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Change of IT equipment and communication applications used by first- semester students from 2011 to 2020 and possible effects of the COVID- 19 pandemic: Analysis of a long-term survey

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The technical equipment of first-year students and their preferred communication applications are changing. This paper presents the two latest, unpublished surveys of first-year students at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) from 2019 (N=824) and 2020 (N=955) and compares the results concerning devices and applications with the results of the surveys conducted since 2011. The analysis shows that laptops, desktop computers and smartphones are among the most important and widespread multifunctional devices, while the MP3 player in particular or the social media application Facebook have lost most of their former importance. The increasing importance of photo-based social media applications, first and foremost Instagram, is striking. If comparing the data from 2019 to those from 2020, the first academic year start that took place within the COVID-19 pandemic, the same applies to the use of Facebook and Facebook Messenger, which now only have the same minor significance as Telegram, Signal, Skype, or others. Concerning effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the equipment and communication tools used, the authors see a major impact on the prevalence of portable powerpacks.
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Preliminary Version (Preprint) of:
Nagler, W., Mair, B., Ebner, M., Edelsbrunner, S. & Schön, S. (2021). Change of IT equipment and
communication applications used by first-semester students from 2011 to 2020 and possible effects of
the COVID-19 pandemic: Analysis of a long-term survey. In T. Bastiaens (Ed.), Proceedings of
EdMedia + Innovate Learning (pp. 107-114). United States: Association for the Advancement of
Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved August 15, 2021 from
https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/219645/
Change of IT equipment and communication applications used by first-
semester students from 2011 to 2020 and possible effects of the COVID-
19 pandemic: Analysis of a long-term survey
Walther Nagler
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology
Austria
walther.nagler@tugraz.at
Bettina Mair
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology
Austria
office@bettina-mair.at
Martin Ebner
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology
Austria
martin.ebner@tugraz.at
Sarah Edelsbrunner
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology
Austria
sarah.edelsbrunner@tugraz.at
Sandra Schön
Educational Technology, Graz University of Technology
Austria
sandra.schoen@tugraz.at
Abstract:
The technical equipment of first-year students and their preferred
communication applications are changing. This paper presents the two latest,
unpublished surveys of first-year students at Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) from
2019 (N=824) and 2020 (N=955) and compares the results concerning devices and
applications with the results of the surveys conducted since 2011. The analysis shows that
laptops, desktop computers and smartphones are among the most important and
widespread multifunctional devices, while the MP3 player in particular or the social media
application Facebook have lost most of their former importance. The increasing
importance of photo-based social media applications, first and foremost Instagram, is
striking. If comparing the data from 2019 to those from 2020, the first academic year start
that took place within the COVID-19 pandemic, the same applies to the use of Facebook
and Facebook Messenger, which now only have the same minor significance as
Telegram, Signal, Skype, or others. Concerning effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the
equipment and communication tools used, the authors see a major impact on the
prevalence of portable powerpacks.
Introduction
What equipment and communication behaviour do students bring along when they start their studies in
2020? From the perspective of “Educational Technology”, the e-learning support service unit of Graz
University of Technology (TU Graz), this is an important question, as it also influences the services and
possibilities of teaching practice. To a particular extent, this question also seemed important in 2020:
After the closure of schools as well as universities in March 2020 as an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic,
teaching in Austria was carried out exclusively by means of distance learning for weeks. Particularly in the
case of secondary schools and higher education institutions, this teaching took place largely with the
help of the internet. Thus, recordings were provided, teaching was done with the help of video
conferencing systems, etc. In a survey of Austrian teachers across all school types and school levels by
Tengler, Schrammel & Brandhofer (2020), about two thirds stated that they had used learning
management systems during this period (p. 18). Among the first-year students who took their final
secondary school exams in 2020, it was possibly an even higher percentage. Additionally, for many if not
all of the first-year students in autumn 2020, the year 2020 has been very different from the years before;
the restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic were eased significantly in the summer, but it was
already becoming apparent at the beginning of the 2020 studies that many of the major lectures and
courses can only be offered in the form of distance learning. Has this experience and development
changed the equipment of students starting their studies at TU Graz in autumn 2020? This article shows
whether these effects are already visible and how the equipment and communication behaviour of
students starting their studies at TU Graz have changed in the years from 2011 to 2020.
Research questions, method and procedure
With the help of data we gained at our annual survey amongst first-year students,the following
research questions will be answered.
How is the digital equipment of first-year students at TU Graz changing throughout the years?
How is the use of digital communication and social media applications changing among first-
year students at TU Graz?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures, has there been a significant change
in equipment and communication applications among first-year students at TU Graz?
