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Computers and Technology

Computer-based technology and student engagement: a critical review of the literature

Computer-based technology has infiltrated many aspects of life and industry, yet there is little understanding of how it can be used to promote student engagement, a concept receiving strong attention in higher education due to its association with a number of positive academic outcomes. The purpose of this article is to present a critical review of the literature from the past 5 years related to how web-conferencing software, blogs, wikis, social networking sites (Facebook and Twitter), and digital games influence student engagement. We prefaced the findings with a substantive overview of student engagement definitions and indicators, which revealed three types of engagement (behavioral, emotional, and cognitive) that informed how we classified articles. Our findings suggest that digital games provide the most far-reaching influence across different types of student engagement, followed by web-conferencing and Facebook. Findings regarding wikis, blogs, and Twitter are less conclusive and significantly limited in a number of studies conducted within the past 5 years. Overall, the findings provide preliminary support that computer-based technology influences student engagement, however, additional research is needed to confirm and build on these findings. We conclude the article by providing a list of recommendations for practice, with the intent of increasing understanding of how computer-based technology may be purposefully implemented to achieve the greatest gains in student engagement.

Introduction

The digital revolution has profoundly affected daily living, evident in the ubiquity of mobile devices and the seamless integration of technology into common tasks such as shopping, reading, and finding directions (Anderson, 2016; Smith & Anderson, 2016; Zickuhr & Raine, 2014). The use of computers, mobile devices, and the Internet is at its highest level to date and expected to continue to increase as technology becomes more accessible, particularly for users in developing countries (Poushter, 2016). In addition, there is a growing number of people who are smartphone-dependent, relying solely on smartphones for Internet access (Anderson & Horrigan, 2016) rather than more expensive devices such as laptops and tablets. Greater access to and demand for technology has presented unique opportunities and challenges for many industries, some of which have thrived by effectively digitizing their operations and services (e.g., finance, media) and others that have struggled to keep up with the pace of technological innovation (e.g., education, healthcare) (Gandhi, Khanna, & Ramaswamy, 2016).

Integrating technology into teaching and learning is not a new challenge for universities. Since the 1900s, administrators and faculty have grappled with how to effectively use technical innovations such as video and audio recordings, email, and teleconferencing to augment or replace traditional instructional delivery methods (Kaware & Sain, 2015; Westera, 2015). Within the past two decades, however, this challenge has been much more difficult due to the sheer volume of new technologies on the market. For example, in the span of 7 years (from 2008 to 2015), the number of active apps in Apple’s App Store increased from 5000 to 1.75 million. Over the next 4 years, the number of apps is projected to rise by 73%, totaling over 5 million (Nelson, 2016). Further compounding this challenge is the limited shelf life of new devices and software combined with significant internal organizational barriers that hinder universities from efficiently and effectively integrating new technologies (Amirault, 2012; Kinchin, 2012; Linder-VanBerschot & Summers 2015; Westera, 2015).

Many organizational barriers to technology integration arise from competing tensions between institutional policy and practice and faculty beliefs and abilities. For example, university administrators may view technology as a tool to attract and retain students, whereas faculty may struggle to determine how technology coincides with existing pedagogy (Lawrence & Lentle-Keenan, 2013; Lin, Singer, & Ha, 2010). In addition, some faculty may be hesitant to use technology due to lack of technical knowledge and/or skepticism about the efficacy of technology to improve student learning outcomes (Ashrafzadeh & Sayadian, 2015; Buchanan, Sainter, & Saunders, 2013; Hauptman, 2015; Johnson, 2013; Kidd, Davis, & Larke, 2016; Kopcha, Rieber, & Walker, 2016; Lawrence & Lentle-Keenan, 2013; Lewis, Fretwell, Ryan, & Parham, 2013; Reid, 2014). Organizational barriers to technology adoption are particularly problematic given the growing demands and perceived benefits among students about using technology to learn (Amirault, 2012; Cassidy et al., 2014; Gikas & Grant, 2013; Paul & Cochran, 2013). Surveys suggest that two-thirds of students use mobile devices for learning and believe that technology can help them achieve learning outcomes and better prepare them for a workforce that is increasingly dependent on technology (Chen, Seilhamer, Bennett, & Bauer, 2015; Dahlstrom, 2012). Universities that fail to effectively integrate technology into the learning experience miss opportunities to improve student outcomes and meet the expectations of a student body that has grown accustomed to the integration of technology into every facet of life (Amirault, 2012; Cook & Sonnenberg, 2014; Revere & Kovach, 2011; Sun & Chen, 2016; Westera, 2015).

