Public Space Engagement and ICT Usage by University Students: An Exploratory Study in Three Countries
The new mobile information and communications technologies expand human connectivity to reconfigure public spatialities and to give rise to novel needs for, and practices of, public space usage. The research in this chapter focuses on university students to explore how they perceive and use the public space of university campuses and how they use personal information and communications technologies in it. This allows for an identification of emerging patterns and practices of university public space usage, along with preferable characteristics, designs and ways of management. Data are collected from three case studies, the University College Cork in Cork (Ireland), the University of Thessaly in Volos (Greece), and the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Warsaw (Poland), enabling us to spot similarities and differences in the above trends, that would be attributed to culture and local conditions and lifestyles.
KeywordsUniversity public space Information and communications technologies University students Cross-cultural analysis
One dominant and momentous trend is emerging as a defining hallmark of the contemporary era: the rapid global diffusion of personal information and communications technologies (ICTs), including mobile and smart phones, personal laptops and tablets devices (see Graham 2002). This rapid diffusion and uptake of personal ICTs presents a new societal challenge for cities of increasing diversity and inequality as social life in the city becomes increasing (yet perhaps unevenly) mediated by personal digital devices. The introduction of mobile personal digital technologies – such as mobile phones and personal laptops and tablets – is transforming the ways in which people use and engage with urban public space, as well as encounter others within those spaces and engage in social interactions and activities. While it is widely held that the introduction of ICTs has resulted in significant changes to the organisation of cities, public spaces and everyday social life (Graham 2002; Aurigi and de Cindio 2008), it remains that there is little research into the exact nature of the socio-cultural transformation resulting from personal ICT usage in the city and urban public spaces.
To explore the perceptions and attitudes of university students towards UPS. This objective included questions such as: What types of UPS do students use and engage with the most? How do university students use UPS? What features or attributes of the UPS do they value the most? Are they willing to participate in UPS management and maintenance?
To explore perceptions, attitudes and patterns of ICT usage among university students. This objective involved a series of sub-questions, such as: How intensively do university students use ICTs? What kind of devices and services are used? What activities do university students engage in whilst using ICTs? How they make use of ICTs when they are in UPS?
For the needs of the chapter, we reflect on preliminary analysis of the data to offer some initial observations regarding university student use of ICTs and UPS in universities at three European cities: Cork (Ireland); Volos (Greece); and Warsaw (Poland). Following this introduction, the chapter moves to explore some of the key literature in this field of research relating to ICT usages in urban public spaces, as well as on university campuses. This is followed then by a discussion of our research methodology, an introduction to our case studies, and preliminary analysis of the data. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the key findings.
2 New ICTs and the Usage of UPS
The proliferation of personal ICT devices has led scholars (predominantly in communication studies, as well as urban studies) to speculate about their exclusiveness, their perceived contributions to increasing privatisation and privatism in urban society (i.e. their role in widening the gap between the public and private realms), their contribution to the reduction of encounters with ‘others’ or the stranger and reduced chance encounters (Hampton et al. 2010; Hampton and Gupta 2008; Hatuka and Toch 2014; Leyshon et al. 2013). For example, Hampton et al. (2010) studied people’s use of Wi-Fi on personal mobile devices in public and semi-public spaces in a number of North American cities. This work found that although the availability of Wi-Fi in public spaces increased peoples use of such spaces, they were found not to be active participants in the social activities of the public spaces (i.e. they were ‘silent spectators’). The research concluded that the use of wireless internet on personal mobile digital devices in these spaces afforded a public privatism whereby people engaged in private personal activities and their private social networks whilst in public space, thus they were not active participants in public space. Further, the work of Leyshon et al. (2013) examined how young people locate themselves in the city through their use of GPS-enabled mobile phones. This research was partly concerned with the role of GPS-enabled mobile phones in young people’s way-finding and exploration through the city. While the study found that the young people were less like to ‘get lost’ in the city and had greater confidence in exploring new places as a result of their GPS-enabled mobile phones, they also found that the mobile devices proved a distraction from their surroundings in that they were less inclined to observe or engage with the surrounding urban environment. Findings, such as those from the aforementioned studies, create concerns for the diminishing value of public space in a traditional sense, for the declining significance of the city and urban spaces in the digital era, and for the potential of ICTs to generate and increase social inequalities, as well as reduce opportunities for encountering ‘others’ in the city (Valentine 2008). It is generally these themes that the undertaken research sought to explore in relation to university students and their uses of public spaces on the university campus.
