Student Technology Survey Results – Desktops, laptops and tablets

By Matt Cornock

This is the second of a series of posts which look at data collected from the surveys of Year 1 students who attend my induction sessions. In this post I look at the way students’ desktop, laptop and tablet ownership have changed over three years.


Details of the method and response rates are available in the first post on mobile phone ownership. Students were able to select as many devices as they owned from a list provided.

Desktop, laptop and tablet ownership amongst students

I’ve previously shown the results for mobile phone ownership, but content consumption and interaction are still minimal on these devices for learning purposes. It is important to get a sense of the ownership of more powerful computer devices, in particular mobile computing that could be harness inclass or for group working.

Graph showing desktop, laptop and tablet ownership for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Significant details discussed in main text and table of 2013 results available below.

Desktop ownership remains steady

Interestingly desktop ownership amongst students is around 20% and this hasn’t changed much between the different survey years. It is important to note that the MA Social Work cohort had more than twice the ownership rate compared to any of the undergraduate cohorts surveyed. This is probably in part due to the historic ownership of devices by people who are older. I make the assumption here that younger people’s first computers are more likely to be laptops than desktops. For one of the undergraduate cohorts in 2013, desktop ownership is just 3 out of the 23 respondents (13%), significantly lower than previous averages and other cohorts.

Laptop trends

The laptop options were ‘Full-size laptop computer’ and ‘Small, lightweight, ‘netbook’ computer’. In 2013 I added a specific screen size dimension, for large laptops this was 15″ or more, for smaller laptops this was less than 15″ This numeric distinction would help as more ‘powerbooks’ came onto the market which had the processing power of a full-size computer rather than the net-browsing only capability of ‘netbooks’.

The results show that the smaller, more portable laptiops are gaining significant ground over the full size laptops. This may be due to the choice of the individual, but also due to the manufacturers who are reducing their larger screen size laptop range. In fact there is a 9% drop in large laptop ownership (2011-2013) and a 11% growth in smaller laptop ownership. These stats alone do not show the full picture, so we must also bring in tablet computing which since the introduction of cheaper competitors to the iPad has also increased in terms of ownership.

Tablet trends

As per laptops, the wording in the question changed slightly. Though iPads were isolated in each survey, the ‘other tablet computer’ catchall category referred to the BlackBerry PlayBook as an example in 2011 and 2012. In 2013, the example was ‘Android Tablet, Galaxy Tab 7″ or 10″‘ representing the more likely device ownership.

The iPad is still the most commonly owned tablet from our survey, and this assumes that students are conscious of the differences between the Apple iPad and other brands of tablets (some are very alike, and “iPad” is arguably used as a catchall for tablets). Though there was a bump up to 15% ownership in 2012, this hasn’t increased further in 2013 (dropped by 2%, though the difference in response rate could play a part here too). Other tablet ownership has increased significantly from 2012 to 2013, with just 1% in 2011, 2% in 2012 rising to 8% ownership of an ‘other tablet’ in 2013. We can assume that the availability of cheaper tablet computing devices has contributed towards this increase in ownership.

Summary of results for 2013 cohort

The overall ownership of any laptop or tablet has reached the 98% mark in 2013, though again, the difference in response rate year-on-year makes it hard to accurately compare to 2012 where ownership was at 93%.

Device Respondents owning
Desktop 23%
Any laptop or tablet 98%
Full-size laptop computer (15″ or more) 73%
Small, lightweight, ‘netbook’ laptop (less than 15″) 28%
iPad 13
Other ‘tablet’ computer (e.g. Android Tablet, Galaxy Tab 7″ or 10″) 8%


This year again we see across the cohort that mobile computing is widely adopted. This leads to opportunities for computer-based group activities in class or out of class, where one or more individuals in a group can be assumed to have a suitable device. There are cases within the institution where mobile computing is being used in class for collaborative data analysis (Professor Matthew Collins’ use of Chromebooks). With the exception of subjects for which specialist software is required, we can ignore the differences between PC and Mac ownership, as the functionality and compatibility of basic office documents and websites is not as big an issue as it used to be. There are some considerations for students who have tablets only instead of a laptop or desktop, who may struggled to undertake typing tasks on a tablet alone (e.g. essay writing). Anecdotally, colleagues in the Library have observed that students are using multiple devices, for example the campus supported PCs for essay writing with their own tablets for showing PDF documents – which is an interesting study in itself about the way workspaces and documents relate. Tablets don’t have the same processing grunt as laptops, with perhaps the exception of more recent iPads and more expensive competitors, and as such are relegated to web-browsing and document viewing only. Tablets also have restrictions on the sorts of web content they can engage with, for example Flash content is next to impossible to view. That said, there are advantages to using tablets for document provision and web browsing in class, particular where a learning activity requires or can encourage students to draw upon a wide range of resources for discussion, group work or problem-solving exercises.

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