College 2.0: Must-Have Technologies Inside and Outside the Classroom

For many college students, technology is an integral part of their classroom and learning experience. A 2007 report from the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research found that 60.9 percent of students surveyed felt technology improved learning. Laptops and smart phones are fixtures in those back-to-school commercials in the fall, reflecting the trend of a generation of students who have instant access to information wherever they go.

In recent years, professors and administrators have brought technology into a larger role in the college classroom, perhaps in response to what students use outside their classrooms to keep up with classwork and their friends. A closer look at what happens in and around the classroom may show that students rely most heavily on their computers, but how they use the technology is what makes all the difference.

What the Kids Use These Days
It goes without saying that college students today need to use computers as part of their education. The EDUCAUSE report stated that 98.4 percent of students owned a computer in 2007. Vladimir Kamnev, a graduate student at Wright State University in Dayton, OH, illustrated this point: “The things I absolutely would not be able to go to grad school without are a laptop and a Zip drive — those two go hand in hand.”

Of course, students now use their computers for more than just late-night paper writing and Solitaire.

While a growing number of students are opting for online courses on and off campus, even “regular” courses held in a college classroom tend to have an online component. A computer at home or in a residence hall room makes online courses an easy option. How students access their classes has changed some over that past few years.

Computer labs have been permanent fixtures on campuses for some time, whether centrally located in a library or scattered in buildings across campus. While computer labs most likely won’t disappear in the near future, a larger number of students own laptops and use WiFi to access the Internet and complete coursework.

WiFi could be considered a college student must have — in a 2008 survey, Wakefield Research, in conjunction with the WiFi Alliance, found that 48 percent of students surveyed would give up beer before giving up WiFi. Forty-four percent of respondents used WiFi during class time to get a head start on an assignment.

Easy access to WiFi on campus contributes to both a student’s educational and social experience in college. Students look for a campus that promotes accessible learning, where learning can happen just as easily in the hallway as in the lecture hall.

While students may be using their laptops to get ahead in their homework, they are also accessing social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Social media sites and Websites like YouTube are quickly becoming the “hot new thing.” Colleges and universities with Facebook and Twitter accounts can keep students up-to-date with news and events on campus, and the higher-ed channels on YouTube EDU offer students the chance to not only catch up on lectures, but also “sit in” on classes at institutions across the nation.

Smart phones (such as iPhones and BlackBerry phones) are also popular among college students. Having instant access to the Internet allows students to be more connected to the campus community and promotes mobile learning.

Ryan Craven, a senior at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX, commented, “There are technologies I cannot live without, and I am pretty embarrassed to admit my obsession. I listen to my iPod every day when walking to and from class.” If he forgets it, he often stops at home to pick it up between classes.

“I use it to study,” Craven explained. “I am not a person who likes to study in quiet places, so I have a study playlist on my iPod.” Craven also never leaves home without his phone in his picket. “I use it for everything — telling time, checking e-mail, Facebook, alarm clock, calendar, obviously phone calls, text messages…”

Craven also agrees with Kamnev that a laptop is essential to getting through classes. “I take all my lecture notes on my computer and have them all filed, organized, and saved by date, class, and topic.” Wireless access also comes in handy for Craven. “Because lectures can have 400 to 500 people, it makes it far less troublesome to Google something you don’t get, rather than raise your hand and ask the professor when confused.”

One trend that slower at taking hold is digital textbooks. E-books are currently not favorites with digital-native college students, but according to a recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, as digital textbooks evolve and become more user-friendly, they will likely become the more popular option over regular textbooks. Cost and usability (students want to be able to take notes, highlight, and bookmark information) are two factors that weigh into students’ decisions between a physical textbook that can be sold back at the end of the semester and one that could be downloaded.

Proponents of digital textbooks are also framing the argument for them in terms of environmental costs. Ecologically savvy students may feel a paperless education outweighs the drawbacks of having all their course material in digital form.

Faculty and Administrators Follow Student Trends
Much of the implementation of technology in the classroom supports the idea of active learning over the “sage on the stage” mentality of teaching. Professors find “teachable moments,” and students are often encouraged to seek learning outside of the strict classroom setting. Technology in the classroom also creates a more relevant atmosphere, which attracts the best students and faculty, according to an August 2008 report released by the Cisco Internet Business Solutions group titled, “21st Century for Higher Education: Top Trends, 2008-2009.”

Meredith Rodgers, instructor, Biological Sciences, at Wright State University, mentioned one issue with college faculty and technology. “While we do have technology to use,” she explained, “it also depends on the professor using it.” Not only factoring in the type of course and department, technology in the classroom depends on whether the faculty member has taken the time to learn how to use the technology and implement it in a way to help students learn their material. “I think two people in our department use clickers right now — I’d love to work them in to my courses, but my class sizes are just too big at the moment to make them useful to the students. Sometimes, you’ll be lucky if a professor is even using PowerPoint.” She also suggested that training and information on how to integrate technology into specific coursework and an incentive to use it could help faculty integrate more technology, including interactive whiteboard use and clickers, to help their students access material in a variety of ways.

Of course, technology use does vary. Craven explained that technology has become a key component of every college course he has taken while working towards his B.A. in Communications. “Interactive whiteboards and PowerPoints are used in virtually every classroom. I have also had to use a classroom performance system remote (or a clicker, as we refer to it) in several of my courses.” Colleges are also experimenting with new ways to deliver course content.

In a recent interview, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested colleges and universities look into delivering course content through cell phones. Professors could capitalize on the popularity of smart phones by opening up another way students can access course content and information, whether they’re on campus or out with their friends. A few schools are already taking part in mobile learning, including the Louisiana Community & Technical College System, Ball State University, and Abilene Christian University.

Another technology trend is open-content initiatives. Cisco’s report references both OpenCourseWare from MIT and the Research Impact Iniative and open-content Website from UC Berkeley as examples that are continuing to grow. OpenCourseWare, launched in October 2002, offers free digital publication of educational materials. YouTube EDU, iTunes U, and Berkeley Webcast are other examples of colleges and universities offering open-source digital learning and lecture videos that are accessible to students and even those not attending college. Wikis and blogs, part of the Web 2.0 technology wave, also contribute to open content.

While college and universities are finding new ways to implement technology in the classroom to enhance student learning, technology has also started to play a role in student recruitment. Social networking has become very popular with college recruiters, as well as virtual campus tours and Websites where prospective students can chat with or read blogs from current college students. An example is American Public University (APU), which is holding its first virtual university admissions event. The EduFair will feature information about APU’s seven schools, live chats with faculty and leadership, financial aid and admissions staff, “student ambassadors,” and resources for prospective students to download.

As students continue to move to the next new thing, expect college classrooms to not be far behind. While the basic must-have technologies may remain centered around the computer, students are finding new ways to interact, explore, and learn with Web 2.0 tools, open-source content, and other digital media.