Digital Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?


We have little understanding of what motivates individuals to use particular technologies or spaces when engaging with the information environment. As a result, institutions focus on the provision of resources without properly considering the expectations or motivations of students and scholars. Individuals' shifting engagement with the information environment appears to have radically changed in the last decade; yet it is unclear whether this is the effect of larger cultural changes brought about by the web or of new attitudes towards education as a whole.

This project does not aim to answer "What works?" but "Why does it work?" If we gain a better understanding of student and scholar motivations for engaging in the information environment, we have a greater chance of meeting expectations and creating services which are used and ultimately good value for money.

This study will utilize the visitors and residents principle described in the University of Oxford's Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) blog, which hypothesizes that neither age nor gender determines whether one is a visitor (one who logs on to the virtual environment, performs a specific task or acquires specific information, and then logs off) or a resident (one who has an ongoing, developing presence online).

The Emerging stage is of particular interest as it bridges what is traditionally seen as a distinct divide between higher and tertiary education. We believe that this divide is notional and that students' information-gathering techniques are unlikely to change in the few months between secondary school and university. Given the inclusion of this educational stage, the project will build links with the secondary education sector and generate outputs which will enable universities to make informed decisions for planning services and systems for entering students, therefore proactively planning for, rather than haphazardly reacting to, passing trends.


This pilot project will begin to fill the gap in user behavior studies identified in the 2010 JISC Digital Information Seekers Report (.pdf: 2.25MB/61 pp.), in which Connaway and Dickey call for a study "to identify how individuals engage in both the virtual and physical worlds to get information for different situations" (p. 52). They believe that "Such an investigation would contribute to a better understanding of how individuals navigate in multiple information environments and could influence the design and integration of systems and services for devices and applications, as well as cloud computing."

The outputs will inform the emergent JISC usability program and projects, and will be of relevance to those running services within the digital information environment. Individuals who found the Google generation report and activates of the LAIRAH project of interest will find the outputs of this study very informative as it advances understanding in this area towards cross discipline implementation recommendations.

The findings of this study provide or support these specific benefits:

  • More clarity on the needs and motivations of students across educational stages when engaging with online services/resources, which will inform project and program designs to ensure maximum levels of uptake and engagement.
  • The findings of this study will also inform the "tweaking" of existing services to better meet the needs of users as identified by this research.
  • Findings are especially timely as the role of the library shifts within our culture as forms of engagement and new services evolve.
  • A better understanding of students' motivations when engaging with online services and resources.
  • Testing, refining and potential evolution of the visitors and residents typology first put forward by the TALL group.
  • An emerging matrix of implementation options which is not founded on nebulous generational concerns but on the more relevant educational stages.
  • An indication of the factors which might affect users' approaches/digital literacies including nationality, educational stage, socio-economic background and discipline area.


Participants will be chosen to draw out engagement factors relative to their cultural and socio-economic background, types of institutions, and disciplinary focus. Selecting participants on this basis will allow the study to delineate generic engagement factors from those that are specific to particular groups. A set of questions will be developed for the individual interviews with the participants. The same questions will be asked of all participants. These questions will be developed based on the literature and prior research and will address the participants' needs and behaviors in both personal and academic situations and contexts.

Using the visitors and residents principle as a framework the project will identify the study participants' preferred methods of engagement with the information environment and explore the motivations behind their choices.

The participants will be given a choice of communication methods, such as instant messaging, interviews, Facebook, diaries, blogs, face-to-face or telephone, with the research team and other study participants. This will provide additional information about the different participants' preferred forms of communication.

The pilot study will focus on the Emerging educational stage to refine the research methodology and to establish the value of the work to stakeholders. Although a pilot, this study will produce valuable stand-alone outputs.

In the US the project will work in close partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte (UNCC) to recruit participants from different socio-economic groups from both private and public secondary schools as well as first-year university students. In the UK participants will be drawn from the University of Oxford, Sheffield University, secondary schools in Leicester and possibly secondary school in Oxford.

