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Students’ Attitude towards ICT Learning Uses: A Comparison between Digital Learners in Blended and Virtual Universities

Iolanda Garcia, Anna Escofet, Begoña Gros,
eLearn Center, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain

Abstract

In this paper we examine students’ digital culture relative to different dimensions of ICT use to support different teaching and learning processes – social, cognitive and didactic –. Our study aims to gain a deeper understanding of the role that ICT plays in learning processes associated with academic tasks. In this sense this paper focuses on the influence of the university model – virtual or blended – in students’ uses and attitude towards technology for learning purposes.

The research methodology consists of a questionnaire based on a Likert scale applied to a sample of 1042 students from five universities with different models –virtual and blended– and also from diverse areas of knowledge.

Our study presents some evidence about differences between students from blended and virtual environments. Students from the virtual university tend to assign a higher value to ICT uses with respect to social, cognitive and teaching dimensions of support, although this trend seems to be lower regarding the role that ICT plays in supporting the development of knowledge and skills in the courses. These results seem to highlight the importance of certain factors, such as the model of university, when determining the uses of technology associated with learning by students. Somehow, greater use of technology in academic settings seems to condition the students’ informal use and not just the reverse.

Keywords: University students, virtual universities, blended learning, ICT uses, digital natives, students’ perceptions, digital competence.

Introduction

The introduction of information and communication technologies into university classrooms has been crucial to university teaching and learning. Various studies (Fraser, 2002; Johnson et al., 2011) highlight the possibilities offered by ICT and the turning point they represent for traditional learning environments, giving rise to virtual learning and blended learning. In the case of virtual learning, we are referring to online teaching and learning environments fully delivered via technological platforms (Harasim, 1990; McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996), while in the case of blended learning, we are referring to learning environments that combine face-to-face teaching with the use of ICT (Bersin, 2004; Thorne, 2003; Ardizzone & Rivoltella, 2003).

Whether in one type of environment or other, it seems that technologies go hand-in-hand with students who, as digital natives, have developed new study and learning skills and have highlighted the need to open up classrooms to new sources of knowledge and new ways of learning. The main argument that supports the ‘net generation’ discourse is that through frequent use of technologies students become competent users and this makes them capable of transferring their digital skills to learning with the support of technology. However, most studies suggest that although today’s students come to university with some digital skills, the use of digital media for studying might be quite different from their usual practice, more leisure oriented. Furthermore, the transfer of these skills from one context to another may not be automatic (Bullen et al., 2008; Romero et al., 2011; Kennedy et al., 2008; Kirkwood & Price, 2005). On the other hand, it has been said that some characteristics of youth, such as their ability to simultaneously process multiple channels of information, may even have negative effects.

Some research studies suggest that age differences concerning perceptions and experiences of technology-mediated learning are important, but other demographic characteristics, such as gender (Selwyn, 2008) and academic discipline (Kennedy et al., 2008) may also be important. To account for this broader aspect, an emerging discussion in the literature has been to distinguish between “learning” and “living” technologies (Kennedy et al., 2008).

Helsper and Eynon (2009) analysed the different aspects of what a digital native is by exploring whether acting like a digital native is determined by age, experience or breadth of use, independently of their age or experience. Their conclusion is that the degree of digital expertise is related to the confidence in the use of technologies, the use of the Internet as a first port of call for information and the use of the Internet for learning as well as other activities.

Taking into account that the use of technology to support learning in higher education is becoming more and more relevant, the debate must be based on real evidence about students’ attitude towards ICT uses for learning purposes. This means looking at whether there is a continuum between “living and learning technologies”. In this sense, our study focuses on the analysis of ICT learning uses and perceptions by students in academic contexts comparing two groups: students attending to an online university versus those at traditional universities that provide access to a virtual campus and offer some blended courses.

This paper aims to clarify issues relating to the types of activities that technologies support in everyday and academic life for both groups of students. The initial hypothesis is that the use and perception of technology to support learning is related with the type of actions and tasks being carried out on a daily basis and therefore it is also influenced by the academic learning context, in this case the university model (online or face-to-face/blended).

