Interest in participating in the project
Students were asked to register their level of interest in participating in the project. They were informed that participation was not related to their class assessment and that if selected, they would be able to keep the iPAQ. Females were less likely to be interested than males (p < .05), Engineering students were more likely to be interested than Business students (p < .05), and students whose first language was not English were more likely to be interested than the remainder (p < .05). There was a very marked difference in the level of interest in the three locations, as is evident in Table 2: roughly a third of the Australian students indicated each level (not interested, a bit interested, very interested). Two thirds of the Malaysian students said they were very interested, and all students in Ethiopia expressed some interest (all except one were very interested). The high level of interest in Ethiopia was in contrast to the trends reported above: there were approximately one-third females students in Ethiopia, and all were Business students.
Table 2:Level of interest in participating in the project in each location
Commencing levels of technology device adoption
To ascertain their commencing level of technology adoption, students were asked to report their access to the Internet off-campus, their ownership of a range of devices including those which at the time were considered relatively new (such as MP3 players and iPods). Table 3 shows that off-campus access to the Internet was higher in Australia (p<.05). Laptop and handheld computer ownership was similar in all locations (p>.05); however Ethiopian students were less likely to own a mobile phone (though ownership was still 81%) or an MP3 player (p<.05). The table also shows that for selected participants, internet access and ownership of all devices were similar.
Table 3:All students' access to and use of the Internet for study and ownership of devices by location, and a comparison with the selected participants
Commencing levels of technology application adoption
Students were asked to report their use of applications including those which at the time were considered relatively new (e.g. blogs and Voice Over Internet Protocol, VOIP). Table 4 shows students' reported use of emerging communications applications in each location: students in Australia reported higher use of SMS and VOIP (p<.05) and students in Malaysia reported higher use of instant messaging and blogs (p<.05), and VOIP was virtually not used at all at that time by the Malaysian and Ethiopian students. There were no significant differences in the levels of use reported by participants and non-participants.
Table 4:All students' reported use of emerging communications applications in each location, and a comparison with the selected participants
Adoptive behaviours of the selected participants
Of the 44 selected participants who completed the project, 21 were in Australia, 11 in Ethiopia and 12 in Malaysia. Those ten students who did not complete the project were all in Australia and they were in both Business and Engineering. In spite of repeated requests to submit their final surveys, these students failed to do so. The Ethiopian students could be described anecdotally as the most enthusiastic cohort of students: they participated gladly, and returned all requests for feedback quite promptly. The Malaysian students were similar. Both groups had a local teaching staff member coordinating their participation, but requests for data came from "offshore" (from Perth). The Australian students also had a local coordinating teacher, as well the option of face-to-face access to the project management team. Nevertheless, this is where the greatest amount of "drop out" of the project occurred.
Having had the use of the iPAQ for a year, 44 completing participants reported on their use and perceptions of the iPAQ. Figure 1 shows students' reported use of the applications using the iPAQs—they range from the standard pre-installed applications (such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint) to those that students could install themselves (such as VOIP and RSS readers). The figure shows that most students tried most applications at least once or a few times, though not always, for study-related activities, and a minority reported using some applications often. No students reported using any applications more than "once or a few times" for study-related activities. Applications for study-related activities were mainly Office (Word, Excel and PowerPoint), email and the Internet (the last two were used often and very often for purposes other than study). Other applications used often or very often (but not so much for study) were blogs (6 of eleven students said these were for study as well), VOIP, chat (instant messaging) and video replay. The assumption here is that non-study-related activities can be classified for the most part as socialising activities.
Figure 1:Students reported use of applications on the iPAQ
Student use of applications was clearly linked to their access to wireless networks. Table 5 shows participants' reported use of the wireless networks on- and off-campus. The table highlights the issue of poor access to on-campus networks—a quarter of the students did not or could not access the campus wireless network. Only 7 students (16.3% of the participants) used the campus network often. Access to networks off-campus was less: over half the participants never accessed an off-campus network, and nine students used an off-campus network often.