Boren (2014) noted that there were now more mobile devices globally than people, making the mobile phone one of the fastest diffusing technologies in history with over seven billion mobile devices in global circulation. According to Leyshon et al. (2013), young people own many of these mobile devices and, as such, there are ongoing investigations into how new technologies are ‘changing young people’s behaviour, social relationships, attention spans, time expenditure and privacy’ (pp. 587–88). Given that young people are thought to be one of the most ‘tech-savvy’ segments of society with almost constant connectivity to digital devices, as well as constituting a significant target market for tech company products and innovations, we focussed our research on young people, mostly notable university students (predominantly aged 18–25).
There have been very few studies of how students actually use, perceive and evaluate campus green spaces (Speake et al. 2013), and furthermore there have been no research of how students use ICTs within university public spaces. Among topics discussed in previous studies related to campuses, there are: campuses studied as public spaces (Gumprecht 2007), campus green spaces and their positive influence on quality of life (McFarland et al. 2008) and campus as a tool for promotion of university (Griffith 1994). In his research, Gumprecht (2007), for instance, outlines that attractive and lively campuses enhance students’ experience of academic life, create memories and build loyalty among fellow students. Griffith (1994), in turn, reports that a choice of university often depends on the prospective student’s perception of the campus.
The studies of Speake et al. (2013) explored students’ perceptions and use of university campus green spaces - the case study of Liverpool Hope University. Their findings reveal that the vast majority of students both use and is pleased about green spaces, and believe there are important for the image of the university and make an essential component of the campus environment. Besides, the authors of this study underline that university campuses need various types of green spaces in order to satisfy the multifarious needs of students. However, they haven’t considered applying of ICT as example of such solutions, yet. In terms of social functions, the campus was described by surveyed students as place for “meeting people”, “chatting with friends”, “waiting for classes” or “simply for socialising” (Speake et al. 2013: 24). Furthermore, among most popular activities undertaken by students in UPS, the authors of quoted paper list: relaxation, eating or drinking, studying or sport.
3 Exploring ICT and UPS Usage in Three Case Studies
3.1 Research Concept and Methodology
This section discusses how university students perceive and report to use UPS and ICTs in three case studies across Europe: The University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, the University of Thessaly in Volos, Greece, and the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. Data were collected through an online questionnaire survey that explored students’ views, attitudes, stances and behaviours towards UPS and ICTs, examining a number of issues, such as: the qualities and facilities available in UPS, the ways and intensity of UPS use, the social interactions taking place, the student’s willingness to contribute to UPS management, the kind of ICT devices and services used, the intensity of their use and the activities students engage in through ICTs.
The questionnaire used consists of seven parts containing 56 questions of all kinds: measurement, dichotomous, ordinal, as well as Likert-type ones scaled from 1 (denoting strong disagreement, negative opinion, etc.) to 5 (denoting strong agreement, positive opinion, etc.). In particular, the first part of the questionnaire informs the participants on the purpose of the research and ensures the anonymity of participation. The second part records views regarding the condition of the UPS they use most (qualities, facilities, etc.) and the way these are used (intensity, activities, social interactions, etc.). The third and fourth parts assess respectively how students use ICTs generally in their life and in particular when they are in UPS (devises, services, ways of use, etc.). Part five examines aspects of UPS management and the willingness of students to get involved in this. The sixth part examines the social life of the students and their stances towards other people and institutions. Finally, the last part gathers socio-demographic information, such as gender, age, nationality, discipline of study, and economic status.
The survey took place in the second quarter of 2017. Questionnaires were distributed electronically by the research team, via Google forms, to university students. Apart from the initial invitation to participate in the research, students were notified two more times (through emails) to complete the developed questionnaire. This increased substantially the response rate and the quality of the survey. Responses were then put together, validated, coded and analysed to generate a number of statistics illustrating the respondents’ answers on the issues raised.
