|Australian Journal of Educational Technology
2000, 16(3), 215-238.
The use of computers is becoming more widespread in education and in the wider workforce. This communication reports the results of a survey of first year undergraduate students at Deakin University, conducted at the beginning of the 2000 academic year. The high penetration of IT usage in this university sample is similar to that of a recent survey of school students conducted by Meredyth et al. [Real Time: Computers, Change and Schooling, DETYA, Canberra, 1999]. The present study indicates that the level of IT skills is variable. There is an urgent need for IT training for university students in order to achieve successful learning outcomes using IT and to satisfy the needs of future employers.
Computers and calculators provide students with opportunities... at a younger age than they might otherwise have... [School] students should have sufficient experience of calculators and computers... to be able to make informed decisions about whether to use them... and to use them efficiently when they wish to do so.More recently, Zielinski and Swift (1997) listed desirable IT skills that every chemistry graduate should possess (see Table 1). While this list may vary slightly from discipline to discipline (Pennell, 1996; Blackhurst et al., 1997; Lim, 1999), it is clear that graduates (or university level students) who do not possess key IT skills in the use of word processors, spreadsheets, electronic communication and the World Wide Web will be disadvantaged in their careers (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1997).
|Zielinski and Swift's list of desirable IT skills (Zielinski and Swift, 1997)
There is an expectation in the Australian society that our school leavers are a generation of computer literate individuals. This is evidenced, inter alia, by the fact that many if not most advertisements now carry a web address or URL. The expectation has been engendered by state and federal government reports (propaganda?) of increased spending on computers and computer infrastructure in primary and secondary schools. Indeed, many non-government schools actively tell prospective parents that ownership and use of computers is compulsory for their students. This (unchallenged) assumption that all school leavers should be highly computer literate and they either are, or in the very near future will be, highly computer literate has driven the installation of open access computer laboratories in universities, institutes of technical and further education (TAFE) and even in municipal libraries.
For example, in the mid-1990s, the Australian Federal Government funded several centres under the Uniserve Australia scheme, which inter alia fostered the use of IT in Autralian universities. This expectation and assumption of high computer literacy has been reinforced by a recent study by Meredyth et al. (1999) which found that there is a high penetration of "expert computer skills" amongst primary and secondary students (as judged primarily by students' self perception of their skills). Although the extent of penetration of computer skills was only a secondary objective of Meredyth et al. (1999), this has been the aspect of the study which has been summarised in a fact sheet produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (Meredyth et al., 2000).
Meredyth et al. (1999) surveyed 222 principals, 1258 teachers and 6213 students throughout Australia. The students are in the final years of primary school (Year 6, Year 7 in some states) and of junior secondary school (Year 10). They investigated students' "participation in various types of activities: how, why, when and where they used information technology". Figure 1 shows the percentage of Year 10 students who have knowledge of "core IT skills" in the areas of Web, email, spreadsheet and word processing usage. Meredyth et al. (1999) also investigated the social, cultural, geographical, and other factors influencing IT usage. However, the study did not address the level of competence. For example, the survey addressed whether students used word processing programs, but did not address the question of how skilled those students were in their use (Meredyth et al. (1999) also investigated knowledge of other "core IT skills", but these other skills are not relevant to the present study).
Figure 1: Percentage of students at Year 10 who responded "I can do these things" in the core IT skill areas of Web, email, spreadsheet and word processing usage (Meredyth et al., 1999).
At the start of the current academic year, we conducted a "quick and dirty" survey of some university undergraduate students enrolled in a first year unit in order to finalise our plan to use IT in aspects of our teaching during 2000. The underlying assumption was that our university undergraduate students are computer literate. It was our expectation that most students would claim knowledge and skills in the use of word processors, spreadsheets, electronic communication and the World Wide Web: we wished to identify the level of IT usage at which we should start. A secondary objective was to quantity the (expected) minority that lacked those skills in order that we could plan remedial assistance.
Surprisingly, this assumption proved to be invalid. Since authors are not aware of any recent similar survey elsewhere in Australia, we present this study as a preliminary finding in order to challenge other universities to conduct similar (and more detailed) surveys.
a. No awareness or knowledge; b. Awareness but no knowledge of usage; c. Knowledge to use the technology; d, e. Expert knowledge to use the technology.