Table 5:Participants' reported use of the wireless networks on- and off-campus
Student comments indicate that this lack of access clearly had an influence on their answers to the final survey, including their perceptions of the usefulness of the iPAQ. The students were invited to make an evaluation of the device in answer to this question:
Forty students answered this question—roughly half said yes (with some caveats) and indicated that the iPAQ was useful. The remainder said no. Among the three diverse locations, the Australian students appeared to be the least forgiving when the technology did not deliver on expectations, and the Ethiopians were the most forgiving. Those participants who reported negative feedback (and even some who were positive) commented on the size of the device (it was too big for some, and too small for others), its battery capacity, its speed, the smallness of its on-screen keyboard, and its limited capacity to connect to wireless (this was due to infrastructure problems). In general, students' comments indicated that the iPAQ compared unfavourably to three other devices they used—the laptop, the desktop and the mobile phone. In general, students indicated that the three devices already in their possession were more than adequate for their needs, and generally had more power (desktops and laptops), were just as mobile (laptops and mobile phones) and just as "clever"—that is, their mobile phones could do basic operations as adequately, if not better.
Nevertheless, students who were positive about the iPAQ praised the device for its convenience, its mobility and for particular uses (several commented on its convenience as an organizer):
Like recent previous studies (Caruso 2004; Caruso & Kvavik 2005; Kennedy, Krause, Judd, Churchward, & Gray 2006; Oblinger & Oblinger 2005), the results of the initial data gathering with nearly 500 students confirm that undergraduates have high off-campus access to the Internet (with higher access reported by those studying in Australia). Laptop ownership was predictably high (approaching 50%) and handheld computer ownership was predictably low in all locations (the approximately 8% ownership reported here is similar to results in other studies (Caruso 2004; Caruso & Kvavik 2005; "author" 2005). This is possibly not due so much to the socio-economic status of the students (which according to their teacher in situ was high in comparison with their compatriots) but possibly to the availability of mobile and ICT devices in general. In Australia and Malaysia, ownership of MP3 players was quite high (around 40%) and mobile phones were almost ubiquitous. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Ethiopian students were less likely to own a mobile phone or an MP3 player. Clearly, technology adoption is likely to be highly correlative with level of disposable income, and this data was not collected in this research.
The students in the larger cohort were keen adopters of emerging communications technologies: over 90% of students in all three locations used SMS, and about half the students in Australia and Malaysia used MMS. Instant messaging was used by at least two thirds of the students in Ethiopia, and by the vast majority of students in the other locations. Students in Malaysia were particularly keen users of blogs (which were yet to be adopted by the Ethiopian students). The contradictory non-use of VOIP by Malaysian students suggests that the service was not available in this particular part of Malaysia (Sarawak). It was used by about one fifth of Australian students.
The focus of this research is the adoptive behaviour and evaluation of innovations by the 44 selected participants. Having had the use of the iPAQ for a year, participants were asked through a final data survey collection to report their use of applications (for study-related and unrelated use). Their limited use of new and emerging applications on the iPAQ for study-related purposes suggests that there is little transference between social activity and study-related activity. There has been some speculation that because students carry "digital backpacks" bulging with their personal convergent and mobile devices, they might use these not only for social interaction (which is of high importance to these "Net generation" students), but that they might transfer their use for study-related activities (Millea, Green, & Putland 2005; "author" 2007). The evidence here suggests otherwise: apart from Office applications, email and internet, students seem to clearly separate these activities. From the results in this study, we may assume that study activities involving frequent access to the internet (as reported by these students) were confined to desktops and laptops. The qualitative findings support this supposition.
The effect of the unreliable wireless access to students in this project cannot be underestimated. Students were frustrated that the wireless was unreliable and at times too slow, and in their comments they seemed at times not to separate the device and its intended wireless capability from the actual wireless on campus. This poor access to wireless networks had a negative effect on the project, as evidenced by student comments in the final evaluation. Even though half the participants did not access wireless off-campus (either because there were no networks to access, or they did not try), nine students did use off-campus networks often. Also, the particular model of the iPAQ issued to students was a factor—the device needed a platform reinstall to be able to access the network, and this proved an insurmountable stumbling block for some because of their lack of technology skills. The rapid rate of change and obsolescence of the mobile device is an ongoing challenge in research, particularly when students have high levels of personal ownership of mobile phones which are becoming increasingly "smart".