For 14 years, i.e. for the first time in 2007, surveys have been conducted annually among TU Graz first-
year students. The team of Educational Technology at TU Graz has been reporting on the findings
regularly since 2009 and have investigated questions that are important and interesting for the university
itself as well as the worldwide edTech-community (Nagler & Ebner, 2009; Ebner & Nagler, 2010; Ebner
et al., 2011; Ebner et al., 2012; Ebner et al., 2013; Ebner et al., 2014; Nagler et al., 2015; Nagler et al.,
2016; Nagler et al., 2017; Nagler et al., 2018; Nagler et al., 2019). Due to the fact that the 2019 survey
results have not yet been published, this report focuses on both the data from 2020 and 2019.
The question on equipment and applications used has been asked in a comparable form since
2011, although there have always been little changes in the naming of individual tools. We therefore
used and combined the data of all surveys beginning with data from 2011, resulting in a total of 8486
records.
Results of the survey amongst first-year students at TU Graz of 2019, 2020 and within
the 7 years before
Participants of the 2019 and 2020 survey
As the results of the 2019 and 2020 student surveys have not yet been published - not least due
to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020 (see Ebner et al., 2020), we would
first like to briefly describe the studies (see Table 1). In both cases, the surveys took place during the
"Welcome Days", the introductory event lasting two days for all BA first-year students at the end of
September. During these days, the new students are welcomed and offered numerous introductions.
Since the beginning, the survey itself has been conducted as a pen-and-paper survey as part of the
event, which in our view is a guarantee for a high response rate and low proportion of missing data. In
2020, the Welcome Days took place under special hygiene rules, but could be held - distributed over
many large lecture halls - partly in presence and partly online. While 824 students participated in the
survey in 2019, 955 out of 1,000 distributed questionnaires were completed in 2020.
Table 1: Overview of the unpublished surveys of first-year students at TU Graz in 2019 and 2020
Key characteristics of the study beginners
2019
2020
Number of evaluable questionnaires (N)
824
955
Sex (in percent)
female
28%
32%
male
70%
68%
other
<1%
<1%
Age
mean
19.94
20.12
median
19.5
20
standard derivation
2.116
2.477
Professional activity (in percent)
yes
25%
25%
no
69%
63%
(not answered)
5%
11%
These key indicators as presented in Table 1 concerning students’ sex and age are all within the
normal range of variation and a slight but steady increase in the proportion of women can be seen in the
surveys of recent years. The professional activity was not queried before 2018 and also appears
unremarkable.
Equipment: Less gadgets, multifunctional computers and smartphones are common, comeback of
classic mobile?
In the last nine years, there have been significant changes in the equipment of first-year students
at TU Graz (see Fig. 1). Since 2011, the majority of all first-year students have had at least one
"multifunctional device", i.e. desktop computer, laptop and smartphone. It is noticeable that after 2018,
when nearly all students had a smartphone (99.9%), the new figures show a decline (2020: 94.2%). The
situation is similar for desktop computers, which had the highest value in 2013 (94.6%) and are at 77.6%
percent in 2020. For laptops, there was a peak value in 2016 (88.9%), in 2020 fewer, namely only 80.9%,
report such ownership. Detailed analysis of the operating system/provider used (see Fig. 1 right-hand
side) shows that, apart from a significant low of MS Windows in the desktop computer rate in 2016, the
values do not change significantly. In the case of smartphones, on the other hand, there is a clear
increase in the number of iPhones between 2011 and 2020, and the decline in smartphone ownership
has no effect either; the share is growing steadily (Fig. 1 left-hand side): In 2011, 14.4% of first-year
students reported owning an iPhone; in 2020, the figure is 37.7%.
It is also clear in 2020 that two of the famous gadgets of the early 2000s, namely the MP3 player
and the classic mobile phone, are of little importance. While 33.9% owned a classic mobile phone in
2011, only 4.6% of first-year students do so in 2020. However, this development is a real surprise, after
hardly anyone (1.2%) reported owning such a mobile phone in 2018. Ownership of MP3 players, where
the highest rate of 72.1% was seen in our first survey in 2007, is steadily decreasing (2011: 51.4%, 2020:
5.1%, see Fig. 1 left-hand side). In fact, MP3 players and classic mobile phones no longer play a role in
equipping first-year students. For tablets, which has constantly been winning shares amongst the first-
year students starting at 3.3% in 2011 and 31.2% in 2019, a small decrease became apparent in 2020
(24.6%).