The survey was distributed to students enrolled in SBC 111 Chemistry A within the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Deakin University (Geelong campus). The student profile of this cohort is:
Students were permitted approximately 5 minutes to complete the survey during the first class of the 2000 academic year. Students were asked to choose the response to each statement that best described themselves and to complete the survey in numerical order, ie, not to change an earlier response after encountering a later statement or question. 84 surveys were distributed:
Most students have easy access to computers either at home or in the student residences; only 2 students (2%) had no easy access to computers (survey question 1) at home or in the student residences. Note that question 1 did not ask about access to computers in the university's open access laboratories.
Figure 2 shows the percentage of university students who have knowledge (responses c, d or e) of core IT skills in the areas of Web, email, spreadsheet and word processing usage. The percentages of university students who have knowledge of Web and email usage is significantly higher than that of the Year 10 students in the survey by Meredyth et al. (1999). This may be due to the use of the Web in collecting information for research projects in Years 11 and 12 (eg, the Common Assessment Tasks in the Victorian Certificate of Education) and/or the minority of students who have had some prior university study. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask about enrolment status so no cross tabulation can be made between the results of the survey and the enrolment history of the students. The percentages of students with knowledge of spreadsheet and word processing usage is similar in both samples.
Figure 2: Percentage of students in a first year university unit who responded "I can do these things" in the core IT skill areas of Web, email, spreadsheet and word processing usage.
The average skill level for each student can be estimated by giving a numerical score ranging from 1 for response (a) to 5 for response (e) for questions 2-12, 14 and 15, omitting the questions on computer access, chemical structures, computer conferencing and the university computer laboratories. The resultant scores were sorted into bins centred at 1.0, 1.5, 2.0,... , 5.0 (Figure 3). Most students (83%) have scores around 2.5-3.0: knowing or almost knowing how to use the technology. 52% of students have scores between 1.75 and 2.75 (bins centred at 2.0 and 2.5), indicating that their overall computer skill is slightly less than "I know how to use _____".
This lack of specific skills is also evidenced in the students' knowledge for printing from computers to hardcopy. Presumably all know how to use the print function, but most students (55%) do not know how to print more than one computer "page" to a single piece of hardcopy (survey question 14). A significant number (15%) had never heard of this print feature.
Figure 3: Percentage of students in a first year university unit with a particular average skill level. Numerical scores: 1.0 = no awareness; 2.0 = no knowledge; 3.0 = knowledge; 4.0 = expert knowledge; 5.0 = sufficient expert knowledge to teach others.
The cross tabulations ("corelations") between responses for different questions/statements yield much more useful information. Tables 2-12 present cross tabulation tables where a specific skill (eg use of superscripts/subscripts) is cross tabulated with the general skill (eg use of word processing). Entries in the upper right of the cross tabulation tables represent students whose level of specific skill is less than the level of the general skill.
Tables 2-6 show that of the 71 students (87%) who know how to use the Web (ie responses (c), (d) and (e) in Question 2):
Table 3: Cross tabulation of knowledge about downloading files and general Web usage.
Table 4: Cross tabulation of knowledge about keyword searches and general Web usage.
Table 5: Cross tabulation of knowledge about reading PDF files and general Web usage.
Table 6: Cross tabulation of knowledge about reading PDF files and downloading files from the Web.
Note that these statistics are for the sub-set of students who already have knowledge in the general skill area. The implications are alarming. Although most students claim to know how to use the Web, university teaching staff cannot say
Look at the information at (eg) http://www2.deakin.edu.au/biolgya/and then expect a successful learning outcome, because more than one quarter of the class will not be able to use the URL to locate that Web site. Furthermore, since it is common practice to put electronic documents on the Web in portable document format (PDF), even if students could find the file and download the information, most will not be able to read the file! Given the increasing use of Web based teaching resources: (O'Haver, 1993; Krieger, 1995; Long and Zielinski, 1996; Pennell, 1996; 1997; Blackhurst et al., 1997; Freeman, 1997; Alexander and McKenzie, 1998; Brown and Duguid, 1998; Fernandez, 1998; McCann et al., 1998; Glaser and Poole, 1999; Middleton, 1999; Paulisse and Polik, 1999; Pence, 1999) are a minute sample, there is an urgent need for IT training on use of the Web for university students.
