On Positive User Experiences

There are many definitions of user experience.  A previous reDUX blog post sought to clarify the differences between user experience and usability, two terms that, while related, are not synonymous.  I like the definition of UX posited in that post and taken from the UX experts Nielsen-Norman Group: “[User experience includes] all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother.”  This definition gets at the core of user experience: providing a positive experience at every point of service.

The other day, while working at the reference desk, I had the opportunity to assist an older gentleman, an Indiana resident using a guest access account, in tracking down and requesting some books.  This patron, who appeared to be in his late 70s, demonstrated beautifully the intersection of the old-school library patron and modern library technology.  The man was clearly a library user from way back, and he came to the desk excited to find some books of regional history, whose titles he had scrawled out in a fine hand on yellow legal pad paper.  I searched a title in the new IUCAT and found it available at the ALF.   “Let’s request it for you,” I said helpfully, and the man was overjoyed, amazed, really, that the IU Libraries had this rather obscure annotated bibliography among its vast collections.  “You have it?” he asked, incredulous but beaming.  “You have everything!”  “I know,” I replied, caught up in his wonderment, “We have almost eight million items in our collections!  It’s awesome!”

To many people, libraries are a magical place, overflowing founts of wisdom.  This older patron reminded me why I have wanted to be a librarian for so long, why I am in library school: I love libraries—they contain multitudes.  But libraries (both their physical and electronic manifestations) can also be overwhelming places.  I see the quiet looks of confusion on the faces of incoming freshmen, on the faces of those users who confess to me at the desk: “I’ve never been in here before.  I don’t really know what I’m doing.”  Libraries have the information and they have the users to disseminate the information to—and this is great.  However, the technology that is used to disseminate this information moves at what sometimes feels like lightning speed, and this can stymie some users.  Libraries have been around for centuries and centuries, for instance, while the conversion from card catalog to OPAC has taken place in just a few short decades.  The older gentleman I assisted wanted his books, and he hoped with the hope of all library lovers that we would have them and be able to find them for him.  Where he hit a roadblock was with the new technology, so easy for me who has grown up with it and assimilated its changes in real time, but not so easy for him, who was brought up with a totally different system.

Here are some key terms derived from questions oft-posed by patrons at the reference desk.
Here are some key terms derived from questions oft-posed by patrons at the reference desk.

I walked him through registering for a library login so he could use the computer workstations in Wells.  I helped him navigate to the catalog—and with the recent transition from IUCAT Classic to New IUCAT, there was even some discussion between me and the circulation staff about which version of the catalog would be easier for him to use, demonstrating, again, the ever-changing nature of library technology. I next helped the older gentleman find the bibliographic record for his book and request its delivery from the ALF.  Later, I helped him access an ebook edition of another title he was delightfully surprised we had access to.  He thanked me profusely while I helped him, and then again later when he came to the desk to say goodbye.  He said he now felt empowered to find and access his own items, and wouldn’t “torture” me with so many questions the next time he popped in.  “Haha,” I smiled.  “It’s no torture at all.  It’s my pleasure.”

While this story might seem like nothing more than a cozy anecdote, I think my interaction with this user has very real, if basic UX implications.  Users come to the library with a variety of backgrounds, skill sets, and needs, but what they all share is the desire for a positive user experience.  That experience might seem relatively simple, small, especially to the library professional, but it can make a world of difference to the user.  A positive experience is one that either will help to further foster a user’s love of libraries or will demystify the library and its many systems so that he or she comes back the next time feeling a little more intrepid.

By the way: You can learn all about Library Guest Accounts here and Requesting ALF Items here.

A Little Bit of UX Fun

Do you like a good inside-joke meme?  Do you live your life according to famous people’s inspirational words?  Do you enjoy playing devil’s advocate when conversing with others? Do you occasionally . . . ahem . . . imbibe competitively with friends?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I have some fun UX-related tidbits from the Internet that might be right up your alley.  Enjoy!

