Saturday, 22 May 2010

H800: Weeks 13/14 – Activity 4a – Reading Selwyn (2008)

Selwyn, N. (2008) 'An investigation of differences in undergraduates' academic use of the internet',
Active Learning in Higher Education, vol.9, no.11, pp.11–22; also available online at

Key points:
  • The present generation of undergraduate students are digital natives and are completely at ease with the internet.
  • A lot of the literature relating to internet usage in HE is concerned with the potential of the WWW. There is limited research into actual usage patterns.
  • This study was based on a sample of 1222 students, mainly at Cardiff University.
  • The predominant usage of the internet by students is email, social networking, instant messaging, chat etc.
  • Nevertheless, 90% of respondents use the internet some/all of the time for searching information in relation to their studies.
  • There is a small (but not significant) difference between the level of internet usage for studies amongst students who consider themselves expert users and those who consider themselves less competent / novice users.
  • Those students who had private access to a computer were more likely to use the internet for their studies.
  • Female students were more likely to use the internet for their studies
  • There were no significant differences in internet usage for studies in terms of ethnic background, age, educational background or year of study.
  • There were significant differences in terms of subject discipline. The students using the internet least for their studies were those from the creative arts, and from architecture/building/planning
The findings in general are not altogether surprising, though a few points deserve closer attention and comment:
  1. Although the paper was published in 2008, the survey was actually carried out during the 2006/7 academic year. It is possible (and even likely) that the same survey carried out now would yield different results. Things are changing very rapidly.
  2. In particular, one of the findings was students who had private access to a computer and internet connection were more likely to use the internet for their studies. I have noticed a significant increase in the number of students who have their own laptop over the past couple of years. One of the reasons for this I think is the major expansion in wireless networking. Students can bring their laptops into university and log on to the university's network wirelessly, and therefore don't have to rely on having access to the university's fixed computing facilities (which has always been a major bone of contention amongst students).
  3. I don't find it surprising that students from the creative arts make less use of the internet for their studies, because much of their output relies on their creativity rather than pure information. Similarly, architecture students, who devote much of their efforts to their design work. It is unfortunate that 'building' gets lumped in with architecture and planning, because building courses are fundamentally different to architecture courses, and rely much more on hard information. I suspect that a more detailed analysis would show that building students' use of the internet is far greater than architecture students. (Incidentally, the subject groupings are based on the categories used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, so I am not suggesting the author is at fault here).
  4. One final point – Selwyn refers in his discussion to 'subject-based barriers' to students' use of the internet. However, I don't necessarily think there are any barriers as such. If students studying the creative arts don't actually need to use the internet in their studies then this isn't a barrier.

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