In terms of their overall evaluation of the device, it is fair to say that even though about half the students were positive about at least some aspects of the device, the majority were negative about most aspects of the iPAQ. Again, this was not helped by several factors such as the wireless network, and the slightly aged model issued to the students. Overall, most students believed the best aspects of the iPAQ were its capability as an organizer, and wireless access permitting, a mobile communicator. The iPAQ faced tough competition in this research, as the very high level of ownership of mobile phones (most of which are assumed to be very recent models) set a very high level of expectation by these keen technology users. Many students compared the iPAQ unfavourably with their existing devices. It is also clear from these results that students in very different contexts were more or less forgiving of the technology—in particular, Ethiopian students were the most interested in trying the new technology, and the most forgiving when the it failed to deliver. It seems reasonable to assume that this is related to the vast differences in infrastructure support in developed countries (such as Australia and Malaysia) and in a country such as Ethiopia where access to information and communication technologies is clearly a greater challenge. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of the Ethiopian students, even if a small sample, and their persistence in using the technology in spite of the challenges, lends some weight to the argument that wireless access and mobile learning technologies may enable greater progress in technology-enhanced learning in sub-Saharan Africa (Barker 2005; Brown 2003; Brown 2005)
The responses of all participants in this research suggest that in terms of Rogers' theory of the diffusion of innovations, the following factors played a role in their evaluation and adoption of the iPAQ:
To be fair, the iPAQ was probably intended for the business executive rather than for undergraduate students. The initial findings of this research, that around 8% of students already owned a handheld computer, were an indication of the voluntary adoption of this device by undergraduate students. They clearly did not need to be persuaded to own mobile phones, MP3 players and laptops, and they had chosen to own those devices rather than a handheld computer.
This research addressed three principal questions. The first was about students' commencing level of technology adoption in each location, and whether some students expressed greater interest than others in trying a new technology. The results show that internet access and ownership of all devices were similar for all groups (although off-campus access to the Internet was higher in Australia and Ethiopian students were less likely to own a mobile phone (though ownership was still very high) or an MP3 player. Students in Australia reported higher use of SMS and VOIP and students in Malaysia reported higher use of instant messaging and blogs, and VOIP was virtually not used at all at that time by the Malaysian and Ethiopian students. Female students were less likely to be interested in participating in the project (that is, trialling the new technology) than males, Engineering students were more likely to be interested than Business students and students whose first language was not English were more likely to be interested than those for whom English was a first language. There was a very marked difference in the level of interest in the three locations: about a third of students in Australia said they were very interested, as did two thirds of the students in Malaysia and all students (except one) in Ethiopia.
The second and third questions focused on students' adoptive behaviours: did the selected participants readily adopt the iPAQs for personal use and for study-related activities and if so, was there evidence of Rogers' five factors affecting adoption; and after a year of voluntary use did the students perceive the handheld device as a useful learning tool? Rogers claim that "most innovations . . . diffuse at a disappointingly slow rate" (Rogers 1995) seems to ring true in this research: beliefs that advantageous innovations sell themselves, that the obvious benefits of a new idea will be widely realised by potential adopters, and that the innovation will diffuse rapidly are unfounded. Rogers work shows that for complex mix of many reasons, some innovations do not diffuse with some cohorts. He also claims that to become ubiquitous, an innovation is usually adopted by about 25% of the target group. This study suggests that this is unlikely to be the case with handheld computers and undergraduate students (bearing in mind that the capabilities offered by many handhelds have now been subsumed by mobile phones). It is notable that it was the Ethiopian students who, despite having to work with an undeveloped ICT infrastructure, were most persistent and open to continuing to experiment with the device regardless of trying circumstances.
