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Stop the presses: Today's college students are using more technology than ever.

That may not be the most surprising finding from a report released last week by the Educause Center for Applied Research, the analytical arm of the nonprofit group that promotes effective technology use in higher education. But it certainly provides a jumping-off point for an investigation into how students use information technology in college and how it can be harnessed to improve the learning experience.

In at least one central respect, proponents of technology in the classroom are on to something: Most students (60.9 percent) believe it improves their learning.

The changes in technological habits aren't revolutionary per se, as the authors point out; rather, students are making "evolutionary" gains in access to the Internet for everyday uses, inside the classroom and out. Perhaps the most visible of these changes is the continuing increase in the proportion of students with laptops, which has grown to 73.7 percent of respondents (while an almost-total 98.4 percent own a computer of some kind). More surprisingly, over half of laptop owners don't bring them to class at all, with about a quarter carrying them to lectures at least once a week.

The amount of time spent on the Internet also shows no sign of abating, with an average of about 18 hours a week, for any purpose -- and, on the extreme end, some 6.6 percent of respondents (mostly male) saying they spend more than a full-time job's worth of 40 hours online a week. Most students use broadband, more are on wireless connections, and "smart phones" -- all-in-one communications and personal data assistants -- are also on the rise, with 12 percent owning one.

What they're doing when they're online is also changing somewhat, with the rise of Facebook and other social networking sites as the clearest trend this year (to 80.3 percent from 72.3 percent in 2006), along with streaming video and course management software, which 46.1 percent of respondents said they use several times a week or more (compared with 39.6 percent in 2006).

The authors of the study, which surveyed 27,864 students at 103 two- and four-year colleges and universities, note that most undergraduates today are "digital natives" who have grown up immersed in technology in some form. But the "millennials" aren't necessarily ready to cast off the yoke of human interaction and learn solely within virtual 3-D environments wired directly to the brain. The study finds "themes of skepticism and moderation alongside enthusiasm," such that 59 percent preferred a "moderate rather than extensive use of IT in courses."

Instead, students appear to segment different modes of communication for different purposes. E-mail, Web sites, message boards and Blackboard? Viable ways of connecting with professors and peers. Same for chat, instant messaging, Facebook and text messages? Not necessarily, the authors write, because students may "want to protect these tools' personal nature."

"They’re using social networking sites like crazy, but they don’t necessarily think those have a place in the classroom," said Gail Salaway, one of the primary authors and a fellow at ECAR.

In short, as students become more and more connected to each other through various online mediums, they're also becoming more untethered, with laptops and smart phones keeping them physically apart. As a result, the "emerging Web 2.0 paradigm" of "immersive environments" and dynamic information promise (or threaten?) to upend traditional pedagogies and even the way students learn, the authors conclude.

That could mean that some professors might have to play catch-up, according to the report, "The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2007" -- a sentiment also indicated by some of the students in answers to the survey's open-ended questions.

How IT Affects Learning

The epigraph to the report's sixth chapter, from a student's written comments, goes a long way toward summarizing what the authors say is the place of technology in the college setting today: "IT is not a good substitute for good teaching. Good teachers are good with or without IT and students learn a great deal from them. Poor teachers are poor with or without IT and students learn little from them."

Seventy percent of the students polled said information technology helps them do research, a finding that is not surprising in light of the continuing popularity of Google and Wikipedia among undergraduates (sometimes to the consternation of their professors). But that finding also encompasses online library research and article databases.

When it comes to engagement, however, responses are more mixed. About two-fifths of students said they were more engaged with courses that had IT components, while a fifth disagreed and the rest didn't say either way.

So technology's utility in the classroom comes down to how it is used. The question, then, is: How can educators adapt their teaching methods to emerging technologies? And should they?

Skeptics might point out that even students themselves are ambivalent when it comes to using the Internet and other digital tools for class, as the survey highlights. But the study's introduction, written by Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests what professors can expect from digital natives' evolving modes of learning, what he calls "neomillennial learning styles."

As new methods of interacting with information become more ubiquitous, he suggests, citing Second Life-type virtual immersion environments as an example, students will grow up with different expectations and preferences for acquiring knowledge and skills. The implication is less of an emphasis on the "sage on the stage" and a linear acquisition process focusing on a "single best source," focusing instead on "active learning" that comes from synthesizing information from multiple types of media.

Noting that traditional ways of thinking and learning are undergoing a "sea change," Dede encourages a fusion of new and old. But what form that will take, exactly, is not addressed directly in the report.

The problem with predicting the future of learning, suggests Toru Iiyoshi, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is that some educators "are against the idea of technology itself transforming their teaching and student learning." Rather than fit it in with their current methods, he said, they should take the opposite approach.

Encouraging them to "start thinking from different perspectives, how they can teach better or improve student learning is, I think, very important," he said.

A College That Embraces IT

What does a learning environment that embraces new technologies look like? It's not clear, but it might resemble a classroom at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. The institution, which opened in 2002, found itself having to start from scratch in every way possible, including in its design of an information architecture. The person in charge of that project was Joanne Kossuth, the chief information officer and vice president for development at the college.

Kossuth, who helped implement the Educause study at Olin, said the college is somewhat unusual in that its engineering focus and small classes encourage innovation and collaboration among its students. Where some institutions have had to scramble to adapt to evolving technological needs, Olin did it all at once -- from the ground up. The result is a much more integrated, forward-looking approach to IT.

The college has a 24/7 laptop loan program, which allows students to be in constant communication with each other and helps encourage them to work together on projects, so that "you’ll see students that go out and use things like Google Docs," editing online in real time, she said.

Freshmen come in to the college already well acquainted with social networking and used to course management software, mainly because of its increasing use in high school, Kossuth said. They use a campus-hosted wiki to find rides. They work with administrators to improve software offerings. In other words, the students are at the cutting edge, while some faculty are working to catch up.

"I’m a firm believer that the students that are up and coming are the ones that are driving the adoption, because they’re coming with a set of expectations," Kossuth explained.

Still, in this tech-savvy environment, some face-to-face interaction is still preferred. At the help desk, she said, proposals for chat and text messaging services met with skepticism because students preferred to e-mail or come in themselves. In general, the ECAR report found a number of negative comments about help desks' effectiveness, suggesting their importance to a smooth IT operation.

Other Findings

The report also highlighted a number of gaps and trends through longitudinal comparisons of the past three years' worth of survey data:

  • Leisure devices, such as handheld video and music players (read: iPods), have transcended the gender gap. Where there used to be a difference between males' and females' ownership of the players just two years ago, the gap has disappeared, with 83.1 percent of 18- to 19-year-olds owning one.
  • Engineering and business students use more technology, especially for spreadsheets and graphics editing, and males are more likely to spend more extreme amounts of time online.
  • The report also finds challenges in addressing skills gaps for using spreadsheets and CMS software, highlighting the need for colleges to provide instructional technology to bring students up to speed.

Next year, for the first time, the ECAR survey will additionally focus on a specific aspect of IT. The first topic: social networking.

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