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The Role of Digital Technologies in Learning: Expectations of First Year University Students / Le rôle des technologies numériques dans l’apprentissage : les attentes des étudiants de première année universitaire



A growing literature suggests that there is a disjuncture between the instructional practices of the education system and the student body it is expected to serve, particularly with respect to the roles of digital technologies. Based on surveys and focus group interviews of first-year students at a primarily undergraduate Canadian university and focus group interviews of professors at the same institution, this study explores the gaps and intersections between students’ uses and expectations for digital technologies while learning inside the classroom and socializing outside the classroom, and the instructional uses, expectations and concerns of their professors. It concludes with recommendations for uses of digital technologies that go beyond information transmission, the need for extended pedagogical discussions to harness the learning potentials of digital technologies, and for pedagogies that embrace the social construction of knowledge as well as individual acquisition. Des études de plus en plus nombreuses suggèrent qu’il existe un écart entre les pratiques d’enseignement dans le système de l’éducation et la population étudiante desservie, notamment en ce qui concerne le rôle des technologies numériques. La présente étude, fondée sur les résultats de sondages et d’entrevues de groupe auprès des étudiants de première année inscrits à une université canadienne principalement axée sur les études de premier cycle, ainsi que sur des entrevues de groupe auprès de professeurs du même établissement, explore les écarts et les concordances entre, d’une part, l’utilisation et les attentes des étudiants relativement aux technologies numériques dans l’apprentissage en classe et dans les relations sociales en dehors des classes, et, d’autre part, l’utilisation de ces technologies dans les pratiques d’enseignement, les préoccupation et les attentes des professeurs. L’étude se conclut par des recommandations concernant une utilisation des technologies numériques dépassant la transmission de l’information, et la nécessité de discussions pédagogiques poussées permettant d’exploiter le potentiel des technologies numériques dans le cadre de l’apprentissage ainsi que de méthodes pédagogiques adaptées à la construction sociale des connaissances et au mode individuel d’acquisition des connaissances.
Volume'38(1)' ' Winter/hiver'2012'
A growing literature suggests that there is a disjuncture between the instructional practices of the
education system and the student body it is expected to serve, particularly with respect to the
roles of digital technologies. Based on surveys and focus group interviews of first-year students
at a primarily undergraduate Canadian university and focus group interviews of professors at the
same institution, this study explores the gaps and intersections between students’ uses and
expectations for digital technologies while learning inside the classroom and socializing outside
the classroom, and the instructional uses, expectations and concerns of their professors. It
concludes with recommendations for uses of digital technologies that go beyond information
transmission, the need for extended pedagogical discussions to harness the learning potentials of
digital technologies, and for pedagogies that embrace the social construction of knowledge as
well as individual acquisition.
Keywords: digital technologies, first year university students, learning inside and outside
classrooms, teaching and learning
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Des études de plus en plus nombreuses suggèrent qu’il existe un écart entre les pratiques
d’enseignement dans le système de l’éducation et la population étudiante desservie, notamment
en ce qui concerne le rôle des technologies numériques. La présente étude, fondée sur les
résultats de sondages et d’entrevues de groupe auprès des étudiants de première année inscrits à
une université canadienne principalement axée sur les études de premier cycle, ainsi que sur des
entrevues de groupe auprès de professeurs du même établissement, explore les écarts et les
concordances entre, d’une part, l’utilisation et les attentes des étudiants relativement aux
technologies numériques dans l’apprentissage en classe et dans les relations sociales en dehors
des classes, et, d’autre part, l’utilisation de ces technologies dans les pratiques d’enseignement,
les préoccupation et les attentes des professeurs. L’étude se conclut par des recommandations
concernant une utilisation des technologies numériques dépassant la transmission de
l’information, et la nécessité de discussions pédagogiques poussées permettant d’exploiter le
potentiel des technologies numériques dans le cadre de l’apprentissage ainsi que de méthodes
pédagogiques adaptées à la construction sociale des connaissances et au mode individuel
d’acquisition des connaissances.
First year university students arrive in schools with different expectations, skills, and needs than
those the traditional education system was designed to teach (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; Kumar,
2010; Tapscott & Williams, 2010). These differences highlight the requirement for an
examination of appropriate pedagogies to meet the literacy and learning needs of these new
learners (Kinzer, 2010; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005). In our research team’s investigation of
digital literacies and writing, we explored the penetration of digital tools into teaching and
learning. We found that first year university students have already integrated communication
technology into their personal lives and have a tacit understanding that schools will integrate
technology into the classroom in multiple ways, a perspective not always shared by their
instructors (Smith & Caruso, 2010). In this paper, we share results from our Social Science and
Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded study (Wiebe, Gabriel, Campbell, MacDonald,
& McAuley, 2010) as well as an earlier study (Gabriel, Wiebe, & MacDonald, 2009) on the
beliefs and actions of students and teachers regarding their use of digital literacies both inside
and outside tertiary educational institutions.
In our review of the literature we explored how first year university students used digital
technologies as part of their studies. In particular we were interested in studies that described
when and how personal or social uses and educational uses were separate and/or blended.