UX Meme, a tumblr of user-experience memes.

from UX Meme: http://uxmeme.tumblr.com/
from UX Meme: http://uxmeme.tumblr.com/

UX Quotes offers “Useful quotes on User Experience.”

from UX Quotes: http://www.uxquotes.com/
from UX Quotes: http://www.uxquotes.com/

UX Myths tries to debunk widely-accepted tenets of usability.

from UX Myths: http://uxmyths.com/
from UX Myths: http://uxmyths.com

UX Drinking Game — Don’t drink at work, people.  But feel free to substitute cookies and cakes for alcohol!

from UX Drinking Game: http://www.uxdrinkinggame.com/
from UX Drinking Game: http://www.uxdrinkinggame.com/

Your Machine Should Not Make You Feel Stupid

At a recent DUX staff meeting, we spent some time talking about how to explain to laypeople (e.g., our moms) what it is we do in this department.  Someone offered this helpful metaphor: Ask them, “Do you ever use your computer or the Internet and feel stupid because you can’t understand how to do something—something you think should be easy to figure out?  Well,” she said, “DUX people make your machine or the website you interact with work better for you.  Your machine or a website should never make you feel stupid.”  I think that’s a smart way to look at web design and the user experience: Don’t forget you are not the user, that the tasks the user performs, while routine—perhaps even mundane to you—might truly be unfamiliar or confusing to the novice.  Therefore, design without assumptions.

When thinking about the user experience in web design, sometimes some of the simplest things slip our minds.  It’s always good to be reminded, those of us immersed in techy jargon and details, that we are probably not the target user of whatever it is we’re creating or trying to make better.  The target user might have little to no tech savvy, or might see the things on his/her computer screen in ways quite different from the average designer or usability tester.  Net Magazine, a really great tech magazine with lots of UX-related content, recently published a list of “10 UX Things We Remembered in 2012” for its year-end review.  Again, the entries on this list might seem like no-brainers, but they are easy to overlook the more one becomes assimilated to the back-end culture of web design.  I’ll let you read all ten for yourself, but I’ll highlight those entries that stood out to me most, made me utter a little “hmm” and nod my head in recognition.

#1: “You are not your customer.”  While the article is aimed primarily at commercial web design, most points are applicable to all design, including the sort of stuff we do in DUX (think: reconfiguring IUCAT and the IU Libraries website).  Authors Stuart Pill and Gavin Wye write: “It’s very easy to forget that your customers do not behave in the way that you would like them to . . . Even if you are working in a consultative role it’s easy to become accustomed to the way things are, and take for granted that people outside of your bubble will understand what you are trying to communicate.  Your customers have much less contact with your company and its products; therefore, they may need assistance with things that appear obvious to you.”

Which leads us to points two and three.  #2: “Navigating home.” Many users do not know how to navigate home, do not understand that clicking the site’s logo will typically take them to its home page; instead, they rely on their browser’s back button (assuming they landed first on the home page before moving on to specific content).  It’s strange to think of users not understanding what, to techie types at least, probably seems pretty obvious, but I can certainly see this in relation to IUCAT Classic, which doesn’t allow for a very user-friendly browser-button navigation experience.  One has to use the interface’s built-in navigation buttons or the “IUCAT Home” tab at the top of the page to get back home.  Thankfully, New IUCAT has remedied this, and it makes my heart happy to think there will be fewer confused and/or frustrated back-button clickers interacting with the catalog.

#3: “Country selection with a drop-down list.”  Here’s another supposedly obvious user task that really isn’t so easy.  The article explains: “We tested the checkout for a global retail site and found many users don’t use keyboard shortcuts to access drop-down lists.  Few people we observed knew that they could type a letter on their keyboard, use the arrow keys or hit enter to select the option.  Users still use their mouse to navigate and hence found long drop-down lists frustrating.”  Proposed, instead, is a “country selector,” wherein a user types into a traditional-looking search box the country he/she is looking for, and the box auto-completes with each letter she types.  From there, he/she can select from a much shorter, much more manageable list of countries.  However, to say, immediately, that this is the holy-grail alternative to the drop-down list is probably short-sighted, and defeats the purpose of point number one above.

Finally, #7: “The bar is still relatively low.”  “It’s easy, when you are surrounded by and immersed in the internet, to forget how hard some people find it to do things online,” caution Pill and Wye.  “The web is still a confusing place to some people.  Making tasks familiar by using established design patterns increases the chances of users completing these tasks, and so leaving your site with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.”  As a former teacher, Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” was de rigueur in my education courses.  Maslow counts physiological needs (e.g., food, water, sleep) as paramount to a student’s success—that is, one cannot fulfill higher-order needs, such as self-esteem, achievement, and creativity, without first meeting those basic needs.  I think we can apply the same thinking to users of websites—a user cannot use and appreciate fancy-schmancy interactive features if the supposedly small things aren’t working for him/her.

Quick and Easy Citations for Oncourse Using OneSearch@IU

The Resources section of Oncourse allows you to create lists of useful citations for your classes and other groups.  You can create new citations manually or import them from citation-management systems such as EndNote and RefWorks.  You can also import citations directly from Google Scholar and, now, from OneSearch@IU (http://libraries.iub.edu/onesearch).

