Impact of Electronic Resources on Students' Information Seeking. Research review (Kirill Fesenko, 2003)
The four research articles I have chosen deal with the impact of the growing use of electronic resources and Internet on the students’ information seeking and relationships between students, faculty and libraries in this area. The researchers studied these issues from different perspectives: how students evaluate Web resources and role of instructors and librarians (Grimes & Boening 2001), use of electronic resources in learning and teaching (McDowell 2002), how information seeking changed in the last five years (Young & Seggern 2001), and use of print books and journals in relation to students’ use of electronic formats (Dilevko & Gottlieb 2002). These studies established that students are increasingly relying on the electronic resources for their study from outside the library walls but are often unable to properly evaluate them. The authors conclude that library and faculty staff need to be working closer together in order to help students develop information seeking skills and promote hard copy and electronic formats that are best fit for students’ learning. Studies also suggest that libraries should update their reference services and instructional methods in order to fit the changing needs of students.
Methods and Results
From the four research articles selected for this review we can learn that the students’ increased use of electronic resources has generally a negative effect on their information seeking. In the academic institutions, this problem is of particular concern to instructors reporting “a disturbing decline in both the quality of the writing and the originality of thoughts expressed” in students heavily relying on Web resources (Grimes & Boening) and librarians witnessing a sharp decline of library use.
Grimes & Boening are using case study method to research the gap between students’ actual use of Web resources and faculty expectations of the students’ ability to evaluate them. In this study two community college classes of twenty five students each were assigned to write a bibliographical research paper. Grimes & Boening analyzed the Web sources cited by students and interviewed both instructors and students. Instructors were asked about their directions to students on the use of Web resources and students gave their understanding of the quality of these resources. The study established that students preferred Internet sources to print because of the ease of access and printing out the search results and that they were unaware that relevant online resources were available from the library. Interviews also demonstrated that instructors were unable to provide detailed instructions to students on the evaluation of Web resources and students sometimes formed their opinion on the credibility of the Web sources based on “how the page looked” rather than its contents.
The qualitative interview-based study was also used as a research method in McDowell’s study of lecturer perspectives on the use of electronic information resources in undergraduate education. The author points out that as increasing number of electronic resources become available to students, educational institutions should provide a learning context that would help students develop information literacy and encourage them to act as “autonomous information users”. The research focused on the teaching practices used by lecturers in the times of growing student use of “external” electronic information resources.
The study identified three basic categories of electronic resources used by lecturers in relation to teaching and learning: (1) “electronic academic library” – e-journals and online bibliographic databases as an “electronic equivalent of using the university library”, (2) “bringing the world into the classroom” – electronic resources on the Internet that contain primary research materials that are normally used by academics and researchers themselves to increase their knowledge, and (3) “unregulated electronic information world” – a vast number of Web sites which did not go through the traditional publication and peer-review process. The interviews also showed that lecturers believe that these resources play different role in the undergraduate education. Lecturers were more relying on librarians to help students develop skills in using e-journals and online databases subscribed by the library rather than with primary source materials and unregulated web sites on the Internet.
Young & Seggern’s research is also focused on the changing information seeking over the last three – five years and the implications of this change for libraries. The study was not intended to concentrate on specific subject areas or formats but rather on the established guidelines for assessment of service quality and customer satisfaction of library users. Focused interviews of several groups of undergraduates, graduates and faculty were used as a research method in this study. Research questions were designed to illuminate the groups’ changing information seeking in the following areas: whether it is easier or harder to find information now compared to five years ago; if people prefer to learn methods and strategies for using sources and searching for information or if they would prefer to be given the answers; if they believe that ease of access and convenience are more important than accuracy, depth, and relevance of sources; and if library users expect to find everything they need now in electronic form. In respect to the role of libraries, the authors studied if the changes in information seeking over the last five years also effected what people expect of the library and librarians.