Our research focused on three basic questions:
How do first-year university students use digital technologies in their personal lives and
for learning?
What expectations do first-year university students have with respect to the use of digital
technologies for teaching and learning at the university?
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How do we understand differing student and professor expectations for the
teaching/learning environment?
The crux of these questions is the extent to which universities, institutions of higher education
with roots extending back nearly a millennium and increasingly seen as a necessity for social and
individual well-being of an ever-larger portion of the population, are prepared to meet the
learning needs and expectations of that population.
The latter part of this issue is framed by a rapidly expanding literature that situates this
population within a context of escalating access to and use of digital information and
communications technologies. Variously dubbed Digital Natives, Net Generation, Information
Generation, Millennials, and Neo Millennials (Barnes, Marateo & Ferris, 2007; Gee, 2002;
Negroponte, 1995; Negroponte et al., 2006; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Prensky, 2001;
Tapscott, 2009, 1998; Tapscott & Williams, 2010), this group of young people was born around
1996 as the Internet began its ascent towards global ubiquity and has grown up with ever-more-
capable, numerous, and cheaper digital appliances which increasingly mediate their social and
recreational activities, at least as characterized by rising trends in their Internet access in North
America, the United Kingdom, and Europe (Lenhart, Arafeh, Smith & Macgill, 2008; Media
Awareness Network, 2005).
Both hardware based, through ready access to such devices as smartphones, tablets, and high-
speed connectivity, and software based, through social media, Web 2.0 or the “read/write web,”
and digital audio/video production tools, this digital immersion has contributed to significant
numbers of young people who are comfortable creating, distributing, and transforming
knowledge within a digital context (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007; Lenhart, Madden, Macgill &
Smith, 2007). More than a reflection of the shifting socio-recreational activities of ever-larger
groups of young people, however, this phenomenon also reflects the impact of digital
technologies on an increasingly interconnected, knowledge-driven global economy within which
social well-being and economic prosperity are linked to a population with the digital skills to
work in it (Government of Canada, 2010). Conventional notions of literacy—“readin’, writin’,
and ‘rithmetic”—while not obsolete, are no longer adequate and must be extended by the
capacity to learn, share, and communicate using a broader range of print and electronic
technologies, something which requires skills and processes common to print literacy, but also
those that are distinct (Coiro & Dobler, 2007; Leu, Kinzer, Coiro & Cammack, 2004).
The specifics of those distinct skills remain somewhat nebulous and debatable, but are often
referred to as “new literacies” (Coiro, et al., 2008; Cope & Kalantzis, 2009; Lankshear &
Knobel, 2006) or “multiliteracies” (New London Group, 2000) or, currently gaining the most
traction in the educational community, “21st Century Skills” (Bellanca & Brandt, 2010;
Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2007; Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Fortunately for the
purposes of this study the specifics of these skills are less important than the consensus that they
are different from traditional literacy skills, that they integrate high-level critical and creative
competencies with digital technologies, and that the K-20 education system must be ready to
deal with them. Along with this consensus is a more nuanced critique of monolithic terms such
as “Net Generation” which tend to overwrite differences within the digital native generation that
are as significant as those between generations (Bennet, Maton & Kervin, 2008; Guo, Dobson &
Petrina, 2008; Kennedy, et al., 2008; Sánchez, et al., 2011). Further, at the K-12 level research is
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demonstrating that fluency with digital technologies does not necessary equate with proficiency
in using them for higher-level knowledge work (Asselin & Lam, 2007; Bennet, Matan & Kervin,
2008; Harouni, 2009; Livingstone & Bober, 2005; Oblinger & Hawkins, 2006; Shenton, 2007).
Although the work of Michael Wesch (2007, 2009) has popularized the transformational
potential of digital technologies at the post-secondary level with respect to bridging
technological fluency and higher-level thinking, it also draws attention to the fact that, with a
few other notable exceptions (Aycock, Garnham & Kaleta, 2002; Garcia-Ros, Perez & Talaya,
2008), little discussion has taken place about the impact of digital technologies on pedagogy and
learning at the post-secondary level.
Along the K-20 continuum then, despite assertions by those such as Clark (2010) who notes that
“…social networking environments are challenging our notions of the boundaries of the
classroom and our pedagogical assumptions about learning” (p. 28) and a call by researchers and
educators to adopt and integrate digital technologies (Coryell & Chlup, 2007; Hampel, 2009;
Mumtaz, 2000; Segrave & Holt, 2003; Wang, 2008) a tension remains around the presumed
fluency of the “Net Generation” with digital technologies and how the educational system might
adapt itself to make better use of that fluency to enhance teaching and learning. This is the
tension that our study set out to explore. Working with one of the earliest cohorts of the Net
Generation to enter the liminal space between K-12 and post-secondary education, it seeks to
ascertain the extent to which this group fits the profile described in the literature, determine
which digital technologies they use and for what purposes, and compare and contrast their
expectations with the perceptions and practices of the professors who will be teaching them at
the university.
