ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2019

Executive Summary and Introduction

Three students looking at a laptop

Executive Summary

Key Findings

  • While the majority of students (70%) prefer mostly or completely face-to-face learning environments, specific demographic factors influence these preferences. Students who are married or in a domestic partnership, those who are independent with dependents, those who work 40 or more hours a week, students age 25 and older, and individuals who identified as having both a physical and a learning disability that require technology for their coursework all had a stronger preference for classes that are mostly or completely online.
  • Labs and demonstrations, faculty/student conferences, and lectures were rated as the most preferred activities in completely face-to-face environments. Students see in-class lectures as opportunities to engage with instructors, peers, and course content, and they see technology as a means to that engagement. The majority of students prefer some form of blended environment for collaborations or projects with peers, homework/assignment submission, peer reviewing/peer grading, exams, quizzes or tests, and asking questions.
  • For the students who use them, online success tools have become increasingly useful in navigating their college experience. Tools related to degree planning and degree auditing were valued the most, and "self-service referral systems for social or community resources" (e.g., community events and crisis counseling) and "tools that suggest how to improve performance in a course" saw the greatest gains in perceived usefulness since last year.
  • Dormitories/campus housing and outdoor spaces continue to be rated at the bottom when it comes to reliable Wi-Fi. Outdoor spaces received the lowest marks, with more than a third of students reporting their experiences as poor or fair, while libraries and classrooms still top the list for the best Wi-Fi on campus.
  • Two-thirds of students agreed that their instructors use technology to engage them in class, but it is not always with the devices students already own. Significantly fewer students said they are encouraged to use their personal technology as tools to deepen their learning. Half of the respondents said their instructors ask them to use their laptops in class, and only a quarter reported they were encouraged to use their smartphones.
  • Only half of the students who have physical and/or learning disabilities and who need accessible technologies or accommodations rated their institution's support positively. Nearly a quarter said their institution's support (21%) and awareness (24%) was poor or fair. Of particular concern is the 11% of students with disabilities who said their institution was not aware at all of their technology needs, which suggests many may experience barriers to disclosing their disability, including stigma and their own lack of awareness of available support services.


  • Leverage analytics to gain a greater understanding of the student demographics that influence learning environment preferences. Information such as student marital status and the number and ages of dependents gives institutions additional data points that can shed light on the learning environments students choose, as well as the resources that can be offered to help them succeed in those settings. Integrate more intentional use of technology to increase the interactivity of learning tasks and activities students prefer experiencing in face-to-face environments, such as lectures and labs, to maximize face time with instructors and peers.
  • Continue to promote online success tools and provide training to students on their use through orientations and advisement sessions. Implement advising tools first with student-facing staff and faculty to communicate the value of such tools and their most effective use. Partner with other campus stakeholders such as counseling services and health centers to market self-service referral systems for social or community resources to reach more at-risk learners and students in crisis. Keeping its risks in mind, explore the possibilities of predictive analytics with the use of success tools as a supplement to the personalized support of student advisors.
  • Expand efforts to improve Wi-Fi reliability in campus housing and outdoor spaces. Upgrade wireless networks in residence halls, and explore the benefits of dual network configurations to reduce the number of student-provided access points that contribute to connectivity confusion. Increase the number of outdoor access points, and invest in durable, weatherproof equipment with directional antennas to boost coverage.
  • Allow students to use the devices that are most important to their academic success in the classroom. Provide training to faculty on the purposeful integration of student-owned technology for more inclusive, active, and engaged learning. Offer alternatives to in-class tech bans, such as involving students in the development of their class's technology policy and designated seating for device users.
  • Establish a campus community to address accessibility issues and give "accessibility evangelists" a seat at the table. Colleagues and students with disabilities can be valuable consultants who offer perspectives on the barriers they experience with tech inaccessibility in their learning environments. Partner with units across campus such as disability services, advisement, health services, and admissions to educate all students on the available accessible technology services and how to request them. Tap the expertise of teaching and learning centers and instructional designers to train faculty on the universal design for learning (UDL) framework to promote inclusive strategies that benefit all learners.


For 16 years, the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) has conducted research on information technology (IT) and higher education's most important end users, undergraduate students. While the form and findings of these reports have evolved over the years, the thread that binds them is a desire to understand how students are thinking about and using technology in service to their academics. IT units in higher education are the primary audience for this report, but the findings and recommendations can be used by multiple organizations and individuals across campuses at every type of institution. Faculty developers, instructors across the disciplines, advisors, professionals in admissions and student affairs, disability service staff and advocates, student health staff, and scholars and researchers can all find information here that is relevant to their work with and about undergraduate students and technology.

The content and organization of this year's report were selected to address issues related to student success and the student-centered institution, which were rated by IT professionals as No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, in the Top 10 IT Issues for 2019. As colleges and universities work toward improving student outcomes, the report offers insights and suggestions that assist in understanding and meeting the individualized needs of students, which can empower them on their academic journey. Of particular note is our discussion of the changing landscape of student demographics and how life circumstances can play a role in students' learning environment preferences. As a continuation of our diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, we also include for the second year the perspectives of students with disabilities on how their institutions are attending to the accessible technology they require for their academics.

We have chosen to present and discuss aspects of the 2019 study of undergraduate students and IT that correspond to those in this year's forthcoming companion study of faculty and IT, which offers readers an opportunity to explore each of the included topics through the perspectives of both learning and teaching. In both this report and the faculty study, readers will find data and analysis related to the following topics:

  • Learning environment preferences
  • Student success tools
  • Technology experiences
  • Technology use in the classroom
  • Accessibility

For the 2019 report, 53,475 students from 160 institutions in 7 countries and 38 US states participated in the research. The quantitative findings in this report were developed using the 40,596 survey responses from 118 US 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, student populations, and culture of an institution will inevitably affect the meaning and use of these findings in a local context. Moreover, considering the findings reported here about undergraduate students in relation to 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 technology use on campus but as the beginning.

More 2019 Student Study Resources

Visit the 2019 research hub for a PDF of the report and additional resources. Learn how your institution can participate in the 2020 student survey on the ETRAC website.

© 2019 Dana C. Gierdowski. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.
Citation for this work
Dana C. Gierdowski. ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2019. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 2019.