ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2017

D. Christopher Brooks, EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research
Jeffrey Pomerantz, EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research

students siting against a white brick wall and talking


The technologies postsecondary students encounter (and bring with them) on their educational journeys are ever changing and growing in their sophistication and ubiquity. For the fourteenth year, ECAR has sought to map the contours of these changes and growth and to understand students' preferences and experiences through it all. Drawing on responses from tens of thousands of students across dozens of U.S. institutions, this report marks yet another insightful and challenging contribution from our ECAR team to the higher education field's ongoing exploration of students' engagement with technology.

As in previous years, we see among students high levels of adoption of and satisfaction with personal and institutional technologies, as well as optimism about the benefits of technology-based instruction for their own learning. Of course, as this report highlights, the perennial challenge for students in having meaningful plugged-in educational experiences lies in whether and how these technologies are incorporated into their institutions' cultures, structures, and pedagogical methods. Students' desire for more and better technologies in the classroom does not always result in meaningful adoption of those technologies, and this may be especially so if faculty and institutional leaders are not attuned to this desire. This is one of several important contributions of this report—it serves as an amplification of our students' voices as they call out for a more plugged-in and enriched learning experience.

It is my sincere hope that faculty, institutional leaders, higher education professionals, and students themselves will engage deeply with this year's ECAR student report and that this report will enlarge institutions' and higher education leaders' understanding of and resourcing toward students' technology-based preferences and needs. I also strongly encourage readers of this report to read ECAR's companion biennial faculty report, ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2017. The shifting balance of student and faculty technology-based experiences and preferences, I believe, creates rich opportunities for institutions to innovate and build better paths toward institutional and student success.

May you enjoy and benefit from this excellent report, as I know I have!

—Mark McCormack, EDUCAUSE


For 14 years, the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) has conducted research on information technology and higher education's most important end users, undergraduate students. While the form, function, and findings of these reports have evolved over the years, the common thread that binds them is a desire to understand what students are thinking about and how students are using technology in service to their academics. And although higher education IT organizations are the primary audience for this report, we think that those who run faculty and professional development programs; instructors from every type of institution, discipline, and level of experience; student affairs professionals; and even students themselves can use the findings and recommendations presented here.

In this year's study of undergraduate students and IT, we have elected to present and discuss only findings that have analogs in this year's companion study of faculty and IT. In both this report and the faculty study, readers will find data and analysis related to the following topics:

  • Device ownership
  • Campus technology experiences
  • Security training and practices
  • Sources of technology support
  • Classroom technology experiences
  • Desired technologies for teaching and learning
  • Student success technology evaluations
  • Perspectives and preferences for teaching and learning environments
  • Classroom mobile experiences and policies.

In this way, the reports can be read side by side, in tandem, or as a "call and response" between students and their instructors.

For the 2017 report, 43,559 students from 124 institutions in 10 countries and 40 U.S. states participated in the research. The quantitative findings in this report were developed using the 35,760 survey responses from 110 U.S. institutions. This report makes generalized statements about the findings based on the large number of survey respondents. Applying these findings, however, is an institutionally specific undertaking. The priorities, strategic vision, and culture of an institution will inevitably affect the meaning and use of these findings in a local context. Moreover, combining the findings reported here about undergraduate students with ECAR's findings about faculty, this report series can help institutions gain a better understanding of IT on campus in relation to many aspects of institutional operations. This report should therefore be seen not as the end of the discussion about student use of IT on campus, but only the beginning.

Key Findings

  • Students rated their overall campus technology experiences favorably. Ratings of wireless network performance are highly correlated with the positive experiences students have with technology. Wi-Fi in outdoor spaces was the only item that students rated more negatively than positively.
  • When it comes to meeting technological support needs, students' default modality is DIY. Students are more than twice as likely to figure out solutions to technology problems on their own, to search online sources, or to ask a friend than they are to use their campus help desk. Contacting the vendor or company to fix a technology problem is the last resort.
  • Students are remarkably savvy about keeping their technology secure. An overwhelming majority tend to secure their devices with passwords and PINs, using complex password protocols. Most students reported not sharing their devices and accounts with others, and only 1 in 10 have had devices stolen or accounts hacked in the past year.
  • Laptops are king, smartphones are queen, and tablets are on the way out. At least 19 of 20 students own a laptop or a smartphone, and 3 in 10 students own a laptop, a smartphone, and a tablet. Students view their laptop as critical to their academic success, and three-quarters of students said their smartphone is at least moderately important. Tablets appear to be in decline in terms of ownership, utility, and importance, in part because their functionality is duplicated by a combination of laptops and smartphones.
  • Students' experiences with their instructors' use of and approach to technology in the classroom are a mixed bag. A majority of students said most of their instructors have adequate technology skills, use technology to enhance learning, and encourage the use of collaborative technology tools. However, students said fewer faculty use technology for sophisticated learning tasks (e.g., engagement, creative and critical thinking), and relatively few faculty ask students to use their own devices for in-class work.
  • Students are overwhelmingly pleased with the student success tools available to them. At least 80% of students think that every student success technology we asked about—from degree audit, planning, and mapping tools to early-alert systems, self-service tools, recommendations for courses, and suggestions about academic resources and about improving performance—is at least moderately useful.
  • Students are choosing sides in the online versus face-to-face debate. For the fourth year in a row, the number of students preferring a blended learning environment that includes some to mostly online components has increased. The number of students preferring completely face-to-face or completely online courses continues to dwindle. The number of students expressing no preference has been cut by more than half since 2014.
  • Students are satisfied with features of their LMS…except when they aren't. Students have favorable opinions about the basic features and functionalities of their LMS. But, the more sophisticated the task and the more engagement required of students, the less happy they tend to be. This may be a function of the tools, the instructors who use them, or both.
  • Students would like their instructors to use more technology in their classes. Technologies that provide students with something (e.g., lecture capture, early-alert systems, LMS, search tools) are more desired than those that require students to give something (e.g., social media, use of their own devices, in-class polling tools). We speculate that sound pedagogy and technology use tied to specific learning outcomes and goals may improve the desirability of the latter.
  • Students reported that faculty are banning or discouraging the use of laptops, tablets, and (especially) smartphones more often than in previous years. Some students reported using their devices (especially their smartphones) for nonclass activities, which might explain the instructor policies they are experiencing. However, they also reported using their devices for productive classroom activities (e.g., taking notes, researching additional sources of information, and instructor-directed activities).