Undergraduate Technical Issues and Needs

During the COVID-19 pandemic, technology has helped many students continue their education, but it has also increased their burdens. Now, a new survey of 820 U.S. undergraduates highlights the new normal in higher education technology from a student’s perspective. The survey, “The 2022 Student and Technology Report: Rebalancing the Student Experience,” was released this week by Educause, a nonprofit focused on information technology in higher education.

Despite college students’ extensive knowledge of technology, the survey found that many are struggling with technological challenges beyond their control, such as erratic internet access. Meanwhile, assistive technology designed for students with disabilities appears to help all students. Furthermore, the survey authors concluded that while students are mostly self-reliant in solving technological challenges, universities still have a role to play in solving technological challenges.

Technology often enhances student learning, but it can also create barriers. In the past year, more than three-quarters of students (77%) who responded to the survey experienced at least one technical challenge, and more than half (51%) reported that these challenges led to stress.

The majority of respondents (64%) struggled with an unstable internet connection, with more than a quarter (29%) saying they lost it during class meetings, exams or other synchronised activities connect.

Nearly half of respondents (46%) experienced the failure of the equipment they needed when they needed it, and more than a third (39%) found themselves unable to run the application or software they needed when they needed it.

“Compassionate teaching practices like flexible deadlines and attendance policies will go a long way in helping students manage unreliable internet access,” said Educause researcher and report author Jenay Robert.

Solutions to technology challenges are not one-size-fits-all, says Jessica Rowland Williams, director of Every Learner Everywhere, an organization focused on digital learning in higher education. Instead, digital learning challenges may vary depending on the type of student and institution. For example, urban HBCU students without internet access may face a different set of challenges than rural tribal college students without internet access, according to Williams.

“Many of these challenges are layered,” Williams said. “Even if we were to solve all internet problems and everyone had great internet, then [you need to ask], “Do they have the right equipment?” or “Do they work on their phones” or “Do they have a laptop?” If they have the right equipment, ‘Is the course structured in a way that students actually engage? ‘”

Assistive Technology Helps All Students

Although few student respondents (5%) reported a disability in which they sought assistive technology, many more depended on these tools. Nearly one in five (18%) students reported needing to choose each assistive technology from a list of nine, including video closed captioning, digital players/recorders, word prediction software, digital highlighters, text-to-speech software, Speech-to-text software, pen computers, digital magnifiers and screen readers.

“If you design for marginal students, then at the end of the day, you’re really supporting the success of all students,” Williams said. For example, “Closed captioning of videos is beneficial not only for students who may have hearing impairments, but also for students who work in places where they cannot listen to the video.”

Many students report needing at least one assistive technology. More than a third of respondents need video captions (38%), digital players or recorders (36%) or word prediction software (34%). A quarter or more require text-to-speech software (26%) and a pen computer (25%). Nearly one in five (18%) need a screen reader.

For this reason, Robert suggests that colleges should consider raising awareness about how all students can access assistive technology services. They may also address policies that impede access to these services, such as “requiring students to justify requests for assistance with medical documentation,” Robert said.

Students mostly self-procure technology solutions and are supported by the university

Early research found that students mostly solve technology problems on their own, or with the help of family or friends. Respondents said, however, that universities have a role to play in reducing the technology burden on students. For example, many students rely on using campus hardware provided by computer labs (21%) or using campus Wi-Fi (14%) when solving technology problems.

“Students work in parking lots, anywhere they can find Wi-Fi, really,” Williams said. “We have to create more hot spots for students.”

“Institutions may consider how to use physical space to support students taking remote courses on campus,” Robert said.

With nearly a quarter of student respondents reporting buying a new digital device, such as a laptop, desktop or tablet, Robert also suggested that universities might “offer more one-to-one device services, such as device loan programs” .

“Teachers need to think about ways to design lessons so that students can succeed even without a high-quality Wi-Fi connection,” Williams said. Fewer simultaneous sessions and more videos of webinars that can be downloaded or recorded, and students can choose to post when they have Wi-Fi access, will help, Williams said.

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