Jan Costenbader

What do they look like?

Before I enter the classroom each quarter (sometimes virtually), I always wonder about what my class looks like. Sometimes there are more women than men, sometimes it is a very diverse group, sometimes there are adult students, but one thing is certain, every year the incoming freshmen look younger and younger. Certainly, this is not because of my own advancing age, but seeing their youthful faces embarking on a new journey in today’s technological age, leaves me with the question, “what do they look like technically?” As more and more of our courses rely on online components, you have to ask yourself, “are our students prepared to deal with the challenges of D2L, online quizzes, and video captured lectures?”

Every year, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA conducts a nationwide study of incoming college freshmen. The study conducted by UCLA [1] includes survey responses from almost 166,000 freshmen representing 234 institutions. For the first time in 2013, the survey added two questions about the respondents’ use of Open Educational Resources (OER) such as Khan Academy, MIT’s OpenCourseware and other MOOC’s. These two questions were in addition to the recurring questions about using the Internet for research, social media use, video games. So, what does the incoming freshman class look like technically? How prepared are they to use the online tools? I found some of the results quite surprising.

First of all, what about using the Internet for research? Interestingly, the responses for ‘frequently’ was the only category reported. 81.8% of all students attending Baccalaureate institutions used the Internet for research or homework. The results were similar across all types of institutions with only Historically Black Colleges and Universities being slightly lower at 76.0%. So, one can, perhaps, conclude that these incoming students speak Google. Whether or not they can use the tools effectively or the research is valid is yet another story. I do know that some faculty instruct their students on the proper use of Internet search tools and how to determine if research is credible. Searching and researching strategies on the Internet may make a good introductory course for our Liberal Studies Program.

Online social networks like Facebook and Twitter have high participation rates with only 5.6% of the respondents saying that they never use these sites. On the other hand, 50% of the respondents spent between 1 to 5 hours per week on the sites and, of course, that means that roughly 43% spent more than 5 hours per week.


Anecdotally, the teen usage of Facebook has declined by 25% over the past three years. [2] Twitter and Instagram are becoming increasingly popular destinations for the younger generations. This is dramatically illustrated by this graphic from Piper Jaffray which portrays the decline in Facebook and the fairly dramatic increase in Instagram usage.

“Friends and the Internet dominate teen influences and combine in social media environments. Instagram and Twitter are the two most used social media sites, implying teens are increasingly visual and sound bite communicators.” [3]


Increasingly, faculty and various department and organizations are establishing a presence on these social media sites. For example, the College of Science and Health Advising Office is very active on Twitter @CSHAdvising with 397 followers, as is @DePaul Chemistry with 466 followers. Some faculty post a Twitter feed on their D2L homepage and regularly tweet course news and information. Of course, you are limited to 140 characters, but as indicated above, teens are sound bite communicators. This may lead me to establishing a Twitter or Instagram feed for my own Math 100 course, as I am finding that students don’t always seem to read or even get emails that I send to them.

One of the most interesting aspects of the UCLA study was the use of Open Educational Resources (OER) by incoming freshmen. Two new questions were added to the survey, asking how often students have “used an online instructional website (e.g., Khan Academy, Coursera): as assigned for a class, or to learn something on your own” in the past year.

“About four out of ten (41.8%) incoming students ‘frequently’ or ‘occasionally’ used an online instructional website as assigned for a class in the past year. Students were, however, much more likely to utilize these resources independently—almost seven out of ten (69.2%) incoming first-year students have used such sites ‘frequently’ or ‘occasionally’ to learn something on their own.” [4]

What was most surprising about the results was that freshmen bound for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) exceeded the averages significantly with 53.4% using these sites for assignments and a whopping 87.5% using the sites on their own. This speaks well to the abilities and interests of our incoming freshmen when it comes to preparedness to use online resources in coursework.

Finally, there was an additional piece of data regarding college choice. The students were asked about the reasons for making a college choice that were “Very important”. Of course, the academic reputation of the college was the top response. However, only 3.8% of the students would rate the ability to take an online course as “Very Important”. This does not say that students don’t want to take an online course, but it is not a factor in choosing a college. This, most likely, doesn’t bode well for those fully online institutions.

So then, our incoming freshmen are really digital natives. They not only look really young, but they are well versed in all things digital. Come to think of it, the World Wide Web went public on August 9, 1991! None of the incoming freshmen class were even born then. Perhaps, just perhaps, we need to meet them where they are.

[1] Eagan, K., Lozano, J. B., Hurtado, S., & Case, M. H. (2013). The American freshman: National norms fall 2013. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2013.pdf
[2] http://istrategylabs.com/2014/01/3-million-teens-leave-facebook-in-3-years-the-2014-facebook-demographic-report/
[3] http://www.piperjaffray.com/2col.aspx?id=287&releaseid=1975435
[4] Eagan, K., Lozano, J. B., Hurtado, S., & Case, M. H. (2013). The American freshman: National norms fall 2013. Los Angeles: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. Pg 8
Jan Costenbader

About Jan Costenbader

Jan came to DePaul from California State University, Chico in November of 2010. There, he taught Mathematics and developed an online hybrid Mathematics course for General Education Mathematics. He also assisted faculty in course design as an instructional designer. Currently, he provides instructional design consultation to the College of Science and Health, the Quantitative Reasoning program and several departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. In addition, he teaches fully online developmental Mathematics and blended Quantitive Reasoning courses.

3 thoughts on “What do they look like?

  1. I’ve always found it fascinating to see statistics in action especially when the topic of “digital natives” is being discussed. I would agree that meeting your students “where they are” is an essential component for developing connections with the so-called “natives”. I just wonder if these “natives” have actually taken the time to understand how to utilize all of the resources available in their surrounding habitat. The data associated from the UCLA research does indicate that incoming freshmen should be considered “digital natives”. However, spending time on a social network or an educational site doesn’t correlate with any of the digital literacy skills students should have when entering your classes.

    The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) for years has had standards for digital literacy for today’s “digital natives”. Understanding how to use or access a site is no longer enough. These standards expand the basics and develop skills for which students should be able to analyze, collaborate, and create content using digital resources. The ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards-S) incorporates a wide range of skills for K-12 students ranging from using simulations and graphs to predict upcoming patterns to debating the impact of existing and upcoming technologies on our society.

    To better support these skills, teachers are also encouraged to review the standards designed for instructors so integration of these skills becomes a standard part of daily lessons. Please don’t get me wrong, the data associated with the use of instructional websites is encouraging but I still wonder if students truly understand how to access information beyond the most commonly used sites. Khan Academy and YouTube are wonderful resources but they are only a few of many worthwhile sites that can help shape these natives into true “digital inhabitants”.

    ISTE Standards-S (Designed for Students)
    ISTE Standards-T (Designed for Teachers)
    ISTE Standards – A (Designed for Administrators)

  2. Good point regarding the connection between the social network and technology literacy in the classroom. Being “Digital Natives” can be misleading in terms of knowing and having experience in the online classroom. Many students use social networks but the collaboration between online course discussions and social network are different. Online course discussions aim to enhance your understanding of a subject through class research inquiry with others. Social network collaboration can be beneficial as in recent times online courses have been using Facebook for online discussions but because of security issues it is not the best option. As a professional in the education technology field the use of the Learning Management is key for course delivery. It is the basis of the traditional online course. Only time will tell if the LMS will be replaced with a new tool for collaboration. As for now the important thing is for instructors and faculty to bridge the digital gap between the digital social network natives and the online classroom natives.

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