The project will recruit thirty individuals in the Emerging Educational Stage: late stage secondary/high school and 1st year university. Fifteen will be recruited in the US and fifteen in the UK. Attention will be given to the selection of participants as to represent a range of socio-economic and disciplinary contexts.Of the thirty participants recruited, six in the US and six in the UK will document their information seeking activities for a three-month period. They will be closely facilitated through this process and will communicate with us in the medium of their choice over that period.

Project overview (.jpg: 170K)


The data collected from the interviews and monthly correspondence with the selected 12 students will provide rich data that can be analyzed and reported both quantitatively and qualitatively. The quantitative data will include demographics; number of occurrences for different types of technologies, sources, and behaviors. The qualitative data will provide themes that identify behaviors and sources for different contexts and situations and will include direct quotes and behaviors. The data will be manually coded using theme analysis and then input into the NVivo software program. This will enable the researchers to analyze and report the data not only by themes and demographics but also by the number of respondents and percentiles.

An additional partnership with the University of North Carolina, Charlotte will support data collection and analysis. It is hoped that this pilot project will support the development of a larger longitudinal study that would examine students and scholars in different stages of the educational lifecycle.

It is hoped that this pilot project will be the first study in a larger longitudinal study to study students and scholars representing different stages of the educational lifecycle:

  1. Emerging (Late stage secondary school – first year undergraduate)
  2. Establishing (Second/third year undergraduate)
  3. Embedding (Postgraduates, PhD students)
  4. Experienced (Scholars)

The overall design is an attempt to eliminate any assumed links between age and technological engagement by working with users over time, tracking the shifts in their motivations and forms of engagement as they transition between these educational stages. The findings will be used to create a matrix of implementation options allowing those designing and delivering digital platforms and services to make informed decisions relative to engagement and motivation for individuals at each of the educational stages.

Significantly the outputs will both inform the design of new projects/services and indicate possible changes that could be made to existing services to improve engagement/uptake. In this way the outputs of the study could have a significant impact on the "efficiency" of existing services and the probability of higher uptake for new services. This could help to reduce the "scatter-shot" approach of some institutions as they experiment with providing digital services which "meet students' and scholars' needs".

The outputs as they evolve with each iteration or phase of the study will be broadly applicable in a variety of contexts and generated in a way to enable those responsible for the design and delivery of both the physical and digital information environment services to translate the findings into their given contexts. University decision makers can use the findings from this study to determine resource allocations for effective systems, services, and facilities that will engage both students and scholars.

Anticipated Outputs

  • Report of the pilot study testing the validity of the theory of visitors and residents vs the digital natives and immigrants theory
  • Established relationships with participants for a potential follow-up longitudinal study
  • Comparative data from an international study – US and UK
  • Data describing the behaviors of a sample of members of the Emerging Stage based on the context and situation of their information needs
  • Formulation of hypotheses and a typology/mapping or model for further testing in a longitudinal study. The typology could be of immediate use for the community to consider when developing new services and programs, and would be the basis of what will become a matrix of implementation options developed across all phases of the longitudinal study.

More Information

JISC is a UK organization supporting the innovative use of digital technologies in UK colleges and universities.

JISC project page for the Visitors and Residents project

Interim Reports to JISC

June 2012 Progress Report

22 July 2011 (.pdf)

Jisc infoKit

White, David, Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Donna Lanclos, Erin M. Hood, and Carrie Vass. Evaluating Digital Services: A Visitors and Residents Approach A JISC infoKit.

The project plan for Digital Visitors and Residents is available (.pdf).

Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL) is an e-learning research and development team based at the University of Oxford's Department for Continuing Education. Established in 1996, TALL specializes in developing high quality online courses for the Higher Education sector.

Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, and Timothy J. Dickey. 2010. The digital information seeker report of the findings from selected OCLC, RIN, and JISC user behaviour projects. [Bristol, England]: HEFCE.

The LAIRAH Project: Log Analysis of Internet Resources in the Arts and Humanities

J. Murrey Atkins Library, University of North Carolina at Charlotte