Methodology

The main research questions of the study are as follows:

  1. What kinds of activities are supported by technologies in everyday life and academic life among university students?
  2. In which way does the university model (blended or online) affect academic ICT use and preferences of students?
  3. How the university model (blended or online) shapes students’ perceptions about ICT learning uses?

To respond to these questions we have elaborated and applied a questionnaire to a sample of students from five universities with different characteristics (one of them offers online education and four offers face-to-face with LMS teaching-support environments)[1].

The analyzed population is the total number of students enrolled during the 2010-2011 academic year along their first and fourth years of study at Catalan universities. The final sample of participating students was a total of 1042 people (error 5 %, confidence interval 95.5 %) and the selection was random.

The independent variables considered in this analysis are: age, gender, university institution of origin (model: virtual or face-to-face), and area of knowledge. The dependent variables considered are:

  • Informal use of ICT: type and perception of competence.
  • Academic use of ICT (teacher-led): type, frequency of use and perception of usefulness.
  • Academic use of ICT (decided by the students).
  • Perception on ICT use for learning purposes.

The questionnaire, based on the research of Kennedy et al. (2008), is divided into two parts. The first is designed to characterize university students’ uses of technologies (both in formal and non-formal learning contexts) and the second – based on a Likert-type scale (1-5 values of agreement) – aims to analyze the students’ perceptions of the use of ICT in different learning situations. To create the second part of the questionnaire, we elaborated a set of indicators of ICT use, from the perspective of its perceived utility for students in different domains. In doing so, we tried to represent each of the dimensions or presences proposed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) in the Community of Inquiry Framework: cognitive, social and teaching. This framework articulates the processes required for knowledge construction through various forms of “presence”, which are teaching, social, and cognitive. However, it is important to take into account that although the same terminology is used and the three dimensions are considered, the CoI model was not directly applied in this study. In the formulation of those items we emphasized the role of technology as a mediator of different processes related with teaching and learning in a broad sense; that is to say, either in virtual or blended environments, with different methodological approaches and both led by teachers and decided by students. This resulted in a scale formed of 30 items shown in Table 1.

To analyze the reliability of the scale, Cronbach’s Alpha coefficient was applied and the result was 0.944, which shows high reliability. In order to corroborate the proposed scale an exploratory factor analysis (principal component) was performed. The results show 5 different components that account for 61.9 % of the variability found in the data (Table 1).

Table 1:   Perception of ICT uses in academic tasks. Factor analysis.

Component

Initial Eigen values

Sum of saturations extraction of square

Total

Variance %

Accumulated %

Total

Variance %

Accumulated %

1

11.745

39.149

39.149

11.745

39.149

39.149

2

2.999

9.998

49.147

2.999

9.998

49.147

3

1.523

5.076

54.223

1.523

5.076

54.223

4

1.210

4.035

58.258

1.210

4.035

58.258

5

1.100

3.668

61.926

1.100

3.668

61.926

 

Perception on ICT use

Component

1

2

3

4

5

30. ICT help to show me the way I am

.785

       

26. ICT help to generate a pleasant atmosphere in the classroom

.778

       

28. ICT facilitate the social relationship with the group

.757

       

25. ICT help me to explain my problems to the teacher

.717

       

27. ICT help me to ask others questions

.702

       

23. ICT allow me to express my emotions more freely

.690

       

29. ICT allow me to publicly show what I do for the subjects

.671

       

24. ICT enable the teacher to pay more attention to us

.636

     

.406

13. ICT help the teacher to guide the working methodology

 

.736

     

14. ICT allow me to plan my work

 

.717

 

.316

 

15. ICT allow me to better evaluate my progress in the subject

 

.626

 

.513

 

17. ICT facilitate the presentation of content

 

.594

.413

   

12. I like teachers to use ICT in the subjects

 

