A quick walk around campus confirms what has become a common story in today’s culture: this generation of college students appears to be nearly always connected to technology. Whether they’re “walking and texting” or just displaying the tell-tale white Apple earbuds, these students, at a glance, seem to corroborate the assumptions that are so often made about them.
A recent project I’ve been involved in during the past year or so has involved working to redefine the perceptions surrounding these college students and their relationships to technology. The project itself stemmed from the work of David M. Levy, a professor in the University of Washington’s Information School. Interested in multitasking and its effects on people’s well-being, he visited several universities across the country and spoke with various groups of students about how they use their time. Professor Levy has since joined forces with Professor Jeanine Turner in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, as well as Daryl Nardick and myself here at CNDLS.
Instead of asking professors to tell us about their perceptions of students’ interactions with technology, we really wanted to talk to the students themselves. We’ve been conducting focus groups here at Georgetown and at the University of Washington, asking undergraduates how they feel about their technology use, both inside and outside the classroom. And they’ve been more than willing to share. From our (very preliminary) research, we’ve found that besides being overwhelmingly thoughtful and articulate about their technology use, undergraduates are aware of and concerned about how much time they spend being connected.
Many students, for example, say they feel pressure from friends, parents, employers, and professors to be more responsive and attentive to digital communication than they would ideally like to be. Before even getting out of bed in the morning, they’re met with emails (both personal and school accounts), text messages, news feeds, class blogs, and other digital information they’re expected to be aware of–and often respond to quickly.
When forced to disconnect for extended periods, whether because they’re traveling abroad or simply out of reach of cell phone service, students tell us they were surprised at how calm and relaxed they felt. The undergraduates we talked to also routinely distinguished between “face-to-face” and digital interactions, noting that the former is much more “real” and much more preferable, even though they often find themselves, almost against their will, caught up in the culture of online communication.
For students transitioning from a high school environment where there usually constraints on their use of personal devices, having unrestricted access to them when they arrive on campus can be jarring. One student in a focus group wondered whether the university could “turn off” technology for several hours each day, since it was so overwhelming. For instructors and administrators, this type of response could be a significant contribution to discussions about the place of technology and new media in higher education.
Far from drawing any definitive conclusions at this point, we’re looking to instead engage instructors and administrators in dialogue with undergraduates–who, as smart, thoughtful digital natives, can tell us a lot about their experiences with technology and how it affects their learning and general well-being. For more information on these early stages of our project, please take a look at our recent article in the The Chronicle of Higher Education.