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Students Rate College Success Tools, WiFi High; Accessibility Efforts Low

If schools were wondering whether student success tools are worth the investment, a survey among students by Educause has put the question to rest. Students rated degree audit tools that show the degree requirements completed as the most useful (ranked by 80 percent of respondents as "very" or "extremely" useful). That was followed by degree planning or mapping applications, which identify courses still needed to complete a degree (77 percent); self-service utilities for conducting student-related business (74 percent); self-service programs for tracking credits, credit transfers and dual enrollment (71 percent); and early-alert systems for flagging possible academic trouble as soon as it surfaces (about 55 percent). In fact, across the board, every category of student success tool saw at least incremental gains year over year, some by more than 10 percentage points.

The Educause Center for Analysis & Research (ECAR) "Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology" was structured to understand how students view the IT efforts on their campus and provide insight for colleges and universities about where improvements are needed. This year's results used responses from 40,596 students at 118 U.S. institutions.

A report on the results by ECAR Researcher Dana Gierdowski also found that while students are "generally happy," WiFi could always be better. Libraries once again were pegged as the most reliable spot on campus to connect to WiFi, with most people (81 percent) rating access as "good" or "excellent," and classrooms and instructional spaces as a close second (74 percent). Six in 10 students gave a nod of approval to wireless access in residence halls, compared to 52 percent last year. However, almost a quarter of respondents (24 percent) rated wireless in those same spaces as "poor" or "fair," which means, the report noted, that "room for improvement remains." As one respondent commented, "Please make WiFi more consistent in the dorms!! It is frustrating to have to walk to the library just to do one assignment."

Given the continued rise in the use of online courses, even for on-campus students, surprisingly, more students said they preferred in-person classroom experiences. The survey found that nearly two in five students (38 percent) would choose courses that are only face-to-face, and a third (32 percent) said they wanted settings that were "mostly" face-to-face." Just under a tenth of respondents said they would choose "mostly or completely online" classes. That preference was heightened among students who were married or in domestic partnerships; independent or with dependents; working at least 40 hours a week; aged 25 or older; or identified as having a physical and learning disability that required the use of tech for coursework.

In questions that drilled down on specific learning activities — submitting assignments, taking tests, collaborating with other students — respondents varied on their preferences for face-to-face versus online environments. Labs and demonstrations were better suited for face-to-face (cited by 67 percent), whereas homework and assignment submission was best suited for handling "completely online" (37 percent).

Most students favored a blended environment for collaborative work (57 percent); homework/assignment submission (54 percent); peer work such as reviewing and grading (52 percent); exams, quizzes or tests (51 percent); and asking questions (50 percent).

Instructors might want to look for more appealing uses for tech in the classroom. As one student put it, "I think the number-one thing I would like to see my instructors using technology for would be engagement with the class. Currently, my instructors tend to use technology almost entirely as a presenting interface, which I feel is a missed opportunity given the vast possibilities technology poses for engagement."

A definite area for improvement for campuses and their use of tech was in addressing the needs of students with disabilities. Just half rated their schools' support positively. And 11 percent said their institutions weren't even aware of their accessible technology needs. That suggested, the report pointed out, that many students "may experience barriers to disclosing their disability, including stigma and their own lack of awareness of available support services."

The findings included a number of Educause recommendations:

  • Studying the data about student demographics to "gain a greater understanding" about their learning environment preferences;
  • Promoting the use of student success tools and training students on how to use them during orientations and advising sessions;
  • Finding ways to boost WiFi reliability in both student housing and outdoor areas; and
  • Setting up a campus community to take on accessibility issues and "give 'accessibility evangelists' a seat at the table."

The report is openly available on the Educause ECAR website.

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