751 05 Uppsala, SWEDEN,
Abstract—In this paper, we develop and illustrate the use
of a new theoretical framework to systematically investigate
the development of student identity in Computer Science and
IT. Identity has been identified as a critical issue in the en-
deavour to increase students’ engagement in Computer Science
and related areas. Findings from earlier studies indicate that
students’ doubts about future engagement are often due to an
unfortunate perception of the discipline, that it lacks meaning,
which leads to a tendency to dissociate themselves from IT and
Computer Science as an area of further study. To understand
different ways of experiencing engagement in the discipline as
personally meaningful, we have integrated aspects of Lave and
Wenger’s social theory of learning, especially Wenger’s notion
of meaning, with a model developed by Entwistle that describes
how conceptions of learning and knowledge expand and evolve in
the context of the educational experience. We explore the use of
this theoretical framework on reflections that we collected from
all novice students of the Computer Science and IT engineering
programme at Uppsala University, in which the students reflect
on their choice of study program, goals, and expectations for
education. The theoretical framework is furthermore discussed
with respect to our broader research project to study students’
identity development in Computer Science and IT as well as the
role of education, how it supports or hinders students and how
this can be used to inform educational development.
Index Terms—engagement, identity, meaning and perception
of the discipline, Computer Science, IT.
“When you are a programmer, I think, you work with
problem solving [...].Itsnot that complex. You write this
code and it’s not like you have to think of [...] society
and economy and things like that.”
This statement was made by a student in the Sociotechni-
cal Systems Engineering degree programme at the end of
an introductory course in Computer Science (CS) [1], [2],
explaining why he will probably not choose CS as an area
for further study. Unfortunately the student’s utterance paints
a relatively narrow picture of what a computer scientist is, and,
apparently, one that the student cannot identify with. This is
one of many examples of student reasoning we have collected
in our research on trajectories leading to future engagement
in CS and IT.
Low engagement and high dropout rates in CS and IT
degrees continue to cause concern in Western countries [3].
Two major advocates for engineering and computing, the
Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and
the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), continue
to champion initiatives to enhance engagement among school
and university students [3]. Recent research in science, tech-
nology, engineering and math (STEM) education suggests
that students’ ability to identify with their chosen area of
study is a critical aspect affecting retention and recruitment
[4], [5]. An aspect broached by these studies is that many
novice students now seem to relate to STEM disciplines as
being cross-disciplinary and innovative. This view is often
not confirmed by early university experiences which leads to
disillusionment and doubt. As a conclusion, research on how
identity formation can be supported in university education
is recommended. However, what should be the focus when
investigating students’ identity formation in CS-related areas?
Results of our pilot study [2] as well as of our preliminary
data analysis of novice students’ reflections indicate that stu-
dents in different CS-related study programs reason, engage,
and define themselves in relation to the knowledge content
of the discipline. In the introductory example, the student is
interested in complex problems, that relate to society. He can
see engineers working on such problems, but not computer
scientists, programmers, that in his understanding only do
Based on these observations, we wish to describe and
explore identity formation as students pursue their studies.
In this paper, we suggest a theoretical framework to study
identity formation in relation to students’ conceptions of a
discipline and its meaning. Furthermore, we explore how to
utilise this framework in the context of empirical analysis of
reflective texts, and interview data. Our aim is to develop
and demonstrate the power of a system within which it is
possible to qualitatively describe the evolution of conceptions
of discipline and identity at the cohort and individual level.
We commence with the specification of our research aim
and questions. The description of the theoretical framework
follows. Subsequently, we describe our data collection and
analysis methodology. Then, we describe the results of our
data analysis with a focus on how the theoretical framework
helps to reason about students’ identity development. After
that, we discuss the results of our analysis in relation to related
results and to emerging research questions. A summary of the
study outcomes and directions for future work is the focus of
2013 Learning and Teaching in Computing and Engineering
978-0-7695-4960-6/13 $26.00 © 2013 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/LaTiCE.2013.42
2013 Learning and Teaching in Computing and Engineering
978-0-7695-4960-6/13 $26.00 © 2013 IEEE
DOI 10.1109/LaTiCE.2013.42
the concluding section.