.540

.428

   

16. ICT enhance the pace of work

 

.538

 

.399

 

20. ICT facilitate knowledge integration from different sources

 

.528

   

.438

1. ICT help me to gain knowledge related to the subject

   

.679

.319

 

5. I use ICT when I want to know more about a topic

   

.679

 

.308

3. ICT help me to do my academic homework faster

   

.653

   

4. ICT help me to do my academic homework better

   

.622

   

2. ICT help me to develop skills related to the subject

   

.613

.419

 

7. ICT allow me to exchange ideas with my colleagues

   

.494

 

.464

10. ICT allow me to apply the acquired knowledge

     

.644

 

8. ICT make it easier for me to pass the course

     

.634

 

11. ICT facilitate my self-assessment processes

 

.310

 

.623

 

9. ICT help me to follow the course

   

.437

.496

 

18. ICT facilitate the diagnosis of my learning mistakes

.362

.431

 

.476

 

22. ICT allow me to better communicate with my teacher

.313

     

.725

19. ICT help me to receive assistance from the teacher

 

.350

   

.668

6. ICT allow me to exchange ideas with my teacher

     

.436

.628

21. ICT help me to resolve my doubts

 

.379

.305

 

.513

 

The clusters of items that conform each emerging factor can be characterised with the next types of processes:

  1. Social support 1: Communication, expression of emotions and working climate.
  2. Didactic support: Introduction and monitoring of content and activities.
  3. Cognitive support 1: Development of knowledge and skills.
  4. Cognitive support 2: Learning awareness and self-regulation.
  5. Social support 2: Teacher and peer support through interaction.

In the following section we present the results obtained from different types of analysis. Firstly, we detail the main characteristics of the sample of students participating in the study. Secondly, using a segmentation analysis, we present the most characteristic and differentiating features of the two groups of students (one comprised of students from an online university and the other from various traditional face-to-face/blended universities) taking both the independent and dependent mentioned variables into account. Finally, the analysis focuses on the students’ attitudes and perceptions of the use of ICT in the university, in the two groups. To do this, a Student’s t-test analysis is applied.

Analysis of the results

Characterization of the sample

Of the total 1042 participants in the study, 36.9 % are male and 63.1 % are female. The knowledge areas they are carrying out their studies in are Social Sciences (43.9 %), Technical (25.6 %), Humanities (25.7 %) and Natural Sciences (4.8 %). Of the total number of participants, 74 % are in their first two years of study and 26 % between the third and fifth year. Almost half of them, 45 %, also work.

In general, the level of access to technologies is high. The majority of the students typically connect to the Internet in their usual place of residence (77.7 %), followed by the family home (47.3 %), the workplace (36.9 %) and the university (30.9 %). The frequency of connection to the Internet is more than once a day in 82.9 % of cases and 13.5 % connect just once a day. Only 3.6 % connect to the Internet less frequently.

Emerging differences between virtual and face-to-face/blended universities

By using a segmentation analysis (spat, descriptive analysis, chi-square) we present the most characteristic and differentiating features of the two groups of students, taking both the dependent and independent variables previously mentioned into account. Treating the information in this way allows us to detect the most characteristic and distinctive features of each group. We should highlight that what appears most associated with one group are not the characteristics presented by all of its members, nor are the only ones, instead they are the characteristics that emerge as differentiating features of one group compared with the other in a statistically significant way (in this case, p <.001 ).

With regards the profile of students at the online university, a feature that stands out is that many are studying social sciences, are over the age of 23, have computer equipment, connect to the Internet regularly and work. The students in face-to-face/blended environments are studying natural sciences and technical subjects, are under the age of 22 and do not work.

The informal use of ICT (Table 2), not connected to their academic work, identified by each group shows that the distinctive uses among students at the virtual university are mainly informative and educational, while among the students in face-to-face/blended environments the distinguishing use of technologies is for leisure and communication purposes.

