Student Media Usage Patterns and Non-Traditional Learning in Higher Education

Introduction

In the 1960s and 1970s, political interest in “non-traditional studies” (Gould & Cross 1977) awakened, since society began to acknowledge education as a basis of wealth and the creation of value. Universities began to open their doors to non-traditional target groups to enable “mass higher education”. The traditional student profile was that of a person under 25 years of age, male, financially independent, who studied full-time, and went directly from school to university (Garz 2004). Contemporary higher education is characterised by increasing diversification away from this traditional student profile. Forty-five per cent of the current post-secondary population in America comprises adult students (Ke 2010). According to figures of the National Center for Education Statistics in the USA, 39% of the 21 million undergraduate and graduate students in the USA are over 25 years of age, and 11% are older than 40 years (Knapp et al. 2011).

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The increased diversity of student profiles and the higher number of so-called non-traditional students (NTS, see Chapter 2) represents a challenge for many conventional universities whose curricula, delivery modes and student support systems are often not well prepared to respond to diverse student needs (Kerres et al. 2011). One possible way to meet the needs of a heterogeneous student body is e-learning and distance education, which allows for geographically and temporally independent support.

Over the last decade, e-learning and distance education have developed rapidly, thus widening access to higher education. Today there is almost no higher education institution that does not utilisee-learning in blended learning programs or at least in addition to campus lectures and labs. Thus online distance education has moved from the periphery into mainstream higher education (Allen & Seaman 2011).

To design appropriate e-learning environments and to avoid failure and dropout, it is essential to give attention to the context, characteristics, motivation, abilities, prior knowledge, experience etc. of the learners. Therefore, learner and context analysis are the first fundamental steps in the instructional design process (Morrison et al. 2011). A key to success in instructional design is to understand media behavior to reach the target group and to meet the needs of the student population. It is crucial to understand media usage patterns and to distinguish and measure different types of media use in order to design and select appropriate media, tools and services.

Traditional students were known to study full-time and usually got admitted to the university level after undergoing high school education (Guri-Rosenblit, 2005).

The increased diversity of student profiles, as well as the increase of non-traditional students, is challenging. According to Moore & Kearsley (2011), educational challenges are evidenced in university curricula, delivery modes and student support systems. Precisely, universities are not in a position to address the diverse issues and needs exhibited by students. From this perspective, various solutions to the above problem have been examined by education researchers. Establishing e-learning and distance learning has been sighted as one possible solution towards solving the diverse needs among students.

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Over the last decade, e-learning and distance education have widened the access to higher education. In recent times, almost every institution of higher education blends e-learning programs with the usual curriculum. Alternatively, higher education institutions have increased learning centers, facilities, campuses and laboratories to facilitate e-learning and distance learning.

It is important to focus on how the media reaches the target group and addresses the needs of the students.

Profiles of non-traditional students

There are various definitions of how this group of so-called non-traditional students can be described (Horn & Carroll 1996). The term “non-traditional student” (Ely 1997, p. 1) results from a long debate in the Anglo-American region and was later picked up again in the German-speaking discussion (Wolter 2002). On the European level the following working definition was developed by the “Socio-Economic Research Programme (1998 – 2001) on Adult Access to Higher Education (HE)”: “a new mature student entrant (by age in respective countries) with no previous HE qualifications whose participation in HE is constrained by structural factors additional to age” (Johnston & Merrill 2002, p. 5). Based on case studies in ten OECD countries, Schuetze and Slowey (2012) have created six subcategories of “lifelong learners” (“second chance learners”, “deferrers”, “recurrent learners”, “returners”, “refreshers” und “learners in later life”).

The first category is referred as lifelong learners. Lifelong learners pursue higher education out of compassion and desire to acquire knowledge. Lifelong learners voluntarily engage in education as an ongoing process. Deferrers form the second category of non-traditional students. Deferrers include students who do not get admitted to an institution of higher education in their initial application due low grades or lack of proper recommendation documents. Recurrent learners are students who repeatedly resume education after dropping out of the academic year due to lack of fees, low grades or work-related reasons. Returners are students who want to extend their university accommodation irrespective of not being first years. Refreshers are categorized as students who undertake short courses to improve on their careers. Refresher courses are developed for such students who have careers in disciplines like nursing, teaching or information technology, and require constant updates on new career practices. Learners in later life are considered the sixth subcategory of lifelong students. Individuals who resume higher education after the retirement age for reasons such as fun and new discoveries are known as learners in later life.

A general profile of non-traditional students follows the following three characteristics (Pituch & Lee, 2006). The non-traditional students enroll into higher education through unconventional means. In most cases, non-traditional students do not fulfill the required entrance qualifications for higher education. Finally, non-traditional students insist on studying part-time and distance learning. The typology description of media usage behavior is necessary for understanding the concepts of higher education pedagogy, the design and development of media based teaching (Moore, 1993).