Table 7 shows that that of the 70 students (85%) who know how to use email:
Email, computer conferencing and instructional management systems are major innovations in flexible learning (Alexander and McKenzie, 1998; McCann et al., 1998). (Also note that 80% of students did not know how to use computer conferencing: survey question 16.) These technologies also have the capacity for rapid submission of work and dissemination of feedback to students in distance education. However, the realisation of this promise depends on the ability to send attached documents. This survey shows that a significant number of students in the sample do not have the requisite skill level to make full use of email and computer conferencing for electronic submission of work.
The work of Meredyth et al. (Meredyth et al., 1999) and the current survey indicate that most students (>90%) are able to use word processing software. Tables 8-11 indicate that the level of skill is not uniformly high. Of the 80 students (99% of the total survey) who know how to use word processing:
Table 9: Cross tabulation of knowledge about special letters/symbols and general word processing.
Table 10: Cross tabulation of knowledge about equations and general word processing.
Some disciplines may not require the use of superscripts/subscripts, special characters/symbols, equations and/or technical diagrams in their written work, but some or all of these features are required in many of the scientific and technologically based disciplines. Hence there may be a need for further IT training of university students, depending on their enrolled specialty.
Table 11: Cross tabulation of knowledge about chemical structures and general word processing.
Every cross tabulation table, except Table 3 (keyword searches versus Web usage) shows that there are significantly more students in the upper right of the matrix than the lower left: the level of knowledge about specific features of IT usage is lower that the perceived overall level of knowledge.
Meredyth et al. (1999) has found that the penetration of IT usage is higher among primary school students than secondary school students. The tertiary education sector can reasonably expect a higher proportion of computer literate undergraduate students over the next 5-10 years. However, there may still be a significant minority of students who lack specific IT skills. Some institutions, which have a high number of mature age students, may continue to have a significant number of students who lack even general IT skills.
Finally, students will benefit from a good orientation program. Obviously the program at Deakin University can be improved in future years since about half the students did not know how to use the university's open access laboratories (survey question 17): this may also be true at other institutions. On the other hand, this may not be a problem since most students have easy access to a computer at home or in the residences (survey question 1).
The survey reported here is a small survey and cannot be considered definitive. Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, it is the only study of its kind which has recently investigated the IT skill level of undergraduate university students. The overall trends are indicative and worrying. University teachers cannot assume IT competency amongst their students. This may compromise the effectiveness of "new technologies" which are increasingly used in teaching and learning. University teachers need to reassess the use of PDF files and other technologies in their teaching. For example, this survey shows that a significant number of students in the sample do not have the requisite skill level to make full use of email and computer conferencing for electronic submission of work.
The penetration of IT skills among university students, and the level of those IT skills is expected to increase but there may be a significant minority of students who will continue to lack both general and specific IT skills. The situation should be monitored on a year by year basis by more (and more detailed) surveys.
There is an urgent need for IT training for university students in order to achieve successful learning outcomes using IT and to satisfy the needs of future employers.
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1. Some students may have easy access to a computer at home or in the residences.
3. http://firstclass.deakin.edu.au/Login/chemistry/ is a World Wide Web address or URL.
17. Deakin University has open access computer laboratories for students to use.
|Authors: Kieran F. Lim and Jeanne Lee|
School of Biological and Chemical Sciences,
Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria 3217, Australia
Email: email@example.com Web: http://www.deakin.edu.au/~lim/
Kieran Lim obtained his BSc (Hons) and PhD in theoretical chemistry from University of Sydney. He was awarded an Archbishop Mannix Travelling Scholarship to Stanford University and has held Lectureships at the University of New England, the University of Melbourne and Deakin University, where he is currently a Senior Lecturer in Chemical Sciences. He is a Member (MRACI, CChem) and Certified Practising Chemist (CPChem) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, and a Member (MACS) and Practising Computer Professional (PCP) of the Australian Computer Society.
Jeanne Lee has a BSc with First Class Honours in organometallic chemistry from University of New England. She has been a tutor at Mary White College within University of New England and a Research Assistant in polymer chemistry at University of Melbourne. She has worked for ICI Australia (now Orica) and is currently a Special Projects Officer at Deakin University.
Please cite as: Lim, K. F. and Lee, J. (2000). IT skills of university undergraduate students enrolled in a first year unit. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 16(3), 215-238. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet16/lim.html