The purpose of this paper is to provide a literature review on how computer-based technology influences student engagement within higher education settings. We focused on computer-based technology given the specific types of technologies (i.e., web-conferencing software, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and digital games) that emerged from a broad search of the literature, which is described in more detail below. Computer-based technology (hereafter referred to as technology) requires the use of specific hardware, software, and micro processing features available on a computer or mobile device. We also focused on student engagement as the dependent variable of interest because it encompasses many different aspects of the teaching and learning process (Bryson & Hand, 2007; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Parks, 1994; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013), compared narrower variables in the literature such as final grades or exam scores. Furthermore, student engagement has received significant attention over the past several decades due to shifts towards student-centered, constructivist instructional methods (Haggis, 2009; Wright, 2011), mounting pressures to improve teaching and learning outcomes (Axelson & Flick, 2011; Kuh, 2009), and promising studies suggesting relationships between student engagement and positive academic outcomes (Carini, Kuh, & Klein, 2006; Center for Postsecondary Research, 2016; Hu & McCormick, 2012). Despite the interest in student engagement and the demand for more technology in higher education, there are no articles offering a comprehensive review of how these two variables intersect. Similarly, while many existing student engagement conceptual models have expanded to include factors that influence student engagement, none highlight the overt role of technology in the engagement process (Kahu, 2013; Lam, Wong, Yang, & Yi, 2012; Nora, Barlow, & Crisp, 2005; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013; Zepke & Leach, 2010).

Our review aims to address existing gaps in the student engagement literature and seeks to determine whether student engagement models should be expanded to include technology. The review also addresses some of the organizational barriers to technology integration (e.g., faculty uncertainty and skepticism about technology) by providing a comprehensive account of the research evidence regarding how technology influences student engagement. One limitation of the literature, however, is the lack of detail regarding how teaching and learning practices were used to select and integrate technology into learning. For example, the methodology section of many studies does not include a pedagogical justification for why a particular technology was used or details about the design of the learning activity itself. Therefore, it often is unclear how teaching and learning practices may have affected student engagement levels. We revisit this issue in more detail at the end of this paper in our discussions of areas for future research and recommendations for practice. We initiated our literature review by conducting a broad search for articles published within the past 5 years, using the key words technology and higher education, in Google Scholar and the following research databases: Academic Search Complete, Communication & Mass Media Complete, Computers & Applied Sciences Complete, Education Research Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, and PsycINFO. Our initial search revealed themes regarding which technologies were most prevalent in the literature (e.g., social networking, digital games), which then lead to several, more targeted searches of the same databases using specific keywords such as Facebook and student engagement. After both broad and targeted searches, we identified five technologies (web-conferencing software, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, and digital games) to include in our review.

We chose to focus on technologies for which there were multiple studies published, allowing us to identify areas of convergence and divergence in the literature and draw conclusions about positive and negative effects on student engagement. In total, we identified 69 articles relevant to our review, with 36 pertaining to social networking sites (21 for Facebook and 15 for Twitter), 14 pertaining to digital games, seven pertaining to wikis, and six pertaining to blogs and web-conferencing software respectively. Articles were categorized according to their influence on specific types of student engagement, which will be described in more detail below. In some instances, one article pertained to multiple types of engagement. In the sections that follow, we will provide an overview of student engagement, including an explanation of common definitions and indicators of engagement, followed by a synthesis of how each type of technology influences student engagement. Finally, we will discuss areas for future research and make recommendations for practice.