The demise of the handheld in favour or other devices has been predicted for some time; this research shows that if uptake by undergraduates in these three countries is an indicator, then reports of that demise have not been exaggerated. Hewlett-Packard has now ceased production of the iPAQ, presumably because other products such as smart phones, subsume their place in the market. In addition, there is clear convergence of devices—since this research was commenced, there is no longer a clear divide between phones, MP3 players, and handheld computers. Despite the obsolescence of the device tested here, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this research is students' apparent reluctance to use their social applications and devices for learning. This study suggests that undergraduate students are unlikely to adopt handheld devices and voluntarily use Web 2.0 applications to supplement formal learning experiences.
The research in this area appears inconclusive, and is likely to be highly dependent on students' circumstances. Sharples (2006) claims that 'Children in general do not want school to intrude on their personal life. There is a danger that the enthusiasm of schools, and some parents to extend school by, for example . . . bite-sized teaching and revision via SMS, and new technologies such as location-based tracking, may be seen by children as schools attempting to colonise and control their social world. There is a need to discuss where the bounds of the school lie and where it is not legitimate for formal education to intrude on childhood'. Similar headlines appeared in relation to the wide-ranging JISC Learner Experience Project: manager Lawrie Phipps is reported to have said that 'Students really do want to keep their lives separate. They don't want to be always available to their lecturers or bombarded with academic information' (Hoare 2007). Even so, Conole et al. reported that in their LEX project that there is evidence of the transfer of practices of their use of technologies in other aspects of their lives to their learning context—for example MSN chat, Amazon, eBay and Skype (Conole, Laat, Dillon, & Darby 2006). Likewise in the United States, the 2007 ECAR report on undergraduate students and information technology found that a majority of students see themselves as innovative adopters of technology, and that most own at least two devices—usually a laptop and mobile phone. US students prefer to be in contact with their institutions using an institutional email account (rather than a private account), and particularly since dramatic events such as the Virginia Tech shootings, like their institutions to contact them by SMS in case of emergency (Salaway, Caruso, & Nelson 2007).
However, research of this nature, including that undertaken in the project reported on here, in some ways asks students to split their lives into false dichotomies: we ask students to separate leisure and study activities, when often they do both at once (e.g. listen to music while typing an essay; chat on MSN about all sorts of things including perhaps study-related issues). Conole et al. report this salient observation from a student interviewee (Conole, Laat, Dillon, & Darby 2006): when asked to differentiate between learning and 'e-learning', the student replied:
This is a silly question. We've been brought up using new technologies, and introducing new ones to our way of working as new technologies appear, it's not a case of "fitting around" it's just the way I work, using multiple methods, some "traditional" some e-learning (p. 73)
Likewise, we also ask students to report on technology ownership and use it as if it were something special. Phipps, manager of the UK LEX project recalls interviewing a first-year female arts undergraduate who professed absolute ignorance of e-learning or web applications. "She was updating her blog at an internet café and then started integrating photos from her Flickr site on to the blog. At the end of it she said, 'That's not technology. That's what I do.' (Hoare 2007). In this project, students were asked to evaluate a device for its learning utility—in essence, the iPAQ was not a vehicle recommended for learning because, using Roger's reasons for adoption, it was trialable and observable but it failed to meet expectations. Finally, it had little relative advantage as its functions were already delivered somewhat better by desktops, laptops, and mobile phones.
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Appendix A: Initial data collection
You are invited to participate in this research by completing the questions which follow. Your responses will not be used to identify you unless you are interested in participating in the project (in which case you will be contacted by email).
Appendix B: Final data collection
This semester we have deliberately left you to use your iPAQ as you wish, to see how you went without too much direction from the project. Now we need to conclude the project, and formulate the research findings, based on your feedback. Please assist us in the research by answering all the questions honestly and as well as you can. Please simply reply to the email and follow the instructions (deleting or typing as requested within the table which follows) before June 1, 2006. Your answers will not be used to identify you in anyway. Remember, WHEN YOU HAVE SUBMITTED THIS SURVEY, the iPAQ belongs to you!
Thank you for participating in this research.
Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the authors, with first publication rights granted to the journal. By virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use, with proper attribution, in educational and other non-commercial settings. Original article at: http://ijedict.dec.uwi.edu//viewarticle.php?id=522&layout=html