Deciphering student search behaviour

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A new study reveals how students conceal their real search strategies from their tutors. Sarah Bartlett reports

Is there a learning black market in higher education? This intriguing question emerges from early findings of the JISC-funded Visitors and Residents project [1], which explores learning motivations and information-seeking behaviours across education stages.

The project, in which OCLC Research is partnering with the TALL Group at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, J. Murrey Atkins Library, has already made some fascinating discoveries. Students routinely turn to Google and discuss their work with peers on Facebook. Such unorthodox blends of personal online lifestyles with formal learning seem to serve them well.

But according to David White, senior manager of development of the TALL Group (ALT Learning Technologist Team of the Year, 2010), students are nevertheless nervous about the validity of these practices and conceal them from their tutors. White and his colleagues have noted that students are side-stepping their tutors’ opposition to Wikipedia, for example, by citing articles it references rather than Wikipedia itself. ‘This masks the true scale of these new modes of engagement,’ says White.

White believes that information-seeking behaviours are converging across personal and institutional spheres, as a combined effect of the social web, cloud-based applications and the multi-tab environment. He observes: ‘A lot of the students we interviewed do their research on Wikipedia or syllabus-based websites and have an adjacent tab open on Facebook. They flit between the two, occupying personal and institutional spaces simultaneously, and gather information from outside the institutional context as well as within it.’

Quite often, students will disregard a textbook recommended by their tutor in favour of an online search, the latter being more likely to give a concise and exact answer. ‘Hiding in our data is the perceived importance of effort in teaching and learning,’ says White. ‘If the web can deliver a completely correct answer, is true learning taking place? When asked what would be the ideal way to find things out, most students want a Google search that gives them exactly the right answer in exactly the right volume of information. This implies that what many regard as the traditional process of research is what you have to do because the technology doesn’t actually work properly yet.’

Motivations for technology

Little is known about learner motivations for using specific technologies and spaces when engaging with the information environment. In a longitudinal study, the Visitors and Residents project is mapping the activities of 24 individuals across diverse stages of learning in the UK and the USA to the Visitor-Residency and the Personal-Institutional axes (see box). Mapping the full arc of web-based activities will identify where the personal and the institutional overlap and where they are distinct. ‘It is clear that institutionally-provided resources and services are not always the first port of call when searching for information, and instead form part of a much larger information-seeking cycle,’ says White.

However, the convergence of the personal and the institutional belies a genuine desire for convenient, trustworthy information, explicitly articulated by students participating in the project. ‘If institutions can gain an understanding of learner-owned literacies,’ continues White, ‘they can locate where they intersect with quality resources and the academic rigour of the institution in the context of the wider web culture.’

The role of the library

Many university librarians are now embedded in the faculty, and work with both students and staff throughout the year on literacy skills. This is a commendable development but one problem that remains is that students do not always realise that they are using a high-quality, paid-for, curated service because access is so seamless that it blends into more general web resources.

Lynn Silipigni Connaway, senior research scientist at OCLC Research, agrees: ‘Research carried out by OCLC Research since 2003 bears this out. Individuals say they never use the library but when you probe a little, they actually use databases and e-journals provided by the library. By branding these resources, the library would signpost the intersection between the web and the institution, as well as promoting the value it is adding.’

Even though institutions are keen to ensure that students make full use of academic information resources, as Connaway points out, ‘In the current climate, libraries cannot offer every conceivable service channel. At the moment, though, one size fits no-one. We need a model for allocating resources to all channels. One of the [Visitors and Residents] project’s deliverables will be a matrix of implementation options for institutions, based on the user needs that emerge from the mapping process.’

Further Information

[1] White, D.S., and Connaway, L.S. 2011. Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment.

[2] Prensky, 2001. Digital natives, digital immigrants.

David White will deliver an update of the Visitors and Residents project at OCLC’s conference, Developing a New Blend of Library, which will take place on 28–29 February 2012 in Birmingham, UK. White’s session promises to present a realistic picture of information practices in the digital era, drawing out some of the learner-owned literacies which are emerging from early findings. He will also suggest some ways in which the institution can deploy its resources to maximum effect.

What are visitors and residents?

The research project is underpinned by an increasingly popular typology, visitors and residents, which was conceptualised by one of the project team, David White of the TALL Group, University of Oxford. ‘I was working on virtual worlds at the time,’ he recalls, ‘when I realised that some people are, in a sense, living online.’ He explains what he means by visitors and residents: ‘Visitors come onto the web to get what they want or need, then come away again leaving no trace of themselves online, whereas residents live a portion of their lives online and leave a form of their identity on the web. These aren’t fixed identities though – most individuals can switch between these behaviours according to context.’

White is at pains to differentiate the visitors and residents typology from Prensky’s idea of digital natives and immigrants [2], in which age correlates precisely with technological skill-sets. Residents, with their proclivity for living online, could easily be credited with superior technical skills.

However, the resident is no more or less competent than the visitor, whose defining characteristic is, in fact, goal-orientation. ‘Visitors critically assess whether a specific platform will solve a problem or move them towards an objective they have set,’ White says.