Being Mobile | Blog

How to Know What Students Think: Surveys and Conversations

Elliot: Hi folks, this week's blog will focus on ...

Cathie: ... recent reports on surveys of students wishes about technology and their wishes about learning more coding.

Elliot [getting red in the face with excitement]: FINALLY, someone bothered to ask the students what they were interested in!

Cathie [smiling]: I just KNEW you would love to rant about this one.... But before you go on and on ...

Elliot [chuckling]: ... WOW... no holding back the punches!

Cathie: ... let's take a closer look at exactly what the surveys of the students say.

Elliot [impressed voice]: ... almost two-thirds of students surveyed want to learn to code. That's an amazing percentage!

Cathie: And about one-third think that in the future, their jobs will require some coding. Clearly, our youth of today see computing not just as a gizmo to send Snapchats, but as part of what an adult does for work.

Elliot: Interestingly, I think the one-third are right! While general workers aren't going to code in Java or C++, they will use simple scripting languages. Have you seen the site ("If this then that")? It's a site that lets anyone set up triggers.... I watch changes in the weather and my Facebook stock price using that simple scripting language.

Cathie [eyebrow raised quizzically]: Really? You think Just plain folks are going to write scripts on their jobs.... You REALLY are a techie.

Elliot [laughing]: Your "reallys" have more meanings than a dog has fleas!

Cathie [sternly ... smiling]: OH ELLIOT!  Let's stay on course here....

Elliot [laughing]: ... sorry....

Cathie: And in another survey, 90 percent of the students surveyed say they believe tablets will change the way future students learn.

Elliot: Tablets? My turn: REALLY? Haven't those students read our blog posts?

Cathie: No, they haven't read our blog posts and they haven't kept up with the news that sales of tablets are falling. What the students are really saying, of course, is that they want to use their mobile devices in the classroom — that mobile devices will change how learning takes place.

Elliot: I agree.

Cathie [purposely provoking a response]: Really?

Elliot [arms wildly flailing]: Don't start! I wish the survey had probed deeper into WHY the students thought that tablets are the device of the future. If the survey had probed, I am sure it would have substantiated your point — for the students, tablets are a proxy for mobile devices.

Cathie: and mobile devices are this generation's technology.... Millenials, Gen Xers....

Elliot: ... while we baby-boomers use mobile, mobile is not in our soul. I was talking with a group of sixth and seventh grade girls working on LEGO robot projects, and I handed them tablets to try out our collabrified apps ... and after the testing period, the girls just couldn't keep their hands off the tablets; they kept trying apps. The touch interface, the directness of it, the immediacy of it, is really compelling to the "kids these days."

Cathie: Let's come back around — I know you like it that the students' voices were sampled, and it is important to hear what they have to say, of course, of course, of course, but we need to be really careful with developing surveys, administering surveys and drawing conclusions from surveys. For example, while two-thirds of the students sampled said they wanted to learn to program, the survey didn't ask "So, how many of you WILL spend the time to learn programming?"

Elliot: I agree with you ... yet again! Surveys are just one way to hear from students. Frankly, I prefer the old-fashioned way: talk WITH them.

Cathie: Absolutely! If we believe, which we do to our core, that "learning is in the conversation," then we need to make sure we have conversations with students, and not just survey them.

Elliot [again, arms wildly flailing]: Talking with students — Great way to end this blog! Thank you for your attention!

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at