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Shaping our collective future

Exploring shifting changes in user engagement

Lynn Silipigni Connaway   /   /  Comments: 0  /  Rating: 
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How do learners engage with the Web? How can educational services and systems attract and sustain a possible new group of lifelong learners? What motivates individuals to use particular technologies or spaces when engaging with the information environment?


These questions drive the Visitors and Residents activity, an OCLC- and JISC-funded collaboration between the University of Oxford (David White, Senior Manager in the Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning [TALL] program at the Department for Continuing Education) and OCLC Research (Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist), in partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (Donna Lanclos, Ph.D., Associate Professor for Anthropological Research at the J. Murrey Atkins Library). This longitudinal project identifies the shifting changes in users’ engagement with the information environment in order to develop better ways to attract and sustain new groups of lifelong learners, and to position the role of the library within the workflows of students and faculty.

Digital “visitors” take a functional approach to their use of technology. Thinking takes place offline. They prefer to remain anonymous online, have a less visible online presence, tend to be passive consumers of online content and favor face-to-face interactions. They spend less than six hours online per week.

“I always stick with the first thing that comes up on Google because I think that’s the most popular site which means that’s the most correct. So I tried that and it didn’t work.”
Female, Age 17

In contrast, digital “residents” demonstrate significant online presence and usage. They actively cultivate a visible online presence by collaborating and contributing online. This group does not hesitate to express opinions online or their identity in social networks. They are highly dependent on mobile devices, and they tend to spend more than 10 hours online per week.

What we are learning

Convenience trumps authority in the search for useful information. Sources such as Google and Wikipedia are common starting points for information seeking of all types.

Learners develop a variety of “digital literacies” in a social trial-and-error process, without the direct support or advice of educational institutions. This produces a “learning black market” where learners use nontraditional sources of information online, which may lack academic credibility. While these practices appear to be widely used and can be effective for their studies, students often are wary of citing such resources, and may even express guilt about using them and perceive that they have different opinions than their teachers about the quality of sources.

“I use [Wikipedia], kind of like, I won’t cite it on my papers but I, kind of, use it as a like, as a start off line. I go there and look up the general information, kind of, read through it so I get a general idea what it is. Then I start going through my research.”
Female, Age 19

Students frequently have highly developed digital literacy skills, such as Internet searching and using technology (specifically social media) but their information literacy skills (specifically evaluating information for authenticity) lag behind. They often equate the popularity of a source (e.g., being highly ranked by Google) with being correct, and can be nervous about which sources are valid.

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About the Author

  • Lynn Connaway

    Lynn Connaway

    Lynn is Senior Research Scientist and leads the activities of OCLC Research in studying the behavior of library users to determine their perceptions and information usage habits of a variety of reference services.