We conclude our literature review by noting the following tension which informed our research
questions: On the one hand, policy-makers, researchers and educators do understand the potential
of digital technologies to support teaching and learning in the 21st century, and the affordances
these technologies provide. Students today are frequently characterized as people who have
grown up immersed in digital environments and who are comfortable utilizing digital
technologies in all areas of their lives. Yet on the other hand, research has demonstrated that
there are gaps in the how first year university students work with digital technology, and that
perhaps students would not choose to be immersed in digital environments constantly. In the
current study, the research team asked students enrolled in a first year mandatory course ‘Global
Issues’ how they used digital technologies both in their personal and educational lives. This
foundational writing course is unique to this undergraduate university. It was developed to
support students in cultivating their capacity for critical reflection, enhancing their ability to read
texts with nuanced understanding, and teaching them how express their insights in well-
developed forms of writing. Throughout the course, students work in three different instructional
groupings to accomplish their writing goals, including traditional lectures, small group seminars,
and monthly town hall meetings.
The study is designed as a mixed methods study, as presentation of data would be incomplete
without reference to both quantitative and qualitative data (Creswell, 2009; Mores & Neihaus,
2009). The research team adopted a consecutive (quantitative and qualitative) mixed method
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approach to data collection (Johnson & Onwuegbuzie, 2004). The supplementary quantitative
survey data was analyzed and informed the core qualitative data from focus group interviews
(Johnson & Onwuebuge, 2004; Mores & Neihaus, 2009; Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003).
The quantitative instrument was comprised of a survey of opinions and practices of first year
university students regarding their expectations for digital technologies at the university, their
personal use of such technologies, and their understanding of writing. This survey was refined
from a survey developed the previous year exploring similar issues. We utilized the results of the
survey to then develop interview protocols and conduct interviews with students and professors.
This qualitative component of the study is the focus of this paper.
We begin with a description of the pilot study conducted the previous year. At that time, first
year students had been invited to participate in an electronic survey exploring issues regarding
digital technologies. Due to the low response rate (19%) the research team decided to conduct a
paper-based survey to collect data face-to-face in the current study, which we implemented the
following year. Initial contact was made with the coordinator of the first year/first term writing
course at a primarily undergraduate Atlantic Canada university. With approval of the
coordinator, requests for permission to conduct research during class were subsequently emailed
to Faculty members teaching the first term/first year writing course. All first year university
students (no matter in which discipline they are enrolled) were required to take this course and
therefore presented a unique opportunity to capture data. The research team visited the classes of
8 professors, explained the research, and then invited students to take 20 minutes to fill in the
survey if they wished to participate. 291 first year students from a group of 547 participated in
the survey for a return rate of 53%. Students who participated in this study were relatively
homogeneous in terms of their ages, with 63% of the participants 18 years of age, and with 18%
of participants 19 years old. There was a split of 45% male and 56% female students, which
reflects the demographic reality of the university. The survey was developed to measure a
snapshot of students’ past, current, and future expectations for technology use and to ascertain
their attitudes towards writing.
As explained below, we analyzed the results of the surveys, and then developed the focus group
protocol (Patton, 2002). We had invited students who participated in the survey to indicate if
they were willing to participate in a focus group planned for the winter term. Although 67
students indicated their interest in participating in the focus groups, due to timing issues, many
were not able to attend the actual focus group interviews. We reviewed the questions asked in the
pilot study and determined that due to the close match between the interview protocols, that it
was appropriate to analyze the pilot and current study data concurrently. The qualitative data
shared in the findings are drawn from in-depth semi-structured interviews with eleven students
(seven students from the pilot study and four students from the current study).
Concurrently, an invitation was sent via email to all professors at the university to participate in a
focus group interview to discuss issues surrounding digital technologies, teaching and writing,
and global issues. Further qualitative data were collected in interviews with the three professors
who volunteered to participate. Even though this is a small sample of professors, it still provided
an important glimpse into how we understand differences in student and professor expectations
for the teaching and learning environment.
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Data analysis involved both SPSS (quantitative) and NVivo 8 (qualitative) research data analysis
software. Descriptive and inferential statistical analyses were conducted. Interviews were
transcribed and coded, and subsequently, themes and patterns were determined. We used an
analytical framework based on the key issues raised in the research questions. The survey
questions specifically addressed the issues delineated in the research questions 1 and 2. Further,
the focus group questions allowed participants to give a fuller description of their perspectives
about these same issues, with a particular focus on digital technologies and writing. Focus group
interview with the professors helped inform research question number 3.
The next section presents the results of the focus group interviews with both student and faculty
participant groups. From our analysis, we grouped findings into two major orientations: (1) how
students use digital technologies both within and outside of educational settings, and (2)
professors’ perceptions of the affordances and challenges of using technology in teaching,
learning, and writing.
In the initial interviews in the pilot study, students reported anticipating using their laptops
frequently for learning and for socializing. And in fact, the students’ expectations were met as
they used their laptops to write papers and assignments, to maintain contact with their friends,
and to access online information sources. When we analyzed the data for the current study, we
found that students articulated how they used a large number of digital technologies for both
learning and socializing. Students included laptops in their discussion, but also brought scanners,
cell phones, digital cameras, printers, ebooks, iPods, and particular programs such as Kurzweil
and Dragon Naturally Speaking and RefWorks into the discussion. Students in this study did tend
to use digital technologies in a variety of ways.