The study revealed that information landscape has change significantly over the last five years: all groups confirmed significant increase in Internet use and the number of available sources. In regards to the sources of information, the interviewees mentioned “Internet” more often than “libraries” and confirmed that there are new obstacles to finding information: information overload on the Internet, questionable authority of sources and problem of “not knowing where to start”. The study also established that time is often an overriding factor in the choice of information selection and delivery.
Young & Seggern concluded that though the group members were knowledgeable about electronic resources they were frustrated over overwhelming number of hits from Internet searches which lead to missing or irrelevant information and the lack of standardization in search systems. Another conclusion from the interviews is that there is an increasing need for more familiarity with starting points, searching strategies and skills to deal with the vast amounts of information. Undergraduate students did not perceive any difference between the computer labs and library itself and graduate student showed gaps in their learning of information seeking that can be filled by the library instruction.
Changing information seeking of undergraduate students and their use of print resources in relation to online resources is a subject of research in Dilevko & Gottlieb’s article. Statistical data cited in this study demonstrate that the use of libraries by the undergraduate students is dropping steadily since early 90s while the online traffic is growing. However, another studies cited by Dilevko & Gottlieb point to the students’ increasing use of print resources when they face exams during the second or third year of university. Dilevko & Gottlieb conducted a Web-based survey at the University of Toronto in order to establish the role of print resources in the research process of undergraduate students.
The study demonstrated that about one third of the surveyed students preferred print journals to e-journals for the following main reasons: e-journals have missing volumes and issues, do not contain all information found in paper versions (graphs, tables, letters to the editor), and because the long term access and archiving are not assured. Print books were valued by student as they contain “contextual, theoretical, and conceptual information indispensable for understanding a given topic” and “help generate ideas that lead to further investigation, and offer balanced analyses of a wide range of issues”. Students in general understood that using paper books would lead to better quality research and grades while online resources were normally associated with the need to “get things done quickly and easily”. Dilevko & Gottlieb suggest that libraries in search of their new identity in the changing world should seriously consider adding emphasis on their print collections as a marketing tool through making an explicit connection between usage of their print collections and students’ grades.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The topics studied by the authors of the four research papers are important for our understanding of the changing information seeking of students. McDowell successfully demonstrated that different electronic resources play different role in the education process. However, the researcher admits that only lecturers actively promoting electronic resources were selected for the study which leaves perspectives of other lecturers on the role of electronic resources underrepresented. I think that the strong point of the Grimes & Boening’s study is the use of several methods to examine student use of Web resources (interviews with students, instructors and analysis of student research papers). Looking at their topic from different perspectives allowed for interesting conclusion that both instructors and students need assistance with Web evaluation techniques.
I believe Dilevko & Gottlieb’s research was most comprehensive from respect of gathering and presenting statistical data to back up their conclusions. Though I agree with their general conclusion that paper formats have important qualities for students’ learning, I am less convinced by their conclusion on the use of print journals compared to e-journals in the long term. I believe Mann’s, Dilevko & Gottlieb’s argument about low screen resolution does not apply for articles as good as it does for books as they are shorter texts that can be read from the screen or printed out. Their data showed that over 60% of students still prefer e-journals and I think it’s just a matter of time when few problems (missing tables, graphs, incomplete issues) mentioned by students who switched from e- to print journals will be resolved. Online vendors are quickly learning that adding full image and complete sets of journals with archives to their databases help in selling their products to libraries. Yet, a very important issue of preservation of e-journals remain to be unresolved. Libraries in general tend to have longer lives than their vendors and I think that it might take a large e-journals database provider to go out of business before the preservation issue for licensed resources is seriously considered by the library community.
