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Well Prepared for University?

May 11th, 2019

Which basic computer and information-related skills do students and prospective students possess?

(Translation of an article in: IPN Journal No 4)

Martin Senkbeil, Christian Schöber und Jan Marten Ihme

Proficient use of information and communication technologies (ICT literacy) is indispensable for students. Studies from North America and Australia show that although students have been familiar with digital media since early childhood, they do not always have the necessary ICT literacy to make optimal use of digital teaching and learning formats at university. An IPN study examines if students in Germany have the necessary digital skills.

Both the increase in digital teaching and learning formats at universities (e.g., blended learning, i.e., the enrichment of classroom teaching with digital learning formats) and the digitalization of the workplace require that major areas of knowledge over a person's entire life span must be largely self-directed and acquired primarily via digital media. Academic professions are particularly hard hit, as routine tasks are increasingly being replaced by new technologies and the proportion of complex tasks in the workplace is rising. The ability to use digital media to identify, critically select, evaluate and effectively use information is an important aspect of ICT literacy.

For a long time it was assumed that students, as members of the so-called digital natives generation, have sufficient ICT literacy due to their socialization influenced by digital media. But results of empirical studies - especially from North America and Australia - contradict this assumption: Students cannot make optimal use of digital teaching and learning formats at university because they do not always have the necessary ICT literacy, even though they have become familiar with digital media at an early age. So far, however, Germany has lacked both standards describing the ICT-related knowledge and skills required for study as well as empirical studies on ICT literacy.

ICT Literacy Standards for Students

Data from the National Education Panel Study (NEPS) on ICT literacy is now available for both advanced university students in the 6th semester and prospective university students, i.e., students in the 12th grade. ICT literacy was measured using approximately 30 multiple-choice tasks. The tasks collect basic ICT-related knowledge and skills important for all students with regard to their academic and professional progress (e.g., competent use of office and e-mail programs, efficient information searches on the Internet). However, they do not target digital teaching and learning formats specific to particular disciplines.

An expert panel was invited to participate in a so-called standard setting procedure in order to determine which ICT literacy students should possess to successfully complete their studies. The panelists were presented a first version of the description of skills that students should at least have (minimum standard: competence level basic) or that they should normally have (norm standard: competence level proficient) in order to be successful in their studies.

Each panel member then received the ICT Literacy Test tasks from NEPS, sorted according to their difficulty, and determined which competence level they belonged to according to the required cognitive processes. The individual decisions were then discussed in the panel. After three rounds, the allocation was jointly determined using cut scores.

Finally, the panelists refined the descriptions of the two competence levels. The panelists also determined a cut score that describes the ICT literacy required to begin university studies. Persons below this cut score (below minimum standard) are assigned to the Below Basic competence level. Students at this competence level have only rudimentary ICT literacy. They can identify and retrieve simple information on the Internet (e.g. the legal notice of a website) or simply format digital documents. It seems unlikely that people at this level will be able to create information products such as presentations in a self-directed way. People on the minimum standard (Basic) have basic knowledge of the use of the Internet (e.g., sorting and filtering information with search engines according to individual criteria), can usually select appropriate presentation formats and evaluate information according to a single criterion (e.g., relevance or usefulness). People on the Proficient standard can, for example, correctly assess the credibility and usefulness of complex information with regard to specific criteria, select relevant information and prepare it using suitable programs. They have advanced knowledge in the use of digital communication tools and can recognize phishing messages, for example.

We examined the distributions of advanced and prospective students according to the defined competence levels. We also differentiated according to gender and subject groups (advanced students) or examination subjects (prospective students).

Overall, almost half of the students in the sixth semester were assigned to the Proficient competence level (47.3 %) and the Basic competence level (49.0 %). There were clear differences in the distribution between the academic subject groups. While almost two thirds of engineering students achieved the Proficient level of competence (62.9 %), only a good third of language, art and cultural studies students achieved this level. Furthermore, considerably more male students (60.9 %) than female students (38.5 %) demonstrated a proficient level of competence.

This effect is robust across all subject groups, so it cannot be explained by a different distribution of the sexes among the subject groups. It is striking that 5% of female students in the sixth semester are still at a level below the minimum standard.

The distribution among the prospective students (grade 12) was somewhat less favorable than among the students. Just under one fifth of the young people did not reach the minimum standard required for admission to a university (Below Basic: 19.8%). A further fifth reached the standard (17.8% Proficient). Girls in this group also showed clear disadvantages compared to young men. They are disproportionately below the minimum standard (23.2 % vs. 15.5 %) and are significantly less likely to meet the standard (13.3 % vs. 23.3 %).

The long-cherished assumption that students in Germany have sufficient ICT literacy throughout the country with regard to their academic and professional advancement is not tenable in view of these results. Only engineering students - and to a lesser extent mathematics and science students - seem well prepared. The greatest deficits in competence can be seen among students of linguistics, art and cultural studies. Ultimately, however, there are substantial deficits across all subject groups. As the results of the prospective students show, these obviously already exist at the beginning of the studies and cannot be fully compensated during the course of the studies.

Also noteworthy is men’s greater ability than women’s. These results contradict, for example, the findings of the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) in 2013, in which girls in the 8th grade performed slightly better than boys. This finding needs to be further investigated.


ICT Literacy

ICT literacy refers to functional (i.e., life and work-related) knowledge and skills in dealing with digital media that are important for successful participation in society and continuous learning. ICT literacy comprises not only technological competences (basic functional knowledge of software applications) but also information-related competences. These include the ability to use digital media to identify information, select it critically and use it effectively for specific purposes in various contexts (e.g., study, personal matters).

The National Education Panel

The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), launched in October 2008, examines the competencies of individuals from different age cohorts on a longitudinal basis over their lifespan. The age spectrum in the study ranges from kindergarten to adulthood. The study, also known as the National Education Panel, was commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and carried out by an interdisciplinary, Germany-wide network of excellence under the auspices of the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) at the Otto Friedrich University of Bamberg. The IPN is part of this network and represents the research area competences in the fields of mathematical competence, scientific competence and computer literacy.

The CiBaS Study

The primary goal of the project Computer and Information-Related Basic Competences in Students and Prospective Students (CiBaS) is to investigate the ICT literacy of students and prospective students and to classify it on the basis of a theoretically derived catalogue of criteria. An essential goal of this project is to determine those segments that do not have sufficient ICT literacy skills to successfully complete their studies and work, taking into account relevant personal characteristics such as gender or subject.