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2011 ECAR Report: Students and Technology in Higher Education

EDUCAUSE, a non-profit association focused on the use of information technology in higher education, annually surveys college students about their use of technology. The ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2011 report was presented at the EDUCAUSE annual conference* yesterday. While I wasn't able to attend in person, I was able to watch the session online. (You can also view the recorded presentation.)

This project, which started in 2004, presents the feedback of 3,000 student participants from over 1,179 colleges and universities across the United States each year. What makes this report interesting to me is that it is feedback from students about their use of technology and their preferences for technology as it relates to their classes. Input from technology and eLearning experts is easy to find. But what devices do students use most? How do they want to communicate with their classmates and instructors? Do they think technology is used effectively in their courses? These are the kinds of questions the ECAR report strives to answer. Let's take a closer look at two main components of the report: Key Findings and Recommendations.

5 Key Findings

1) Students are interested in "hot technologies" but rely on, or own, more traditional devices such as laptops (87%), printers (81%), DVD players (75%), and thumb drives (70%). Only 12% of students surveyed own an eReader and 8% report owning an iPad. Wi-fi access was also seen as "extremely valuable" for academic success. Where software is concerned, students identified areas where they lack needed skills. The three most cited areas here were computer programming languages, audio-creation programs, and ePortfolios.

2) Students recognize that the use of technology can be beneficial to their academic success. If you are an online student or instructor, this is not news. This study found that students see the most direct benefits in having access to a wide range of resources, tracking their academic progress, and completing administrative tasks (i.e. registration, financial aid). A number of potentially "emerging" areas of technology, such as collaboration tools and cloud computing, were identified by the researchers. Thirty-seven percent of students also indicated they are using smartphones for a variety of academic tasks. 

Also worth mentioning from this area of the study, "almost all students use email (99%), text messaging (93%), and Facebook (90%)." And somewhat surprisingly, 39% of students wish that their instructors used email more frequently. There are already plans to augment this "wish list" question in 2012 to capture information about what technologies students would like to see their instructors use less frequently.

3) There is an uneven student perception of technology use by instructors and institutions. While the majority of students reported effective online services (i.e. registration, grades, library access, transcripts, financial aid, and textbook purchases), they also identified areas for improvement. Thirty-one percent of students said that their instructors required assistance with technology in class and 51% think that they know more about technology than their instructors do.

4) Students are balancing both personal and academic uses of technology. Facebook is just one example of a platform that can be used to communicate with fellow students and instructors, as well as friends and family not connected to academic efforts. The majority of respondents said they are comfortable using Facebook to discuss course issues with classmates, but prefer more formal modes of communication, such as email, with instructors. The majority also tries to keep academic and social lives separated. Approximately one third of students find it inappropriate for an instructor to "friend" them on social networking sites.

5) The students surveyed were almost exclusively from traditional two and four year schools, but there was an overall preference (72%) for classes with online components. Fifty-eight percent of students preferred small courses or seminars with some online components and others wanted flexibility in the use of online components (13%) or courses that are completely online (9%). There are also several seemingly contradictory results reported by students. For example, while there are stated preferences for online options, only 30% said that online courses have the same educational value as traditional courses. Of the students participating in this study, 65% of those who attend a school where online courses are available have taken one.


One of the changes in this year's report was the focus on actionable results. What should those making decisions about technology at individual institutions do with this feedback from students? EDUCAUSE recommends the following:

  • Investigate students' needs, opinions, preferences and interests locally, and also develop a plan to move forward with technology that takes student feedback into consideration.
  • Provide professional development opportunities and incentives for instructors to learn more about how technologies can be used effectively to enhance student learning and engagement.
  • Create opportunities for students to become involved in plans for future technologies. Review current policies and find ways to bring students into the discussions before decisions are made.
  • Meet student expectations for Wi-fi access. More relevant for the campus setting, but interesting that online access is in such demand for students that are considered traditional.
  • Commit to moving content into digital formats. Future students will have always had access to digital resources. It's important to begin preparing for these students now.
  • Help students become proficient with the basic software and applications they will need to know in order to be successful in their courses. When required to use specific tools in a course assignment, there is often a need for supplemental training and support.
  • Find effective ways to use the technologies that students find valuable.
  • Look for ways to effectively innovate and transform the learning experience with technology. Collaborative approaches, participatory interactions, and tools that move learning outside the physical classroom are encouraged.
  • Consider ways in which students can be given more flexibility and options for the use of technology to interact with each other and their instructors.
  • Create blended or hybrid learning opportunities to meet the needs and preferences of different groups of students, types of courses, and course content areas.
  • Review existing institutional policies about the use of social media and revise to include use in an academic context.

Additional ECAR Resources

This is just a quick look at some of the information I found particularly interesting and relevant in the field of online learning. For more details about the report, view the infographic, presentation slides [PDF], and full report [PDF] online.

* You can follow the remainder of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference this week on Twitter, with the hashtag #edu11, and online, through a selection of streamed sessions (live and recorded).

October 20th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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