The survey results demonstrated that the technologies most frequently used in-school for
learning included the Internet, email, word processing, math and science programs, texting on
cell phones, and electronic databases. 77.2% of students who participated in the survey reported
that they used computers more than two hours a day for both inside class and outside class
purposes (compared to 68% who reported this amount of use in the pilot study). There were no
significant differences between the percentage of male and female students who used computers
to this extent.
I use the computer, definitely I use my iPod a little bit. You can upload books... I sort of
used my cell phone… It would be more for group meetings for getting in contact, for
communication, using that technology I guess. I’ve used the scanners a lot. (Student
Students from the current study as well as the pilot study relied heavily on information found
online. The Internet figured predominantly in the students’ approach to digital technologies, with
a particular emphasis on online information resources. The Learning Management System
(LMS) chosen by this university was Moodle, an open source system that has been adopted by a
number of post-secondary institutions in the region. Students seemed to understand how to use
an LMS quite quickly— “I picked it [Moodle] up pretty quick, because I’ve been using
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computers for so long” (Student Interview)—and they grew to depend on the course information
that was made available any time and any place. Participants in both the survey and the
interviews agreed that Moodle works quite well. However, there was a significant difference in
students’ comfort level when working online in Moodle; males were significantly more
comfortable than females.
Moodle? That’s probably the best invention–it’s really great. Like you can get the
syllabus online, and if there’s changes to the syllabus, professors can post it, and it’s
really really useful. A lot of readings are posted ahead of time... but in the past I have had
tests put up on there–multiple choice. And discussion groups as well. (Student Interview)
Students commented on the anytime, anywhere aspect of accessing information on the course
LMS noting that the syllabus is posted, podcasts are available, PowerPoint presentations are
uploaded, and notices for the class are all excellent ways for someone who is not on campus to
feel in touch with the course. “So if you finish the book at two o’clock in the morning, you could
write the test shortly after that, and you wouldn’t have to wait... everything would be sort of
fresh in your mind” (Student Interview). Students commented that using digital technologies is
the way that they communicate, helping them in their creative writing. They also mentioned that
if people are shy, then they feel free to use technology to communicate their understanding,
rather than speaking out in class. Another further in-school use of technology is the ability to
upload information and classes to their iPods as well as to upload books. One student stated that
“You can upload books... and then they can use them when they're traveling from class on the
bus to home” (Student Interview).
We did find major differences in how students chose to use digital technologies outside the
classroom and how they used technologies inside the classroom. Survey results demonstrated
that students tended to use email, the Internet, social media, texting on cell phones, instant
messaging, and talking on cell phones when they were outside the classroom during social
engagement activities. They used these tools for communicating, socializing, and also for
learning. Students who participated in the interviews confirmed that they used these tools for a
range of purposes.
Cell phone, texting, and just plain old calling people, e-mail, Facebook... I read a lot of
blogs rather than write. Sometimes I’ll have friends that have blogs... I guess I’d read it
and then say “Hey, I read your ...” or you can leave a note on their blog, so that’s how I
use it for learning and for socializing. I just started using Skype. I find that really
interesting. (Student Interview)
I text–didn’t think I ever would but yeah, I text–I now text. (Student Interview)
Facebook helps. I find I am checking even if I don’t think there is anything there…a
thought on the wall. And I am still checking my cell phone for the time instead. (Student
I used to keep an online journal... Well, you can communicate with so many different
people that you don’t know and they can give you outside advice that you can’t always
get from friends... (Student Interview)
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As we turned to student expectations for how digital technologies would be used in post-
secondary classrooms, students reported that they expected professors to use a variety of digital
technologies in their classrooms. Some of these expectations were met, while other students
reported being in classrooms with professors who did not choose to integrate digital technology
into their teaching. “Well one of my professors uses overheads, so I didn’t expect that at all...
Just because it is so old school. I expected computers and PowerPoint to present everything. Just
from friends talking about Moodle, I expected that” (Student Interview). However, some
students found that their professors had adopted digital technologies and were integrating them
into the teaching and learning environments of their classrooms.
A lot of professors are putting [Powerpoint] slides up, which I find helpful too, because
you can listen more in the classroom, instead of trying to copy everything down... Some
are posted ahead of time and some aren’t until after the class, because they want to
encourage people to attend class. (Student Interview)
My professor always used Moodle. My teacher always posted assignments, and the
solution to the assignment on Moodle.... she always gave us grammar practice and some
vocabulary practice, and I searched Moodle to do the practice. My professor posted his
PowerPoints on Moodle, and he used the PowerPoint to teach the class. Sometimes he
gave us some movies about the class–he used YouTube. (Student Interview)
I’m finding YouTube is becoming something that’s been used a lot and it’s really
interesting. It’s a different way of learning I guess, because it’s interactive. (Student
These students were not sure what to expect when they entered first year university. Some had
notions that the use of digital technologies in university would be different from their use in high
school. When they arrived in classrooms, they found a range of approaches to using technologies
as tools for learning.
