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WMU students, from left, Donovan Smith, Mauseli Lopez, Krystl Sladovnik, William Edgerton and Danneisha McDole, use a variety of digital devices in their everyday lives.
The Download on How Technology Has Changed College Life

When Western Michigan University student Micah Edwards first set foot in Western Michigan University’s Waldo Library in the fall of 2013, he remembered conversations he’d had with his family about how the building would be where he would be spending a majority of his time as a college student. Now a WMU senior, Edwards can count on two hands the number of times he’s been to the library.

“Unless you want someplace quiet to go, you don’t need to go to the library anymore because it’s all online. All the projects I’ve ever done, I can just research them there,” Edwards says, gesturing toward his Surface Pro laptop.

Edwards, 21, reflects how technology is altering the student experience at a traditional four-year university. At WMU, technological innovation is changing how students learn, where they learn and how they communicate with each another. The digital revolution is still underway at universities throughout the nation, and forecasts predict continued change. For better or for worse, there’s no going back.

Faculty continue to adapt to 21st century innovations in teaching with technology in big and small ways. In a 2008 survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and analysis group, 63 percent of faculty in higher education believed that technological innovation would have a major influence on teaching methods in the coming years. They were right.

Many faculty members now require proof that students have attended an out-of-class speech or presentation by asking students to take a selfie on their smartphones with the guest speaker. Other instructors use online discussion boards to prime students’ thinking about the week’s lecture material or post short videos explaining problematic content. One instructor asks students to tweet highlights of a lecture using the course number as a hashtag in order to compile instant lecture notes. And, of course, there’s the continued growth of online courses.

Rewiring brains

The use of technology to assist students’ education is one thing, but technology is actually rewiring students’ brains in unprecedented ways. According to a 2011 experiment published in Science magazine, individuals are less likely to retain material when they believe they will be able to access the information in the future via the internet.

The reality of hyper-connectivity — the ability to be connected digitally 24/7 — is changing students’ attention spans, according to Regena Nelson, chair of WMU’s Department of Teaching, Learning and Educational Studies.

“Because they (students) want information instantaneously and they can get it instantaneously, they really don’t care for more laborious ways of gathering information, reading long texts. … We get a lot of pushback from that,” Nelson says.

In addition, Nelson points to the fact that technology, social media in particular, is changing the way students write. The language used in social media communication constitutes an entirely different style of writing, says Nelson, and making the switch from writing on social media to writing academically has been difficult for many students.

“We’re spending much more time on editing papers and editing their work to make it conform to academic writing,” Nelson says. “We don’t think that students are being defiant in doing this, but I just think once you get sort of trained in one way of writing it’s hard to make the switch back and forth.”

Overall, Nelson says that the constant digital feedback students desire through social media and the internet is a major distraction in the classroom, hindering students’ overall ability to learn.

“It’s just hard to have that flow when students are always distracted by their phones,” Nelson says. “I think every single professor has to have a policy in their syllabus now. You can’t assume that students will just be respectful.”

Online learning

Along with altering the way in which students learn, technology is also relocating where that learning is occurring. Nationally, more than two-thirds of faculty in the 2008 Economist Intelligence Unit survey said that their institutions offered online courses, with online learning being the key method in increasing educational opportunities going forward.

Where students traditionally could take courses only in person on one of WMU’s multiple campuses, now courses can be completed either partially or entirely online. The demand for online courses has been increasing across all programs at WMU, with online education serving as the fastest growing segment of enrollment in terms of credit hour generation, according to Ed Martini, associate dean of Extended University Programs.

“It really (is) becoming one of the driving forces in all of higher ed, including here at Western,” Martini says.

Students’ growing demand for online programs stems not from want, but from need, says Martini. Students’ lives demand the flexibility that comes with online. The convenience of being able to access and complete coursework at any time allows students to pursue their education without having to sacrifice other commitments. And with some students now being older than the traditional student and having families and many students having jobs, flexibility in how they get their education is essential.

Technology is also affecting employers’ expectations regarding college graduates. Information technology application — the ability to select and use appropriate technology to accomplish a given task — is one of eight competencies that employers have identified as necessary for college graduates, regardless of major, according to Lynn Kelly-Albertson, executive director of professional and career development at WMU.

The ways in which graduates apply for jobs are also changing due to technology, Kelly-Albertson says.

“The job application process, screening of candidates and review of resumes is commonly online now,” she says. “Just to apply for a position a candidate needs to input information in an online application, submit electronic materials and communicate with employer representatives.”

Study distractions

Technology is also affecting students’ study habits. Sitting in the basement of Brown Hall on WMU’s main campus, sophomore Mara Minott, 20, is studying African literature when her LG smartphone starts to ring. She quickly reaches into her pocket to pull out her phone and swipes the red icon. Call declined.

