Topic: College of Communication Information and Media

September 13, 2011

If college students were in a reality television show about off campus life, they would vote to keep their computers, smartphones and televisions while quickly eliminating cable/satellite television, GPS systems and Blu-ray disc players, new research from Ball State University reveals.

Taking a page out of scripts of popular reality programming, researchers from Ball State's Center for Media Design (CMD) used the television scenario for "And Then There was One: College Students' Media Priorities and Preferences." In each round of the study, six focus groups — each comprised of four to 10 participants — met for about 90 minutes. They were given a list of 12 electronic devices and were required to identify which one they would eliminate each week. By the end of the semester, only one device could remain.

"Portability, convenient Internet access and bundling of office applications, communication tools and entertainment in a single device were the key selection criteria used to determine the order of elimination," said Michael Holmes, CMD director of insight and research. "As long as participants felt that the functions afforded by a device could be covered with an alternate device still in the mix, they were comfortable letting go of it."

CMD conducted the research in 2004 and repeated it earlier this year to compare student preferences in the quickly evolving world of emerging media.

In 2011, the laptop computer lasted an average of 11.7 weeks before elimination, while the smartphone was at 11.3 weeks and the television was at 9.7 weeks. Pay television services were eliminated on average at 1.3 weeks, followed by Blu-ray at 2.8 weeks and GPS devices at 3.7 weeks.

Students need a work horse

"College students still need a work horse," Holmes said. "For the students in our 2004 study, that work horse was the desktop computer. In the 2011 groups, it was the laptop. Our 2011 participants characterized the desktop computer as a dinosaur."

He noted that, in contrast, students value the current generation of laptop computers for their portability, multifunctionality and ability to keep them connected to the Internet for as long as possible in as many locations as possible.

"Not only do laptop computers serve as the platform of choice for many college students to complete research and writing assignments, but they also serve as a communication tool and an entertainment platform," Holmes said. "Traditional TV was still important to these students — surviving into the final few simulated weeks — but in 2011 the big screen was the platform for social co-viewing events rather than an always on media companion. "

Three of the 2011 focus groups were composed of smartphone owners. Of these, two groups decided their mobile phone would be their top device at the end of the exercise.

However, the decision to prioritize the smartphone may have been possible because computers are available to students in the university library and computer labs. For other groups, the smartphone was valued for communication and entertainment but wasn't considered effective for writing-intensive tasks, Holmes said.

The study also found that among desired functions, communication took precedence over entertainment.

"College, after all, is a social place, and students want to stay connected to their peers 24/7," Holmes said. "Also, many of the college students included in our study are living away from home and rely on their digital platforms to stay in touch with family members."

Lack of experience

A secondary criterion for early elimination was lack of direct experience. Participants in the 2004 groups had limited experience with MP3 players and eliminated them around midexercise. In 2011, groups lacked hands-on experience with tablet devices and thus had no trouble eliminating them early in the process. Tablets were presumed to be toys rather than necessities, the study found.

Holmes believes that the favored multifunctional workhorse for college students of 2018 will look different from today's laptop.

"The fact that some of our 2011 participants were willing to let the laptop go in order to hang onto their smartphones and even admitted to typing papers on their phones suggests that college students are willing to sacrifice ergonomic efficiency for enhanced portability and multifunctionality," he said. "Regardless of what form it takes, college students will continue to seek out the one device that provides the multifunctionality, performance and portability congruent with work and play."