Just as the student participants reported, there is an entire spectrum of approaches to the
integration of digital technologies in teaching in post-secondary classrooms. There is no policy
regarding the implementation of digital tools into teaching at the university (our research site),
and all professors approach their teaching with their own perspectives and preferences. Three
professors indicated their willingness to participate in this study, and engage with the researchers
in a discussion about teaching and learning and digital technologies. All of these professors used
Moodle, our university Learning Management System. Moodle was used to communicate within
writing forums and discussion forums, for posting links to websites and music videos, and as a
mechanism to facilitate setting up small groups. One professor commented that “I do make use
of Moodle, maybe not extensive use, but I do make use of Moodle. I think that certainly for
some very basic straightforward kinds of things, it’s a wonderful tool” (Faculty Interview).
Another instructor commented that:
I use it [Moodle] all the time to send messages. I just did one the other day; found
an interesting news article based on something we were talking about in class.
And sent out an e-mail with the article attached through Moodle, and they all read
it and it was the topic of discussion in the next class. (Faculty Interview)
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Another professor used Moodle for tracking grades and sending out information to students, as
well as communicating in between class times. This teacher stated, “Moodle is certainly the
primary technology that I use... I keep track of grades and … submit the grades to them... I use it
to send out e-mails, and course notices, and stuff like that. They know to look for it now”
(Faculty Interview).
In terms of writing, some professors used Moodle as a space where students maintained personal
blogs; some teachers experimented with blogging as an effective method of encouraging students
to begin writing creatively. A few professors also used Moodle as a collaborative writing tool
where students could write different parts of the paper, merge these components, and then submit
one paper written by the team.
We wrote a book online in one of my classes last semester, it was like a group, or
class wide book that we wrote together... but it was always there 24 hours so you
could always keep up to it. (Student Interview)
These teachers identified a number of barriers that professors must address if they wish to
implement online learning and other digital technologies in their teaching. One of the challenges
of using an LMS like Moodle is the lack of assurance that the student who is writing the test is
actually that student.
Then to be able to mark the stuff like that becomes really problematic. I don’t
know if it’s them doing it or their best friends that’s doing it... there’s zero control
at that point for marking purposes. (Faculty Interview)
Other issues have also surfaced, including the distractions that laptops may present when
students are using them in class, and the interruptions presented by ringing cell phones.
They [students] frequently came with laptops. And I think that some of them were
really using them purposefully. But there were some at the back, I’m sure they
were Facebook-addicted, and I did have to go walking around like I was in a high
school classroom... and they’d shut them, so you knew then, right? And so that
was a problem. (Faculty Interview)
And then the phones–once in a while you’d see them.... We talked about if it was
an emergency...well, then answer it. But then otherwise, it would be more
respectful to just wait until the class is over, and call them back.... Now of course,
driving cars, you’re not supposed to talk–it’s dangerous–it’s a kind of metaphor.
It’s dangerous to do that in class too... I think you’re going to be missing
information if you’re facebooking and talking on the phone. (Faculty Interview)
These professors have also noticed that students perform more poorly when trying to multitask,
when they are highly engaged with a variety of technologies at one time. This observation goes
counter to students’ beliefs that they are able to multitask very effectively.
...their [ students’] activities outside the classroom shaped their expectations in the
classroom, and we sort of fast forward now to the age of multitasking. All the
research says, you know, the more we try the worse we get. Nonetheless, they
come with their laptops, they’re doing their Facebook while they’re taking the
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odd note while they’re checking e-mail, and so their attention span is all over the
place. (Faculty Interview)
A further challenge is professors’ belief that the students have an expectation, a demand for
immediacy, and therefore do not want to come into the office for the traditional office hour
discussion but want professors to be accessible 24/7 on e-mail.
There is an immediacy that is expected there that is extremely unrealistic... they
almost have this vision of us hovering over our computers waiting for the next e-
mail to come through. I’ve also noticed this year a phenomenon of students
tracking me down on Facebook and sending me messages on Facebook when I
haven’t responded to their e-mail quickly enough. (Faculty Interview)
They [students] are online or wired all the time. They can presume that we are...
it’s simply an assumption they work with. (Faculty Interview)
I get more work done during office hours than any other hour of my day, because
students don’t come. I think it’s sort of an offshoot of what we’ve been talking
about in terms of immediacy. If you are online all the time, why do we need
anything formal? (Faculty Interview)
The professors felt that the push for online learning reduces the face-to-face time that they see as
being necessary for effective education. At this particular university, face-to-face teaching is held
in high esteem by administration, many professors and a large number of students alike.
I can see students not coming to classes because they can get everything, just go
to Moodle and there’s all your work. And I heard that some schools are doing
more … with online courses, because they [students] can stop and pause…I’ve
heard a few students say that they prefer them [podcasts] to actual lectures,
because if they don’t understand anything, they just go back and listen. (Faculty
The professors believed that digital technologies seemed to be privileging visual learners over
students with other learning styles. They also felt that writing using technology was creating an
artificial safety net for the students where students slipped into using improper words,
incomplete ideas, and incorrect grammar. Current writing practice seems to be resulting in a far
less formal way of writing. One instructor lamented, “If we use technology as a blanket
statement for all teaching, then we are going to get ourselves into big trouble. It becomes a
crutch” (Faculty Interview).