This paper presents a theoretical framework for our research
project on students’ identity formation in CS and IT. We
will follow students from the beginning of their studies over
a period of two to three years. Furthermore, we want to
compare different ways of identifying with the discipline, by
investigating students from three different study programs:
Computer Science (CS), and two engineering programs, In-
formation Technology (IT) and Sociotechnical Systems Engi-
neering (STS).
Our objective is to inform educational development, e.g.
curriculum design. This, in addition to investigating different
student identities, necessitates an understanding of how educa-
tion supports or hinders students in perceiving their education
as relevant.
In this paper, we describe and discuss a first version of a
theoretical framework specifically developed to study identity
formation. We combine aspects of Lave and Wenger’s social
theory of learning as well as aspects of Wenger’s theory of
Community of Practice with a model on learner’s development
proposed by Entwistle. We explore its application based on
reflections we collected of all novice students of the CS and
IT engineering program. We aim to answer the following
R1: What aspects of Lave and Wenger’s theory appear to be
relevant to understand students’ identity formation in CS and
R2: In what ways can Entwistle’s theory complement the
notion of identity we describe in R1?
R3: How do the answers of R1 and R2 inform our endeavour
to understand students’ identity formation and the effect of the
university education experience?
Figure 1 gives an overview of the study design. We will
study and compare identity development of students of three
different study programs – CS, IT, and STS. We are interested
in the students’ ability to relate to the discipline, which
is presented by the vertical axis. The graphs illustrate the
development of identity, at this time generalized speculations.
As research indicates that students in CS struggle to identify
with the discipline due to educational experiences, we have
illustrated this through a descending graph. For the STS
students, we assume rather growth of their identity in CS and
IT as the students have not chosen IT and CS in the beginning.
The image in the circle illustrates the theoretical framework
for the investigation of students’ identity formation.
Investigating development of identity is a complex under-
taking. It has been pointed out as a critical aspect in recent
research [2], [4], [5], but it has hardly been explored in higher
education research so far [6], [7]. How should identity be
understood so that research on identity development addresses
problems such as low engagement in CS and IT? In his recent
thesis on attrition and retention in physics, Johannsen argues
Fig. 1. Illustration of the Broader Research Framework
that it is necessary to “operationalize a socio-cultural and
cultural-historical perspective on identity” [7, p. 24].
A socio-cultural perspective is also incorporated in theories
of community of practice [8], [9]. Lave and Wenger develop
a view of learning as being situated in a community of
practice. The epistemology of the group, that is to say, their
beliefs regarding knowledge and meaning are defined by and
through the members of that community. Accordingly, the
main purpose of learning is to work towards acceptance as
a member of a community, as opposed to the traditional view
of learning as being apprenticeship. Lave and Wenger then
define identity as a long-term, living relationship between a
person and his or her place and participation in a community
of practice [8, p.53]. Consequently, identity formation can
be understood as establishing such a relation and place in a
community of practice, and thus is a major focus of learning
Wenger’s social theory of learning [9] gives concrete sup-
port for investigation of identity development. It integrates
four components: Identity, Meaning, Practice, and Community
[9, p. 5]. Wenger argues that identity is formed through the
negotiation of meaning, through practice, in the context of a
community. Hence, all of the four components can be seen
as linked through meaning. Meaning is central to Wenger’s
theory as he stresses that “human engagement in the world is
first and foremost a process of negotiation of meaning” (p. 53).
Wenger describes meaning as the interaction of two constituent
processes, which he calls “reification” and “participation” [9,
p. 55-62].
The term participation refers to two aspects, to taking part in
something, and to the reflection this arouses from interaction
with others. Hence, participation and the meaning thereby
construed, always have a social character. Even if the activity
is carried out in isolation, it is given meaning through social
participation. As an implication, Wenger argues, participation
cannot be turned on and off erratically. Furthermore, partici-
pation involves the whole person – body, mind, emotions, and
social relations as well as doing, talking, thinking, feeling and
Reification refers to both, the process and the product “of
giving form to our experiences by producing objects that
coalesce experience into thingness” [9, p. 58]. It attributes
substance to abstractions, such as “justice” or “economy”.
