ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2019

Technology Use in the Classroom

Faculty use technology, but not always the kind students own.

Many students this year told us they would like to be more engaged with the material, their instructors, and their peers in the classroom and that they see technology as a vehicle for that engagement. With the vast array of digital educational tools available today, opportunities to incorporate technology into the classroom in meaningful ways continue to rise. To be sure, instructors have access to and are using various kinds of technologies for teaching, and, according to students, some tech approaches and applications are more prevalent than others. However, there continues to be a split between instructor-focused use of technology, such as providing audio and video content for learning, and student-centered practices, whereby students are asked to use the devices they already have as learning tools. The majority of students agreed that their instructors typically use tech to engage them in the learning process (66%), use technology to enhance learning with additional materials (67%), and encourage the use of online tools to communicate/collaborate with the instructor or students in or outside class (62%); these responses were consistent across institution type and size. However, significantly fewer students (40%) reported that their instructors encourage them to use their own devices during class to deepen learning (e.g., by searching online for related concepts, examples, or demonstrations). Half of respondents said their instructors have them use their laptops for in-class learning, and only a quarter reported that instructors ask them to use their smartphones (figure 5).

Stacked bar graph showing the student experience with instructors and technology. X-axis represents the percentage of respondents from 100% to 0% (disagree) and 0% to 100% (agree). Y-axis represents the completion of the sentence “My instructors typically…” All data given is approximate. …use technology during class to enhance learning with additional materials: Strongly disagree = 5%; Disagree = 10%; Agree = 48%; Strongly agree = 25%. …encourage me to use online collaboration tools to communicate/collaborate with the instructor or other students in or outside class: Strongly disagree = 5%; Disagree = 10%; Agree = 48%; Strongly agree = 15%. …use technology to engage me in the learning process: Strongly disagree = 3%; Disagree = 8%; Agree = 48%; Strongly agree = 15%. …encourage me to use technology for creative or critical-thinking tasks: Strongly disagree = 7%; Disagree = 20%; Agree = 40%; Strongly agree = 15%. …have me use my laptop as a learning tool in class: Strongly disagree = 10%; Disagree = 20%; Agree = 35%; Strongly agree = 15%. …encourage me to use my own technology devices during class to deepen learning: Strongly disagree = 10%; Disagree = 20%; Agree = 30%; Strongly agree = 10%. …have me use my hybrid/2-in-1 as a learning tool in class: Strongly disagree = 20%; Disagree = 25%; Agree = 28%; Strongly agree = 12%. …have me use my tablet as a learning tool in class: Strongly disagree = 20%; Disagree = 30%; Agree = 20%; Strongly agree = 5%. …have me use my smartphone as a learning tool in class: Strongly disagree = 18%; Disagree = 30%; Agree = 20%; Strongly agree = 5%.
Figure 5. Student experiences with instructors and technology

The lack of movement on these numbers in the past year suggests that the attitudes some faculty have about mobile tech in the classroom are slow to change, and our findings from the 2019 faculty study support this. According to the forthcoming 2019 ECAR study of faculty and information technology, about half of faculty reported banning smartphones, and fewer than half said they encouraged or required the use of laptops. Faculty may frown on the use of these devices or ban them outright if they consider them to be distractions instead of learning tools. But students are using their own devices for educational purposes now more than ever,1 especially as IT units implement and make upgrades to institutional apps (i.e., the LMS and student portals)2 and as more reduced-cost/rental e-textbooks and open educational resources (OER) programs are offered to students.3 For example, some students noted in their open responses that they want to be able to use their devices in class so they can access their textbooks:

  • "Many of my professors do not allow technology in the classroom. Most of the books I need for class are much cheaper as digital copies, and if I need to bring the book to class, I should be allowed to utilize the technology I have access to."
  • "I've had a few instructors who were strict on the no-technology-during-class policy. The majority of my textbooks/readings are on my tablet for easy access, so it was sometimes difficult to participate in class discussions about the readings."
  • "Many instructors oppose using laptops in class. This is very troublesome for me because most of my textbooks are digital. They effectively prohibit me from using my textbook in class."

