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The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Since 2004, the annual ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology has sought to shed light on how information technology affects the college experience. We ask students about the technology they own and how they use it in and out of their academic world. We gather information about how skilled students believe they are with technologies; how they perceive technology is affecting their learning experience; and their preferences for IT in courses. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 is a longitudinal extension of the 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 studies. It is based on quantitative data from a spring 2009 survey of 30,616 freshmen and seniors at 103 four-year institutions and students at 12 two-year institutions; student focus groups that included input from 62 students at 4 institutions; and review of qualitative data from written responses to open-ended questions. In addition to studying student ownership, experience, behaviors, preferences, and skills with respect to information technologies, the 2009 study also includes a special focus on student ownership and use of Internet-capable handheld devices.

Table of Contents
Entire Study The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009
Chapter 1 Executive Summary
Chapter 2 Introduction: Higher Education—A Moveable Feast?
Chapter 3 Methodology and Respondent Characteristics
Chapter 4 Ownership of, Use of, and Skill with IT
Chapter 5 IT and the Academic Experience
Chapter 6 Undergraduates and the Mobile Revolution
Appendix A Acknowledgments
Appendix B Students and Information Technology in Higher Education: 2009 Survey Questionnaire
Appendix C Qualitative Interview Questions
Appendix D Participating Institutions and Survey Response Rates
Appendix E Bibliography
Online Supporting Materials
Key Findings
Survey Instrument

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This past year's study was of 36,950 freshmen and seniors at about 100 schools, I believe. Nice to see the sample size being fairly consistent; in fact, it grew a bit, but so did school attendance in America. It really was quite proportionate, so I think that's fair inflation in numbers. It is always fascinating to watch. As a periphery member of our educational staff (I mostly just work to support our students and teachers through IT), I have anecdotally watched tech usage through the years. Even once laptops were commonplace in business, it took a few years (probably until about the time this study began in 2004) for laptops to really begin being common for students to enter college with. I think another interesting aspect to student tech usage is teacher attitudes. Even today many teachers are still very opposed to laptop usage in class because of the possibility of the student playing online, chatting on IM, or otherwise not paying attention. I'm not sure of the best way to quantify this sort of data, but I'd love to see it included as an extension of this study in the future.

Systems Manager

When educators consider by the end of 2011, PC sales will be surpassed by smartphone sales, the use of hand held devices in the classroom is inevitable (ECAR, 2009, p. 102). It is also interesting to note how laptops in classrooms have been “leap-frogged” by handheld devices. Out of 30, 616 respondents in the ECAR study, 51.2% owned an Internet capable handheld device and of those students, 32.2% used these devices for non-course activities during class (p. 8). Only 11.3% of respondents agreed/strongly agreed that they use their handheld devices in class for course activities (p. 97). I would estimate these numbers to be lower than in the school where I teach. The current policy at my school requires practicing and enforcing “respectful use” of these devices. If students use their devices during class, I am required to take them. Issues with privacy and cheating are reasons why they should not be used during this time.

As a proponent of technology, I find it very hypocritical to take handheld devices from students in class. While handheld etiquette needs to be taught to students, it is difficult and nearly impossible to deny a way of life and a form of technology that is such a part of students’ lives. The fact 49.4 % respondents agreed/strongly agreed the use of IT in courses improved their learning (p. 176) is an indicator that handheld devices can fulfill that role. Applications that are built for academic purposes are one way that handheld devices can be used in the classroom (p. 26). Other uses include accessing course management systems, lectures, clicker devices, and library services (p. 101). While the ECAR study respondents are university students, it (hopefully) won’t be long before handheld devices will be utilized in secondary school settings. Who knows, in the future Technological Learners may become a dominant learning style in differentiated instruction?

Smith, S., Salaway, G., and Borreson Caruso, J. (2009). The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 (Research Study, Vol. 6). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved from


I agree that handheld devices, such as smartphones, have tremendous potential in the classroom – for secondary and post-secondary education. If we were to consider the ECAR results, then we educators may be confident that post-secondary students are already equipped with the necessary media literacy skills and already promote positive virtual citizenry.

