One of our recent reading assignment has been the Ecar National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011, published by Educause. It is based on a survey of 3,000 college students in the US. I suspect the results would not be much different in the UK, although of course that point could be debated. Nevertheless, it is full of interesting findings that should help educational bodies grapple with one of their most urgent questions – how do we use technology as effectively as possible to improve the education we offer. This question is particularly urgent as information technology becomes more and more embedded in our daily lives, and particularly those of young people (as the report findings demonstrate).
For me, three findings stood out as particularly interesting, perhaps because they are questions that have been on my mind anyway…
Firstly, there is a clear gap between the skills students feel they need to make best use of technology and those that they already have. A surprising 48% of students wish they knew how to use programming language better, 41% audio-creation software and so on. 41% do not think they have sufficient skills on spreadsheets and 39% on use of e-books.
This is evidence that the educational system is failing in a big way to give students the life skills that they need. It ties in perfectly with case passionately made by John Naughton recently that all schoolchildren, regardless of whether they will have careers in computing, need to be taught to code and to understand the fundamental principles of computing. Instead, judging by my children, they are lucky to be taught how to use Microsoft Office products. This is helpful, of course, but the products will not be around forever. Our children need deeper understanding of technology and our schools need to deliver it. Otherwise this issue will be more serious for the next generation of students.
Secondly, asking about students’ preferred learning environments revealed a very clear finding – 45% of students preferred seminars and small classes with some online components. This is far ahead of any other category. Many courses, certainly in the UK, are either delivered entirely face-to-face or entirely online. These findings would suggest that a mix between the two is ideal. Certainly, as I have previously argued, there is no basis for the assumption that face-to-face education is inherently “better” than online.
Finally, students’ perception of the effectiveness of their institution’s use of technology is tied to three factors:
- Effective use of technology
- Use of technology frequently enough
- The seamless integration of technology into courses
The report is careful to stress that there is no “magic bullet” that will automatically satisfy these criteria. Determining what “effective use” is in any given context, for example, requires hard work. But the aspiration for all bodies responsible for education should be clear – spend some time to work out what is effective, increase your usage as a priority and do not regard technology as a bolt-on. As one student surveyed put it “Make the technology more integrated to the learning environment and use more than just PowerPoint”. The more deeply we can rethink and redesign our courses to take advantage of the technology, the better.