Digital Learners in Higher Education: Exploring Technology Ownership Patterns and Learning Engagement
Recent studies into ‘digital learners’ have pointed to the high level of digital skills which many UK and US based students entering HE are now demonstrating (White & Beetham, 2013; Pew, 2013). However while students may display high levels of functional skill or competency in digital media this is often evidenced in a narrow corridor of involvement with social media and may not indicate a well-rounded digital identity. Using digital devices informally for leisure opportunities does not necessarily foster the digital literacies required to develop the critical thinking and learning skills of university graduates. This is in line with Beetham & Sharpe (2014) who suggest that: ‘digital literacy looks beyond functional IT skills to describe a richer set of digital behaviours, practices and identities.’ This perspective of wide-ranging digital competency but indeterminate levels of digital literacy amongst undergraduates is explored through the outcomes of two recent surveys, one undertaken in Australia (2012-3) previously reported at the ascilite conference (Jefferies,2013), and the other at a German university in 2013-2014 which is the focus of this paper. This paper examines the evidence for digital competency and literacy displayed by German university students in support of their studies. In a quantitative study using an online survey tool based on previously published and widely-acknowledged metrics, students were asked about digital ownership and their technology use during their HE studies. The questions asked about their use of common hardware platforms and popular software. The outcomes from the German study and the earlier Australian study are considered in the context of recent research into ‘digital learners’ in the UK. Overall, the students’ use of technology for learning, whichever country they were studying in, tended to be personally focussed, lacking evidence of active contribution to producing and critically evaluating material. In short, their contribution to digital engagement could be termed as surprisingly passive and consumerist (cf. Cochrane and Antonczak, 2015) rather than a pro-active engagement.