From Evidence to Scholarship

Transforming Undergraduate Student Research in the Digital Age

Mobile Device Survey, Spring 2013

In March 2013, the Reed College Library and department of Computing & Information Services collaborated on a brief survey on student use of mobile devices for their academic work.  After the survey was complete, small focus groups were held to gather more detailed information.

Major Findings

  • Nearly all students own a laptop and a smartphone, but relatively few own a tablet.  Cost is a major barrior to tablet ownership.
  • While the majority of students use Macintosh and iOS devices, there was a strong opinion that services and resources for mobile device users should be cross-platform.
  • Most students use mobile devices for accessing and reading texts, but they have different preferences for how they read and interact with texts.
  • Students would welcome recommendations on apps and workflows for their academic work.

Implications for citation and document management

The survey and focus groups generated numerous suggestions for improvements to information resources, campus services and infrastructure, and student support materials.  The following summary discusses the survey results relevant to citation and document management on mobile devices.

Laptops are indispensable; tablets are a luxury
Nearly all students who responded own a laptop (98%) and the majority own a smartphone (84%), while very few own a tablet device (16%). The vast majority of students use their laptops for a multitude of academic tasks, such as checking email, accessing a variety of content and services, and writing papers. Very few students write papers or create other content on their phones or tablets, but many do use their mobile devices to access content and services. The two most common tablet uses are reading articles and books. Comments from the survey and focus groups indicate that many students view tablets as either unnecessary or too expensive.

Citation and document management solutions must be cross-platform
The majority of students own Macintosh laptops (65%), but a sizeable minority own Windows (30%) and a few own Linux (3.4%). Similarly, iOS devices are the most common smartphones and tablets, but a significant minority own Android devices. In an environment with a preponderance of Mac and iOS devices, students in the minority have strong opinions about their desire to use alternative technologies.

Many readings are PDFs delivered through Moodle
All students spend a considerable amount of time reading and have developed various strategies for managing texts. Many readings, whether electronic reserves or documents scanned by professors, are made available as PDFs through the course management system (Moodle). None of the focus group students had used ebooks through the library and many were skeptical that textbooks would be usable on a tablet.

Managing readings is a significant motivation for tablet owners
Many of the students who own a tablet spoke of their benefits for managing large quantities of reading materials. Some of them enjoy having lots of reading materials readily available without the burden of carrying them all around. Ultimately, several students evaluated the cost of a tablet versus the cost of printing their readings and decided a tablet was worth the investment.

Students work with texts in very different ways
Regardless the device, students value the ability to organize and search documents and are frustrated when they are poorly scanned or not converted to text. Otherwise, there is very little consistency in how students work with texts. Some prefer print, while others prefer electronic. Some only take notes on paper while others are comfortable annotating electronic versions. Syncing notes and readings between devices is desirable for many. No single document workflow will work for everyone.

Classroom dynamics are important
Many faculty ask students not to bring laptops to class. A number of students agree that laptops are a distraction during lectures and intrusive in small conference classes. On the other hand, many students are frustrated that this requires them to either print out readings or purchase a tablet. Many students are also aware of challenges using electronic texts in class, such as quickly jumping to a specific passage or even having consistent page numbers in some formats.

Few students use citation and document management systems
While some students were aware of software for managing a document library and generating citations, most students hadn’t used them. One student who had used Zotero expressed frustration that it didn’t sync with commonly used services like Dropbox, leading to a cumbersome workflow with his PDF reader. Another student was considering Mendeley because her faculty use it.

Students want recommendations on apps and workflows for academic work
There is a bewildering array of apps and services and no single app does everything a student might need for managing texts and other content. Whether on a laptop or tablet, most students use some sort of PDF reader. Particularly on tablets, students had experimented with various apps for reading and annotating, but there was no popular favorite. Recommended apps, combined with guidance and documentation, would be useful for many students.