There are two ways—depending on where you would like to begin the process of collecting your citations—to manage your OneSearch@IU citations in Oncourse.  To start, you will need to set up folders in the Resources section of your Oncourse class page.  You can learn about how to do that here (http://kb.iu.edu/data/avbw.html#creating).  Once you have a folder to which you can add citations, you’re ready to go!

Let’s start, first, in OneSearch, and add your citations to a folder. You’ll notice the records in your search results list now feature an “Import into Oncourse.”  Click this button for any citation you’d like add to your Oncourse folder.

Import_into_Oncourse

And if you click on an individual record, you can find the same button here:

Import_into_Oncourse2

After importing, follow these steps to add the selected citation to a designated folder in Oncourse:

  1. In the dropdown menu next to your preferred folder, click the “Edit Citation List.”
  2. Click the “Add Citations to List” button.
  3. Click the “Citations Clipboard” button.
  4. Select the preferred citation, then click the “Add” button.
  5. Click the “Review Citation List” button to find the citation in the designated folder, or click “Done Editing List” if you are done.

Watch the video below to see this task performed, or follow this link.

Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.
You can also begin this process from within the Resources section of Oncourse.   Just follow these simple steps.

  1. In the dropdown menu next to your preferred folder, click the “Edit Citation List.”
  2. Click the “Add Citations to List” button.
  3. Click the “Search OneSearch@IU” button.
  4. Search OneSearch for a citation you’d like to add; once found, click the “Import into Oncourse” button.
  5. Back in Oncourse, click the “Review Citation List” button to see your citation, or click “Done Editing List” if you are done.

Watch the video below to see this task performed, or follow this link.


Unable to display content. Adobe Flash is required.
You can find more information about working with citations at the IU Knowledge Base.

Two Quick Rules for Readability

I’ve been frequenting a website recently for purposes of obtaining a particular certification.  The site (which will remain nameless) is broken up into learning modules, each with foundational information a user must read in order to complete a series of quizzes and move on through the certification process.  I have found, sadly, that the longer I engage with this site, the worse I am doing on the quizzes.  Now, I could chalk this up to my becoming increasingly dumber as the hours necessary to go through each module sluggishly go by, or I could look for a scapegoat for my poor performance.  I choose the latter.  My scapegoat, then, entrenched as I am in all things usability, is the site’s absolutely user-unfriendly design and its mind-numbing effects on me, the user.

I was reading this article on Mashable.com, and I think it is so on point with its outline of how to make your Website usable.  The offending site I mentioned above is failing on all points, especially when it comes to readability.  Two salient and simple suggestions for improving readability are:

  1. Keep Content as Concise as Possible
  2. Help Readers Scan Your Webpages Quickly

The article’s author, Jacob Gube, states that content should be “easy and pleasant to read, easy to understand, and skimmable.”  The pages on the site I’ve been visiting include extremely long lines of text, filled to the brim with information (including much technical jargon), and tons of embedded links within the text.  I feel constantly disrupted and distracted, having to click on links that navigate away from the main content in order to give me yet more huge pieces of information. Ugh.

Tech blogger Philip Webb stresses the importance of what he calls “chunking up” content for greater usability.  “That’s technical talk,” he says, “for make your page more scan-friendly.  Large blocks of dense text intimidate the reader and causes ‘information overload.’”  With web content, conciseness is a virtue—especially within instructional websites.  Dale’s Cone of Experience, which is an instructional-design model and not the name of a totally awesome PBS Kids science series, shows that people tend to retain only 10% of the information they read.   And studies show that in the hyperlinked world of online reading, attending to wordy text and remembering its content is even more limited.

Here’s where a cool tool can help.  The Readability Test Tool analyzes the readability of your website’s text—whether that be an entire page or a specified section—using several key readability indicators, the most popular of which are probably the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease and Grade Level tests.  Just paste in your URL or directly input the text you’d like to analyze, and the RTT will tell you how it scores.

http://www.read-able.com/
http://www.read-able.com/

So, for instance, I cut and pasted the text of this very blog post, and it returned a reading level of about the 11th-grade, which is pretty good, considering much of IU’s blog readership consists of young adults—undergraduates and graduate students in their late teens and early twenties.  However, that website that has me in a shame spiral due to my lackluster quiz scores? It has a grade level of about 17, which means more easily understood by 22 to 23 year olds.  A recent report by Nielsen Norman Group stresses the importance of writing web content that is quick to scan and includes easily digestible chunks of information: “If your site targets a broad audience, aim to write at a 6th-grade reading level (or lower). Writing at this level will help audiences of all ages—young and old—quickly understand your content.”