“I am the queen of declining phone calls,” Minott says, laughing and scrolling through her list of recent calls. “I need that minute to be by myself, to get in the zone.”

Minott says technology is a common distraction in college students’ lives. Although she acknowledges her constant desire to listen to her favorite artist Beyoncé when it comes time to study, Minott turns all technological distractions off. It’s all about focus, she says.

“If I’m in the zone, I find out that I get a lot more done than if I’m on my phone, on my laptop, sort of watching TV,” Minott says. “I’m that one friend that does not text people back.”

It’s not just a ping on a smartphone than can be distracting, though. Binge-watching Netflix — watching three to 10 episodes of a show at a time — is the ultimate procrastination, says Jennifer Machiorlatti, a WMU professor of communication. “Certainly for college students this is a way to relax, watch with friends and build social capital around certain shows such as Breaking Bad,” Machiorlatti says.

Two WMU first-year students, Emma France and Zoe Jackson, say they watched all eight episodes of the hit sci-fi thriller Stranger Things in two days when it came out.

The show, however, was not just a means of procrastination and relaxation. It also provided some social benefits. France and Jackson had all their friends over, and the show provided something to talk about with friends, at parties, and in class, they say.

The impact on relationships

Technology’s impact on students’ social lives and the way they communicate is not always beneficial, though. The growing popularity of instant messaging, for example, has created an interpersonal disconnect among students, says Diane Anderson, vice president for student affairs at WMU.

“What I’ve heard from students and what I’ve observed is sometimes this” — she taps a smartphone with her index finger — “can prevent students from actually feeling connected with each other,” Anderson says. “If you only talk via text, you don’t get into really in-depth interpersonal relationships.”

Dating has changed, too. It no longer involves a doorbell ring and a nervous stance on a front porch; rather it’s a right-swipe and pickup line via smartphone. Social media apps like Bumble and Tinder allow college students to right-swipe someone they think is attractive and make plans to meet later. Or, instead of complimenting someone at a bar, students can simply “like” an individual’s pictures on Instagram as a sign of interest. Asking someone out on a date might mean asking that person for their Snapchat username.

Technology is also transforming how students connect for parties. No longer does a group of peers knock on a student’s door to invite him or her to a party down the street; texting isn’t even necessary anymore. Hosts simply send a message via smartphone to a Twitter account specific to their school and that’s the party invitation. Twitter handles of @PartyAtWMU and @WMUSocial let their thousands of Twitter followers know where the socializing is happening.

Face-to-face time

With all the ways people can connect digitally rather than in person, students must work to effectively engage interpersonally or they will put themselves at a disadvantage in their adult lives, Anderson says.

“If students don’t know how to connect face-to-face, it is going to be a problem for them when they are out in the job market. According to the current data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers rate verbal communication skills as the most important in an employee,” Anderson says.

Anderson also emphasizes the important benefits of the on-campus experience as opposed to strictly online learning. Through engaging with other students and staff in the on-campus community, students can be exposed to and develop an appreciation for diversity, as well as learn valuable life skills such as the ability to work in teams, according to Anderson.

“What you learn living with the people in a residence hall community you cannot duplicate and replicate that in other environments,” she says. “Those kinds of experiences you just don’t get online and so, to me, that adds a whole different layer of learning that is missed if you don’t have those experiences.”

To help encourage communication among students, the design of new WMU facilities emphasizes student interaction. In particular, the Western Heights residence halls, which opened in the fall of 2015, have been modeled to foster community. Rather than a long hallway of single rooms, the residence resembles a house, with a living room, kitchen and study nooks on each floor to promote student interaction, says Anderson.

“There’s a home-like feeling,” she says.

The purpose of these community spaces is to discourage students from segregating themselves in their rooms where they are prone to using digital devices.

“We want to kind of push them out and get them to meet other people,” says Anderson.

Overall, the goal at WMU going forward is to create a community atmosphere, says Anderson, noting that some important life skills are developed solely through face-to-face interaction.

“No one wins if when students walk across the stage and get their diploma they walk out of here and they don’t know how to communicate with other people,” she says.

—Reporter Carolyn Diana also contributed to this story.

Greyson Steele

Greyson, 20, is a third-year journalism major at WMU and a first-generation college student. Growing up in a digital world, Greyson was eager to learn how the ever-growing digital climate is affecting universities and their students. In his reporting, he found that there is no definitive answer to whether technology is good or bad for the institution. “Like anything else, it seems that there are benefits and costs to the increased implementation of technology,” Greyson says. “It’s a series of trade-offs — what you’re willing to give up for something you’ve never had.”

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