We have shared a range of beliefs and practices regarding digital technologies. By comparing
data that emerged within each group and then across groups we were able to understand the
perspectives of participants— first year students’ use of digital technologies both in-school and
out-of-school, and university professors’ experiences of the affordances and challenges of
integrating technology into teaching and learning environments.
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Throughout the process of collecting survey data, meeting with students and professors, and our
research team discussion, we have found that many of the insights we gleaned connect strongly
with what other researchers have reported. We would now like to examine ideas about the Net
Generation, and this group’s posited orientation towards technology. Then we will discuss the
connections between what we found regarding digital literacies in post-secondary education.
One of the findings in both the pilot and the current study was that first year university students
were using different digital technologies for their in–school and out-of-school contexts. While
the inside/outside designation no longer adequately distinguishes personal uses of technology
from school-focused uses (Christensen, 2008), the student respondents still referred to the brick
and mortar buildings of the campus as a means of identifying being at school. Students’ most
frequent use of technology outside of school was email, Internet, social media, texting on cell
phones, instant messaging, and talking on cell phones. The focus was on communication and
socializing with others. The students’ most frequent use of digital technologies in school were (in
descending order) accessing information on the Internet, using email, word processing, math and
science programs, texting on cell phones, and accessing electronic databases. In school, the
students tended to use digital technologies to collect, select, and work with information. The
differences between these two lists are significant. Some students felt that there was a place for
all technologies in an educational form, while others wanted to maintain a separate digital
footprint for inside the classroom as well as outside the classroom digital technologies. This
finding is similar to what Clark, Logan, Luckin, Mee, and Oliver (2009) found in an
investigation of the technology landscapes of students. These researchers introduce the term
“digital dissonance” to describe the “tension with respect to learners’ appropriation of Web 2.0
technologies in formal contexts” (p. 56).
The study does raise the issue of managing expectations at the university—both the expectations
of students and those of the professors related to the effective use of technology within the
university. When conceptual understandings are more fixed, the ‘management’ challenge is one
of degree or balance: such as providing and utilizing well the Learning Management System and
other elearning tools, yet not to the extent that the acknowledged ideal (at this particular
institution) of face-to-face teaching is undermined. But the additional challenge is the shifting
conceptual understanding of the classroom space. When students do not necessarily need to
attend that space for some kinds of learning experiences, then this shifts the management
question to what kinds of learning experiences are best conducted in the classroom space.
This study revealed a high comfort level among students with the research site’s online learning
environment and a reasonably similar student comfort level with a number of the university’s
professors’ uses of technology. Clearly this is a strength in the university’s learning milieu and
needs to be built upon and enhanced. However, it is apparent from this study that in a blended
online and face-to-face environment, male students are more comfortable participating in the
online learning component than female students. This finding points to the need and the
opportunity to support and encourage female students preferentially in the digital learning
environment. It is also apparent that not all professors are proactively using the university’s
elearning platform (Moodle). Again, this reality represents an opportunity to provide additional
support service to professors to facilitate their effective use of elearning opportunities.
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At previous times the university has supported the provision of faculty online learning support
workshops. There have also been summer institutes dedicated to highlighting online teaching and
current effective practice in online environments. Similarly, a handbook has been developed,
drawing on the insights from such workshops and institutes to afford faculty effective
approaches for adopting elearning tools in their teaching. Our study suggests ways these supports
could be improved. For example, with the expectation by students (not all, but evident in a cross
section) that they would have electronic access to their professors on a 24/7 basis, it would be
pragmatic to be as specific as possible regarding reasonable expectations for student-professor
communication (such as online office hours) when it comes time to update the student handbook
and revise the new student orientation activities. Additional support could also come from the
addition of a Technology Use Protocol that proposes guidelines and principles for best practices
for use of digital technologies in the classroom.
At this university there is a long-standing tradition of emphasizing the importance of high quality
face-to-face teaching. This principle is an integral component of approaches to teaching and
learning at this site. Even so, the university has committed time, energy and resources to
providing new digital technologies, and to ensuring that professors have the opportunity to
become adept in their use. However, the variance in their adoption and the variance in the beliefs
about the benefits of their adoption suggests there is still a need to enhance professional
development (which is not simple implementation), as, according to Clark (2010), digital
technologies are “challenging our notions of the boundaries of the classroom and our
pedagogical assumptions about learning” (p. 28). Our findings give some scope for
understanding next steps.