Through reification, we “project construed meaning into the
world”. Reification is central to every practice, and expresses
itself through tools, symbols, formulas, stories, terms, and
concepts. As much as we produce reification based on our
experiences, reification also influences our experience of the
world as well as our ability to act, and our identity.
In addition to Wenger’s components of meaning, Wenger
reasons that patterns of engagement are also a means to
understand negotiation of meaning and thus formation of
identity. Patterns are activities that we engage in more or less
regularly, e.g. a conversation during lunch with our colleagues.
Producing these patterns anew gives rise to meaning since
we “extend, redirect, dismiss, reinterpret, modify or confirm
- negotiate anew - histories of meanings” [9, p. 52-53].
This history of meanings mirrors a learning trajectory, and
is another aspect of identity formation.
The aspects of Lave and Wenger’s theories presented here
provide a structure to reason about students’ identity formation
and how they experience engagement as meaningful. However,
the application of Lave and Wenger’s ideas and concepts to
our problem is not straightforward for several reasons. Wenger
illustrates his theory with examples of an ethnographic study
in a medical claims processing center operated by an insurance
company in the US, which is a very different context to that of
an academic learning environment in CS and IT. Furthermore,
he uses the theory foremost to describe the characteristics of
a community of claim processors.
Lave and Wenger’s theories provide a context with which to
describe becoming a member of a community in a way that ap-
pears meaningful, and developing a relation to the knowledge
content of the discipline. This is complemented by Entwistle’s
theory of learner development [10] as it describes students’
development of conceptions of knowledge and learning (see
Figure 2). In both dimensions, development leads to “changing
as a person”, and developing a “sense of identity”.
Development proceeds as the learner recognizes different
forms of knowledge and learning processes. Entwistle draws
on work of Perry [11] to describe the development of con-
ceptions of knowledge, i.e. students’ epistemological develop-
ment, until they reach the ways of thinking characteristic for
academic discourse. The main threshold that has to be over-
come is the change from “Dualism” to “Relativism”. Thereby,
the students refrain from thinking in terms of knowledge as
right or wrong but instead accept uncertainty in knowledge and
values and reason based on evidence and testing alternative
explanations. This opens up the subject in new ways, but also
the learning.
To describe the development of conceptions of learning,
Entwistle integrates results from research by S¨
o [12]. There,
a threshold is described between the conceptions of learning
as “Reproducing knowledge” and “Seeking meaning”, which
entails monitoring the learning progress towards an own un-
derstanding, in which knowledge takes on personal meaning.
Hence, the learner in these mature stages tries to understand
the meaning of what he is learning, thereby relating to what
he has learnt so far, and sees things in different ways as he is
As the two dimensions of conceptions of knowledge and
learning are seen in parallel, the potential of Entwistle’s
theory is to help to develop an understanding of how students
come to perceive and construct knowledge in a way that is
personally meaningful to them and how they choose to go
about learning. This adds another perspective to the notion of
meaning as described by Wenger. Concluding, we argue that
Lave and Wenger’s theory together with Entwistle’s theory
provide an interesting initial theoretical framework with which
to explore students’ identity formation and their conception of
the discipline and its meaning.
In order to explore ways to apply the theoretical framework,
we collected empirical data.
A. Instrument
To answer the research questions stated in section II, we
developed three open questions for a reflection. All of the
questions had sub questions that were meant to inspire the
students in their reflections, not to be answered one by one.
In the first question, we asked the students to reflect on
their choice of study program: How have their experiences,
their interests, and what they think is exciting and challenging
influenced their choice. Have others, like friends, family or
school, influenced them? In the second part, we asked the
students to reflect on their prospects of their future work. In
which situation or context can they see themselves? What do
they want to work on, and with whom? What do they want
their work to result in? In the third part, we asked the students
for their expectations on their education. What do they expect
to learn? What is needed to reach their goals described in the
second part? How can the university support them in that?
B. Collection Procedure
For this explorative application of the framework, we fo-
cused on the novice CS and IT students, that entered their
study program at the start of the Autumn term of 2012. The
questions for reflection were given to the students in the
beginning of an introductory course, which introduces the
students to different aspects of the discipline and studying.
