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TMCNet:  The Communication Methods of Today's Students [CPA Journal, The]

[January 21, 2013]

The Communication Methods of Today's Students [CPA Journal, The]

(CPA Journal, The Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Is the Phone Conversation Dead Today's rapidly changing environment and proliferation of smartphones and other new devices has meant that the ways in which people prefer to communicate with others, find out the latest news, and perform their job duties are changing rapidly as well. The Internet and e-mail came onto the scene gradually at first but soon exploded and forever changed how we live our lives. To some extent, even e-mail appears to have reached a "maturity" phase, and might be on the decline as other forms of communication, such as texting, have come into vogue.


Rather than merely being limited to Generation Y, the mass adoption of texting and other contemporary forms of communication - such as Facebook or other social networking sites - has included many people in their forties and beyond. Nevertheless, there appear to be growing generational differences in preferences and communication tendencies. Many still consider texting to be inconsiderate, particularly when they are trying to communicate face-to-face with the one doing the texting. For example, ask a professor how she feels about students texting or using the Internet in the classroom for items irrelevant to the course.

In addition to professors, managers and bosses might find themselves more out of touch with the younger generation than ever before - making it even more important to understand how the younger generation communicates and attempt to resolve the differences that may result. For example, the short, informal nature of texting can spill over into e-mail messages, where many still prefer to read complete sentences and see traditional spelling. While brevity is appreciated when appropriate, overly terse messages can run the risk of offending the receiver. Fjcamining college students' preferred methods of communicating is potentially useful as a window into how tomorrow's professionals, business leaders, and politicians will communicate. It can provide an understanding into just where communication gaps might occur between the generations, whose defining time periods - that is, the span of years typically associated with a generation - continue to become ever shorter.

Survey Methods and Results The authors conducted an electronic survey of 166 students at two universities, one a small residential university in the southeastern United States and the other in a more urban environment in the Midwest. The survey, sent to 108 online students and 58 face-to-face (FTF) students, was administered near the end of a recent semester, and students received bonus credit for participation. Participants were asked for their preferred methods of communicating with professors and with classmates and fellow group members for both learning and soeializing purposes.

E-mail was indicated as the most frequent method of communicating for most purposes, and texting was relatively important as well, particularly for socializing. Respondents used neither Skype nor the various social networking sites widely for the purposes indicated, although they reported using Facebook to some extent for socializing.

Students indicated mat they rarely use phone conversations to communicate with professors or even with other students - a surprising result to the authors, given the rampant use of cell phones in society. The latter result has implications for educators; although phone calls are sometimes more efficient for answering detailed questions about course material, students prefer the less personal, more indirect (and arguably both less effective and efficient) method of e-mailing questions to their professors. This gap in preferences between professors and students might widen as professors age each year, while the average age of their students stays the same. In another finding, students were reasonably comfortable with online discussion board participation as a means of communication. Therefore, both online and in-class educational delivery in university and professional settings could potentially benefit from increased emphasis on this type of tool.

How Do Students Communicate with Others Exhibit 1 shows the preferences of FTF students for several possible methods of communicating. Students responded to the question, "Please indicate your most frequently used method for communicating with professors, classmates for learning or socializing, or group members for group projects or socializing." Exhibit 2 shows the same information for online students.

The combined results for FTF and online students (not shown separately) show that e-mail by computer and, to a lesser extent, e-mail by smartphone are by far the most common methods of communicating with professors, with 86% of respondents indicating one of these two methods. Other results revealed that 91% of students "rarely" or "never" use a phone to contact their instructor, while another 7% "occasionally" do so, consistent with the separate tables. Exhibits 1 and 2 show that FTF meetings are used by 18% of FTF students, but the frequency of mis is swamped by the use of e-mail. For other purposes listed in the survey, e-mail is also most common, particularly for communicating with classmates for learning and with group members for group assignments, both for online and FTF students. As smartphones continue to grow in popularity and displace computers, this trend might continue for some time to come. Online students show a stronger tendency to use e-mail for socializing purposes than FTF students.

Not surprisingly, online students use discussion boards more frequently than FTF students for virtually any purpose. FTF students naturally have more communication options man online students, but discussion boards offer a quick way for online students to discuss questions among themselves and get to know one another better. Texting is quite common for socializing, both with classmates and group members, but quite uncommon for any other reason in the survey. For FTF students, texting, Facebook, and FTF meetings together tend to be dramatically more popular for socializing; this is less so for online students. The reason for FTF meetings seems obvious, because FTF students are simply more likely to encounter each other in person; yet, the relatively greater popularity of texting and Facebook for socializing in this group also suggests mat students use mese methods more frequently with those that they have come to know better on a personal level.

Interestingly, telephone usage seems negligible for all of the purposes stated in the survey. This finding was surprising when it seems, anecdotalry, mat students talk on their cell phones all the time. This lead to the natural question - 'To whom are they talking " - and the authors assume they are talking with family members or other friends outside the school context.

