2006 ECAR Study of Undergrads & IT

ECAR, EDUCAUSE‘s research arm, recently released the results of their 2006 Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. While most ECAR documents are only available to ECAR subscribers and those who specifically purchase them, ECAR released this study to the public “because of the topic’s critical importance.” While I recommend everyone read through at least the Key Findings, let’s take a look at some of the findings, place them in context with other research, and try to extract some additional meaning from them.

First, without downplaying its strengths and essential validity, we must note the limitations of this study. Freshmen and seniors at 96 institutions were invited to participate (and each institution had to seek IRB approval – 96 separate IRB approvals for one study). The response rate was about 11% for a total of nearly 29,000 students. While that is a large number of respondents the researchers correctly state that their findings may only be directly applicable to the participating institutions and generalizing these results even to those institutions should be done with extreme caution. As with most surveys, the survey also suffered from self-selection bias. However, ECAR also conducted focus groups at 5 participating institutions to gather qualitative data which may have helped to offset some of these limitations. But enough about the methodology – let’s get on to some of the results.

One of the most striking findings of this survey is that computer ownership among respondents is nearly ubiquitous: 97.8% own at least one computer with over one-third (37.2%) of respondents owning both desktop and laptop computers. However, just as we’re finding in American society at large, there is also a very small minority of students who avoid or choose not to use technology. This is a separate group from those who can not afford technology or at least the level of technology they would like. Both of these groups not only present some difficulties for technical support personnel (who must support aging computers, users with uncommonly low technical skills or knowledge, etc.) but they also reveal a segment of American society who may never cross the Participation Gap, never mind the Digital Divide.

Another finding relevant for college and university administrators is that “overwhelmingly…students prefer e-mail [for institutional communication].” This finding should not be surprising. While we know that young people prefer to use Instant Messaging and other media such as social networking sites to communicate with their friends, they view e-mail as something for “old people” and a medium to be used to communicate with “institutions.” Without discussing whether the choice of medium is appropriate (there are very strong arguments that it is), we must admit to ourselves that we are indeed “old people” who work for “institutions.” Thus we can conclude that e-mail is most likely the correct medium for communicating most information to students.

Throughout the study, differences between male and female respondents are reported. For example, when discussing self-reported skill levels, the researchers note that “gender…is an influential factor in explaining perceived differences in skill levels: being male is associated with higher reported levels of skills.” Female respondents (as well as younger respondents) indicated a preference for less technology in their courses. Not surprisingly, “male [respondents] are more likely to be gamers, reporting higher usage of computer and online games.” While there is some evidence that many of these differences can be explained by factors other than gender (personal interests, academic major, economic status, etc.), this study provides evidence supporting the common sense notion that males and females use technology differently. (This is a fascinating area of scholarship)

ResNet professionals may be interested to learn that more than one-third (36.1%) of respondents reported owning a wireless “hub” (quotation marks are necessary as hub is a technical term often misused and likely incorrect in this context). While the report does not break down the different levels of ownership among on- and off-campus residents it does show that the level appears to correlate with age – the older a respondent the more likely he or she is to own a wireless “hub.” Based on that, I suspect the level of ownership may be higher among off-campus residents. But that may be wishful thinking. We know that despite students’ desire for ubiquitous wireless is far from being a reality in residence halls. We also know that wireless is perceived by many ResNet professionals as one of their top challenges. These issues are all summed up by the ECAR researchers who state that “the 1990s battle cry of a ‘port per pillow’ may be getting supplemented this century with ‘a router for every room, or at least a hub for every home!'” We’ll have to discuss the security ramifications of this later.

One surprising item in this study is that “more than 70% [of respondents] use social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.” Although there is significant qualitative data in this study supporting the assertion that usage is very high, this survey’s quantitative data regarding reported usage of social networking sites is much lower than reported in most other studies of this specific topic of which I am aware. Why the disparity? Perhaps the data is “stale” (i.e. too old to reflect current trends). Or, more likely, the demographics of this group of respondents differ very significantly from those in the other studies with which I am familiar. For example, this is the only study of which I am aware that included students in 2-year institutions. Given the differences between “typical” students at 2-year institutions and 4-year institutions, many illuminated and discussed in this study, this may explain some or much of the difference. Although I am initially inclined to lend more weight to the larger body of evidence presented by those who specifically study this phenomenon, the sample size of the ECAR study is much larger than most other studies and surveys which lends it considerable weight. In any case, whether it’s “more than 70%” or closer to 90% or 100%, usage is still very high.

Here’s something that will make many student affairs professionals nod their head and smile: When discussing self-reported skill levels, the researchers noted that “students who report learning a skill for employment or personal interest also report higher levels of learning.” Preceding this comment is a brief discussion of students who possess skills not learned or taught in their coursework but acquired through employment, personal interests, or other means. The researchers even included a quote from a student who talks about skills learned through volunteer work with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Score one for internships, co-ops, volunteer opportunities, (reasonable) employment, and other experiential learning opportunities and those who support and encourage students in finding those opportunities.

Finally, when asked to select where institutions should invest more money in IT, if money were available, nearly 28% of all respondents selected “Music (Napster subscription, etc.).” Moreover, there is a very clear trend that younger respondents selected this response much more frequently than older respondents. While this is an interesting finding, I assert that the methodology significantly weakens this finding as the respondents were asked to select three responses from a pre-defined list of ten possible responses. Nevertheless, this is an interesting finding as the research into entertainment services has thus far been very limited and found mixed results.

There’s a lot more in the full report and I’m sure there any many interesting and important findings that I could not or did not discuss here. It’s a good study and the report is well-written so read it when you have the time.