The students received the assignment to do the reflection in
the second week of the course and semester.
In the following section, we aim to describe how the theo-
retical framework (section III) helps to understand different
ways of identifying with the discipline, in particular how
engagement in CS and IT is perceived as meaningful.
Fig. 2. Slightly Adapted Version of Entwistle’s Theory of Learner’s Development [10]
A. Methods
We collected 123 reflections in Swedish from 149 registered
students in the study programs IT and CS. The lengths of
the reflections vary a lot, between a couple of paragraphs
to two pages. The average number of words per reflection
(that might contain the questions also) is 380 words. To get
an overview of the data, we did a thematic analysis [13] of
30 randomly chosen reflections (25 male, 5 female). From
that, we developed ideas on how to use Lave and Wenger’s
theory to understand students’ relation to the discipline, i.e. as
described in section III, how they perceive their engagement as
meaningful, how they identify with it. We developed tentative
categories that relate to Wengers’ four components of learning,
identity, meaning, practice, community, and coded the chosen
reflections, using these tentative categories and subcategories,
that we identified while we were doing the coding. This
coding was done in several iterations. Furthermore, we did an
explorative deductive analysis [14] based on the conceptions
that Entwistle describes in his model of learner development
(section III, Figure 2).
As we are aiming at testing and discussing the use of this
framework rather than making claims about students’ identity
formation, the analysis has been explorative, preliminary.
However, further more rigid analysis of this data will be
worked on after the framework and its actualization has been
B. Results
The results of our explorative data analysis are presented in
three parts: first, in respect to Wenger’s theory of Communities
of Practice, then based on Entwistle’s model of learners’
development. In the third part, we integrate the results. The
quotes given are translated from Swedish to English, as much
as possible preserving the students’ connotation.
1) Using Wenger to Explore Student Identity: Aspects of
identity are common in students’ reflections on their engage-
ment in CS and IT.
“Computer Science is that which lies closest to me.”
(student in CS, male)
Identity, according to Wenger, develops through
(re)negotiation of meaning during a trajectory of learning.
Further, meaning can be studied through its two constituent
processes reification and participation. In the following, we
explore ways to concretize this theory with empirical data.
“My computer interest was the reason for my choice of
study program. Everything began with my father who
works as a consultant [...] and thus has a ’computer
oriented’ work. Like for many other young people, my
father was the first ideal to strive for, he was my hero.
One day, he took with him, an installationdisk for a
programming language and asked if I was interested. The
answer was of course yes. Ever since then, my computer
interest has escalated.” (student in IT, male)
Many reflections invoke “interest in the computer” as a reason
for the choice of study program. In fact, as it is the case
here, many reflections begin with a statement of that nature.
We find many stories, such as the one above, that describe
computer-related activities with friends and family, such as
playing games, maintaining the computer, or programming.
In these stories, the computer seems to be the object that
the students base their stories on. Hence, we suggest that the
computer can be seen as an object of reification.
Meaning in connection to the computer is construed in
different ways:
“The choice was quite obvious- I like to work in a
computer environment, where I feel home.
(student in CS, male)
Feeling home in a computer environment hints to everyday
activities with computers. Indeed, later on in the students’
reflection, the student writes that “of course”, a dream is to
work in the computer game industry, which indicates that this
student enjoys playing games which has led to the feeling of
home when dealing with computers. In fact, many students that
write that they like to play games write that they are interested
in game development.
Furthermore, we find statements that express fascination
over what computers can “do”:
“It has always puzzled me how things, such as computers,
can ’think’ when you can not see anything special with
the naked eye.” (student in IT, male)
Similarly, we find other students that express fascination over
what one can create with code, e.g. in relation to computer
games. This hints to computer programs and programming.
“I chose IT because I have always been interested in
computer, have sat much in front of the computer, and
have done things like programming.” (student in IT, male)
This student talks about how he has later chosen the “tech-
nical line” (program) at high school that has reinforced his
orientation towards IT. In fact, when students write about their
interest in computer, we often find stories about programming,
in many cases in relation to programming websites, which is
for example done with PHP.