Which Devices Do Students Use The survey was also designed to discover which electronic devices students tend to use. Exhibit 3 shows the percentages of FTF students indicating each of several possible devices mat they use, while Exhibit 4 shows the same for online students.

Laptops are far more popular among online students man any other device, for any purpose indicated in the survey. This is also true for FTF students with regard to communicating with their professors, with classmates for learning, and with group members for assignments. For socializing, there is a marked shift toward the use of cell phones and various smartphones for FTF students. Based on the other results discussed above, it would appear that cell phones and smartphones are more popular for texting than for talking. This shift toward the use of phones (and texting) is perhaps due to a greater likelihood of developing relationships with classmates in an FTF class, consistent with the tendency for texting to become relatively more popular when the sender knows the recipient better.

Does Gender Matter The general preferences do not appear as markedly different for males and females as the authors expected, although there are some differences when the results are broken down separately. When communicating with professors and with classmates for learning purposes, e-mail remains the most popular method for both males and females. Discussion boards take on slightly more importance among males for communicating with professors and for socializing, whereas females use mis medium relatively more for communicating with group members. Males are only slightly more likely to telephone their professors, but the use is very infrequent for all respondents.

Although texting is relatively important among bom males and females for socializing, its use seems to take on more importance for females, as does the use of Facebook. Statistical tests showed that females are significantly more likely to use texting for learning purposes than males. Together, the combination of Facebook, texting, and FTF meetings is dominant for both genders, with this majority being somewhat more pronounced for females.

The gender differences become somewhat more pronounced when considering the types of electronic devices used. Statistical tests using frequency data for the overall group indicate that males use iPhones more than females for social communication, but that females use smartphones other than iPhones significantly more often for the same purpose. Moreover, smartphones, including iPhones, seem to be preferred by females more than by males for learning purposes. What is not clear is the reason for this result, unless there is a general gender difference in the use of iPhones and other smartphones; however, the mean responses for either question indicate "occasional" use at most. Laptops are quite popular with bom genders for course-related purposes and social purposes, but significantly more so for females than for males. Both genders strongly prefer communicating with their professor by computer than by phone.

Conclusions This study reveals, perhaps unsurprisingly, that email is students' preferred method of communicating for many purposes. Texting is relatively important as well, both for online and FTF students, and particularly for socializing with classmates and group members. The greater popularity of texting for socializing in general, and the indication mat texting is relatively more common for FTF man online students, suggests that students prefer texting primarily after they have developed a more informal relationship. Text messages tend to be short and informal, and texting would seem be too cumbersome and ineffective for learning purposes.

One survey result came as a surprise to the authors: participants do not use social networks - such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace - very often, despite the popularity of these phenomena. Skype is virtually unused by respondents, perhaps because its advantages are more evident for long-distance communication than for other purposes. But even online students, who often are in different states and even other countries, did not report using Skype for any purpose. Overall, gender does not appear very important in assessing students' preferred methods of communicating.

The finding mat cell phones are used primarily for e-mail or texting has implications for professors. In the authors' experience, students often seem averse to making a phone call to resolve a question; however, a phone call often might be the next best thing to being at an FTF meeting and preferable to communicating via computer. For example, a student might send an e-mail with several detailed questions, for which an oral conversation would be a much more efficient - and, often, more effective - way to answer the questions. Typing the responses and explanations in an e-mail can take considerably more time and be less effective in some cases, closely akin to the challenge encountered in trying to explain material online. Teaching in the classroom is simply more natural, with arguably far less need to agonize over tone. E-mails must be carefully constructed in order to avoid sending an undesired message or unintentionally offending the receiver, which often takes more time than an oral conversation.

Nevertheless, the findings suggest that today's students strongly favor the more indirect method of e-mailing over the more direct method of making a phone call. The challenge ties in bridging mis gap in such a way that students are satisfied mat their questions are answered, while instructors are not spending an undue amount of time resolving questions effectively.

There are implications for businesses as well. Speaking at a conference, one seasoned upper-level public accounting professional told of a younger, relatively new person in the office who offended a partner when asked to perform a task. The younger person was in the process of doing something on another assignment and, perhaps accustomed to the terse nature of textmessaging, sent a response in a tone that was quite (unintentionally) offensive to the partner. The differences between the two were later reconciled, but mis short account illustrates the importance of understanding mat differences in communication tendencies are sometimes no laughing matter. Unintended consequences can result if communicators do not take sufficient care when expressing themselves.

Managers and bosses might find themselves more out of touch with the younger generation than ever before- making it even more important to understand how the younger generation communicates.

Clement C. Chen, PhD, CPA, is a professor of accounting in the school of management at the University of Michigan-Flint. Keith T. Jones, PhD, CPA, is a professor of accounting in the department of accounting and business law at the University of North Alabama, Florence, AL·. Shawn Xu, PhD, is an assistant professor of accounting in the school of management at the University of Michigan-Flint.

(c) 2012 New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants

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