Without reliable access to the internet and devices like laptops or cell phones, college students probably aren’t going to succeed in online learning. But there may be another, less tangible factor that’s also required: confidence.
A new survey shows that college students’ attitudes correlate with their personal experiences with online learning. Students who expressed confidence in their ability to learn and adapt to new edtech were more likely to also feel they were learning effectively online, that edtech enhanced their learning, and to want more online learning options.
In contrast, students who reported that they struggled to learn to use new technology had more-negative experiences with online learning—and they were also more likely to consider the use of such tools in class to be invasive.
The survey from the College Innovation Network asked nearly 700 students enrolled at four higher ed institutions to answer questions about what online learning has been like for them during the 2020-21 academic year. The network is a project of WGU Labs, an affiliate of Western Governors University.
At the heart of the study were inquiries about “edtech self-efficacy,” defined in the report as confidence in one’s ability to learn new technology. This kind of confidence is a concept that matters elsewhere in education research, too, explains report author Nicole Barbaro.
“Self-efficacy is a pretty strong predictor of lots of academic outcomes for students,” she says.
Eighty percent of survey respondents indicated that they were confident in learning new edtech tools, while 20 percent said they struggled. That suggests to Barbaro that stereotypes painting all young people as “digital natives,” and all students as masters of technology, are not accurate.
“We can’t forget that we have to help them learn how to use these technologies, so they can get the most out of their learning experiences,” Barbaro says.
That’s not to say that students should never struggle during the learning process. But if students get stuck struggling to use their assigned edtech tools, they may not ever break through to engage with the actual course material, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE, who was not involved with the new study.
“We want there to be friction in the learning experience because that’s what learning is,” Pelletier says. “We want to remove friction that doesn’t have any intrinsic benefit.”
What’s Killing Student Confidence?
The survey was administered during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which could have, for many reasons, exacerbated the troubles that some college students have had with edtech. While some students haven’t had full access to computers or the internet, others have discovered that their laptops are too old or too slow to adequately handle the tools they’ve been assigned.
Additionally, when professors scrambled to shift their instruction online, many had the leeway to use whatever technology they could find. That meant students may have found themselves suddenly confronted with having to learn five different edtech systems for five different classes.
The unique learning conditions of the past year-and-a-half may have further affected the survey results. One theory suggests there are four key ways that people develop self-efficacy, Pelletier explains. The first is trying something new and succeeding at it. The second is observing others do it. Third is receiving social encouragement from peers and fourth is being in the right mood.
With many students isolated in their homes or dorm rooms during the health crisis, there may have been fewer opportunities than usual for them to learn from and encourage each other while encountering new edtech, Pelletier says. Regarding mood, research shows that student mental health has generally suffered during the pandemic.
“For students who reported lower self-efficacy and engagement with edtech tools, maybe mental health was a factor that would be worth more study,” Pelletier says.
How to Boost Student Confidence With Edtech
Responsibility for helping ensure students feel confident about using technology may be shared among a few different groups, according to Barbaro. She suggests that edtech companies could strive to design products that are more user-friendly and intuitive to navigate. For example, one study found that college students were less likely to use and trust edtech tools that they don’t consider relevant, accurate or easy to use.
“Students just want to know what their assignment is, when it is due and where to put it,” Pelletier says.
Faculty could do a better job of being intentional in selecting edtech, Barbaro says, and also in explaining how and why they use it in their courses. To help students get comfortable testing out tech tools, professors should make their first digital assignments low-stakes, she explains, “so students don’t feel so pressured to use the technology in an amazing way.” And if an instructor notices that a student isn’t executing an assignment very well, it may be worth checking in with that student to see whether they’re having trouble with the technology.
Or professors can be proactive and try to get a sense of student edtech self-efficacy from day one. One idea Barbaro suggests is handing out an early survey asking students how comfortable they are using new education technology, then inviting those who indicate low confidence to pop by office hours to troubleshoot their concerns.
“It’s taking this blame off the student for not performing well and trying to figure out what barriers might be in place,” Barbaro says. “The goal of edtech is to enhance that learning experience. If we are not allowing students the space to understand how to fully use the technologies, they’re not going to get the most out of them.”
Institutions can do more to help boost student confidence and skill with technology, too. Colleges that primarily offer online courses often incorporate edtech tutorials in their mandatory orientation programs for new students. Pelletier says that’s a strategy that more colleges—including those offering hybrid and in-person courses—should consider adapting. Or colleges could offer tutorials about edtech similar to those that instruct new students in the finer points of academic writing.
As much as student attitudes toward edtech seem to matter, Pelletier says, so do educator attitudes toward what students know and how they feel.
“A lot of this comes down to faculty and institutions taking a more student-centered perspective, and really being curious—who are our students and what are the digital literacy and academic literacy skills they come in with?—and meeting them there,” she says.