“I began early with PHP and am quite good at it now but
I don’t do any larger things with it for the moment. The
reason for why I want to become better at programming
is that I have two friends through the internet that are
working on a very big project, and to fully understand
how the project works would be a big challenge. The fun
of programming is when you get it to work, according to
me.” (student in CS, male)
In this case, early experiences in programming have let to a
kind of participation in what the student perceives as a big
project. As the student mainly reflects on programming and
why it is fun, it is presumably the aspect of the project that he
has in mind, that he thinks is a challenge to fully understand,
and that he wants to become better in. As emotions, mutual
recognition, social interaction and reflection are involved, we
can interpret this as participation in Wenger’s sense, more
specifically “partial participation”, and envisioned “full par-
ticipation”. The student writes that he wants his future work
to be challenging, and that he wants to learn programming.
Hence, previous experiences and ideas for future work as well
as education appear well aligned.
We also find rather hardware-related experiences:
“Since I was small, I have always been very technological,
I have always loved to fiddle with electronic and learnt
how they function. I have also used at least a pair of
headsets per year, but when they are broken, I want to
take them apart, only to see what they look like inside. I
have always been a ’gadget geek’ who wants to read about
new things, at the same time as I have had friends who
were interested and could do more than me, so it was just
to ask them.” (student in CS, female)
The computer is of special interest, fascination for this student
as she starts the section on what she is interested to learn with:
“One of my goals in live is to build a whole computer on
my own.” (student in CS, female)
Consistently, she says that she can imagine to work within
the field of computer architecture in the future. She chose CS
instead of IT because:
“CS is more hardware and in depth of a Computer.
(student in CS, female)
In summary, this student also negotiates meaning in relation
to computer. Her story of earlier engagement indicates expe-
riences of participation, as emotions and mutual recognition
are included. Her experiences in taking apart devices thereby
relates to her goal to build a computer (put together parts to
a whole).
We have argued that one example of reification is the
computer. In relation to that, we find experiences that can be
interpreted as participation as they involve activities, feelings
and emotions, as they are carried out in a social group, with
friends and family in mutual recognition, and as meaning
is construed through these experiences. These experiences of
participation have been meaningful to these students, as they
are described to explain engagement in CS and IT and as they
determine future trajectories of engagement.
Another way meaning is construed is with a broader focus
on technology, often in relation to society:
“I chose Computer Science because my whole life, I
have been interested in IT and ways computer have been
integrated in our society.” (student in CS, male)
This student also uses the term computer, but in a broader
social context. In the rest of his reflection, he does not
write “computer” or any other computer-related term, such
as “programming”, “application” etc.. Instead, he writes about
“IT-solutions” and “technological development”. He states that
he wants to work as a consultant. He does not write about any
previous experiences or activities that relate to that.
Another quote that relates to this way of meaning making:
“I hope and believe that my work will lead to a better
world where technology and society interact in a more
effective and gentle way.” (student in IT, male)
This student sees technology embedded in society and wants
to contribute to improving this interplay. How does this goal
relate to earlier experiences, possibly participation in a social
environment? The student begins his reflection by stating
that he has been interested in technology, everything in his
environment from a TV to a microwave, and in how these
things work. He states that he has friends that are similarly
technology interested and that are like him well-informed
about technological development.
“And that has shown me that the world of technology is
fantastic and not driven of limits, but free for speculation
and imagination.” (student in IT, male)
Reading and talking about technology with friends could be
seen as a kind of participation, as it includes emotions, mutual
recognition and as it has had an influence on the students’
engagement. In his future job, the student hopes to be creative,
to solve problems, or to develop new technology that does
not yet exist, together with innovative people with similar
interests. In line with this, he wishes to learn how things work
and how to solve problems with “IT-structures”. In regard to
development of IT-systems, he does not state experiences. He
seems to have a relation to programming though:
“Maybe I do not want to program things for the rest of
my life, because that seems to be quite boring.”
(student in IT, male)
It is unclear how this view relates to earlier experiences.
The following quote is taken from the reflection on the
choice of study program:
“The biggest obstacle to continue is that I do not like to
program, but I still want to have a deeper understanding
of our technology in society.” (student in IT, male)
Unfortunately, the student does not write about why he does
not like programming and where he got his experiences from.
