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Discovery & User Experience

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 1

The other day, on my way up to DUX, I shared the elevator with a couple undergrads who were heading to the 5th-floor group-study lab.  It’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ elevator conversations, even when I pretend to be deeply absorbed in some highly important text message I’m composing or in staring at my own, blurry, reflection in the elevator’s interior metal doors.  The young women were complaining about a class they’re taking whose instructor relies too heavily—in their estimation—on online, rather than traditional face-to-face, instruction.  The quizzes, tests, assignments, and lectures are conducted mostly online, they lamented, feeling this detrimental to both their engagement and success with the material.  This is just anecdotal, of course, but it speaks to a real concern: the ways in which technology is integrated into the learning environment impact all aspects of students’ academic performance.

Enter the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, an annual survey (conducted by EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, a nonprofit association of IT professionals interested in technology’s role in higher education) that seeks to “create a profile of undergraduate students’ ownership and use of technology for academics, to identify ways that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes, and to assess their perceptions of how well institutions and instructors use technology to enhance the academic experience” (p. 4).  Because adopting new technologies and developing curriculum demands a major investment of time, energy, and money, the study’s secondary objective is to encourage institutions to use the collected data to make informed decisions when planning for technology.

The size of ECAR’s study sample is in no way slim; in 2012, it surveyed approximately 100,000 students from 195 academic institutions (including IUB), hoping both to identify trends in and discover topical and emerging issues related to students’ technology use.  The full report is worth reading; it delves into demographics data (e.g., users’ perceptions and behaviors broken down by sex, race, enrollment status, etc.) that space limitations won’t allow me to highlight here.  This post, though, will outline some of the more salient points, spread across what researchers identified as four recurrent themes.  I will cover the first theme here, and the other three in subsequent posts.

Theme 1: Students expect and value blended learning environments.

  • Point 1: It’s no surprise that today’s undergrads, seemingly born Internet-connected and with cell phone in hand, say educational environments that include both an online and a traditional classroom component best suit their learning styles and needs.  Seventy percent surveyed say it is in these mixed-modality settings that they can be most successful.  Three quarters of students surveyed have taken a course with some online component, and classes that combine both traditional and nontraditional modalities are especially attractive to nontraditional students; the study reveals that “more students age 25 or greater (older students) than younger students preferred classes with online components” (p. 7).
  • Point 2: The number of courses offered completely online is growing as well.  “In fact, twice as many students are taking online courses in 2012 (31%) than in 2008 (15%)” (p. 8).  With more online course offerings, students often have greater access to educational opportunities.  Many students surveyed take classes concurrently at more than one institution or take a combination of campus- and online-based classes.
  • Point 3: They expect their instructors to step up to the plate and use technology in a way that is engaging and academically supportive.  One particularly interesting statistic reveals students’ satisfaction regarding this concern: “More students than ever gave positive marks for their instructors’ use of technology.  Two years ago, less than half (47%) reported that most or almost all of their instructors effectively use technology to advance students’ academic success, whereas this year more than two-thirds (68%) said that is the case” (p. 9).
  • Point 4: Students’ expanding use of portable computing devices and social-networking leads to the assumption they should be able to connect with their learning institution and instructors via similar channels.  A majority of students (67%) use things like their school’s website, online tutoring sessions, and email to feel connected (p. 10).
  • Point 5: Students would like to see an increase in instructors using Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Game-Based Learning.  These numbers have rocketed in just a year.  Respondents desiring the inclusion of freely available content from OERs to support their learning grew from just 19% in 2011 to 57% in 2012.  Similarly, those wishing simulations and learning games would become a regular part of the classroom grew from 15% in 2011 to 55% in 2012 (p. 12).

Although students expect technology to be integrated into their learning environment, they also expect it to be used effectively.  The young students I encountered in the elevator, sighing exasperatedly as they commiserated over the unhelpful inclusion of technology in their class, are testament to this.  Further parts of the ECAR study, which I will discuss in upcoming posts, look at the varied technological devices, platforms, and tools students are using, as well as the ways in which they want to use them when it comes to education.

Citation: Dahlstrom, E. (2012, September).  ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology.  Retrieved from

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