Eight out of 10 students (80%) were very confident in their ability to search the Internet effectively and efficiently; almost half (45.1%) rated themselves very skilled, and another third (34.9%) rated themselves as experts. Although students' assessment of their ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of online information and to understand related ethical and legal issues is lower, overall ratings were still high. These positive perceptions are generally consistent across age, gender, major, and Carnegie class (ECAR, 2009, p. 55-56).”

The reality is that these results are not a true measure of their ability and are instead based on the student's self-perception. Their ability may be far less than implied and caution should be taken when integrating such devices in the classroom. This is especially true of secondary students. There is certainly a range of functions that smartphones may fulfil as an m-learning tool, including digital camera, audio device, clicker, web browser, and GIS tool. Smartphones with internet data plans, however, do not rely on the school's secure, monitored network. The greatest risk is, therefore, with behaviours and exposure to elements of negative virtual citizenry and student e-safety. The behaviours that students are at risk of exhibiting or being subjected to include interpersonal victimization, privacy breaches (as you had mentioned), and sexual behaviour (Selwyn, 2006; Ybarra et al., 2007). One solution I propose is providing students with the smartphone and restricting internet access to the school wireless network. This also addresses concerns of equitable access to the technology and its learning benefits for secondary students. Provided this, then we may go forward to teach media literacy to students using these tools.


Selwyn, N. (2006). Exploring the ‘digital disconnect’ between net-savvy students and their schools. Learning, Media and Technology, 31(1) 5-17.

Smith, S., Salaway, G., & Borreson Caruso, J. (2009). The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2009 (Research Study, Vol. 6). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. Retrieved from

 With the development of $100-laptops, affordable tablet PC's, Netbooks, the touchscreen pocket multimedia players and now the soon-to-be-released Apple iPad, I have become very interested in m-Learning. This form of learning is when such mobile computing devices intersect with e-Learning to access learning content at any place or time (Caudill, 2007). The concept coincides with ubiquitous computing, but m-Learning excludes devices such as laptops and desktops (Peng et al., 2009) – as was done in the ECAR study.

The two essential components to m-Learning devices are the device itself and the network to which it remotely accesses (Peters, 2007). As may be seen in the ECAR study, there are various limited-purpose technologies (ie. MP3 player, Smartphone), many with capabilities which are beyond the scope of an educational function. The future should focus on the development of multimedia tools that are purpose-built toward educational function. It is otherwise understandable that the students surveyed in the ECAR study can't and won't afford to equip themselves with a collection of tools or be able to afford the data plan. Devices can alternatively rely on wireless connectivity, using free wi-fi zones, but this mitigates the ubiquity of the tool for m-Learning.

The essential components for the educational aspect of m-Learning are the learning content and the learning interface. The future for m-Learning requires developers to remove barriers of compatibility for m-Learning content and interface designers. These barriers are costly and produce designs which may only be accessible on particular technologies; such as the PC or Mac, the Kindle or Sony eReader, and the Blackberry or iPhone. Contrary to Caudill, I believe that this onus should not be placed on designers (2007). Such a shift supports the learner-centered approach to education such that users can easily communicate across platforms and designers may focus on improved content design and interface design.

With these developments, perhaps students will be better enabled to become power users of mobile devices and instructors may readily join the mobile revolution.


Caudill, J. (2007). The Growth of m-Learning and the Growth of Mobile Computing: Parallel Developments. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 8(2).

Peng, H., Su, Y-J., Chou, C. & Tsang, C-C. (2009). Ubiquitous Knowledge Construction: Mobile Learning Re-defined and a Conceptual Framework. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 46(2), 171-183.

Peters, K. (2007). m-Learning: Positioning Educators for a Mobile, Connected Future. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 8(2).

The ECAR study focused on current undergraduate students as being the generation that has grown-up with electronics and therefore the study was focused on this group of students' use of mobile devices. Their research focused on mobile learning with an aim to improve the college experience for this group of students.

 However, there is a need to offer the opportunity for quality mobile learning to all ages of learners.

