Chapter I. Methods

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The research design and methods for this dissertation have been greatly shaped by the Digital Edge Project; a three-year research project that examined young people’s new media and learning ecologies. As part of the research team led by S. Craig Watkins (Principal Investigator), I spent over a year conducting ethnographic fieldwork at Freeway High School, and two years analyzing the data we collected. Although there are several similarities and intersections between the Digital Edge Project and my dissertation, there are also important differences between the two, especially regarding the objectives, research questions, sample of participants, data analysis, and limitations. When describing the work of the Digital Edge, I will use the plural pronouns “we” and “us” to credit the work and findings of the research team I was part of. In contrast, when describing the specific research questions, findings, and analyses of this dissertation, as well as the case studies I personally conducted, I use personal pronouns to distinguish my work from the larger collective project.

Objectives and Research Questions

This dissertation is concerned with the problem of immigrant youth assimilation into the U.S. and the problem of digital inequalities. I examine these issues through a series of case studies about the mediated activities of five Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths, with working-class socioeconomic backgrounds, in three contexts: the family/home, an after-school program, and the multi-setting of social media networked spaces. My aims are:

  1. to understand the characteristics of the new media practices and skills that five Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths develop as they use digital tools;
  2. to investigate the assimilation process of five second- and 1.5-generation Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth in a context of networked communication, a hyper-mediated culture, and structural inequalities;
  3. to contribute to the theory of segmented assimilation by considering how immigrant youths’ new media practices shape the process of incorporation into a host country;
  4. to understand the complex evolution of digital inequalities and participation gaps.

While the first and fourth objectives intersect the aims of the Digital Edge project, particularly in its goals of studying diverse youths' engagement with new media, formal and informal learning, and unique media ecologies; the second and third objectives are unique to my dissertation and specifically relate to the problem of immigrant youth assimilation in the U.S. From these general objectives, I formulated a number of specific research questions and further refined them in the course of this dissertation project. My main questions are:

  1. What are the new media practices and skills working class Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth develop in the contexts of family/home, after-school, and social media networked spaces?
  2. How do new media practices and skills help Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths to navigate their assimilation process in the U.S.?

Answering the main and secondary questions I will try to untangle the complex interplay of digital inequalities and structural factors, and understand how it shapes immigrant youths' trajectories of assimilation. Moreover, these questions are intended to help me understand the agency of Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth exercised as they communicated and socialized using networked technologies in their everyday life. Specifically, their agency in the contexts of family/home, an after-school program, and social media networked spaces.

The Site

The Austin Metropolitan Area

The research from the Digital Edge project and this dissertation is located in the particular local context of the larger metropolitan area of Austin. Named the 11th biggest city in the U.S. in 2013 according to the Census Bureau population estimates, this area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Once provincial, known for its legislative and educational operations, in the last twenty-five years Austin has exploded as a major destination not only for immigrants from other countries, but also for Americans from all over the U.S. The "new immigration" has in particular increased the share of the Latino/Hispanic population. It went from 23% in 1990, to 31% in 2000, to 35% in 2010. According to a recent report, Austin is ranked as the 20th largest area of a Hispanic population in the country (Pew Hispanic Center 2013), with a population of 885,400, the city has become ethnically diverse. The Latino/Hispanic group has a share 35.1%, the white Anglos 48.7%, Blacks or African Americans 8.1%, and Asians 6.3% (Cohen et al., 2013).

Although the metropolitan area of Austin has a history of spatial segregation, that has been gradually changing. The eastern portion of the city, separated from downtown by Interstate I-35, is historically home to minority communities, a configuration established even before the highway’s completion in the early 1960s (Straubhaar et al., 2012). With recent development efforts, combined with the massive scale of the "new immigration" and the boom of the area as a technological and innovation hub, Austin has experienced a wave of gentrification that has displaced minority populations unevenly throughout the city. A look at a map of the Latino/Hispanic population in Austin shows that although this group is concentrated in three major zones (80% plus): lower east Austin, greater Dove Springs, and the St. Johns area, this population is also concentrated in several little pockets (60-80%) distributed unevenly across the metropolitan area (Robinson, 2011). It is precisely in an area that contains one of these growing Latino/Hispanic clusters, where Freeway High School is located. Specifically, this public school and its community are located on the north urban fringe of the city, in what used to be a middle class suburban area in the 1970s but has increasingly become inhabited by working class families in the past two decades.[1]