With respect to technology use in learning, the variety of student and professor comfort, use, and
understanding underscores the notion that enhancing professional development means critical
conversation regarding the changing classroom space, moving past the traditional ‘how to’s and
‘handbooks’ for effective teaching. The discrepancies between the expectations of students and
professors regarding the use of digital technologies within the classroom setting provides
evidence for the need of an enhanced kind of professional development. Hardy’s (2009) research
on professional development underscores the need for mentoring and critical conversation so that
instructors are not positioned as mere implementers of the latest protocols and practices. As our
study found variances in beliefs about what is optimal in the classroom space, such as students’
beliefs regarding their ability to multitask and the beliefs of the professors that students’
“attention span can be all over the place,” our findings suggest that fostering a critical and
constructive conversation would be a timely and needed response that addresses the growing
reality of increased use of digital technologies for learning and teaching.
Given that our findings support the need for increased critical conversation via enhanced
professional development, our team concludes this paper by identifying three important
discussion points regarding technology use and the shifting classroom space. First, it is important
to understand that the most creative and productive uses of technology have yet to find
prominence in the typical classroom. This is clearly reflected in the data when implementing
technology into teaching is described as using PowerPoint, using a learning management system,
and spicing up lectures with YouTube. All of these are still transmission-oriented approaches to
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technology use with strong ties to traditional teaching tools: (a) PowerPoint being used as an
upgrade on the overhead projector; (b) Moodle being used as a course syllabus; and (c) YouTube
being used to transmit lecture points. Critical conversation means addressing the ways in which
the classroom meeting space is still (or is no longer) ideally suited for transmission learning. !
Second, we recommend that critical conversation that articulates even the simplest technological
implementation become part of professional development systems. For example, the basic
advantages of a learning management system (communication between course meetings, more
efficient means to create teachable moments, more transparency around grades and evaluation
processes, and so forth) might be part of the language of best practices. Instructor efforts such as
posting links, making connections between resources, and joining online discussions might be
understood as part of the student research process. Even potential barriers to implementation,
such as plagiarism, distraction, or addiction, might be part of professional development
discussions on what professors have done to counteract these possibilities.!
Third, we recommend that critical conversation address the deeper, conceptual changes to
teaching practices as they relate to the historicity and social construction of knowledge.
Instructor concerns regarding formal language and individual authorship are two examples of
where technological implementation is stalled not because of knowledge or lack of training, but
because of deliberate resistances to what digital technology might be changing. Even among the
adopters, what is typically missing in digital technology professional development is the social
construction of knowledge, and how the ways knowledge is shared shifts expectations for how
knowledge should be utilized and valued. Greater uptake in digital technology should mean
greater understanding of how the social dynamics of digital technology are already part of the
scholarly mobilization, translation, and production of knowledge. Perhaps an emphasis on how
to implement has overlooked important conversations of why and what is at stake. !
Taking points one, two, and three together, we believe that the next steps to technological
implementation should focus on enhanced professional development via a more efficacious
critical conversation at the university. In conclusion, we note that our study confirms (and sheds
additional light on) what the literature has been saying about students’ use of, and expectations
about, digital technologies in the learning environment of the university. There is a strong
indication that a reasonable comfort level exists among students both in accessing online
information and conducting some of their work in an online environment. It also confirms what
the literature has shown, that some, though not all, professors are incorporating elearning
strategies and environments into their teaching. Ultimately, the findings support the development
of a more efficacious critical conversation via enhanced professional development. Timely
would be fostering a dialogue within the university community regarding how digital
technologies are part of the social construction of knowledge, and how professors can optimize
teaching and learning for the changed classroom space, whether that be elearning, face-to-face,
or some kind of blend.!
This research was supported in part by a Major Research Grant, University of Prince Edward
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Martha A. Gabriel, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island. Associate
Professor of Education and co-principal investigator of the Research in Early Child Development
Initiative at the Centre for Education Research. Gabriel’s research and teaching interests centre
on the investigation of literacies—digital, multimodal, and new literacies/pedagogies, and on
implementing community-based action research processes. Email:
Barbara Campbell, School of Nursing, University of Prince Edward Island, is Director of
Teaching and Learning and International Relations at UPEI, Associate Professor in Nursing, and
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pedagogy with new learners, and knowledge translation. She has co-authored 17 publications, a
book, a chapter, and is a Senator on the UPEI Board of Governors.
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Sean Wiebe, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, is a poet, philosopher,
parent, and provocateur. His career has spanned 17 years in education, beginning as secondary
English teacher before moving to educational administration and higher education. He has
recently published "How Boys Grow Up" with Acorn Press.
Ronald J. MacDonald, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, is
Undergraduate Coordinator and science methods instructor. Research focus: supporting science
teacher communities of practice when they are integrating technologies; gender differences in
students’ attitude toward science when technologies are used; first year university students’
technology use; and the merging of theory and practice in teacher education.
Alexander McAuley, Faculty of Education, University of Prince Edward Island, is Associate
Professor of Education at the University of PEI. His teaching and research focus on the
intersections of digital technologies, literacies, and knowledge building in diverse cultural
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
... VLEs risk becoming a crude delivery mechanism, readily encouraging a transmission discourse of educational practice, acting in this dynamic as resource "silos" and process management systems. Indeed, Gabriel, Campbell, Wiebe, MacDonald, & McAuley (2012) used surveys and focus groups with a large sample of first-year students to investigate university instructional practices with digital technologies. They found that these practices were largely oriented toward individual knowledge transmission, hence they recommended uses of digital technologies that go beyond information transmission, the need for extended pedagogical discussions to harness the learning potentials of digital technologies, and for pedagogies that embrace the social construction of knowledge … (Gabriel et al., 2012, p. 1) The use of multimodal features of technology to develop knowledge offers promise to integrate various modalities of expression in knowledge development (Hallewell & Lackovic, 2017;Breuer & Archer, 2016). ...
