College students want more technology, ECAR survey says


College students increasingly want more online technology in their learning environments, but many faculty members are wary of incorporating blended learning into their courses, according to the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research’s (ECAR) 2017 separately published companion surveys of student and faculty trends in the use of information technology.

“The best things in life are free, but students want technology. And they want their instructors to use more of it in their courses,” the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2017 reported. “Resistance is futile. Students’ preferences for courses that assimilate both face-to-face instructional components with technological features of the online environment continue to gain momentum across higher education.”

On the other hand, the ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology 2017 also found that faculty remain “unaware or unconvinced” by evidence that blended instruction generates stronger learning outcomes than either fully online or fully face-to-face instruction.

The study concluded that “by and large, faculty do not seem to have a very positive opinion of online learning,” though they do agree that online learning helps democratize higher education and make it available to more students.

“Faculty have a love-hate relationship with online teaching,” said Christopher Brooks, co-author with Jeffrey Pomerantz of both the student and faculty reports. “They don’t necessarily think that online learning is better than face-to-face learning.”

In the survey, almost half of faculty disagreed or strongly disagreed that online learning helps students learn more effectively. “Put differently, almost half of faculty believe that online learning has either no effect or a negative effect on student learning,” the report stated.

At the same time, most faculty members in the survey — more than 13,500 individuals from 157 institutions in seven countries, including the U.S., participated in the research — felt they could be more effective if they were better skilled at integrating various digital technologies into their courses, such as media-production software and open educational resources.

“Faculty are skeptical about [online learning’s] impact, yet most of the things they say that could make them better teachers are tied to these digital technologies that one might find in an online environment,” Brooks told EdScoop.

One tool that transcends faculty skepticism is the learning management system. ECAR researchers found that learning management systems (LMS) are firmly entrenched at U.S. colleges and universities, though they are still largely reserved for basic functions.

“The LMS has really reached a point where it is something of a utility on campus,” Brooks said. “In many ways, it’s much more infrastructure than it is anything else at this point.”

According to the report, faculty use their institutions’ LMS at high rates but mostly only for operational course management functions, such as circulating information — typically, the syllabus, handouts and assignments.

“It seems that almost everybody is using it and the ways in which people are using it are largely for basic functions,” Brooks said. “For students, it’s a place where they go to get content, download things and upload things, not unlike turning on the light switch in someone’s office. That degree of stability suggests that, as a technology, it’s here, it’s baked into the college and university experience and probably isn’t going anywhere.”

On the downside, Brooks said, “we’re not seeing the LMS used by either faculty or students in consistently sophisticated ways that would take us to something akin the next-generation learning environment. The next challenge, I think, is trying to figure out how to leverage these systems in ways that can really enhance the teaching and learning experience in ways that we haven’t seen before.”

A surprising finding of the 2017 research is that a large percentage of faculty either discourage or ban computing devices from their classrooms, reversing a recent trend, Brooks said.

“For the first time in several years, we’re actually seeing faculty banning or discouraging the use of digital devices in classroom at higher rates,” he said. “The last few years, the number of faculty banning or discouraging devices has been declining, but this year we got an uptick. At the same time, students are using their smartphones and seeing them as important at higher levels. I think we’re kind of reaching a brinksmanship here in the classroom use of devices.”