Freeway High School

Because of its minority-majority student population, its location at the margins of the city, the socioeconomic background of most of the students families, and its digital media after school programs and elective classes, Freeway High School offered us a unique opportunity for researching digital inequalities of the U.S. Moreover, given the size of the Latino/Hispanic student population (951), the school was also an appropriate site for investigating the problem of the assimilation of Latino/Hispanic immigrant youth and their new media practices.

Freeway High School (FHS) was a large-scale public school located at the edge of the city, near what could be considered the urban fringe. The school served a community that was racially and economically diverse. However, the majority of the population was minority (88.8%) and economically disadvantaged (61.7%). In 2011-2012, Hispanic/Latinos made up 47.5% of a total of 2,002 students, whites 11.2%, Asians 13.3%, and African-Americans 24.2%. (Texas Education Agency 2011-2012) Almost half of the students (45%) classify for the Free Lunch Program, and 11% are in the Reduced-Price Lunch Program (Propublica, 2013). According to the Texas Education Agency Academic Excellence Indicator System the school had an "academically acceptable" rating in the year 2010-2011. The school provided few educational programs like Advanced Placement (AP), gifted and talented programs, and advanced math and science classes. Furthermore, very few students were enrolled in AP classes (24%), and even less are in gifted/talented programs (6%) (Propublica, 2013).

The general climate of Freeway High School was one of a crowded and low performing school, with the majority of students in the regular curriculum track (83.7%), budget cuts, and pressure on teachers (to get students pass the tests). The school banned students' use of mobile and digital devices, and blocked social network sites inside computer labs and classrooms. However, the school also offers elective classes and after-school programs that focused on digital media production and embraced new forms of learning. The Digital Edge team centered its interactions and observations around four spaces that have digital media technology orientations: two elective classrooms (a video technology class and a video game design class) and two after-school programs. Two members of the research team spent a total of approximately 150 hours in each classroom and four members spent more than 70 hours in the after-school programs doing participant observation.

Digital Media Oriented After-School Programs

The Digital Edge research team observed two after-school programs on a weekly basis: the Digital Media Club (DMC) and the Cinematic Arts Project (CAP). While the DMC expanded through two classrooms/computer labs and was supervised by both Mr. Warren and Mr. Lopez (the teachers of the game design and video technology elective classes, respectively), the CAP was only supervised by Mr. Lopez and most of its activities happened in only one classroom. Both classrooms provided access to more than forty I-Mac desktop computers, midi keyboards, drawing tablets, and other media production gear. The I-Mac computers ran OS-X, were connected to the internet, and had several media production software applications such as I-Movie, Garage Band, Key Note, Adobe Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects), Final Cut Pro, and Celtix. The computers also have an integrated camera, a microphone, and headphones. Some participants of the Digital Edge study frequented these spaces in a regular or casual basis depending on the intensity and structure of each program.

The Digital Media Club (DMC)

The DMC functioned as a two-classroom open computer lab where any student from Freeway High could work on multimedia projects, play computer games, mess around with software, browse the internet, geek out in media production (music, video), or simply hang out with friends. The DMC was an unstructured program and had an ambiguous nature that facilitated the participation of members and non-members of the club. On the one hand, the two classrooms where the club met during the after school hours (4:15pm-6pm approximately) were open spaces for any Freeway High student. On the other, the official members of the club had opportunities for working and collaborating on specific production projects that went beyond the computer lab, and enjoyed certain privileges such as checking out equipment (e.g. laptops, cameras). Activities were very diverse at the DMC and included playing video games, editing videos, creating portraits with the IMac cameras, making beats, photoshopping, browsing the web, and messing around with visual effects software.