Table 2:   Informal use of ICT

Students in face-to-face/blended environments

Students in online environments

Daily - Use Internet to chat

Daily - Use Internet to participate in a social network

Daily - Use Internet to download software/films

Daily - Use Internet to listen to music

Daily - Use Internet to stay in contact with friends

Daily - Use Internet to make friends

Daily - Use Internet to share mp3 files

Daily - Use a mobile telephone to listen to mp3 files

Daily - Use a mobile telephone to take photographs or video

Daily - Use a mobile telephone to play games

Daily - Use a mobile telephone to make video-calls

Daily - Use a computer to listen to music

Daily - Use a computer to play games

Daily - Use Internet to send and receive email

Daily - Use Internet to access the virtual campus

Daily - Use Internet to search for information for academic purposes

Daily - Use Internet to search for general information

Daily - Use Internet to access communication media

Daily - Use Internet to read content/ syndicated news

Daily - Use Internet to translate texts

 

With regards the autonomous ICT use (not teacher-led) in their academic activities (Table 3), what stands out among the online students are uses confined to the tools found in a virtual campus, while among the students in face-to-face/blended environments we see greater diversity in their distinctive use of technologies. This may be due to the great dispersion and diversity among the students’ profile and approaches used by the four face-to-face/blended universities that we are considering as part of the same group, in front of only one online university. It could also be interpreted that the use of virtual campus in online education may have a greater impact on the autonomous use of technology by students (than in f2f/blended models), in terms of choice of work tools for the development of academic tasks.

Table 3:   ICT use in academic tasks

Students in face-to-face/blended environments

Students in online environments

I use social networks in my academic work

I use information repositories in my academic work

I use a mobile telephone in my academic work

I use YouTube in my academic work

I use online documents (Google Docs) in my academic work

I use forums in my academic work

I use blogs in my academic work

 

With regards the students’ use of ICT at their teachers’ suggestion (Table 4), we see that the online students make frequent use of a greater number of technologies, with a more clearly educational use and one associated with Web 2.0 than in the case of students in face-to-face/blended environments. Again, it seems to be more dispersion among the type of uses proposed in the face-to-face/blended environments. An interesting observation is that there is a certain parallelism between uses featured as autonomous and those teacher-led for both groups.

Table 4:   Teachers’ led ICT use

Students in face-to-face/blended environments

Students in online environments

Frequently - Use of virtual campus

Always - Use of mobile telephone

Always – Social networks

Always - MP3/MP4

Always – YouTube

Always - Use of virtual campus

Always - Use of repositories

Always - Use of forums

Always - Use of Google Docs

Always - Use of Internet searches

Always - Use of wikis

Always - Use of blogs

 

Finally, the most characteristic perception of competence in informal use of ICT for each group is also very different (Table 5). What stands out for the group of the students in the virtual environment is a high perceived competence in the use of most technologies, although most of the mentioned uses are common, that is they don’t require specific training. On the other hand, among the students in face-to-face/blended environments there distinctive feature is a perception of having an average level of competence for a variety of uses, many of which are leisure and social oriented.

Table 5:   Perception of competence in ICT informal use

Students in face-to-face/blended environments

Students in online environments

Average degree of competence in using the Internet for:

• translating texts

• sending sms

• publishing photographs

• creating a social network

• participating in a social network

• downloading software

• reading content

• reading blogs

• sharing mp3/mp4

• sharing photos

• chatting

• listening to music

• buying and selling

• doing videoconferences

• making phone calls

• making friends

Average degree of competence in mobile phone use to:

• listening to music

• calling someone

• taking pictures

• sending sms

• playing

• personal organizer

• making videos

Average degree of competence in computer use to:

• playing online

• creating digital images

Average degree of competence in using personal organizer PDA

High level of competence in using the Internet for:

• accessing the virtual campus

• receiving and send mail

• seeking information

• checking media

• translating texts

• buying and selling

• reading content

• making phone calls

• making video

High level of competence in mobile phone use to:

• taking pictures

• sending pictures

• calling someone

• reading blogs

• sending sms

• personal organizer

• listening to music

High level of competence in using social bookmarking

High level of competence in using PDA as a personal organizer

 

Students’ perception of ICT use regarding different dimensions of teaching and learning

In this section we present the results about the students’ perception of the use of technologies by comparing both groups with regards to each one of the components previously obtained in the factor analysis.

