Tools, not Trends

I’ve been writing lately about “keeping up.” An important part of keeping up is knowing what tools and technologies you absolutely need to use, and what you can ignore for the time being. In academic libraries, it means knowing the tools that students really want and use versus the tools that trendwatching librarians claim they should be wanting and using. You can see some of of those tools in the Educause Center for Applied Research National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011. It’s worth skimming to get an idea of what technology students use and how they use it. Those who believe that students avidly adopt every information technology and social media trend–and who tell us this is essential for librarians to do as well–might get a few surprises.

For example, “one consistent finding is that e-mail remains a potent form of communication, both widely and frequently used—and the tool students most wish instructors would use more often” (5). That’s right, boring old email. Students possibly want the instructors to use it more often because they think instructors don’t communicate enough, but they’re not begging their instructors to tweet them. Also, “Virtually all students (99 percent) use e-mail—and virtually all (97 percent) use it at least a few times a week and most students (75 percent) use it several times a day” (13). If 99% of the students are using email and it remains a potent form of communication, then I think it’s safe to say that librarians shouldn’t feel outdated using it in lieu of some trendier but significantly less adopted social media tool. Though it’s easy to let it get out of control, email is still a remarkably useful communication tool, and one of the best for reflective, in-depth exchanges among people. That’s why 99% of college students use it.

Of course, email wasn’t the only popular medium of communication. “93 percent of students use text messaging, 90 percent use Facebook, and 81 percent use instant messaging” (13). So on the off chance your library hasn’t yet adopted some sort of IM reference service (perhaps with SMS integrated), you’re definitely behind the times, but that doesn’t mean that the more traditional email still isn’t viable and necessary. The study found that while students used Facebook a lot, the desire to interact on Facebook with instructors, and thus presumably librarians, wasn’t great. Ninety percent of students use Facebook, but only “Twelve percent of students say Facebook is ‘extremely valuable’ to their academic success—and one in four students (25 percent) consider it ‘valuable’ or ‘extremely valuable.’ On the other hand, more than half of students (53 percent) think its academic value is limited or nonexistent” (26). If your library has a Facebook page, great. It’s an easy way to make announcements for students who like their information that way, but it’s obviously not an academic necessity.

As for the most hyped social media tool of the moment, Twitter, the student use is much lower. 37% of students use Twitter, but only 11% are “frequent users” (14). Not that those 11% aren’t a vocal minority. The study quotes a “student voice”: “My generation is a social networking generation. We devote most of our time to Tweeting and or reading tweets, it would help if we could communicate with our professors in this way because most of us aren’t able to contact them during their office hours” (26). I don’t know quite what to make of this. If the students are devoting “most of their time to Tweeting and or reading tweets,” then their scholastic success is far from assured anyway. Maybe the student is one of those business majors who don’t work very hard. I can understand an instructor communicating with students through Twitter easily enough if the instructor is already a Twitter user. Set up an account for questions, problems, links to assignments, news relevant to the course topic, etc. But for the rest, that’s maybe a lot of work for the 11% of frequent Twitter users. Instructors also have higher priorities than following all their students’ tweets as well.

For iPad lovers, there might be another surprise in the study: most students aren’t iPad lovers. They prefer more conventional technology. According to the study, “A majority of students own a laptop (87 percent), a USB thumb drive (70 percent), an iPod (62 percent), a smartphone (55 percent), a digital camera (55 percent), and a webcam (55 percent)….Fewer students (11 percent) own a netbook or an iPad (8 percent) or another tablet (2 percent)” (7). I now have a study confirming what I see around me on campus. Most of the time I see students in the library, they’re reading books or articles they printed out on paper (I’ve yet to encounter a student who prefers reading a scholarly book or article any way but on paper), or hunched over a laptop writing papers or crunching numbers. For scholars having to do research and write essays, the affordable laptop computer is a truly revolutionary technology in numerous ways. It changes everything from the discovery of information to its creation. Tablet computers are great for lots of things, but they’re not as useful as laptops for research and writing.

Sometimes the conclusions of the study seem to surprise the writers themselves. We are told that, “students are still attached to ‘standard issue’ technology. A majority of students own a printer (81 percent), a DVD player (75 percent), a stationary gaming device (66 percent), an HDTV (56 percent), and a desktop computer (53 percent)” (9). Anyway, the “still attached” sounds to me like surprise. I’m not sure why anyone would be surprised that students are “still attached” to really useful technologies. Possibly it’s a contrast between the expectations of the authors and the banal reality of students’ real technology use. Even the gaming is conventional. I don’t play a lot of videogames, but I have done enough to know that they’re usually more enjoyable on my big HDTV than on my smartphone.

As with the surprise, the study recommendations sometimes push against the grain of the findings. On a list of generally excellent technology recommendations, they recommend that instructors “Make more and better use of technologies that students value—and that are easily integrated into learning experiences in the shared environments in higher education (e.g., tablets, smartphones, student response systems or clickers) )” (32). However, since we know that only 10% of the students own an iPad or other tablet, compared to 87% with a laptop, why would instructors use valuable time to “make more and better uses” of tablets? Would that be a good use of their time? I just can’t see why tablet computers keep making an appearance when so far they’re not widely adopted among students, except that someone really wants students to use iPads.

Of the technologies seen by students as “extremely valuable” for academic success, here’s a breakdown: Laptop 81%, WiFi 78%, Smartphone 33%, iPad 24% (16). It reflects the reality that a laptop with an Internet connection is a powerful academic tool. An iPad is more of an academic luxury, and with college costing what it does these days, it’s a luxury that most students do without. Everything else pales in comparison. It could just be that students don’t realize how useful these tools are, but that’s for a different blog post. What seems to be the case now is that chasing technology trends isn’t something college students are very interested in, which makes them very different from some of the infotech-savvy librarians interacting with them, including to a great extent me.

The first recommendation of the study is excellent advice: “Investigate your students’ technology needs and preferences and create an action plan to better integrate technology into courses and help students access institutional and academic information from their many and diverse devices and platforms” (32). When dealing with technology, that’s the important thing to remember. What are your students actually using, compared to what some pundit claims they’re using? We’ve all read numerous hyperbolic and poorly supported manifestos about digital natives and millennials and such, but we should ignore them in favor of what we experience on the ground working with students. Recently, I had an interaction with a very bright 20-year-old Princeton student who asked me to slow down on something I was showing her because she “wasn’t good with computers.” Out of curiosity, I asked her if she was familiar with the phrase “digital native.” She wasn’t.

3 thoughts on “Tools, not Trends

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