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The Online Student of the (Not-So-Distant) Future

When I met with high school students recently, I had the opportunity to ask them a few questions about the technologies they use as individuals, with the potential for engagement both in and out of the classroom. While I was surprised to find that many were actively using Twitter, their widespread use of Facebook and YouTube was more in line with my expectations. One student even reported use of a Tumblr account. No one was familiar with Google+ or LinkedIn. No one had taken an online class.

This was my quick and very informal survey of about 40 students. In hindsight, there are many more questions I wanted to ask – do they have smartphones, home computers, or iPads? Do they read eBooks? My next thoughts were about how they compare with others their age, and so began my search for larger formal studies of technology use among teens.

Communication, Computers, and Connecting Online

Communication Methods: According to a 2011 study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, text messaging is a popular form of communication for teens, ages 12 to 17. The findings include that 75% of teens send text messages with a median number of 60 texts sent per day, up slightly since 2009. This type of communication is more common that making phone calls (mobile and landline), meeting in person, social networking, instant messaging, or emailing.

Technology Ownership: The Pew study also found that smartphone ownership is on the rise with 23% of teens surveyed reporting that they have these devices. Those that own smartphones are also "the most likely to have used a tablet computer to go online in the last month." Ownership of cell phones is at 77% for ages 12 to 17.

Connecting and Sharing Online: Teens are actively using social media. A Pew presentation cites that nearly 80% of online teens are using social networking sites, such as Facebook. This number has been increasing since 2006 when a similar study found that 55% of teens were using these sites. Twitter is just the latest platform to show growth with this age group rising from 8% in 2009 to 16% in 2011. 

Earlier this year Pew's Lee Rainie described "The New Normal in the Digital Age," which includes increased connectivity through mobile devices, Internet access, and social networking systems. According to Rainie, Millenials (ages 18-34) using Facebook have an average of 318.5 "friends." We are becoming more connected individuals through various networks as "information users and providers," and changing where and how we access news and resources through a combination of online and other forms of media.

Online Learning: While none of the students I spoke with have experienced an online course, they may have worked with some online components of their traditional courses, such as web-based class pages, and have used online resources both in and out of their physical classrooms. Online learning initiatives at the state level may require students to experience online courses before they graduate. Among the recommendations provided for more effective online learning with teens and younger students are: better training for online teachers, increased funding for Internet access and development of learning materials, and more research about online and blended learning models.

Expectations for Higher Education

So what will these patterns of use and connectivity mean for the future of these students' learning? They will begin entering higher education institutions in the next couple of years as college-level learners, bringing with them both expectations and skills.

Learning Environments: Teens with online learning experience have some familiarity with commonly used learning management systems and their related communication functions, such as discussion boards, email, and calendars. These students may expect similar online access to course materials and schedules, even if their college courses are predominately face-to-face. These students may also expect to interact with their instructors and classmates, in groups and one-on-one, online via email and other technology tools.

Learning Literacies: Teens who have had experience with various technologies and online communication will have some skills with these tools and be able to apply them in their courses. However, not all students, even those using technology on their own, will be ready for online learning when then enter college. New information, media, and digital literacies are required for success in these environments. There is also the ongoing issue of a digital divide between students at the K-12 level that have access to technology and the Internet and those that don't. As online learning options progress in high school and college, the students without previous experience may be at a more marked disadvantage.

Anticipation and preparation for these students – on the part of higher education administrators, curriculum and course developers, and instructors – should include plans for a variety of learners possessing a range of competencies and needs for support. Online learning is poised to play an important role in student learning at many levels. For high school students, iNACOL urges that they "deserve full access to the Internet and online courses, content and resources that will help prepare them to be college/career ready."

I'll be monitoring the latest research about the technology use and preferences of these young students as they move into higher education, and look forward to hearing more from those I met a few weeks ago.

Image credit: vancouverfilmschool, Flickr, CC-BY