Institutions are now investing in both online presences and gaming courses - but how effective are these strategies? Tony Tysome investigates.
Academics who seize upon the latest online technology to deliver courses, and universities that attempt to market themselves on popular social networking websites, could be putting students off, research suggests.
A survey of sixth-formers preparing to enter higher education has revealed that many have little regard for universities' attempts at marketing and teaching on sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and via blogs and podcasts. Many see it as an invasion of their territory.
The survey of more than 500 students, conducted by Ipsos MORI and commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee, found that the sixth-formers saw themselves as "digital natives" immersed in new technology. But they struggle to see the benefits of using it for anything more than socialising, information-gathering and entertainment.
A growing number of universities have now begun or are considering using digital and online technological developments such as social networking sites, 3-D virtual world sites, podcasting and wikis - collaborative websites that users can edit - in a bid to explore new teaching and learning methods and connect with current and potential students.
The survey found strong evidence that most young people are actively involved in using such technology. Nearly two thirds regularly use online social networking sites such as Facebook, more than a quarter often access wikis or blogs and around a fifth are part of an online virtual community such as Second Life.
However, discussion groups revealed that prospective students do not see online or digital communication as a substitute for face-to-face interaction, either in their social lives or education. Many also hold strong reservations about the idea of academics "invading" these areas of their lives to provide trendy new ways of teaching and learning.
Charles Hutching, Jisc market research manager, said: "There is a concern among young people that this is their space, their territory and their way to keep in touch with their peers. They struggle to see how and where the academic institution can tap into that world. They seem to take the view: 'This is our space - don't invade it.' That is one of the key dimensions of their inability to see how things like online social networking can tie in with learning."
He added: "If institutions are intending to use these technologies as a way of supplementing teaching and learning, they need to be aware that incoming students are unsure about how that can work and may not engage with it as readily as academics might expect."
The survey found, however, that prospective students have high expectations about what information and computer technology facilities will be available to them at university. As paying customers, most students expect almost unlimited access to broadband services and computers and not to be locked out of the social networking sites they use.
Sir Ron Cooke, chairman of Jisc, said the findings showed that young people "clearly have very particular needs and expectations as far as ICT is concerned".