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The first division within the definition debate begins with a fundamental question, What is technology? Technology as artifact or device exists as the most common notion of technology. There are many different views on interpreting what the definition of technology is. The importance of this chapter is the policies regarding uses of technology and access to technology, which are key components to the integration of technology in schools.
Learning approaches enhanced by digital technologies have gained considerable attention in higher education. Prior research has mainly focused on digital technology adoption in formal learning settings of higher education. Yet, empirical research into discerning what influences a student’s digital informal learning has not been well investigated. This paper proposes that individuals’ digital competence affects their digital informal learning (DIL) intention and actual behaviour. To understand better learners’ DIL and the effects of digital competence, we integrated digital competence into the decomposed theory of planned behaviour (DTPB) model and tested the model by using survey data from university students in Belgium. Here, we have explored different aspects of their DIL behaviours of cognitive, meta-cognitive, social and motivational learning. The findings showed both attitudinal factors in DTPB and digital competence adequately explained students’ DIL. Finally, the roles of digital competence and other DPTB factors are discussed in students’ DIL.
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The purpose of this paper is to document the perceptions of school leaders regarding the technological use, skills, and attitudes of high school teachers. Using a qualitative research approach, 11 educational leaders from Prince Edward Island (Canada) were individually interviewed. Participants represented the Department of Education, principals, vice-principals, and department heads. Analyzed through the concept of e-leadership, the findings indicated that participants used a growing array of technological tools and activities including Smartboards, flipped classrooms, Prezi, educational apps, YouTube, and teacher blogs. Participants identified lack of time as a possible reason why some teachers were not incorporating technology into student learning. Findings highlight the need for provincial and school district authorities to promote policies aimed at promoting e-leadership among teachers. We insert an appendix to provide descriptions of the technological terms included within the paper.
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T he essence of both reading and reading instruction is change. Reading a book changes us forever as we return from the worlds we inhabit during our reading journeys with new insights about our surroundings and our-selves. Teaching a student to read is also a transforming experience. It opens new windows to the world and creates a lifetime of opportunities. Change defines our work as both literacy educators and researchers—by teaching a student to read, we change the world. Today, reading, reading instruction, and more broadly conceived notions of literacy and literacy instruction are being defined by change in even more profound ways as new technologies require new literacies to effectively exploit their poten-tials (Coiro, 2003; Kinzer & Leander, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003; Leu, 2000a; Smolin & Lawless, 2003). These include technologies such as gaming software (Gee, 2003), video technologies (O'Brien, 2001), technologies that es-tablish communities on the Internet (Chandler-Olcott & Mahar, 2003), search en-gines (Jansen, Spink, & Saracevic, 2000), webpages, and many more yet to emerge. Moreover, these new literacies change regularly as technology opens new possibilities for communication and information. We see this happening today as people redefine literacy practices while they communicate on a chatboard asso-ciated with a website, talk to one another using a video cam, or participate in virtual reality role-playing games (Cammack, 2002; King & O'Brien, 2002; Adapted from Leu, D.J., Jr., & Kinzer, C.K. (2000). The convergence of literacy instruction with networked tech-nologies for information and communication.
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As more and more educators face the impact of Web 2.0, and as we see emerging what could be called a Learning 2.0 environment, it has become urgent to extend teaching to meet the literacy and learning needs of the Net Generation. These ‘new’ learners and their expanding literacy needs have major implications for current models of post-secondary programs which are traditionally focused on knowledge acquisition and transmission. Discussions and resources about this challenge are rapidly appearing, appropriately within Web 2.0 environments. Arising from these discussions is the need to critically question long held tenets of post-secondary teaching/learning and to create a new research-based vision that will accord with the current economic and social directions driving educational change. This study contributes to that process by exploring the needs, interests and skills of new learners entering the University of Prince Edward Island for the first time. This inquiry was guided by research in new literacies, new learners, and the new learners’ understanding of global issues.
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This article examines the intersection of age and ICT (information and communication technology) competency and critiques the "digital natives versus digital immigrants" argument proposed by Prensky (2001a, 2001b). Quantitative analysis was applied to a statistical data set collected in the context of a study with over 2,000 pre-service teachers conducted at the University of British Columbia, Canada, between 2001 and 2004. Findings from this study show that there was not a statistically significant difference with respect to ICT competence among different age groups for either pre-program or post-program surveys. Classroom observations since 2003 in different educational settings in Canada and the United States support this finding. This study implies that the digital divide thought to exist between "native" and "immigrant" users may be misleading, distracting education researchers from more careful consideration of the diversity of ICT users and the nuances of their ICT competencies.