Lam and Chung (2009) state that the population in many developed countries is aging and becoming an integral part of the future workforce. There is a need to retrain these older workers as technologies advance. Lam and Chung (2009) aim to explore the potential of mobile learning for the elderly. Mobile devices offer more flexibility for students because they can learn anywhere at anytime (Otair, Al-Jedaiah, Al-Zoubi, and Al-Refaee,  2010). Students do not have to attend a traditional classroom, which could be intimidating for an elderly person. Mobile learning would be a desirable mode for the elderly to learn. However, the study by Lam and Chung (2009) revealed that close to 100% of the elderly participants of the study felt that the buttons on mobile devices were too small as well as the text on displays and interfaces were too small. It is therefore important to take a closer look at the functions of mobile devices and design products that are suitable for a range of users.

 As people age, they have impairments that can present problems when using a mobile device for learning. Lam and Chung (2009) suggest some functions that should be considered when designing a mobile device for learning such as: raising the keys on the keypad and making them larger, using simple and clear screen layouts, as well as using clear and large graphics.

 Computers in the past have been modified to meet the specific needs of learners and therefore it is possible to modify mobile devices to meet the needs of the elderly. 


Lam, S. & Chung, W. (2009). Understanding the Need of Mobile ICT Learning as an Elderly Learning Tool. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning,4(4), 35-40.


Otair, M., Al-Jedaiah, M., Al-Zoubi, A., & Al-Refaee, A. (2010). Sharing of Learning Material on Mobile Devices through Bluetooth Technology. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning,5(1), 16-21.



Within the span of time to complete an undergraduate degree, technology changes abound; students have access to technologies leaving university which were not even on the market when they began their post-secondary experience. For this reason alone, the types of surveys conducted by ECAR and the questions asked within those surveys are ever evolving as well. However, ECAR has found that students’ beliefs, views and opinions about technology, thus far have shown consistency even as available technologies change and grow. Some views are positive, some are negative. This means that the implementation of new technologies as teaching tools may need to occur in increments to ensure that all learners are learning.
ECAR categorizes learners, in terms of adoption of new technologies, as innovators, early adopters, mainstream adopters, late adopters and laggards. The percentages for each category routinely fall on a bell curve, and the 2009 results continued in this fashion, with 51% of respondents identifying as mainstream adopters. Of interest is a noticeable gender gap: more than half of the men identified as innovators or early adopters, and only ¼ of the women identified in these categories. The ECAR study notes that some studies claim the gender gap is lessening as learners are exposed more often to technology; however the study also notes that there are studies contradictory to this view. Within the ECAR study, not only is there a gender difference in technology adoption practices, there is also a gender difference in technology preferences. Females have a lower rate of use for audio and video creation and multi-user gaming than males, to the extent that two times as many males as females use video creation and multi-user gaming.
Two studies mentioned here have found that the gender gap is lessening, while yet another study still sees a divide. Ono and Zavodny (2004) found that gender differences in computer and Internet usage in Japan and US countries were significant during the mid-1990s; however, by 2001these gender differences had virtually disappeared in the United States but remained in Japan. Miller, Schweingruber and Brandenburg’s (2001) article suggests a reduction in the scope of previous gender gaps with regard to computer access, use, and perceived expertise.Voyles, Fossum, and Haller (2008) found that girls and boys continue to differ in a number of ways in terms of learning style and comfort with technology.
The question remains whether the gap is staying or shrinking.
Miller, L., Schweingruber, H., & Brandenburg, C. (2001). Middle School Students' Technology Practices and Preferences: Re-Examining Gender Differences. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 10(2), 125-40. Retrieved from ERIC database.
Ono, H., Zavodny, M., & Federal Reserve Bank of, A. (2004). Gender Differences in Information Technology Usage: A U.S.-Japan Comparison. Working Paper 2004-2. Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Retrieved from ERIC database.
Voyles, M., Fossum, T., & Haller, S. (2008). Teachers Respond Functionally to Student Gender Differences in a Technology Course. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(3), 322-345. Retrieved from ERIC database.

Is it possible to get the two-year data separately? Any help appreciated!


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