In his reflection, he does not write about other earlier CS
and IT related experiences but that he dropped out of the
engineering physics program. He writes that he has done a
lot of thinking before he chose IT, he sat down with the
catalogue of study programs and crossed out everything he
wasn’t interested in – IT and Multi Media remained. He
envisions his future engagement in the following:
“My dream is to lead an own company that works on some
kind of IT solution. If I may dream freely, I would like to
become an inventor, I want to develop a product from the
beginning to the end. [...] If I choose a role model, then
it would be Steve Jobs and his development of Apple.”
(student in IT, male)
This student writes about who he wants to become. As he uses
“dream” and “dream freely”, this appears to be quite detached
from experiences he has had so far. Indeed, he does not state
any earlier experiences. His expectations for education relate
to his future ideas:
“From my studies, I want to carry with me knowledge that
I can compete with on an international level, and that lies
on the edge of what technology has to offer.
(student in IT, male)
The previous quotes illustrate negotiation of meaning with a
broader focus on technology, often in relation to society and
innovation. This can be seen as another object of reification.
It has become visible in the students’ stories and it appears to
be a projection of construed meaning, as it is used to explain
engagement in CS and IT.
Wenger states that reification refers to giving form to our ex-
periences. The students’ experiences related to the two objects
of reification, “computer” and “technology in society”, appear
to be very different. The students with a focus on computer
have often experienced a kind of participation as the computer
is relatively accessible. Further, they have often experienced
development, e.g. computer programming. The students that
focus on technology in society have less likely had hands-
on experiences. Hence, their envisioned future participation
(e.g. consulting, development) and their expectations for their
education do less likely relate to previous experiences of
participation and concrete activities. As meaning, according
to Wenger, is the interaction of reification and participation,
this observed difference between the two different ways of
negotiating meaning is remarkable.
Also, we find students with a broader focus on technology
that have a “striking” relation to programming. Maybe they
have experienced programming in a way that does not relate
to what they perceive is meaningful? This could be the
case as early programming probably relates to programming
applications for computers.
2) Conceptions of Knowledge and Learning Based on
Entwistle: Analyzing student discourses using an adapted
version of Entwistle’s model of learner development allows us
to gain insight into students conceptual maturity as they nego-
tiate their professional identity in a broader social framework.
Overall, we find expressions that indicate lower conceptions.
The following quote is an example for knowledge being
“First of all, I hope to learn to program correctly.
(student in CS, female)
This statement indicates a dualistic conception as the student
assumes that there is a right way to program and that she will
be told what that is, which is directly related to knowledge as
provided by authorities. Further evidence of this conception
can be found in statements such as:
“I believe, that the university will teach me what is
required for a career as a programmer, computer scientist.
[...] First and foremost to program, both programming
language and how to organize a project with programming,
including how a computer works.
(student in CS, male)
“I hope to be able to learn everything that is needed to be
active in the labor market. To reach that, I will finish all
my courses.” (student in IT, male)
We surmise that students with this type of conception also fall,
presumably, into the lowest conception of learning “acquiring
factual information”.
The higher conceptions of Entwistle are not so easy to iden-
tify at this stage, as the students are mostly not so experienced.
Quite some students appreciate the developing character of
the discipline: faster technology, new programming languages
etc.. This suggests a conception of the discipline as being
provisional. Furthermore, we find very few statements that
indicate a conception of learning as seeking meaning, e.g. by
one student that hopes to learn how programming languages
are built up to be able to learn new programming languages.
3) Integration of the Results: So far, we have explored the
use of Wenger’s theory to better understand how students
experience their engagement in CS and IT as meaningful.
We gave two examples of reification and in relation to that
interpreted students’ experiences, in some cases in terms of
participation. In our analysis based on Entwistle, we found
overall lower conceptions of learning, especially the expecta-
tion to “be provided” from the university with what is needed
for the career. Based on these results, we can give a possible
explanation of the following quote:
“In the first week, it suddenly struck me: Computer
Science is perhaps not what I expected and if I did right
or wrong when I chose the program. [...] During the
weekend, I just sat and read deeper about CS, what it
actually is and what future it has.”(student in CS, female)
The student might have been confronted with CS and IT in
a way that does not match what she perceives is meaningful.