When you aim, especially, to have your audience engage with your site at length, as with the site I’ve been visiting regularly for certification purposes, you need to be economical with words—cutting clutter, enhancing white space, and emphasizing ease of use.  Keep these two simple rules in mind: Be concise and support scanning.

References

Gube, J. (2011). 7 best practices for improving your website’s usability. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/09/12/website-usability-tips/

Nielsen, J. (2013). Teenage usability: designing teen-targeted websites. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/usability-of-websites-for-teenagers/

Webb, P. (2013). Improve the readability of your web page. Webcredible. Retrieved from http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-usability/web-page-readability.shtml

Icons Add Interest to Your Web Design

If you didn’t notice it, there’s a new OPAC (that’s a snazzy library acronym for Online Public Access Catalog), or catalog, for the IU Libraries.  It’s called New IUCAT, and it can be accessed here.  I hope you’ll use it, as it’s decidedly more user-friendly than the classic IUCAT, and it’s got lots of nifty graphics.  Actually, that’s what this post is about.  One of my minor, though unexpectedly overwhelming, tasks regarding this migration to a new catalog is to try to find some icons to represent the various media formats available in the Libraries’ collections.  When you search New IUCAT, you have the ability to limit your search to certain formats.  There’s certainly a lot of stuff in these here libraries!  See:

format icons

“What the heck,” you might ask, “is ‘realia’?”  Well, it’s games, mostly.  If, for instance, an IU library circulates Bananagrams (a game I killed at back home over winter break, by the way), they are cataloged as realia, and are represented by a little icon of . . . um . . . something.   Other icons are clearer, though, and reveal to the youngest of IU Libraries users what, for instance, the ancient artifact called a videocassette looks like.

At this time, I’m still looking high and low for icons for streaming video and floppy disks. It’s, as I said, overwhelming trying to find just the right icon.  I’ve been scouring the Internet for open-source, royalty-free icon sets to fill in the format gaps.  There are plenty available for purchase, too, but with so many creative people offering the use of their (oftentimes pretty incredibly awesome) designs for free, there’s not much need to cough up cash if you’re after something cool.

For instance, I came across several sites that aggregate these widely and freely available designs, often with lists compiling the most “amazing” and “excellent” sets one can find on the Web.  If you’re interested, here’s a particularly good collection, rounded up by Naldz Graphics.

Icons are a great way for web designers to add character to their content, to establish a tone, to craft a personality for their site that just might set it apart from the competition.  They’re also a nice way to add some flair to your desktop if, say, the Indiana winter’s gotten you down and you’ve been spending more time staring at your computer screen than you’d like.  Take a look at these familiar icons, with a twist:

web20rigami
http://blog.iampaddy.com/2008/11/12/web-20rigami/
http://7ur.deviantart.com/art/iConPack-now-with-psd-53066224
http://7ur.deviantart.com/art/iConPack-now-with-psd-53066224

Of course, you must be careful when downloading any files to your computer.  Make sure you are downloading from a reputable site, scanning for viruses, etc.  And always read the fine print.  Just because an icon set is ostensibly free doesn’t necessarily mean its creator does not require some sort of attribution for its use.  Be careful and courteous out there, and have fun.  And also let me know if you find a really neato icon for a floppy disk!

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 3

During my time as an undergrad, majoring in secondary education, one classroom in the education department of my small liberal arts college was outfitted with a shiny new SMARTBoard.  Its functions were highlighted briefly in an introductory education-technology course, and never mentioned again.  Little surprise, then, that I never once witnessed that piece of technology being used in lectures by instructors or in assignments by students.  At that time, the SMARTBoard was the new thing everyone wanted.  How can we be training teachers and not have a SMARTBoard for them to use? was, I imagine, the talking point that helped influence its purchase.  But without adequate training for faculty and students, it just gathered dust, while more classic technologies, like the overhead projector, remained popular.  Sadly, I still don’t really know how to operate a SMARTBoard, except in the most rudimentary ways, and never used one in my lessons while teaching.  While we know that technology is an integral part of the academic experience, it is important to be aware of trends not only in students’ technology needs but also in their skills.

The third theme explored by the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology is students’ belief that the use of technology in education impacts their future success.  They “generally agree that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes (75%), prepares them for future educational plans (74%), and prepares them for the workforce” (19).  But just because a student might, in his or her nonacademic life, covet, seek out, and consume the newest, coolest technologies, this does not mean he or she finds early adoption and proliferation of educational technologies all that useful.  Which leads us to Point 1: Students value skill development in regard to current technologies more than they value simply being exposed to the so-called newest and best technologies (19).