3.2 Description of the Cases
3.3 Composition of Respondents
To shed light on views and stances towards UPS and ICTs we asked students to evaluate (on a scale of 1: strongly disagree, to 5: strongly agree) the following statements: (1) UPS are absolutely essential to the university campus, (2) internet and Wi-Fi provision is absolutely essential to UPS, (3) students (i.e. users) should be heavily involved in UPS design, (4) students (users) should be heavily involved in UPS management, (5) security cameras should be applied in UPS, (6) controlled access should be applied in UPS, and (7) people should contribute financially to the creation and maintenance of UPS. As Fig. 19 reveals, all students believe that both UPS is necessary to the university campus and that Wi-Fi provision is essential to UPS. Turning to issues of user involvement in UPS design and management, students are rather neutral. In comparative terms, more prone to get involved are those of WULS and the least those of UTH. This might be related to the educational background of both; the former are studying (in majority) landscape architecture (so UPS design presents a challenge), whereas the latter are mainly students of economics. In regard to the issue of controlling access in UPS, students seem rather negative. Free UPS access for everybody is certainly what they prefer (though Greeks to a lesser degree), whereas students appear less negative (as compared to the controlled access) to the question of applying security cameras in UPS, with the Irish being more tolerant (in relation to Greeks and Polish) to such a development. Moving to the matter of financial contribution for the creation and maintenance of UPS, students are unanimously opposed to it.
This brings us to the question of who should pay for the costs of UPS. Figure 20 depicts the answers given by our sample. Clearly, the university is held responsible for the provision of this service and to a lesser degree the city and its administration; certainly such costs should be not born by the students.
Moving to assessments of stakeholders’ capacity to manage UPS, Fig. 21 shows that respondents believe that the university is the most capable of doing so. Provocatively, Polish students value very high student clubs and associations for their ability to perform the task (actually higher than the University). A special body created for this job is assessed relatively higher in Ireland, and the city authorities score relatively higher in Greece. Interestingly, the private sector scores last in all cases examined.
Finally, we examine the willingness of students to contribute in the provision and maintenance of UPS, by either donating money or volunteering some of their spare time to help look after the resource. Figures 22 and 24, corroborating our previous findings, reveal that students are reserved (to a degree) to help look after UPS and rather unwilling to offer money towards their improvement and maintenance. Of those willing to contribute, Greeks seem a bit more keen (compared to others) on providing both time (on average 3.96 h) and money for UPS management, and Polish are more reserved to both options (on average the hours that are willing to volunteer are 2.22).
This chapter has explored how university students perceive and use UPS and ICTs in three cases across Europe: The University College Cork in Cork (Ireland), the University of Thessaly in Volos (Greece) and the Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Warsaw (Poland). Data were collected through an online questionnaire survey that explored students’ self-reported views, attitudes, stances and behaviours towards UPS and ICTs, examining a number of issues, including the qualities of and facilities available in UPS, the frequency of UPS use and the activities performed, the kind of technological devices and services employed and the intensity of such usage, as well as student’s willingness to participate in UPS maintenance and provision. This allows to identify practices of UPS usage and emerging patterns of engagement with people and space, along with preferable designs and ways of management. Moreover, the three case studies examined enable us to spot similarities and differences in the above trends, i.e. between North Europe (Ireland) vs. South Europe (Greece) vs. Central/East Europe (Poland), that should be attributed to culture and local socio-economic conditions and lifestyles.
The analysis we conducted, though preliminary and descriptive in nature, revealed a number of points which we highlight thereafter. First, mutatis mutandis, all universities examined provide good quality UPS, with adequate facilities, that advance contemporary student life. An issue perhaps exists in Warsaw, where students report problems with the internet facilities and a relative shortage of places to sit and work. Second, students appreciate the UPS available and use them quite a lot in their everyday life as places to meet, interact and collaborate with their fellow students, as well as spaces where, taking advantage of the Wi-Fi facilities available, they can resort to study and work, to search for information and to communicate with the rest of the world. As such UPS play a key role in strengthening students’ interaction and socialisation and reinforcing their technological acquaintance and literacy. Third, smartphones constitute the principal ICTs device that students use, both outside university and when they are in UPS, satisfying their needs for wireless connection at any time and place. Fourth, despite the importance of good-quality ‘wified’ UPS in contemporary life, students seem rather reluctant to take part in their improvement and management, approaching it as a kind of public good which the University is obliged to provide at no (extra) cost to the user. This explains, in part, why they are also unwilling to accept measures of UPS surveillance and controlled access, which though they will increase security and protection of property and life, they would presumably jeopardise their freedom of expression and movement.
UPS is a kind of semi-public space, in the sense that it is owned or controlled by a public institution and it is partially, but not entirely, visible to and open to the use of the general public. Such spaces include, for example, university gardens, green spaces, walkways and entrance ways to university buildings (outdoor spaces), as well as indoor spaces such as student centers, refectories, or common areas within university buildings like the library.
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