This leads to strong doubts about her choice of study program
as she expects to learn what she will need and use after her
studies. Furthermore, her meaning making may be relatively
weak, as she does not have earlier experiences of participation.
Previous examples of students with broader interests in
“technology in society” indicate problems in relating pro-
gramming to students’ negotiation of meaning. We found one
example of a student, male, enrolled in the CS study program,
that seems to be more successful in that: After the student had
thought about studying medicine, microbiology and politics,
he finally decided that:
“Computer Science is that which lies closest to me. I
have always been interested in technology, even if I have
not always understood how it worked. [...] Looking into
the future, I know, that our world needs more computer
scientists and developers.” (student in CS, male)
This indicates a rather broad perspective in his negotiation
of meaning. He does also state an interest in computer,
“especially in gaming”. Furthermore, he says:
“I have always been interested and fascinated over what
one can create with code.” (student in CS, male)
Through his friends, that have studied the same study program
at the same university, he knows about the versatility of
different jobs for computer scientists, which leads to a positive
view of the future:
“A future, that can involve another great interest I have,
namely in an international perspective and in security.
Therefor I hope to work in security related programming.
That which I also hope for is an international work, that
I will be involved in a project [...] that leads to global
development.” (student in CS, male)
The student relates programming to global development,
which the other students with a broader reification don’t do.
This however is not based on the students’ own experiences,
but maybe partly on his friends’ stories of participation.
Furthermore, the student has a high conception of learning,
that has presumably supported him also:
“I know that the education will be useful. Maybe not that I
will learn exactly what my dream job comprises, but what
I will learn is a way of working and thinking that will be
useful to me.” (student in CS, male)
Although the student states that he knows this from his friends
that are already working in the field, we can assume that he
himself has such a view and does not expect to be provided
with exactly what is needed for him. One argument that
supports this assumption is that he is able to link programming
to his broader interests.
Concluding, the two examples above summarize how the
theoretical framework presented in this paper could help to
better understand students’ negotiation of meaning in CS and
IT. The examples above furthermore show how the com-
ponents of the framework add on to each other, i.e. Lave
and Wenger’s theory of social learning, especially Wenger’s
concepts “reification” and “participation” to study meaning,
and Entwistle’s model of learner’s development.
C. Discussion and Questions for Future Research
Our results are related to Schulte and Knobelsdorf’s re-
search on novice students’ attitudes towards CS [15], [16].
According to them, trajectories of experiences that lead to
engagement in CS often begin with usage of computer.
Furthermore, they describe an important shift from usage to
creation and development (programming) that leads to future
engagement in CS. They collected data through “computer
biographies”, in which they explicitly asked the students to
reflect on their experiences related to the computer. As com-
puters are so prevalent nowadays, Schulte and Knobelsdorf
assume that those have the biggest affect on students’ attitudes
towards CS. Our work suggests that students also construct
meaning with a broader perspective on technology in society
and innovation.
Ulriksen et. al. [4], [5] investigated drop out in STEM.
They find that students that are interested in innovation and
interdisciplinary work are often confronted with a different
image in their education. This throws light on the student
group in CS and IT that negotiates meaning with a broader
perspective on technology. We have found possible problems
as some of the students express a conspicuous relationship
to programming. The way the students learn programming in
the beginning of their education presumably addresses a rather
narrow perspective on computer (applications).
Concluding, it is important to understand students’ negotian
of meaning and its development during education. Are there
other focuses in student’s negotiation of meaning? How do
students’ negotiation of meaning relate to earlier experiences?
How do participation and reification develop during their
studies? Are students’ conceptions of learning and knowledge
developing and how does that influence students’ negotiation
of meaning? What is the role of education in all these aspects?