This is not to say old stuff is better.  Today’s students truly rely on technology.  ECAR respondents list flash drives (65%), laptops (85%), and printers (84%) as essential to their academic success (19-24).  As summarized in the second post in this series (https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/redux/ 2012/11/07/ undergrads-and-information-tech-part-2/), mobile devices are not going away, and it is a wise institution that works to fit them into the curriculum in engaging and pragmatic ways.  Yet students’ needs really aren’t so difficult to provide for when it comes to technology.  Interestingly, students said they want their instructors to employ “cutting-edge” technologies in the classroom, but when asked to define these technologies, those they listed “were neither new nor cutting edge by industry standards . . . such as smartboards, recorded lectures, and digital course materials” (24).

Point 2: “Students report that basic technologies have the greatest impact on their success . . . with technologies such as the institution’s library website and the course or learning management system being among the resources [they] use most” (19).  These are technologies students expect to use when they enter college, and they expect their instructors to make good use of them as well.  Increasingly, they also expect to use resources such as e-books and citation-management tools (e.g.,  OneNote and Zotero).  The use of e-books rose from 24% of respondents in 2010 to 70% in 2012, and the use of citation tools rose from 17% to 80 percent.  The biggest jump in technology use was seen in the use of e-portfolios, with 52% of respondents reporting using them—seven times the number (7%) using them in 2010 (21).  Looking at the rise in popularity of these types of resources, it is important to remember this point from the first post in this series (https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/ redux/2012/10/10/undergrads-and-information-tech-part-1/): the growing emphasis in educational technology should be not on individual devices (e.g., tablet vs. laptop) but on device-neutral applications.  If, for instance, every student finds e-books essential to academic success, such resources should be accessible to all, no matter the platforms or devices being used.

I appreciate that my undergraduate experience included at least a flirtation with what, at the time, were new instructional technologies.  But, the technologies that affected my day-to-day life as a student are many of those noted in the ECAR study.  I was instructed in the use of online databases and indexes and grew reliant on them.  A flash drive, printer, and laptop were certainly essential tools (they are still).  Had I received more instruction in the use of that SMARTBoard, I might have assimilated it, too, into my circle of necessary technology.  The study reveals students might desire newer, better tools in the classroom, but, when it comes down to it, they need support for those technologies they already use and that they believe will have the greatest impact on their success, both in school and after graduation.

Citation: Dahlstrom, E. (2012, September).  ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology.  Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

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: https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/redux/2012/10/10/undergrads-and-information-tech-part-1/) 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 http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

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 http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

Back to the Future

Those of us working in DUX make it our concern to understand the ever-expanding and changing technical needs of library users.  As we work through projects like a catalog update and website redesign, always in our minds are the questions:  Who are our patrons?  What are they already using technology for?  What do they need to be able to do?  And, how can we help them do these things?  There is so much those of us raised in the Internet age expect to be able to do—and to be able to do quickly.  It’s difficult to remember a time when technology didn’t inform every part of our lives, and harder still to imagine what it might still have to offer us.

One of my pet procrastinations is exploring the seemingly ceaseless number of cat videos populating the Web.  When I find a particularly delightful bit of kitteh kitsch, I gleefully pass it on via Facebook or email, doing my part to ensure the communicable status of those videos we call viral.  As a SLIS student, I really should be using the Internet for better purposes—and sometimes I do.  Obviously, as a future librarian, I understand, acutely, the necessity of the Internet in our daily lives.  The majority of our waking hours find us Internet connected in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons: searching and researching; educating and enlightening and entertaining ourselves; communicating with friends and family and colleagues—both near and far; and, yes, watching and sending videos.  For me, all of these things came together in a delightful way when I first saw, a couple weeks ago, this—now-viral—video:

The video gets at the heart of digital user experience.  Produced in the mid-1990s, the uses of the Internet espoused by the young cast reads like a prescient laundry list of all we now, some 15 years later, take for granted: shopping, watching TV, making phone calls, and doing our jobs via the Internet.  The video’s kids looked forward to this future, and it came right on schedule.  That I’m from Helena, Montana, the small town where this video was produced, and am roughly the same age as these kids, makes me even more mindful that technological progress is not some abstraction, is not relegated to some elite community of users, and isn’t years ahead of us in some nebulous haze.  It’s now and it’s everywhere, and we’re always going to have to learn how to make best use of it in our lives.  The uses we dream about today might seem farfetched, or even silly (“catfood cupcakes,” anyone?), but in 15 years, they’ll seem quaint.

The Atlantic Monthly featured a “Where Are They Now” article on the kids from the video.  Read it here: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/08/meet-the-kids-now-adults-behind-1995s-internet-prophecy-video/261251/