The Cinematic Arts Project (CAP)

The CAP was a structured program run by a partnership between Mr. Lopez and the directors of a local film production company. At the time of our fieldwork, and one year after its creation, the CAP became a non-profit organization focused on teaching the art of digital storytelling and audiovisual production to young people. Although the CAP started as a project that emerged from the DMC, it grew very fast and in its second year it included not only students from Freeway High (10) but also from two other public high schools from the district (30). The program offered access to professional digital cinema tools (e.g. cameras, computers, lighting kits, microphones, software), peer and project-based learning, and adult mentorship. Most of the CAP activities took place in Mr. Lopez's classroom/computer lab and they happened from November 2011 to April 2012. Due to the intensity of the activities (everyday, from 4:30-7pm approximately) and the number of participants, during the months that the CAP was running the DMC faded away from Mr. Lopez's classroom.

The CAP had clear goals and structure. Students collaborated in five teams led by recent graduates from Freeway High in the creation of a short fiction film, a documentary, a making-of video, three webisodes, and multimedia content for the web. An executive team of producers and high school teachers supervised all the teams with experience in media production. The program had a sophisticated division of labor that resembled the professional structures of media production. For instance, the Narrative Team was divided in several departments such as Production Management, Camera & Electrical, Sound, Art, Costume & Wardrobe, Hair & Makeup, Music, and Editorial. Each department had students assuming diverse roles that went from directors to camera operators to grips, allowing them to learn and practice particular skills. Some of the major goals of the CAP were to submit the fiction film to an international film festival, send a group of selected students to the festival, fundraise money for the international trip, and recruit sponsors among the local community who could support the project economically and with production gear.

Qualitative Methodology

In the Digital Edge project our research design relied on multiple qualitative methods that included classic ethnography, participant observation, informal and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and action research. A qualitative approach was appropriate for examining young people’s new media and learning ecologies and their participation in digital media cultures. It allowed us to gain a nuanced understanding of the characteristics of the multiple technologies that youth access at specific contexts of activity and their interconnection with their wider media ecologies. Furthermore, it helped us to understand the many different nodes that composed their learning ecologies (peer group, family, after-school, social media). The qualitative approach also allowed us to look closely at some of the activities (including learning) where youths exercised their agency as they participated in digital media cultures and developed new media practices. This approach was also useful for investigating the problem of youth assimilation into the U.S. Although this problem has been thoroughly examined with quantitative methodologies, looking at it from the micro-perspective of immigrant youths' mediated interactions and mediated experiences was useful for revealing its complexity and interplay with digital inequalities. Particularly, this research approach allowed me to analyze the linguistic, social, and cultural dimensions of the assimilation process of Latino/Hispanic immigrant youths in the U.S.


One of the main qualitative methods used by the Digital Edge project was classical ethnography (Emerson, Fretz & Snow 1995; Rubin & Rubin 2005; Spradley 1979; Foley 2002). After having established an initial rapport, we conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with students, mentors, teachers, and parents/guardians, during an academic year (2011-2012). Our goal was to document the nuances of young people’s new media and learning ecologies over a long period of time, and to elaborate a series of ethnographic case studies for each of our participants, families, and settings. Given the amount of hours spent doing participant observation in the elective technology classes (+150) and the digital media oriented after-school programs (+70), we were able to create a “thick description” (Geertz, 1973) of these spaces and their culture. The quality, quantity, and frequency of interviews during an extended period of time also allowed us to construct vivid and nuanced analysis of the youth's new media ecologies and practices, their family/homes dynamics, and activities on social media networked spaces. Each member of our team was matched with between two and five students (14-18 years old) across all grades (18 in total) that we followed for a year, having approximately 12 semi-structured in-depth interviews each. I personally worked with two participants, Antonio and Sergio, who were second- and 1.5- generation Latino/Hispanic immigrants.[2]