Now that the "digital first" textbook movement is under way,4 restrictions on mobile devices can be especially problematic for students who use e-books (because they are often less expensive than hard copies) and may impact their engagement and learning in class. Our data from 2018 suggested that policies that discourage or ban the use of technology in class may disproportionately impact underrepresented groups (such as students with disabilities, students of color, and first-generation students), as these students attributed significantly greater levels of importance to their mobile devices for their academics.5 And classroom policies that limit usage of personal devices to only those who have a disability accommodation effectively force those students to disclose their disability via their device use, and they may feel pressure to defend their need to peers. As one student noted, "If students with learning disabilities are the only ones allowed to have a computer, then it makes it clear to the rest of the class that they are different. Teachers need to allow technology for all students, regardless of their personal beliefs about how students should be learning."

Recent research has also shown that device bans can negatively impact student engagement with course content. Students in introductory psychology courses where technology is banned reported significantly lower levels of engagement than did their peers in the same courses where technology was permitted. The researchers found no statistically significant differences in end-of-term grades between the two environments.6

With "incorporation of mobile devices in teaching and learning" and "open educational resources" coming in at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively, in The Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2019, it is apparent that the higher education IT community recognizes how these technologies can enrich the student experience. IT units can partner with teaching and learning centers to offer faculty workshops and training on how to integrate these technologies into their courses in ways that purposefully fulfill their educational objectives. As Derek Bruff writes in his book Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching, technology is an effective method of formative assessment, which allows instructors to gauge student learning in real time. The intentional use of tech, such as using classroom response systems (i.e., clickers, Twitter), can make learning visible and give instructors an opportunity to practice "agile teaching," whereby they can capture student thinking and respond to the needs of learners in the moment.7 Faculty developers and instructional designers should also share with instructors the implications and potential impacts of technology bans, offering alternatives to rigid in-class tech policies that have demonstrated impact.8 Sharing different approaches can also create space to show instructors the active learning opportunities that open up when the devices students already own and regularly use for their academics are leveraged in class. Starting small by trying out a new app or activity using student mobile devices allows faculty to experiment, diversify their instructional approaches for a broader range of learners,9 and even learn from the students themselves about the digital resources and apps that students find most useful.10


  1. Mark Lieberman, "Students Are Using Mobile Even If You Aren't," Inside Higher Ed, February 27, 2019; A. J. Magda and C. B. Aslanian, Online College Students 2018: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences (Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc., 2018).

  2. Ryan Seilhamer, Baiyun Chen, Sue Bauer, Ashley Salter, and Luke Bennett, "Changing Mobile Learning Practices: A Multiyear Study 2012–2016," EDUCAUSE Review, April 23, 2018.

  3. Goldie Blumenstyk, "More Professors Know about Free Textbook Options, but Adoption Remains Low," Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2016; Ben Gose, "Growing Pains Begin to Emerge in Open-Textbook Movement," Chronicle of Higher Education, April 9, 2017.

  4. Lindsay McKenzie, "Pearson's Next Chapter," Inside Higher Ed, July 16, 2019; Bill Rosenblatt, "Pearson's Digital-First Strategy Will Change How Students Get Textbooks," Forbes, July 20, 2019.

  5. Joseph D. Galanek, Dana C. Gierdowski, and D. Christopher Brooks, ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2018, research report (Louisville, CO: ECAR, October 2018).

  6. Thomas Hutcheon, Aileen Lian, and Anna Richard, "The Impact of a Technology Ban on Students' Perceptions and Performance in Introduction to Psychology," Teaching of Psychology 46, no. 1 (2019), 47–54; Thomas Hutcheon, "E-xcellence in Teaching Essay: Technology Bans and Student Experience in the College Classroom," Society for the Teaching of Psychology, September 7, 2017.

  7. Derek Bruff, "Thin Slices of Learning," chapter 3 in Intentional Tech: Principles to Guide the Use of Educational Technology in College Teaching (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019).

  8. Douglas A. Parry, Daniel B. le Roux, and Laurenz A. Cornelissen, "Managing In‑Lecture Media Use: The Feasibility and Value of a Split‑Class Policy," Journal of Computing in Higher Education, June 24, 2019.

  9. Jessica Phillips, "5 Tips for Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, February 9, 2018; Aaron S. Richmond and Jordan D. Troisi, "Technology in the Classroom: What the Research Tells Us," Inside Higher Ed, December 12, 2018.

  10. Lieberman, "Students Are Using Mobile."