Left to his own devices, Chris Borchert has found plenty of ways to become more productive. The University of British Columbia engineering student owns an iPad, Mac laptop and desktop computers, and he recently switched from a BlackBerry to an iPhone. "Everybody my age is plugged into their smartphone," says Borchert, 23, who is in his second year of engineering studies and has a degree in animal biology from UBC.
Borchert finds it easy to shift between Apple devices by using Dropbox and other cloud-based services. One of his go-to apps is Splashtop, which allows him to remotely access and control his desktop computer. He can use the app over a 3G network wherever he is.
To study for a recent mid-term exam, Borchert needed an answer key to a practice exam. "The only place I had it was on my computer at home, and I was already on campus," he says. "So I just turned on Splashtop and moved the document into Dropbox, and then I had access to it on my phone and my iPad."
Smartphones can do just about anything now, says Borchert, who also uses his iPhone to connect with fellow students on Facebook. "It's really neat to be able to do an assignment on the phone when I'm on the bus," he enthuses. "Otherwise that can be sort of wasted time."
Mobile devices, cloud services and social media can help Borchert and his peers succeed academically and socially. But university students vary greatly in their adoption of such tools, which don't necessarily deliver productivity gains. These technologies sometimes have a steep learning curve, and they may add unwanted pressure to students' lives.
"There are some students who are incredibly fluent with social media, who are using all of these tools and technologies," says Mark Lipton, an associate professor at the University of Guelph's School of English and Theatre Studies whose research interests include media and communication. "And then there are other undergraduates who don't know what cloud computing is, who may have a cellphone but aren't really using mobile apps. So there's a huge diversity among students, much more than I think we realize."
Also, students who do use social media are fickle. There's talk that Facebook is already on its way out as a website that young people regularly use, Dr. Lipton notes. "I'm about to start teaching again, and one of my main questions will be, 'So, what are you using?'" he says. "Ask me again in four months and I'll have a whole different set of answers for you."
UBC computer science student Sara Bainbridge uses Dropbox and Google Docs extensively for both group projects and individual work.
Bainbridge, 23, likes the fact that these services are free and that they sync to her iPhone and Linux laptop. "If I'm working on a lab computer on an assignment, I don't want to have to e-mail it to myself," she says. "I just want to save it and be done with it."
Bainbridge, who is entering her final undergrad year, grudgingly admits to being a Facebook user. "Facebook is where you meet new people, you get to know your classmates," she says. "That's where we co-ordinate all our events, like study groups. So Facebook is still the hub for everything, unfortunately."
Although she's tried so-called productivity apps such as Cramster, Evernote and
Remember the Milk, Bainbridge mostly relies on Google Calendar. The other apps can take a long time to learn, and then there's no guarantee that their makers will survive, she explains. "With something like Google, I'm more certain that they'll stick around."
Borchert prefers Apple's Calendar app, but he uses Awesome Note to keep track of assignments and his freelance photography career. As he points out, one drawback of Awesome Note and Evernote is that they don't sync across devices. "I still find myself sending myself text messages as reminders," he says.
Guelph's Dr. Lipton doesn't know many students who use such productivity apps faithfully. "In terms of how it improves productivity, that's a real question mark in my mind," he says. "A lot of students are starting to keep an electronic calendar, and I encourage that."
In class, Borchert takes notes on his iPad by typing and using a stylus. "What's nice about that is that I don't have a big stack of paper after," he says. Also, the stylus lets him write mathematical formulas that would be tough to replicate even with a specially designed keyboard.
For her purposes, Bainbridge is no fan of the tablet. "I see the iPad as kind of just a consumption device," she says. "Typing on it is a huge pain, and all my work is coding. Plus, Apple is so locked down with their tablets too that it really is just like an expensive little magazine reader."
Norm Vaughan understands where she's coming from. A professor in the Department of Education and Schooling at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Dr. Vaughan led a 2011 study that looked at how 14 students in an educational technology course used mobile devices for tasks that included planning and preparing for learning. Each participant received a Dell ViewSonic tablet.
Before the study, 64 per cent of the students thought positively of tablets and smartphones as a planning and preparation tool; afterward, that number dropped to 29 per cent. "It was a great way to consume or take in information," Dr. Vaughan says of the tablet, "but it was still a little awkward with the keyboard."
There's also debate about the value of video chat in an academic setting. Borchert uses Apple's Facetime and Skype's video service to talk to family members. But nearly all of his communication with other students is text-based, whether it's by e-mails, tweets,
Facebook postings or text messages.
Bainbridge stays away from video. "I don't think I've ever actually used Skype for video chat, and I can't stand Skype for voice chat," she says. "There's never really a need for it, because my friends and I have grown up talking to each other on instant messaging, so it's more natural, I think – more casual."
However, Dr. Lipton says more students take advantage of his Skype hours than his physical office hours. "Some of them use Skype as a sort of chat room when they know that I'm on," he says. "In fact, many of them will video Skype with me."
No matter which technologies they adopt, students can find themselves robbed of control over their own time. "Most of the students I know, they feel a pressure to always be on," says Leslie Shade, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information. "They have to be on with cellphones, they have to be available through e-mail."
On top that, they must build their own online social brand by doing things like showing proficiency with Tumblr, Twitter and other tools, Dr. Shade observes. "And often they're very concerned with reputation management," she says. "They're very cognizant about what they're going to put online and what people are going to see about them, and what kind of identity they want to show."
Borchert, who concedes that he constantly checks e-mail on his iPhone, can relate to some of that. "I like to keep a little bit of distance sometimes or have a little control over when I respond to things," he says. "Some people are really just tied to their phone."