Participant Observation

During the academic year 2011-2012, the Digital Edge team conducted participant observation in two elective classes and two after-school programs. Following the traditional stages of participant observation (Howell 1972), researchers first established a rapport with the participants of the study, then immersed themselves in the field, recorded observations as fieldnotes, and finally analyzed and organized the information gathered. According to the types of participant observation described by Spradley (1980), there were differences between the role that members of the team played when observing the elective classes and the one played at the after-school space. While at the elective classes the method was of active participation, at the after-school program it was passive participant observation. The two members of the team who spent approximately 150 hours in each classroom became more involved in the population and collaborated in several projects and curriculum design. In contrast, the four researchers, including me, who conducted approximately 70+ hours of fieldwork observing the after-school played a more passive role. At the after-school programs, we limited our interactions to one of bystanders who hung out at the space on a weekly basis. Our observations focused on the digital media practices and social interactions that the students developed. We did not participate actively in the after-school activities nor become members of the community, and both the subjects of the study and the supervisors of the after-school setting recognized us as outsiders who were working in a project associated with the University of Texas and with the principal investigator Professor S. Craig Watkins.

Given the nature of the digital media after-school programs we observed, the fieldwork expanded across multiple spaces where the activities of the program took place. For instance, inside the Freeway High School building the DMC after-school program was split between two computer lab classrooms, the one of Mr. Lopez, the video technology teacher, on the second floor, and Mr. Warren’s, the videogame teacher, on the first floor. Researchers decided to observe either of these two spaces according to where their assigned subjects of study spent the most time. While some subjects were inclined towards gaming practices spent most of the time in the first floor computer lab, others participants interested in digital video and music production spent most of their time in the second floor classroom. I personally, spent more time observing Mr. Lopez’s classroom since it was in this space where the activities of the CAP took place from November 2011 to May 2012.

While observing the CAP, I had the opportunity to see how after-school activities expanded to other spaces inside the Freeway High campus such as the cafeteria, the theater, the second floor hall, and two adjacent rooms next to Mr. Lopez's classroom. In these locations students developed shots, rehearsals, casting sessions, screenings, and brainstormed. Moreover, I also had the opportunity to observe some activities of the CAP that took place outside of the school setting in several locations around the Austin metropolitan area. Students shot scenes, delivered public presentations at educational conferences, organized fundraising events, and participated in a local film industry event.

Action research intervention

After spending a year at the school doing ethnographic research, three members of the Digital Edge team, including me, conducted an action research intervention in collaboration with Mr. Lopez and a group of sixteen high school students, that included four of the participants of our original sample of eighteen students. Two of them (Inara and Antonio) were part of the subsample of my dissertation. The intervention was a three-week summer camp (summer 2012) in which all participants formed a digital media and design studio. Together, we redesigned the space of Mr. Lopez's classroom/computer lab in order to make it more participatory, and structured the learning environment applying the principles of the connecting learning model (participation, hands on learning, constant challenge, and interconnectedness). One of our goals was to see how the model worked in practice, in the context of Freeway High and with some of the participants we had been following for several months. For this experience, we purposefully integrated new media tools for social connection, creation, and linking the classroom, community and home. We created several design challenges that allowed students to engage with real world problems, particularly ones related to toxic food environments and childhood obesity. During this intervention students were able to 
experience learning as hands-on, experiential, and connected to their communities and their environment. Hence, it could be said that the intervention provided an enrichment opportunity for Freeway High students, supporting learning that was connected, relevant, production centered, and interest-motivated.


  1. Data from the Census Bureau (2010) shows that Hispanic population in the Austin has spread from the traditional enclaves or barrios of the East Side and Dove Springs to all parts of the metropolitan area. Besides being a majority in much of East and Southeast Austin, they have become the majority in portions of North and South Austin (Toohey, 2014). Interestingly, the movement of working-class Latino/Hispanic families to the edges of the city in the past decades has coincided with what some scholars describe as the rise of suburban poverty in the U.S. That is, the growth of poverty and low-income families in major U.S. city’s suburbs during the 2000s (Kneebone & Berube, 2015).
  2. I am thankful to the Digital Edge team of researchers who collaborated in the fieldwork conducting participant observations and interviews: Alexander Cho, Jennifer Noble, Vivian Shaw, Jacqueline Vickery, S. Craig Watkins, and Adam Williams.