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Technology has helped many students continue their educations during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has also added to their burdens. Now, a new survey of 820 U.S. undergraduates highlights the new normal—from students’ perspective—of the higher ed tech landscape. The survey, “2022 Students and Technology Report: Rebalancing the Student Experience,” was published this week by Educause, a nonprofit focused on information technology in higher education.

Despite broad tech savviness among college students, the survey found many struggle with tech challenges beyond their control, such as unstable internet access. At the same time, assistive technologies designed for students with disabilities appear to help all students. Also, while students are mostly self-reliant when troubleshooting technology challenges, colleges still have a role to play in providing backup as they work to resolve technology problems, the authors of the survey report concluded.

Technology often enhances students’ abilities to learn, but it can also present hurdles. In the past year, more than three-quarters of the students who responded to the survey (77 percent) encountered at least one technology challenge, and more than half (51 percent) reported that those challenges induced stress.

Most of the survey respondents (64 percent) struggled with unstable internet connections, including more than one-quarter (29 percent) who reported that they lost connectivity during a class meeting, exam or other synchronous activity.

Nearly half of respondents (46 percent) had a required device malfunction when needed, and more than one-third (39 percent) found themselves unable to run a required application or software when needed.

“Compassionate teaching practices such as flexible deadlines and attendance policies will go a long way in helping students manage unreliable internet access,” said Jenay Robert, Educause researcher and author of the report.

Solutions to technology challenges are not one-size-fits-all, according to Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, an organization focused on digital learning in higher education. Rather, digital learning challenges may look different based on the type of student and institution. For example, urban HBCU students without internet access may face a different set of challenges than rural tribal college students without internet access, according to Williams.

“Many of those challenges are layered,” Williams said. “Even if we were to solve all the internet issues and everyone has excellent internet, then [you need to ask], ‘Do they have the right device?’ or ‘Are they working from a cellphone’ or ‘Do they have a laptop?’ And if they have the right device, ‘Is the course structured in a way where the students are actually going to be engaged?’”

Assistive Technology Helps All Students

Though few student respondents (5 percent) reported a disability for which they sought assistive technology, many more nonetheless rely on these tools. Nearly one in five students (18 percent) reported needing every assistive technology from a list of nine that included closed captions on video, digital player/recorder, word-prediction software, digital highlighter, text-to-speech software, speech-to-text software, pen-top computer, digital magnifier and screen reader.

“If you design for students at the margins, then ultimately, you’re really supporting success for all students,” Williams said. For example, “closed captions on videos not only benefit students who may have hearing disabilities but also students who are working in places where they can’t listen to the video.”

Many students reported needing at least one of the assistive technologies. More than one-third of respondents need captions on videos (38 percent), digital players or recorders (36 percent), or word-prediction software (34 percent). One-quarter or more need text-to-speech software (26 percent) and pen-top computers (25 percent). Nearly one in five (18 percent) need screen readers.

For this reason, Robert suggests that colleges should consider raising awareness about how all students may access assistive technology services. They might also address policies that act as barriers to accessing these services, such as “requiring students to justify requests for assistance with medical documentation,” Robert said.

Students Mostly Self-Source Tech Solutions, With Backup From Colleges

Earlier studies have found that students mostly solve technology problems on their own or with the help of family or friends. Still, colleges have a role to play in easing students’ technology burdens, according to the survey respondents. For example, when troubleshooting tech problems, many students rely on access to campus hardware available in computer labs (21 percent) or access to campus Wi-Fi (14 percent).

“Students are working from parking lots, working from anywhere they can find Wi-Fi, really,” Williams said. “We’ve got to create more hotspots for students.”

“Institutions might consider how physical spaces should be used to support students joining remote courses while they’re on campus,” Robert said.

Since nearly one-quarter of the student respondents reported buying a new digital device such as a laptop, desktop or tablet computer, Robert also suggests that colleges might “provide more one-to-one device services such as device lending programs.”

“Faculty need to consider designing courses in ways that allow students to succeed even if they don’t have high-quality Wi-Fi connections,” Williams said. Fewer synchronous sessions and more videos that may be downloaded or recorded webinars will help, Williams said, as will options for students to post whenever they have access to Wi-Fi.

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