Following on from last week’s article on digital capabilities, we focus this week on one aspect of students’ digital capabilities: how they search for the resources that they need for their learning, an aspect of information literacy. This article is an edited extract from the report of the DIGE 2 investigation into the student digital experience which we conducted last year. The empirical work included surveys of, and individual interviews with, students and academic staff. We were interested in 1) how students have acquired the requisite skills, 2) what reference sources they consult when conducting a literature search and 3) the rough proportion of their reading that they access online.
As Figure 1 shows, most of the respondents to the student survey across all course types were at least partly self-taught, and nearly 50% had benefited from training provided by the University’s libraries. Academics had provided support to undergraduates in particular during tutorials or seminars, and online materials recommended by a member of staff had been used by an average of 27% of respondents.
The interview data flesh out this picture; six interviewees referred to developing their information literacy through trial and error, practice or experimentation. For example, one humanities undergraduate reported that she had been given ‘tailored’ online study resources online at school, but found at Oxford that ‘there is nothing specific to help with your 3rd-week Classics tutorial at Balliol.’ She had to learn how to conduct effective web and library searches to find reliable results. She also had to manage the jump between reading textbooks at A Level to working through academic journals and articles, and using technology to help with this.
Only one interviewee seemed to have received adequate training in information search skills at school which had stood them in good stead on arrival at Oxford.
Sources of references
The main sources of references employed by students when conducting a literature search for an essay, report or dissertation (Figure 2) are the reading list for their course, followed by a library catalogue such as SOLO and then Google Search. Peer-sharing also appears to play a substantial role, which reflects the data on informal collaboration and students’ use of Facebook and other social media for circulating references that we also collected in the project. Closer analysis of the data shown in Figure 2 suggests a gradual shift towards more scholarly sources as students undertake more research and look for peer-reviewed literature and build up their own personal collection of references.
The survey and interview data from academic staff across the divisions reinforce the picture of first-year students’ struggles with searching and evaluating resources painted by the Balliol undergraduate above. Some take steps to help the students in tutorials, such as this survey respondent from the humanities:
I teach students how to evaluate, use and make digital resources, not least in a way that allows them to better use non-digital resources and to understand the history of knowledge. They aren’t very aware of these issues when they get to me. They are, however, extremely curious about them and take pleasure in seeing issues around digital knowledge and media placed in context with the history and present state of their subject as a whole.
Another humanities tutor gives students an electronic reading list ‘that they can just copy and paste into SOLO to find the copy.’ Providing reading lists in electronic format that contain direct links, either to a publication itself or to its entry in the SOLO catalogue, can be a contentious issue among academics, as we knew from our previous digital experience project (DIGE 1: 2011-12). However, a DIGE 2 interviewee from the Humanities Division suggested that there may be a case for easing students’ access to materials, in part because of the intensive nature of Oxford courses:
I’m quite proactive in encouraging them to engage with primary sources where it’s possible, which I realise can be difficult with the time-intensive nature of the course and the range of material we have to cover, but there are a huge amount of online deposits.
Online or print?
Turning to the question of digital vs ‘physical’ resources, the DIGE 1 project uncovered an assumption among staff that students prefer to obtain their reading matter online. We tested this assumption in the DIGE 2 student survey by asking how they actually obtain their reading. As Figure 3 shows, although there is a strong tendency to obtain reading materials online, ‘physical’ materials (e.g. books taken directly from the library shelf or purchased) hold up well among students on taught programmes. The picture changes as students move into research and increasingly access e-journals.
At least one student, and a number of staff interviewees, commented on the detrimental effect that obtaining most of one’s reading matter online can have on one’s intellectual development. In the experience of another humanities undergraduate,
…if I do a lot of reading online there is less of my own voice in an essay because I have just read so much stuff online [that] I don’t really know how to think any more. Whereas if I do selective reading of, like, three books, for example, it’s much more easy to decide who I agree with, or whatever.
In a survey response, an academic from the Social Sciences Division observed that ‘students are so used to downloading material they have lost the ability to read large amounts of material and provide an accurate précis of the material. They rely on having the material in front of them.’ In her interview, she added that it can be hard to make students to realise that they have to do more than simply have a document to hand on their laptop in the tutorial; they need to have already read it and made notes. She wondered whether embedding direct links to documents in the reading list may be hindering students’ learning in this respect, since if the students had to search for a text themselves they might be more inclined to engage with it.
An academic interviewed from MPLS expressed uncertainty whether students know how to make connections across the different information they find on the Web:
When you look for information in the dusty library and you sit down you inevitably discover other things along the way. With electronic you find different sorts of connected information. I’m not sure students realise that they can make connections between this information.
He acknowledged a possible role for tutors in helping students to develop this capability: ‘That is probably our fault for not teaching them. We can probably teach them a lot more how researchers find information.’ Indeed, this observation is reflected in one of the recommendations of the DIGE 2 project: to strengthen and expand support for the development of students’ digital capabilities, covering (among other things) subject-specific skills training.
Readers with an Oxford single sign-on can download a copy of the DIGE 2 research report from WebLearn.