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Typology of students’ media usage behavior

Typologies are generally used to classify individuals or objects according to their typical behavior or other patterns and variables (Barnes et al. 2007). Brandtzaeg (2010) defines the term media usage typology as follows: “The term user typology is defined as a categorisation of users into distinct user types that describes the various ways in which individuals use different media, reflecting a varying amount of activity/content preferences, frequency of use and variety of use” (p. 941). Important implications result from the knowledge of media usage behavior, concerning the concepts of higher education pedagogy, the design and development of media based teaching and learning programs (Zawacki-Richter 2011). The analysis of the target group with its specific needs, motivations and patterns of action is the starting point for the Instructional Design process (Morrison et al. 2011) and the basis for an appropriate media selection.

In a meta-study,Brandtzaeg (2010) analyzed 22 media usage typologies to derive a generic typology with eight types (non-useres, sporadics, debaters, entertainment users, socializers, lurkers, instrumental users, advanced users). The majority of the studies Brandtzaeg analyzed focused on the use of media, the Internet, social networks, online shopping and computer games of children, teens and young adults. Only one research project by Johnson and Kulpa (2007) questioned students in the USA about their Internet use, resulting in three dimensions being identified: “The salient features of online behavior are sociability (human connection motives), utility (instrumental orientation), and reciprocity (cognitive stimulation and active involvement)” (p. 774).

Non-users is the largest group of non-traditional students who do not utilize any form of media as a learning platform (Brandtzaeg, 2010). The disinterest with media-based learning is promoted by lack internet access. In other instances, there are a large number of students who cannot utilize internet technology in learning due to various forms of disabilities. For example, it was until recently that the blind started using the internet. Non-traditional students who do not use the internet or any other form of the e-learning technique perceive modern technology as addictive and expensive. Non-users succumb to fear and lack appropriate information regarding the internet. In this regard, non-users prefer conventional methods of learning that includes printing of notes and library services.

Sporadics do not exhibit active behavior in usage of media-based technologies. In the case of internet social sites, sporadics only access the internet occasionally. In most cases, sporadics access the internet to check on emails from friends or assignments from lecturers. In this regard, sporadics do not perceive the internet or any media to be significant in terms of learning. Non-traditional students who exhibit such behavior are busy individuals who rarely use the media passively. In any case, sporadics main focus on internet usage is to access important information and not social interactions. Sporadics are equally distributed among the non-traditional students age range. Using the example of qualitative material, a sporadic would prefer using an open-ended questionnaire. The sporadic constitute at least 19% of non-traditional students using the internet in any institution (Brandtzaeg, 2010).

Debaters participation on internet interaction is high. In any case, debaters are highly social and frequently engage in discussions with fellow students. The level of contribution by debaters in terms of readings and writings is high. However, the level of interaction and sociability exhibited by debaters is either formal or informal. Debaters depend on the internet to access information that is alternatively used in discussions. However, debaters are not ardent users of video contributions and prefer using texts and pictures. A typical behavior among debaters is using the internet for updates related to cultural, social and educational events. In addition, debaters prefer bonding among colleagues.

Entertainment users exhibit an interesting media usage behavior where the rate of using the internet, radio and television is high. Entertainment users are focused in downloading music, videos and games. In addition, entertainment users are notorious for multitasking in media usage through chat and downloading or listening to music.

Socializers participation in utilizing and engaging in social media sites is high. Socializers use the internet as a platform to engage in recreational activities. In this context, the main focus of using the internet is to write messages, maintain social contacts and look for new friends. Most of the socializers are teenage girls aged between 14 years and 20 years (Brandtzaeg, 2010). Socializers do not perceive the importance of social media in exchanging educational ideas. In this regard, socializers are known for exchanging pictures and sending short messages.

Lurkers are considered the largest internet user group. Lurkers use the internet for recreational purposes and other activities. Lurkers participation on social media sites is considered passive, since they prefer video-chatting and entertainment. However, lurkers do not necessarily use the internet and any similar media for socialization.

Instrumental users do not use the internet and related media for entertainment and socialization. Instrumental users prefer using the internet to access important information on goal-oriented activities such as business, services and education.

Advanced users prefer using the internet in varied ways. In fact, this category exhibits diverse media usage behaviors since users utilize the internet for a utility or instrumental activities. Although the category uses internet passively for entertainment, accessing information on goal-oriented activities is the group’s main focus. Importantly, this category is comprised of mature individuals who are predominantly professionals.