Student engagement

Interest in student engagement began over 70 years ago with Ralph Tyler’s research on the relationship between time spent on coursework and learning (Axelson & Flick, 2011; Kuh, 2009). Since then, the study of student engagement has evolved and expanded considerably, through the seminal works of Pace (19801984) and Astin (1984) about how quantity and quality of student effort affect learning and many more recent studies on the environmental conditions and individual dispositions that contribute to student engagement (Bakker, Vergel, & Kuntze, 2015; Gilboy, Heinerichs, & Pazzaglia, 2015; Martin, Goldwasser, & Galentino, 2017; Pellas, 2014). Perhaps the most well-known resource on student engagement is the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), an instrument designed to assess student participation in various educational activities (Kuh, 2009). The NSSE and other engagement instruments like it have been used in many studies that link student engagement to positive student outcomes such as higher grades, retention, persistence, and completion (Leach, 2016; McClenney, Marti, & Adkins, 2012; Trowler & Trowler, 2010), further convincing universities that student engagement is an important factor in the teaching and learning process. However, despite the increased interest in student engagement, its meaning is generally not well understood or agreed upon.

Student engagement is a broad and complex phenomenon for which there are many definitions grounded in psychological, social, and/or cultural perspectives (Fredricks et al., 1994; Wimpenny & Savin-Baden, 2013; Zepke & Leach, 2010). Review of definitions revealed that student engagement is defined in two ways. One set of definitions refer to student engagement as a desired outcome reflective of a student’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about learning. For example, Kahu (2013) defines student engagement as an “individual psychological state” that includes a student’s affect, cognition, and behavior (p. 764). Other definitions focus primarily on student behavior, suggesting that engagement is the “extent to which students are engaging in activities that higher education research has shown to be linked with high-quality learning outcomes” (Krause & Coates, 2008, p. 493) or the “quality of effort and involvement in productive learning activities” (Kuh, 2009, p. 6). Another set of definitions refer to student engagement as a process involving both the student and the university. For example, Trowler (2010) defined student engagement as “the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimize the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution” (p. 2). Similarly, the NSSE website indicates that student engagement is “the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities” as well as “how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning” (Center for Postsecondary Research, 2017, para. 1).

Many existing models of student engagement reflect the latter set of definitions, depicting engagement as a complex, psychosocial process involving both student and university characteristics. Such models organize the engagement process into three areas: factors that influence student engagement (e.g., institutional culture, curriculum, and teaching practices), indicators of student engagement (e.g., interest in learning, interaction with instructors and peers, and meaningful processing of information), and outcomes of student engagement (e.g., academic achievement, retention, and personal growth) (Kahu, 2013; Lam et al., 2012; Nora et al., 2005). In this review, we examine the literature to determine whether technology influences student engagement. In addition, we will use Fredricks et al. (2004) typology of student engagement to organize and present research findings, which suggests that there are three types of engagement (behavioral, emotional, and cognitive). The typology is useful because it is broad in scope, encompassing different types of engagement that capture a range of student experiences, rather than narrower typologies that offer specific or prescriptive conceptualizations of student engagement. In addition, this typology is student-centered, focusing exclusively on student-focused indicators rather than combining student indicators with confounding variables, such as faculty behavior, curriculum design, and campus environment (Coates, 2008; Kuh, 2009). While such variables are important in the discussion of student engagement, perhaps as factors that may influence engagement, they are not true indicators of student engagement. Using the typology as a guide, we examined recent student engagement research, models, and measures to gain a better understanding of how behavioral, emotional, and cognitive student engagement are conceptualized and to identify specific

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