  1. Social support 1: Communication, expression of emotions and working climate.
  2. Didactic support: Introduction and monitoring of content and activities.
  3. Cognitive support 1: Development of knowledge and skills.
  4. Cognitive support 2: Learning awareness and self-regulation.
  5. Social support 2: Teacher and peer support through interaction.

The next charts show the comparison between the mean values for the level of agreement (from 1 to 5: totally disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, totally agree) expressed by the students regarding ICT usefulness. Each chart corresponds to one component.

For uses included in component 1 (social support 1) the Figure 1 shows that agreement with the assertions is higher between students in the online university, especially regarding communication with peers and social outreach. It’s important to take into account that face-to-face/blended students are close to disagreeing with the assertions.

Figure 1

Figue 1. Perception of ICT uses in virtual and face-to-face/blended contexts. Social support 1

The perception of usefulness of ICT regarding the component 2 (didactic support) is quite high in both groups although it is notably higher among the students at the online university in a quite homogeneous way (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 2. Perception of ICT uses in virtual and f2f/blended contexts. Didactic support

In the case of the component 3 (cognitive support 1) the level of agreement is very high in both groups except for the assertion “ICT help me to do my homework better”, where the level of agreement of online students is quite lower than in the other group (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Perception of ICT uses in virtual and f2f/blended contexts. Cognitive support1

Component 4 (cognitive support 2), related to students’ perception of learning and self-regulation issues, registers very high levels of agreement in both groups and especially in the case of students in the online model.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Perception of ICT uses in virtual and f2f/blended contexts. Cognitive support 2

With regards to social support 2, considering interaction with the teacher or with peers, we can see the same situation again. All ratings are quite high in general, but the students at the online university express a higher level of agreement than the other group.

Figure 5

Figure 5. Perception of ICT uses in virtual and f2f/blended contexts. Social support 2

Finally, in order to confirm the statistical significance of these differences, a Student’s t-test has been applied in order to compare the perception of ICT use between both groups of students regarding the university model (face-to-face/blended and online) for each of the 5 emergent components. The results (in Table 6) show significant differences between both groups in all components except for the third one (marked in red), corresponding with cognitive support 1 (efficiency in the development of knowledge and skills). The mean values allow us to confirm that the differences point to higher values in the responses by students at the virtual university.

Table 6:   Students’ perception of ICT uses in virtual and f2f/blended universities. Student t-test results.

Components

T-Student

Virtual univ. Mean

Blended univ. Mean

1. Social support 1

(t (1040) =4.942; p<0.001)

0.329

-0.070

2. Didactic support

(t (1040) =4.641; p<0.001)

0.309

-0.065

3. Cognitive support 1

(t (1040) =-0.653; p>0.001)

-0.044

0.009

4. Cognitive support 2

(t (1040) =8.654; p<0.001)

0.563

-0.119

5. Social support 2

(t (1040) =9.476; p<0.001)

0.613

-0.130

 

Discussion and conclusions

This research confirms many of the general points found in studies outside of Spain in relation to the level of technology access and use. Students use mainly the Internet to search for information and their universities’ virtual campuses as a gateway to the learning material for their courses (Kvavik & Caruso, 2005; Jones et al., 2010). They perceive themselves as fairly competent in most areas (communication, creation, etc.) although the data do not indicate that these competences are necessarily reflected in their regular performance of academic tasks, which is much more restricted. This is evidenced by the small repertoire of tools used by students in their academic tasks, either when they are chosen at their discretion or when prompted by the teacher, which in fact tend to be quite similar.

