Oct 20 2011

EDUCAUSE 2011: Digital Content Is King

Students reveal how their universities’ technology offerings have impacted their learning experience.

The majority of today’s college students grew up with technology, but the three college seniors who headlined a session at EDUCAUSE on Wednesday afternoon described as “shocking” the difference between the technology resources they had at their disposal in high school versus what they’re using in college.

“The Digital Divide: Are Colleges Committed to Go Digital?” used the findings of CDW•G’s 2011 21st Century Campus Report as the basis for a far-reaching discussion about how these students’ institutions are incorporating digital content into the curriculum and how other technologies are being used to enhance learning.

Andy Lausch, CDW•G’s vice president for higher education, led the panel of students, which included Adam Hogan, a management information systems major at Temple University in Philadelphia; Rhea Ranavat, a finance major at the University of Pittsburgh; and Nick Stevens, a marketing major at the University of Connecticut.

Among other things, Hogan, Ranavat and Stevens revealed that their high schools were light on technology when they were students. They also said that they had no experience using digital content until they went to college.

The 21st Century Campus Report confirms digital content’s value in increasing student engagement and performance in classes: Two-thirds of the survey’s 401 student respondents consider it an “essential” technology. Only a wireless network with anytime, anywhere Internet connectivity ranked higher in importance to students, with 87 percent of respondents calling it essential.

“My school had absolutely no digital content, which is a shame because that’s my favorite kind of content,” Hogan told attendees. “If you want to get your students really involved [in a lesson], talk about current events. You can’t do that with textbooks, which, in my school, were often up to 10 years old.”

Stevens said his transition from a high school that used no digital content to the University of Connecticut was a shock because “there’s so much digital content” in his college courses — everything from lecture notes to assignments to exams. Although he “learns better” using print textbooks and taking notes by hand, Stevens said he believes that professors and students should have the option to use whichever method works best for them.

Ranavat agreed that e-books “should be an option for students,” adding that their usefulness depends “on the person and how [he or she] learns” and on the subject matter. “I don’t think e-books work as well in courses like finance,” she said. “They’re better for conceptual courses.”

Ranavat also encouraged K–12 schools to make the necessary adjustments to their curriculum and technology offerings “so the shock between high school and college isn’t so pronounced” for students.

The “So What?” Question

Although college students, faculty and staff often are eager to move to a digital environment, the costs associated with doing so are a concern. According to the 21st Century Campus Report, digital content’s primary benefit is that it lowers the costs for students to purchase required course materials. The primary challenge, on the other hand, is that digital textbook reading devices aren’t always affordable.

The student panelists echoed these findings and expressed a few other concerns.

“Licensing needs to be addressed,” Hogan said, “and that has to do with the publishers. Do we have the option to rent or buy the content? Also, how do we download it? I would prefer to download it to my hard drive [so] I don’t need Internet access to use it. If you can’t have it on your hard drive, that’s a big deterrent — my biggest gripe.”

“The convenience of having it and [being able to access] it anywhere is important,” Stevens concurred. “I’m worried if it’s on the Internet or in the cloud and I can’t get to it.”

For Ranavat, eyestrain also is an issue. “I can study longer and be more productive with a print book than I can staring at the content on a screen,” she said.

More Is More?

The session also touched on other 21st century classroom technologies that have been proven to increase student engagement and learning, including wireless networks, portable computing devices (notebook computers, tablets and smartphones), and even virtual learning.

“If you have just one device, I would recommend a laptop with a dedicated keyboard,” Hogan said. Ranavat agreed, noting that for her, at least, “it’s easier to stay focused [on classroom activities] with a laptop.”

When asked to explain what they look for in a computing device, the students cited the following key features:

  • functionality;
  • screen size;
  • battery life; and
  • processing power.

What Now?

Lausch concluded the session by asking the panelists to weigh in on what education institutions of all types can and should be doing to better serve their customers (namely, their students).

“K–12 institutions shouldn’t just look at technology as [something that can bridge] the gap between high school and college,” Ranavat said. “They should provide an experience that students can relate to. We all use technology already, so it’s important [to make it] available to students” in meaningful ways.

Colleges, meanwhile, “should really try to push the envelope with both technology and education,” Ranavat continued. “They need to [prepare us] for careers and the real world and give us the technical know-how to adapt to new kinds of technology and be comfortable with it.”

Hogan urged institutions to “work harder to incorporate digital content” and to make it easier for students to find and use it. “I would like to see some web-based portal with all of the books that Temple is using and whether they have an e-book counterpart,” he offered.

And Stevens stressed the importance of professional development — both for faculty members and for students. “No one was really there to tell me how to use some of these systems that are available,” he said. “It’s also important to educate professors [about] how to use classroom technologies and how to integrate digital content. It’s frustrating when a professor doesn’t know what he’s doing with the technology.”

For more findings from CDW•G’s 2011 21st Century Campus Report, visit CDWG.com/21stCenturyCampus.

For more coverage on EDUCAUSE 2011, visit our EDUCAUSE 2011 Coverage page.