Reaction to the ECAR Study through Three Lenses: Lens One-The CMS

This is the first of three posts capturing my reactions to the 2010 EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology. I’m responding to the study from the three major thrusts of my job and research interests: course management systems, ePortfolios, and social media.

Two things jumped out at me concerning perception and use of course management systems (CMS) when reading the ECAR study. One was how intimately linked student perceptions of IT in general were correlated to satisfaction with the school’s chosen CMS. Second was how the gap between faculty use of the CMS and students perceptions of the value of that use is widening.

In the semester the study took place 65% of students indicated they were using a CMS for at least one course (N=33,126). Just over 35% of students indicated they accessed the CMS daily, 28.5% said several times per week, and 15.5% said weekly. Overall, 90% of students use the CMS when it’s available in a course (pg. 10). Not surprisingly, the more a student used the CMS the more positive they felt about it.

This becomes important when we look at student perceptions concerning their feelings toward the overall information technology (IT) services provided by their institution. Students who reported positive experiences with their CMS were much more likely to have positive feelings toward IT overall. In other words, from the student’s perspective, the CMS and IT are synonymous. This makes sense given the fact that the CMS is the most widely utilized IT service provided.

Most critical was the availability of the CMS. If the CMS was available when the students wanted to access it the perception was that all IT services were available. This non-distinction is particularly important here at Penn State where students and faculty frequently complain about our CMS’s unavailability during our daily maintenance window (4-6 am). It’s ironic in the sense that the 2-hour maintenance window is needed more for the other IT services than for the CMS. It is because services such as roster synching, etc. are integrated with the CMS that it needs to be unavailable. But from the student and faculty perspective the CMS is to blame.

That is important because overall student satisfaction with the CMS has been dropping, from 77% in 2007 to 51% in 2009. And, satisfaction is not just related to availability. While 70% of the students in the study reported that IT makes course activities more convenient about half indicated that IT helped improve learning. Even more troubling, from my perspective, only a third of the students indicated they were more actively involved in their courses because the instructor uses some sort of IT (pg. 11).

This leads me into my second point about the growing gap between faculty use of the CMS and students perceptions of the value of that use. The CMS is still the overwhelming IT choice of faculty. And they still continue to use it in much the same manner: the lecture-based model of instruction where slides and other materials are made available for students. How do we leverage the CMS to increase student engagement? Can we? Should we?

Over half the students in the study indicated they preferred only a moderate amount of technology use in their courses. The study did point out that while this percentage has remained consistent over time the students definition of what is moderate may have changed. We need to determine what moderate use is as well as, and more importantly, the best way to leverage IT for learning. For example, a recent trend has been for instructors to turn their lectures in podcasts or videos that the students can download and play at their convenience. However, in the study fewer than 1 in 5 students reported doing this indicating this may not be the best use of IT and faculty resources.

Where there may be an opportunity is in the cloud and cloud-like functionality within the CMS.. Most faculty were not using IT tools such as collaborative editing, blogs, or video games/simulations/virtual worlds. While most CMS have some of this functionality in a limited way (blogs & wikis in particular) there is also the ability to embed a lot of these services as well. For example, the instructor could create a Google Doc for team collaboration and embed that document within a page of their CMS. There are greater logistical ramifications using this method because it requires the coordination of multiple accounts.

There may be a correlation to this lack of use by faculty and students reporting they felt the IT services being used in courses did not adequately prepare them for the workforce.This need was also expressed by the business leaders world-wide in the 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit Report where the majority of respondents (72%) were ambivalent to negative on their feelings of how universities were preparing students to use collaborative tools and 66% felt that businesses were faster at adopting new technologies than academic institutions. So it seems that those whom we serve, the students, and those in the world we’re sending them off to feel we are not doing our best in this realm.

While the ECAR study is a snapshot in time, students were asked to respond specifically about the courses they were taking that semester, the responses have been stable over time. I feel this data gives us a good starting off point to assess how, when and why IT can be used to improve teaching and learning.

Source: Shannon D. Smith and Judith Borreson Caruso. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010—Key Findings (Key Findings). Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, 2010 (
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