Out of the academic context, general types of technology (computers, mobile telephones and the Internet) are used for rapid communication and convenient access to services and information. However, if we look beyond these technologies and well-established tools, we find considerable variation in patterns of access, use and preference for a wide range of different technologies (Kennedy et al., 2008). This evidence seems to suggest that although most university students have a basic set of technological abilities (“leaving technologies”), these do not necessarily translate into sophisticated skills in the use of other technologies or information literacy in general (“learning technologies”).

Although access to and use of ICT is widespread, the influence of university model seems to be an important factor to take into account. For academic purposes, students seem to respond to the requirements of their courses, programmes and universities. Students do not seem to transfer to the academic field their most common uses in the personal and social domains. The two domains of ICT use (personal and academic) thus remain separated so that students do not really seem to have the chance to apply, practice and consolidate their digital skills for learning or intellectual purposes.

In fact, in all cases, there is a clear relationship between the students’ perception of usefulness regarding certain ICT resources and the teachers’ suggested uses of technologies. The most highly rated technologies correspond with those proposed by teachers. Here we concur with the study by Margaryan and Littlejohn (2008), which argues that there is little variety in the use of ICT for learning and that these uses are conditioned by teachers’ suggestions and not the other way round.

On the other hand, there are differences between students at face-to-face/blended universities and at online universities, both in terms of technology use, levels of perceived competence and utility regarding these uses. While the students in virtual environments seem to show an ICT use oriented towards informative and educational purposes, in the face-to-face/blended group students’ ICT uses are more associated to leisure and communication. Furthermore, the results obtained demonstrate significant differences between the online students and those at face-to-face and blended universities. The perception of ICT support from the cognitive, social and didactic perspective is generally more positive among the students at the virtual university. It could be argued that the results are connected to the fact that online students are heavily dependent on ICT in order to do their courses, however it is interesting to note that differences are not significant regarding the perception of effectiveness in ICT support in developing knowledge and skills. On the other hand, it would seem logical to think that regular use of technology provides a more balanced and realistic perception of its actual role as a support of certain processes related to teaching and learning. Similarly, students of the digital generation f2f/blended model, having fewer opportunities to use technology in the academic context, may have excessively high expectations when it comes to the possibilities of learning technologies. However, the results show the opposite. Moreover, another interesting hint is that greater use of technology in academic settings seems to influence the students’ informal use, although it is not that clear that informal uses of technology are applied or transferred in some way to the academic domain.

It is also interesting to remark that social dimension in component 2 (related to general communication, expression of emotions and working climate) is valued lower than the other dimensions by both groups of students. It remains to be found out if the reason is their minor interest in this kind of ICT support during learning processes or the lack of adequacy of university virtual environments to bring support to these social aspects. It would be useful to complement these results with qualitative evidence on the pedagogical model applied in the different academic settings, in order to interpret more accurately the context and the purpose of use of technologies.

On the other hand this paper presents an incipient model for analyzing students’ perception regarding ICT usefulness in a wide range of technology enhanced learning situations. We believe that the further characterization of these dimensions with theoretical support could be an interesting object of analysis.

The results obtained cannot favour the idea of online learning environments being superior to blended learning environments in terms of development of students’ digital competence, as more research should be carried out into the learning model used in the different universities and specific academic settings. However they do lead us to suggest the need to consider that technology-rich learning environments foster students’ digital competencies (and not the other way round). Namely, it seems that we shouldn’t rely on students’ digital competences to foster ICT supported learning practices at the university.

References

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Acknowledgements

This article analyzes the partial results of research funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, under the title: Uses of ICT among university students: academic and social perspective of mediated learning processes (EDU2009-12125).



[1] The online university is the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and the traditional/face-to-face universities are the University of Barcelona, the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, the Vic University, and the University of Lleida.

 

Tags

e-learning, distance learning, distance education, online learning, higher education, DE, blended learning, ICT, information and communication technology, internet, collaborative learning, learning management system, MOOC, interaction, LMS,

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