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Discovery & User Experience

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 2

Remember the olden days when families had a communal computer—a grayish behemoth perched in some corner of the living room—and a person really had to fight to get a chance to play a game of solitaire, practice some typing with Mavis Beacon, or dial up to do some web surfing with the help of AltaVista?  Okay, maybe that was just my adolescence.  I admit I am in no way a techie.  I’m not an early adopter.  But, since those early days, I’ve burned through several desktops and laptops, of various brands and with various attendant apps.  Just a few months ago, I convinced myself I couldn’t live without a Google Nexus 7.  Truly, though, this tablet often makes my grad-school experience just a little less trying.  As a perpetual college student since about 2003—with a couple years spent teaching high school—I understand intimately the intersection of technology and instruction.  When it comes to technology, students will always have something newer, something different, and they will be using it for academic purposes.

The second theme (you can read about the first theme here, in my previous blog post: of the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology addresses this point: The technologies already used by students are diverse and prolific, especially in regard to mobile devices.  “Nearly all students own a laptop, and more students in 2012 than in previous years own handheld mobile device such as tablets, smartphones, and e-readers.  There is diversity in brands and operating systems among these devices, and consequently there is a growing need for device neutrality of apps designed for these mobile technologies” (12).  If there ever was a time that all students owned and used the same technologies, it has passed.  While I’m downloading my course readings to my Nexus, my classmates are downloading to Kindle Fires and iPads and everything else.  Educators must embrace and prepare for such technological diversity among users.

Here’s how the device ownership and use breaks down:

Point 1: Laptops are the most popular device, with 9 out of 10 students owning one.  Of these laptop owners, 76% use PCs and 21% use Macs.  Interestingly, younger students and those enrolled at 4-year colleges prefer Macs, and community-college students are less likely than their four-year counterparts to own any laptop (13).

Point 2: Tablet and e-reader ownership is on the rise.  Fifteen percent of respondents own a tablet and 12% own an e-reader.  Tablet users prefer iPads (57%) to Android devices (25%), and e-reader owners prefer Kindles (59%) to Nooks (24%).  But whether the student owns a tablet or an e-reader, make no mistake: she/he is most likely going to use the device for some academic purpose; 67% of tablet owners and 47% of e-reader owners responded they use their devices in this way (14).

Point 3: Smartphones are de rigeur when it comes to mobile devices.  Smartphone ownership grew from 55% in 2011 to 62% in 2012.  Along with the rise in ownership comes a rise in the number of these students who use their phones for things other than, say, texting or taking Instagram pics of their lunch.  “Nearly twice as many [respondents] in 2012 (67%) than in 2011 (37%) reported using their smartphone for academic purposes” (14).  This is a trend educators would be wise to keep in mind when considering how best to deliver content.

So, what do students do with all these mobile devices? 

Point 4: In this relatively early stage in the integration of education and mobile computing, emphasis is still very much on consumption rather than production.  That is, a student will readily and easily use her/his tablet to download course materials, read articles, search for content, check grades, and correspond with instructors and fellow students.  Fortunately, respondents seem satisfied with their learning institutions’ ability to deliver for consumptive purposes.  Seventy-three percent are happy with reportage of academic progress (i.e., grades); 70% with delivery of course content (17).

There remains, however, a vast and untouched frontier when it comes to mobile devices and production.  Writing papers and producing other academic work is still cumbersome, if not impossible, on some devices or with some platforms.  The study offers this important caveat: “Unless and until tablets become easier to use for producing required coursework, they will remain somewhat marginal in the academic world” (16).  While use of mobile devices for academic purposes will probably continue to grow, a question of further study might ask to what end?

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

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