This is an archived article.

April 24, 2003

Students: Higher learning should include high tech

If a recent student survey is to be believed, UW students are a pretty tech-savvy group and would like to be more so by the time they graduate. The survey was designed by the Student Access and Computing Group (SACG), the Program for Educational Transformation Through Technology (PETTT) the Student Technology Fee Committee (TechFee), the Office of Educational Assessment, University Libraries and Computing and Communication as part of a larger investigation into campus technology and learning.


“There’s not enough research in post secondary education on the influence of technology in teaching and learning,” says Kurt Kors, of PETTT, a University Initiatives Fund program that was created to do just that. “So we convene a group of people to perform research in real classroom settings and real learning environments. Then we take what we find in the research and apply it to the design of new technologies or the redesign of existing technologies.”


The current investigation began with a survey of faculty in 2001, followed by faculty focus groups. Next came student focus groups and the student survey. SACG and TechFee joined the survey effort to get answers to their own questions about technology.


“We have done surveys for years but we’ve always surveyed computer lab clients,” says Karalee Woody, SACG. “Our focus in the past has been around the labs. What hardware and software do the students want to see us put in there, what do they like and not like about the services the labs provide. We still need to know those things. But we also want to know how students feel about educational technology as a whole. Are they getting what they need? So it just made sense for us to work with PETTT on this.”


Survey results show student familiarity with technology in a number of ways:



  • More than 60 percent say they are advanced or expert at finding scholarly information using a computer; more than 90 percent claim at least intermediate skills in this area.
  • Nearly 75 percent of respondents rate themselves as advanced or expert in using a computer to communicate with others.
  • More than 70 percent of respondents say they can easily find and use online library resources.
  • More than half of the respondents are using Internet browsers and search engines daily.


Of course, in one sense, these statistics shouldn’t be surprising. As Kors and PETTT colleague Kimberly Gustafson point out, 20 percent of the current crop of college students first began using a computer between the ages of 5 and 8, and all had used a computer by the time they were 16 to 18.


In fact, students seem to want more technology than they’re getting. More than 72 percent of survey respondents said that the UW should require a Web site related to every course. More than 60 percent say they use currently available course Web sites several times a week, and more than 25 percent use them every day.


The University isn’t likely to make such a requirement, however. Kors says that demanding the use of Web sites has failed at other institutions. And raw data from the faculty survey offers some explanation for why not all courses have Web sites.


“Faculty say they don’t have time to put into this technology when they don’t know if it will be effective or not,” Kors says. “So what we’re trying to do is make it easy for them and make it clear what students are asking for so they aren’t wasting their time.”


To answer the latter question, the survey asked students what they want to see on a Web site. The items that got the most “extremely important” votes included course syllabi; course outlines or lecture notes, problem sets or exercises, grading criteria and grades posted online.


Students also revealed an unexpected preference on Web sites: They would like to be informed of opportunities to get involved in research. That came out of the focus groups, Gustafson says; where students mentioned that some professors have undergraduate research links on their Web sites.


“So we put that on the survey and found a huge percentage of students want to get involved in undergraduate research and they feel a barrier to that happening is their lack of knowledge of the opportunities.”


Students don’t seem to be worried about learning to use technology in their classes, according to the survey. More than 80 percent say they are “usually” or “almost always” comfortable learning to use new technologies needed to complete their course-work or research. However, an equal number said they want to be informed in advance — in the course catalog — what technologies will be required.


That may relate to the fact that only 13 percent of survey respondents said they were always getting adequate help on how to use educational technology from their instructors. What they seem to be doing instead is going to friends for help, as more than 50 percent of them said they did. Nonetheless, students still want direct, in-class instruction in technology. Less than 4 percent said they didn’t want such help.


Learning to use technologies seems, in fact, to be nearly as important to students as learning course content. The survey designers computed a technology proficiency score for respondents based on the technologies they reported using, as well as the score they said they would like to have at graduation. They found that students would like their technological proficiency to be significantly higher by the time they get their degrees.


“It’s related to careers,” Gustafson says. “Students want to know how to use technologies that they’ll be using when they get a job.”


Ironically, one way that students might learn more about technology seems to be something they aren’t as aware of as they might be. Woody reports that in SACG’s portion of the survey, results showed that students didn’t know about many services available to them.


“They know of the computer labs and what’s in them,” Woody says, “but they’re not aware of workshops, of online help, of the level of consulting help they can get. We need to do a much better job of marketing what we have to offer.”


Results of the student survey were presented in a recent forum. Kors and Gustafson are currently at work on a larger report which will compare results from both the student and faculty surveys, as well as the student and faculty focus groups. That report will be available on the PETTT Web site May 2 at http://depts.washington.edu/pettt/tech_report.pdf. SACG and TechFee are also producing reports that will be available online at a later date.