In this paper, we described and explored the application of
a framework that provides a theoretical basis with which to
study students’ identity formation in order to understand how
student perceive learning CS and IT as meaningful, and how
they are supported or hindered by their education. In order to
study personal development, we combine Lave and Wenger’s
theory, which provides a way to understand becoming a
member of a community and negotiation of meaning, with
Entwistle’s theory of learners’ development that describes
growing conceptions of knowledge and learning. Based on
data gathered from novice students, we tested the use of
this theoretical framework to illustrate how students’ reflective
utterances can be used to chart identity formation in CS and
We find Lave and Wenger’s concept of meaning useful when
trying to understand students’ relationship to the discipline,
and how they envision their future participation and learning.
The concepts reification and participation have been particu-
larly useful in helping to reach an understanding of students’
trajectories in this respect. Analyzing the data based on an
adaptation of the developmental model proposed by Entwistle,
we find (not unexpectedly) that students in our study express
collectively conceptions of knowledge, as being absolute and
provided by the university, which implies a less sophisticated
conception of learning, i.e. reproducing of facts.
There appear to be two student groups with different ne-
gotiation of meaning that could be valuable to follow. One
group of students makes meaning with a focuses on computer
and applications. Such students often have participated in pro-
gramming and envision their future participation in alignment
with their earlier experiences of participation. They expect to
learn more in this respect. The second student group focuses
on bigger systems and technology in society. These students
have often not participated in development and envision their
future participation differently from the first student group,
and it appears unlikely that their stance is based on previous
experiences of participation.
As the students now have overall low conceptions of learn-
ing and knowledge, they often expect to be equipped with
what they need for their career. The role of higher education
and curriculum is clearly significant for the second group.
Most engineering and computer science degree programmes
introduce programming subjects early, and focus on program-
ming skills in the early parts of the curriculum. This addresses
the computer perspective more than the systems perspective.
Consequently, our theoretical framework will be helpful to
study how students re-negotiate meaning, thereby improve our
understanding of their evolving conceptions of knowledge and
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learning computer science,” Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE),
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An Interim Revision of CS 2001,” ACM / IEEE CS, Tech. Rep., 2008.
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[5] H. T. Holmegaard and L. Ulriksen, “Why students choose (not) to
study engineering,” Proc. of the Joint International IGIP-SEFI Annual
Conference, 2010.
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cultural-historical activity theory,Mind, Culture, and Activity, vol. 14,
no. 1-2, pp. 40–63, April 2007.
[7] B. F. Johannsen, “Attrition and Retention in University Physics. A lon-
gitudinal qualitative study of the interaction between first year students
and the study of physics,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Copenhagen,
[8] J. Lave and E. Wenger, Situated learning : legitimate peripheral partic-
ipation. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
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Cambridge University Press, 1999.
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standing: Thresholds, Contextual Influences, and Knowledge Objects,” in
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computing,” ICER, 2012.
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lungskontext der Computernutzung,” Ph.D. dissertation, Freie Univer-
at Berlin, 2011.
We would like to thank Michael Thun´
e, Anna Eckerdal, and
Anders Berglund from our research group for many inspiring
discussions, comments, and feedback since the beginning of
this research project in August 2011.
... Grande et al.'s work[23] on the association between role models and identity; (2) Thiry and Hug's work[78] on processes influencing identity formation of Latina undergraduate computing students; (3) Peter (et al.'s) work[60][61][62][63][64] on understanding contexts in which CS and IT students experience different meanings of participation (a process of identity negotiation); (4) Garcia et al.'s paper[21] which demonstrated the variation in high-achieving underserved students computing identities across gender, academic year, and degree program; (5) Erdil and Ronan's work [17] on factors that influence career identities of students; (6) Cheryan et al.'s work [7] which explored sources of "identity expression threat" and studied the relationship between "identity expression threat" and women's expression of interest in CS; (7) Taheri et al.'s paper[74,75] which determined the relationship of computing identity and persistence and also studied this relationship controlling gender and academic standing; (8) Trauth et al.'s work[81,82] on the relationship among gender identity, ethnic identity, and stereotypes about the skills and knowledge in the IT profession; (9) Zander et al.'s paper[89] that described the relationship between CS students' identities and threshold concepts or transformative events; (10)Walker's work[85] on processes or factors that influence feminine and masculine identity construction; and (11) Lewis et al.'s work [41] which described factors that influence students' perception of "fitting" into CS, i.e., a process of alignment of a person's identity with values and cultural expectations in CS. ...
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