Figure 1: Equipment for first-year students at TU Graz over time from 2011 to 2020. Source: Annual
survey amongst Study Beginners at TU Graz (n2011=632, n2012=715, n2013=789, n2014=968,
n2015=889, n2016=944, n2017=872, and n2018=898, n2019=824, n2020=955).
Newer Wearables and IPTV buckling: the end of a trend?
In recent years, the survey has also increasingly included the question of wearables and other
digital developments such as IPTV (Internet-based televisions) or the use of portable power packs (PPP).
The results of these newer gadgets and digital trends are shown in Fig. 2. Developments here also
reflect changes not only in availability but also in student needs. In fact, for all gadgets and technologies
included, there were equal or increasing numbers of ownership and use among students, except for
2020: in the 2020 survey, first-year students were significantly less likely than the year before to report
owning PPPs (62.4% in 2018, 38.0% in 2020), e-readers (19.8% in 2019; 11.3% in 2020) and usage of
IPTV (41.3% in 2019; 38.3% in 2020). Additionally, smart speakers and VR glasses lost some percentage
points from 2019 to 2020.
Figure 2: Wearables and digital equipment of first-year students at TU Graz over time from 2011 to
2020. Source: Annual survey amongst first-year students at TU Graz (n2011=632, n2012=715,
n2013=789, n2014=968, n2015=889, n2016=944, n2017=872, and n2018=898, n2019=824,
n2020=955).
Communication applications: WhatsApp unbeaten, e-mails still at a high level
There have been major changes in communication applications and survey questions over the
last nine years, as Fig. 3 shows. While the increasing loss of email as a means of communication and the
loss of first place to WhatsApp in 2015 led us to title the data analysis at that time R.I.P. Email(Nagler,
Ebner, Schön, 2016), e-mail now appears five years later as a still consistently commonly used means of
communication in second place and at around 80%. The fact that Whatsapp, i.e. a provider-bound
communication application is far more widespread (2020 about 11.1 percentage points difference) is still
an important insight into how difficult it is to reach and communicate with students reliably. The dramatic
drop in scores for "Other Instant Messaging" from nearly 50% in 2016 to 5% in 2017 is discussed in our
2017 publication (Nagler, Ebner, Schön, 2017) and is due to an adjustment to the questionnaire in this
category.
Note that the values given in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 refer to frequent and daily use. Data referring to
infrequent use was not added, as it would distort the significance of the usage. In the survey, we also
always distinguish between private use and use for learning purposes. The data presented here reflects
private use. The analysis of the results of use for learning purposes is not the subject of this publication.
Nevertheless, it can be briefly noted that while there are no significant changes regarding the use of
learning management systems or digital teaching materials at compulsory schools in 2019 and 2020, the
importance of IT skills for studying is estimated to be slightly higher than in previous years.
Figure 3: Communication tools of first-year students at TU Graz over time from 2011 to 2020. Values
refer to frequent and daily use. Source: Annual survey amongst Study Beginners at TU Graz (n2011=632,
n2012=715, n2013=789, n2014=968, n2015=889, n2016=944, n2017=872, and n2018=898,
n2019=824, n2020=955).
Social Media tools: Photo-based communication records gains, Facebook continues to lose
The coming and going of applications is also clearly evident in the social media applications
used by first-year students (see Fig. 4): The already discontinued application Google+only appeared
for a few years, Facebook has definitely passed its peak in the age group of first-year students; it is used
by 21.4% in 2020 - the highest rate was 80.1% in 2011. A closer look is also worthwhile here: It shows
that blogs/forums/newsgroups have also been used less in the last two years and thus the trend of
decreasing importance continues. What is striking, however, is that the three newer apps that focus on
sharing photos - not so clearly for Snapchat, but clearly for Instagram and Pinterest - have been gaining
in importance in the latest surveys: Instagram is now the most frequently used social media application
among first-year students at TU Graz at 64.45%. Pinterest shows significant growth from 2017 (1.4%) to
2020 (13.6%).
Figure 4: Social Media tools used by first-year students at TU Graz over time from 2011 to 2020. Values
refer to frequent and daily use. Source: Annual survey amongst Study Beginners at TU Graz (n2011=632,
n2012=715, n2013=789, n2014=968, n2015=889, n2016=944, n2017=872, and n2018=898,
n2019=824, n2020=955).
Potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on equipment and communication behaviour of first year
students
As stated in the introduction, we have been curious to see if there are any effects of the
developments on COVID-19 pandemic that are evident in the equipment and usage patterns of first-year
students. We have therefore focused on developments where the proportion of students has changed
significantly between 2019 and 2020.
