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Tablets are in, computer labs are out, and the cloud is the new hard drive -- these are the interwoven threads upon which college students are hoisting themselves into the future of campus computing. So say technology futurists, those whisperers who strive to interpret for the rest of us the inscrutable “digital natives” who now roam undergraduate campuses.

But new data from Student Monitor, a market research firm that tracks actual consumer trends among traditional-age college students at four-year institutions, unravels those threads a bit. As it turns out, students appear more likely to store data on their local devices and networks, and to use college-owned computers, than they are to save documents in the cloud and eschew communal machines entirely in favor of their own.

The responses to the fall survey, which is not freely available, came from “one-on-one intercepts” of 1,200 first-time, full-time undergrads on 100 campuses in October. Just over half of respondents (51 percent) said they use college-owned computers at least “a few times a week,” with nearly a quarter saying they use the communal machines at least once every day. Only 15 percent said they never use school-owned computers. This despite 95 percent saying they have a computer of their own, and 29 percent saying they own two.

Other data in the survey suggest that these young students are not quite in step with the future of campus computing. Three of the top four devices students report owning are flash drives (66 percent), printers (62 percent), and digital cameras (55 percent) -- devices that are said to be obsolescent in an age when synchronized cloud storage, electronic submission of papers and projects, and picture-taking smartphones are mainstream.

Then again, students might own these devices and still consider them relics to be replaced. But the Student Monitor data on what the same students “plan to buy” tell a similar story. Digital cameras actually top that list (15 percent), followed by printers (14 percent), external hard drives (14 percent), and wireless computer mice (14 percent).

The venerable, relatively unhip Microsoft Word, meanwhile, was rated the most frequently used software application by far, easily outpacing the cloud-based Google Docs and the open-source OpenOffice suite.  

This is not to say the death of the digital point-and-shoot, the irrelevance of printers, the decommissioning of communal computers, and the composing, editing, storing and transmitting of five-page essays via hosted word-processing applications are not real trends; only that these student responses suggest that they are not happening wholesale at the moment.

The new Student Monitor data are slightly more validating to the mobile computing trend, although the percentages of students who say they own Internet-enabled smartphones (56 percent) and those who say they own iPads (9 percent) are virtually unchanged from when the firm asked the same questions in May. Apple’s tablet accounted for about half of overall wireless reading devices (17 percent); it was followed by Amazon’s Kindle (4 percent) and a long tail of minor players.

Tablet computers do not yet pose a threat to displace laptops as the prevailing device among college students. Asked to name the type of computer they use most often, 86 percent said a laptop; only 2 percent said a tablet. Only 5 percent of respondents said they owned both, and only 1 percent said they owned a tablet only.

As far as how students were using their computers, 98 percent said they regularly spent time on Facebook, with an average time of four hours per week.  Three-quarters said they used Twitter, sinking an average of just over an hour and a half per week. MySpace, which has been hemorrhaging users for the last half-decade or so, still managed to grab the attention of 63 percent of students for an hour or so each week.

Student Monitor did not collect data on how many of those minutes occurred during class.

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.


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