Student Success Insights Blog

What do students want from technology?

5 insights from students' technology wish-lists

by Annie Yi

You see them everywhere: Heads down, tapping away, wandering your campus entranced by an increasingly digital world. But what, exactly, are your students doing? And as a student success leader, how can you capitalize upon their “mobile” mindshare?

Maybe the better question to ask is “What don’t students do on their phones?” From checking when the next campus shuttle will come, to how much money is left in their bank accounts, last week’s midterm grades, a reminder to call home, whether there’s a laundry machine available, notes from this morning’s lecture, a campus map with the location of this morning’s lecture, to what’s for lunch in the dining hall today, a college student’s whole life now resides on that 2.5-inch screen.

Over the past year, we’ve spoken to hundreds of students about their technology use. We asked what they use to keep organized, study, stay in touch with friends and families, and manage their time.

So what lessons can we learn from your students’ technology habits?

1. "I use my phone to stay organized”

Students want to organize their lives, and phones are the new “At-A-Glance” planners. Right now, students cobble together programs with disparate functions to organize their college experience. Schedule keepers like Microsoft Outlook and calendar and reminder apps help them keep track of due dates, while banking and cash flow apps like Mint help them stay on top of their finances.

What gaps would students like to see filled in their piecemeal organization systems? Our respondents said that they need something to show them when and where their classes are. This may seem straightforward, but early confusion with class locations and times can set a student back academically.

2. "I wish all my devices talked to each other"

Students enjoy programs like the note-taking app Evernote because they seamlessly sync across different platforms, keeping important information well-organized in the Cloud. In terms of the platforms students prefer, however, there’s been a gradual shift to mobile devices over computers. In-the-moment notifications, students observe, are easier to check on phones, which they carry everywhere.

Free download: Will students actually use your mobile apps?

3. "I’m going to fill it out on my phone or forget about it”

Students complete more and more tasks on their smartphones that they previously would have done on a computer. Royall and Company research found that compared to five years ago, when only 2% of prospective students conducted their college searches on their phones, now more than half will complete at least part of their applications on their phone.

Mobile optimization of webpages should be an institutional priority so students don’t encounter a buggy landing page, close the window, and leave their application incomplete out of frustration (which they will!).

4. "I’m still using email, but good luck getting a signal through”

Since the rise of alternative messaging channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Blackboard, campus leaders have worried about the decline of email. However, nearly every one of our student respondents checks their email on their phones. For messages that require recipients to take specific actions, email is still the gold standard.

But that doesn’t mean that students are reading all of your emails. Several of our members have conducted mapping exercises of communications across departments—between student organizations, tutoring centers, messages from professors, and announcements from the administration, students may receive hundreds of emails in a single week. It’s easy for them to miss an important message or dismiss it as irrelevant.

Related: Which emails do your students read—and which do they ignore?

In one of our campus focus groups, a student said, “Campus-wide emails are like spam, they don’t pertain to me. Especially those sent from the ‘Office of the President.’” Another pointed out, “A lot of the emails I get are from the same people—I don’t know who they are.”

It’s important to coordinate communications and install some kind of “gatekeeping” function so that emails don’t get lost in a flood of contact.

5. "I check social media for events…and messaging campus officials”

In our focus groups, students identified Facebook as the channel they turn to for news, while they go to Twitter for events. However, our participants only want reminders about events and issues that they care about. Campus channels need to become smarter so that they only deliver relevant content, similar to the way that Instagram and YouTube update their recommendations based on a user’s behavior.

We also learned that students view interactions on Twitter and other social media outlets as the best way to get a direct customer service response. This may work well with big consumer brands, but doing the same with a university could make sensitive information public. One of our members recalled that a student tweeted about a bursar hold fee on their account, for instance.

Communications personnel need to become savvier about monitoring social media so they can take those conversations offline as quickly as possible.

We initiated these surveys, one-on-one research interviews, and focus group conversations with students across the country to learn more about what they need to help stay on track to graduation. In their own words, they articulated many of the gaps that still need to be filled, technology-wise, by their colleges. We'll continue to explore how to meet those needs and update you on our research.

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