In fact, Figures 1-4 show only one example where there is a significant change - even against the
trend: Portable powerpacks (power banks) declined dramatically between 2019 and 2020, although they
had previously increased year on year. There could be two reasons for this: (a) PPPs are no longer as
important due to new technical developments (e. g. long-lasting batteries of laptops and smartphones)
(b) First-year students need PPPs less often. Both causes may also have been amplified by the COVID-19
pandemic: For the phase of distance learning at school, for social distancing and curfew, for working
from home, many have renewed their technical devices. At the same time, PPPs are needed mainly for
activities that are beyond the reach of other power sources; at home, this should hardly matter. Students
at the “Welcome Days” at TU Graz in 2020 could already assume that a large part of their courses would
be held as distance learning. So, in our view, the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects should therefore
play a significant role in this aspect and be clearly responsible for the development of PPP and for the
sharp drop in usage amongst TU Graz freshmen.
Discussion
In terms of the quality of the data collected, the setting of the survey - the Welcome Days - has
now served for years to ensure a satisfactory response rate and data quality. For example, the response
rate of completed questionnaires for 2020 is 95%. Due to the fact that participation in the Welcome
Days is not obligatory, it was thus possible to record 56% of all first-year students in 2020. This value is
the highest in the survey period from 2009 to 2020. On average, we reach 45% of all first-year students
with this survey setting. As mentioned at the beginning, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Welcome
Days 2020 were not entirely conducted on site, but partly online. However, this circumstance (especially
the online part) led to a significantly higher participation in this event than in previous years.
Since 2019, the questionnaires have been scanned and automatically evaluated, although a
great deal of manual work is still necessary. As can also be seen in the evaluations, changes to the
questionnaire are made cautiously, but are always necessary, for example when new tools or applications
are involved. The exact wording of the question can play a major role here, e. g. whether examples of an
application are given or not (such an effect of changing the wording of the question can be seen, for
example, in Fig. 3 for "other instant messaging services"). Adjustments are also always necessary, which
brings the challenge of data consistency for comparability over the years. Overall, the data quality ought
to be high and the evaluations ought to be valid. We assume that trends similar to those we present
here are also emerging at other European and international universities, always bearing in mind that TU
Graz of course has a technical orientation.
In terms of content, our surveys also reflect global trends in the use of digital technologies and
applications. In relation to our own previous work, this also reveals interesting insights in terms of
content: The takeover of Whatsapp by Facebook (Ebner, Nagler & Schön, 2011) is just as effective as the
later takeover of Instagram by the Facebook group: the declining user numbers at Facebook are
effectively compensated or surpassed here. If we titled the evaluation of the 2015 survey of first-year
students "R.I.P. E-Mail" (Nagler, Ebner & Schön, 2016), because Whatsapp was used more than emails
for the first time, we have to revise this from today's perspective: Although still behind WhatsApp, email
appears to be a medium that continues to be used by the majority; in other words, it appears to be
rather immortal.
Outlook
With the 2020 first-year students not yet having experienced the full impact of the COVID-19
pandemic at school - most having more or less taken the exams after school closures, but hardly having
effectively experienced distance learning using digital technologies - we expect the 2021 freshmen to
have significantly different conditions once again. We expect to see significant shifts in the equipment
and tools used by the 2021 first-year students, which is more likely to be characterised as a change in
their everyday life and experiences. Since the survey also includes items on IT skills and experiences of
learning with online courses we did not present in this paper, we are particularly interested in these
variables and their changes. First of all, however, we hope that the Welcome Days 2021 can take place
on the premises of TU Graz as in the previous year - as a good start to the studies and, from the
perspective of the scientists, as a good opportunity to receive high quality questionnaires and data.
In practical terms, it also needs to be stated taking into account the evaluations of the last two
years that it is still a challenge to reach our (new) students well in terms of communication: According to
the survey, email is not part of everyday life for a small proportion, and the communication channels
typically used by public relations have little overlap with the media used by first-year students - if they
are not already using Instagram, for example. The evaluation here shows in particular how challenging it
will be to reach future students.
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Architecture Students Hate Twitter and Love Dropbox" or Does the Field of Study Correlates with Web 2.0 Behavior?
  • M Ebner
  • W Nagler
  • M Schön
Ebner, M., Nagler, W. & Schön, M. (2013). "Architecture Students Hate Twitter and Love Dropbox" or Does the Field of Study Correlates with Web 2.0 Behavior? In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2013 (pp. 43-53). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.
Is Your University Ready for the Ne(x)t-Generation?
  • W Nagler
  • M Ebner
Nagler, W. & Ebner, M. (2009). Is Your University Ready for the Ne(x)t-Generation? In: World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2009, (pp. 4344-4351). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.