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Margin Notes

E-learning in university: the digital natives are restless

Report finds students are not all that impressed with what's on offer.


An interesting report released last week on the “State of E-Learning in Canadian Universities” casts some doubt on the conventional thinking surrounding how university students perceive e-learning and blended learning (a mix of class-based learning and electronic resources). The common assumption is that these students, sometimes dubbed “digital natives” because they’ve spent their entire lives with the Internet and digital technology, are comfortable with and clamour for e-learning technologies. But, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Far from preferring to be immersed in a digital world of self-directed learning, students seem to still have an enormous desire for class-based lectures, the report’s authors claim.

The report, by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto-based research firm, is based on a survey of about 1,300 students. While there are a few methodological issues with the data that the authors acknowledge, the report nevertheless contains interesting insights.

The report found that 57 percent of classes make use of some online component, although generally that consists of simply lecture notes and handouts online. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said electronic teaching resources were important, but only 18 percent would prefer live streaming lectures to attending the in-class lecture. More than half said they’d be more likely to skip class if recordings were available. The report also found that the intensity of e-learning resources seemed to have little effect on the amount learned.

Here’s how one of the authors, Alex Usher, summarizes it: “The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period.  … But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right.” Either way, for the moment, “students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue,” he says. “What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.”

The reports suggests that universities need to place more emphasis on research and development in e-learning than they currently do. Universities, the report says, need to develop “a more nuanced understanding of how e-learning benefits their students – it cannot be assumed the students have an insatiable and undifferentiated appetite for electronic delivery.” It concludes that there is likely “no silver bullet here – merely patient trial and error and a commitment to continual improvement and assessment.”

Dale Kirby, an education professor at Memorial University who blogs about postsecondary education issues, was quoted in the Sault Star newspaper (no link available) that he didn’t find the results surprising. “This idea of digital natives, just plug them in and they’re just like autobots or something, all that’s been debunked long ago,” he told the newspaper. “We know that everyone’s not the same in terms of their learning.” It’s not about technology versus traditional lectures, he added. Rather, it’s about what works best for different types of classes and different groups of students.

Rochelle Mazar also dealt with the issue of “digital natives” in one of  her BiblioTech podcasts at University Affairs. A common misconception, she says, is that millennials have a better grasp of technology than others born before them.

What do you think? What has been your experience with e-learning, either as a student or teacher?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Kim Solga / September 12, 2011 at 14:13

    I have found students amenable to online work (principally in the shape of group blogs and digital components in class performances) when it’s well supported by and in the live classroom; by far my best success with online stuff came during a course in 2010 for which my TA acted as our tech guru. He was really into it, and the students really got into it too.

    I have no data to support this hunch, but I suspect that the TA’s a) knowledge about, and b) enthusiasm for the online work helped make all students, and especially those less adept than we’d expect, feel comfortable and safe. I’ve polled small groups of students before and been surprised by how little tech literacy they have on average; I generally know more about my computer’s workings – and can thus troubleshoot better – than many of my students. (I should say I got my first email address in university, so I’m half way between the digital natives and the generation(s) ahead of me.)

    I’m also very aware, on my campus, that technology exacerbates latent class tensions: there are the kids with the nice shoes and good toys, and the kids who cannot afford a new laptop, let alone ipads or the latest smart phone. Keeping up with tech is unbelievably expensive; how much more so for students struggling just to make tuition, or rent, or to buy groceries? I’ve realized that I need, as a teacher, above all to be sensitive to these questions of access: it’s not enough to tell students that they must post to the blog each week, and that they can do it from the computer labs if they need to, when for some that means a slog through the snow while others surf the ipad at home in bed.

  2. Mark Bullen / September 12, 2011 at 17:39

    Dale Kirby is right. There is nothing surprising about the findings of this study. Survey after survey has found that students say their preferred teaching mode is face to face and they prefer only a moderate amount of technology-enhanced learning (see EDUCAUSE). As well, the digital native myth has been thoroughly debunked by researchers all over the world, including here in Canada. See