The Collegiate Tech Effect

I wrote recently about the annual Beloit College Mindset List, which began as a purely internal way to let Beloit College staff know a little about how the perspectives and experiences of each year's incoming freshman class might differ from the faculty's. Some of the items in that list related to IT, but most did not, and included items like "they've never rolled down a car window."

What if you could access a really detailed study of students that focused directly on their use of and attitudes toward information technology? What if part of the study was a survey of nearly 28,000 students from more than 100 institutions, and the results were sliced and diced not only by gender but by institutional Carnegie class? Sounds pretty useful and interesting, eh?

Well, my employer, the Society for College and University Planning, pays attention to such stuff, and I am pleased to let you know that ECAR has just published such a study. It is titled The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2007. As a bonus, it is the fourth report in a longitudinal series, so it includes comparisons over time going back to 2004.
This 2007 ECAR research study is a longitudinal extension of the 2004, 2005, and 2006 ECAR studies of students and information technology. The study, which reports noticeable changes from previous years, is based on quantitative data from a spring 2007 survey and interviews with 27,846 freshman, senior, and community college students at 103 higher education institutions. It focuses on what kinds of information technologies these students use, own, and experience; their technology behaviors, preferences, and skills; how IT impacts their experiences in their courses; and their perceptions of the role of IT in the academic experience.
"Oh," you say, "my institution doesn't belong to ECAR, and I can't afford to pay the fee to purchase a single report, no matter how potentially interesting." More bonus: "Because of the critical importance of this topic, ECAR is delighted to make this report available online to everyone now."

I recommend downloading and reading quickly through the "Key Findings" summary. If you really want to dig into it, the entire report (124 pages) is also online, as are the "Roadmap" (which is sort of a more popularly written, even shorter summary) and the "Survey Instrument."

I bet if you thought about it for a moment you could answer these two questions without reading the results (answers at the end):

Q1: What kind of handheld electronic information device are students using less in 2007 than they were in 2004?

Q2: What method of connecting to the Internet decreased in frequency of use from 2004 to 2007?

Some of the more interesting findings, to me, after a quick read of the "Key Findings" and the "Roadmap," include:

Do They Think That Technology Improves Their Learning?
More than 61 percent of respondents indicate that technology had improved their learning. But then they were asked to select the "most valuable benefit of using technology" in courses, "convenience" was the first choice of 55.5 percent. At first read, this seems like a contradiction, but I think it merely reflects the realities of undergraduate studies. Although the students may value the convenience more highly than anything else, it is likely that convenience itself contributes strongly to learning, especially if it (as they in other places say) helps students communicate better with other students and their teachers, and to better manage their course activities.

How Much Time Do They Spend Online?
On average, they spend about 18 hours a week online. (That's' the average; the mean is about 14 hours, and nearly a fifth spend more than 40 hours a week on line.)

Men spend about 2.5 hours more a week online than women do. Male or female, students who depend on dial-up access spend less time online. (What a surprise.)

There is a continuum ranging (on average) from 16 hours a week to 22 hours a week, that shakes out by major, with those in engineering and business spending more time online than those in life sciences and education.

Differences in 'Class Cohorts'
Some differences appeared as students progress from freshman to senior. One is an apparent decline in the use of instant messaging. I suspect that they just get busier, like the rest of us.

Here's something to make you feel really old, a quote from the full report's Executive Summary: "I use lots of technology, but my sister, who is a sophomore in high school, knows more about technology than I do. I've been too busy to keep up and I am getting outdated. I guess we are all dinosaurs to some extent." Guess who wrote this? Nope, not a young faculty person; it was a graduating senior.

I highly recommend reading the full report. It includes an "Introduction" by Ron Yanofsky and a tantalizing "Executive Summary" by Chris Dede of Harvard University. Just look at some of Dede's subheadings: "Our Tools Shape Our Communicating, Thinking, and Learning"; "Beyond Automation to Transformation"; "New Interfaces, 'Neomillenial' Learning, and Novel Literacies"; and "Throwing Gasoline on the Fire." Maybe I can write about it next week. In it, the contributors include a lot of their broader perspectives on change and shifts in attitudes and usages.

ECAR has gone from a twinkle in Richard Katz' eye to a major resource for higher education in what seems like nearly as quick a time as a student's bachelor's matriculation, although I know it has been longer. I'd like to thank Educause and ECAR for making this report available to everyone.

Answers about which device ownership and which connectivity type usage both decreased: Q1 = PDAs; Q2 = dial-up.
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