Trends in student use of information technology: a sea change?

Trends in Student Use of Information Technology: A Sea Change?

From Information Resources and Technologies

In the introduction to the report released by the Educause Center for Applied Research, Chris Dede of the Harvard School of Education writes that “Our ways of thinking and knowing, teaching and learning are undergoing a sea change …” but that more research is yet needed to fully understand and appreciate the options and opportunities that technology can provide to higher education.

To that end, the Educause Center for Applied Research (ECAR) has conducted a national, longitudinal survey of undergraduate students. This year’s study of over 27,000 students seeks to contribute to this growing body of knowledge by gathering information from freshmen and seniors to gain a better understanding of:

  • Student engagement in technology-enabled classes
  • Student perceptions regarding instructors’ use of technology and whether it improves their learning
  • Student use of course management systems
  • Benefits and barriers associated with using technology in course-related activities
  • How students perceive their skills in using key information technologies
  • Which technologies students own and how much time students spend engaged in technology-enabled activities

For the past three years, St. Thomas has participated in the ECAR study. Our contribution to the national sample is important not only because it benefits a national study but also because it entitles us to some useful information comparing our technology-related behavior to that of students at other institutions.

In this two-part article, we highlight some of the key findings and observations from the 2007 study on how technology impacts students’ academic experiences, along with some of the results from the St. Thomas students who participated. In February, we address the types of technologies students own, their skills in using key technologies, and what technology-enabled activities students perform and how much time they spend on them.

Data from the 2007 study for St. Thomas participants can be found here. The complete report is available from the Educause Web site.

Benefits of technology on learning

The main benefits that students see with using technology in courses are the convenience of accessing course materials at any time or anywhere, and for managing course activities. Nearly 56 percent of national respondents and 59 percent of UST respondents listed convenience as the most valuable aspect of using technology in courses. The study found that students who were currently using a learning management system (LMS), e.g., Blackboard, in their courses were more likely to choose convenience as the primary benefit of technology in courses.

Chart 1

An analysis conducted on open-ended responses identified five positive areas of the impact of technology on learning:

  • Technology facilitates organization and control in the learning environment
  • Technology can make content more accessible, including class materials and Internet resources
  • Technology facilitates communication with faculty and classmates
  • Technology in courses is valuable when directly linked to applications (e.g., Excel, PowerPoint, SPSS) that are useful to future employment
  • Technology is an enabler of learning when faculty use it effectively

While students appreciate the many benefits that technology-enabled courses offer, the key seems to be the amount (“moderate”), the balance between online and face to face interaction, and the way in which technology is used in courses.

Faculty skill with technology impacts student perception of the value of technology in courses

According to the study, students “… view their instructors are fully accountable for whether [technology] has a positive or negative impact on their learning and engagement in courses.” In particular, students’ experience with learning management systems such as Blackboard seems to be associated with their perception of the instructor's skill in using technology. Students who report a positive experience with using an LMS in their courses also agree that their instructors use technology well. Of all of the features that are available in an LMS, the study found that two are most strongly associated with positive ratings for faculty use of technology: access to sample exams and quizzes, and online readings and links to course materials.

Overall, students are generally positive about faculty use of technology. Slightly more than half of the respondents agreed that instructors use technology well in courses. At St. Thomas, nearly 80 percent of respondents in the 2007 study, and also in the 2006 study, report a positive experience with using Blackboard. When asked how well
faculty use technology in courses, nearly 64 percent of St. Thomas respondents agreed or strongly agreed that faculty use technology well in their courses. This represents an increase from the 2006 study in which 50 percent of UST students indicated that faculty use technology well in their courses.

Blackboard Usage Continues to Increase

A longitudinal analysis conducted in the 2007 ECAR study shows a 13 percent increase in students’ use of a learning management system. The use of a learning management system such as Blackboard is fairly widespread – with 82 percent of survey respondents indicating that they have used an LMS.

At St. Thomas, use of Blackboard is increasing. In the 2006 study, 82 percent of UST student respondents used Blackboard, and in the 2007 study, 89 percent said they had used Blackboard. Over 70 percent of St. Thomas students report they use Blackboard at least weekly.

Of the Blackboard features that students find useful, features relating to convenience and access appear to be highly valued. Figure 1 shows the Blackboard features that St. Thomas participants found useful. Tools in Blackboard that facilitate turning in assignments, receiving assignments back with instructor comments, and online sharing of materials among students are features that are less commonly used.

Student use of social networking tools increases

A point of interest is the decrease from 2006 to 2007 in the percentage of students who find Blackboard useful for sharing materials among classmates. The percentage of students who reported using Blackboard for sharing materials was roughly constant from 2006 to 2007, with just over a quarter of St. Thomas respondents indicating they had not used Blackboard in some way for sharing materials among students. The increase in the use of social networking tools (e.g., Facebook) may be one reason.

Data from the study shows an increase in the percentage of respondents who use social networking tools such as Facebook, from 72.3 percent in 2006 to 80.3 percent in 2007. Nearly 70 percent of all participants and 46 percent of UST students report using social networking tools on a daily basis. Less than 20 percent of St. Thomas students report never having participated in online social networks.

As the authors of the study are quick to note, although a large number of students use online social networking tools, most students do not use these technologies as a formal part of their courses. Focus groups conducted with national participants reveal that students consider technologies such as Facebook and Instant Messaging to be part of their private, rather than academic, lives.

The 2008 ECAR study will focus more specifically on how and why students use online social networking technologies and how students view the potential of these technologies for learning; clearly, online interactions comprise a growing proportion of students’ social lives; we look forward to discovering if the same holds true for students' academic lives as we prepare to participate in the 2008 ECAR study.