Another dimension to study the typology of students’ media usage behavior focuses on the use of media, the Internet, social networks, online shopping and computer games. In this regard, sociability, utility and reciprocity are the absis for underatding media suage behavior (Johnson & Kulpa, 2007).

Sociability is described as the human connection that result from using the internet as a media for learning. In this regard, students derive skills and tendencies that harness their human interactions with others. The use of social networks by students has seen increased interests on platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Educationists allege that the internet platform is challenging the conventional understanding of social issues. In fact, this is evidenced from the audience activity and involvement exhibited by students using the media. Besides the promotion of multimedia identity-driven performances from the students, increased flexibility and personalized mode of sociability has led to sustenance of strong interpersonal ties. Precisely, sociability through internet-based media has seen increased development of research interest among students. The internet provides student researchers with a converged media environment where development of theories and analytical tools that assess needs, activity and media content is given precedence.

On the other hand, utility is described in terms of instrumental orientation. In this context, students aspire to achieve higher grades by utilizing the internet in acquiring additional learning resources. Elements of self-disclosure and improvement are evidenced when students utilize media-oriented platforms. Research in several colleges indicates that non-traditional students perceive social, interaction, self-image and information as important aspects in the learning process. In fact, non-traditional students use the very elements of self-disclosure as a motivation. Sometimes, Instrumental orientation of media usage among non-traditional students seem ritualized and provoke a habitual pattern. In this regard, student’s motive of using media is initialized by a need of passing time. In due time, this ritualization invokes a functional alternative where students use media for learning and recreational activities.

Moreover, reciprocity is described from a cognitive stimulation and active involvement perspective. In this regard, students use media or the internet as a way of improving their cognitive abilities such as communication, comprehension, reading and critical thinking. Media psychologists allege that the technological phenomenon plays a crucial part in understanding human behavior, cognition and emotions. The impact of media psychology is that an interactive system combining the technology developer, content, perception and response is created. In this regard, the aspect of creative-thinking is achieved in students who prefer an environment that promotes attentiveness and interest of ideas.

Research questions

The study addresses the following research questions:

  • What kind of digital devices do the students own or have access to?
  • Which media and e-learning tools and services are used for learning, how often are they used and what is their added value?
  • How are Web 2.0 applications and social networking sites in particular used for learning?
  • What are the differences between traditional and non-traditional students regarding the acceptance of media, tools and services for their learning and regarding their demand for e-learning?
  • What kind of different media usage types can be identified and how do these profiles relate to individual and contextual factors associated with the students (e.g. gender, social status, employment status, childcare etc.)?

References

Allen, E. & Seaman, J. (2011). Going the distance: Online education in the United States 2011. Web.

Barnes, S. J., Bauer, H., Neumann, M. & Huber, F. (2007). Segmenting cyberspace: A customer typology for the internet, European Journal of Marketing 41(1), 71-93.

Brandtzaeg, P. (2010). Towards a unified media-user typology (MUT): A meta-analysis and review of the research literature on media-user typologies, Computers in Human Behavior 26(5), 940-956.

Gould, S. B. & Cross, K. P. (1977). Explorations in non-traditional study. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Guri-Rosenblit, S. (2005). ‘Distance education’ and ‘e-learning’: Not the same thing. Higher education, 49(4), 467-493.

Johnson, G. M. & Kulpa, A. (2007). Dimensions of online behavior: Toward a user typology, CyberPyschology & Behavior 10(6), 773-779.

Johnston, R. & Merrill, B. (2002). Enriching higher education: learning and teaching with non-traditional adult students. Michigan, MI: LIHE.

Ke, F. (2010). Examining online teaching, cognitive and social presence for adult students, Computers & Education 55(2), 808-820.

Knapp, L. G., Kelly-Reid, J. E. & Ginder, S. A. (2011). Enrollment in postsecondary institutions, fall 2009; Graduation rates, 2003 & 2006 cohorts; and financial statistics, fiscal year 2009. Washington, D.C: National Center for Education Statistics.

Moore, M. G. (1993). Theory of transactional distance. Theoretical principles of distance education, 1, 22-38.

Moore, M. G., & Kearsley, G. (2011). Distance education: A systems view of online learning. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., Kalman, H. K. & Kemp, J. E. (2011). Designing effective instruction. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Pituch, K. A., & Lee, Y. K. (2006). The influence of system characteristics on e-learning use. Computers & Education, 47(2), 222-244.

Schuetze, H. G. & Slowey, M. (2003). Higher education, non-traditional students and lifelong learning in industrialized countries- development and perspectives, Das Hochschulwesen 51(5), 183-189.

Schuetze, H. G. & Slowey, M. (2012). Global perspectives on higher education and lifelong learners. London, LDN: Routledge.

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