Significance of the body of work and its application to practice
Evolution of Internet and electronic formats is a major and obvious source of change that effects students’ information seeking and libraries since early 90s. Never before in the human history was information as easily copied, transmitted and accessed as it is nowadays over computers connected to the Internet networks. For academic librarians, used to the role of gatekeepers to information resources for students and researchers, this presented an unfamiliar challenge. Indeed, four studies showed that students are increasingly relying on the alternative and convenient gate of Internet to satisfy their information needs and librarians are not the ones guarding it. This presents a clear problem as demonstrated by three of the four studies (exception is McDowell’s paper which is more focused on the idea of encouraging students to “act as autonomous information users” through development of their information literacy). Researchers report multiple negative effects of students’ use of Internet resources and declining quality of their research. In regards to the libraries themselves, statistical data show that carefully collected, organized and preserved records of human knowledge are getting less used by students who spend more time in dorms and homes in front of their computers. Dilevko & Gottlieb mention a case of one Augusta State University student who “managed to get through two years of college … without ever borrowing a book from the library”.
I think it is important to keep in mind that electronic resources possess both negative and positive qualities for students’ information seeking and learning. Negative effects, as the studies show, are associated with difficulties finding reputable sources on the Internet, evaluating uncontrolled Web sites and neglection of books and other library collections for the convenience of Internet searches. However, it is also important to recognize the positive effects of electronic resources as they provide new opportunities for students and researchers. Searching in full text databases, for example, allows finding newspaper and journal articles that would be otherwise hard to come across in the paper format. Bibliographic records and statistical tables are other examples of information resources that researchers usually find more useful in electronic format than on paper. Increasing number of resources that are important for students’ learning are born digitally and might not be available on paper at all. These and other factors will keep pushing libraries towards increasing their own electronic collections and providing access to outside resources. How than would librarians help students develop information seeking skills and preserve their critical role of information gate keepers in this changing environment? The researchers suggest several ideas:
Choosing Right Library Model
The speed of technological change, I believe, sometimes exceeds librarians’ ability to analyze it, adopt to the new environment and even less to actively influence it. The ongoing discussion in the professional literature and conferences on the role and future of libraries show that the commonly agreed concept of an academic library in the pre-Internet era does not seem to be as clear anymore. Des Moines Area Community College (West Campus) library, for example, is now completely paper-free providing access to e-journals and e-Books only. Academic libraries in general also seem to be increasingly adopting “Internet Centered Model” in an effort to attract students back inside the library walls. Access to Internet appears in this model to be the main function of a library complimented with snack bars and other Borders bookstore-like conveniences. I agree with Dilevko, Gottlieb and Mann, whom they cite extensively in their study, that this approach downgrades the library’s permanent collections to a secondary role.
I believe Dilevko, Gottlieb and Mann’s most important conclusion is this: paper books are indispensable for education and understanding. Students typically associate “use of print books … with the production of high-quality work, whereas use of online sources was invariably associated with the need to just get things done quickly and easily”. In my opinion, it is important to remember that books are not available online but are kept inside walls of physical libraries. Secondly, the few books that are available online, can be searched but cannot be read as “connected wholes” because of the low screen resolution. This way, computers and Internet do not and cannot compete with main library collections. I wish to suggest that it is very important that librarians and lecturers consistently deliver this message to students. Instead of changing libraries to satisfy students’ appetites for easily accessible Web resources, librarians should not stop emphasizing importance of their main collections for student acquisition of knowledge.
Increasing role of librarians and the need for cooperation between librarians and instructors.
All studies point out to the increasing role of librarians in the fast-changing electronic information environment. McDowell concluded that lecturers are mostly relying on librarians for helping students with the use of electronic library resources rather than with primary and uncontrolled electronic sources on the Internet. At the same time, McDowell points out that information literacy related concepts belongs more to the academic librarians than to lecturers. As electronic resources play a larger part in the education of students, librarians and lecturers need to work in concert to help students develop information seeking skills. This conclusion is consistent with the Grimes & Boening’s study which showed that instructors provide little guidance to students in respect to selecting and evaluating Web sources. Faculty is used to rely on librarians for assuring the quality of resources for student use but students are increasingly bypassing libraries. On the other side, instructors often assume that students possess the same information evaluation skills of the “expert researcher” as they do.
All researchers commonly agree that librarians should be more active in offering their information evaluation and seeking expertise to students. The environment has changed and librarians have to change accordingly. Young & Seggern suggest that the librarian’s image of “just a lady that stamps your books”, as articulated by one undergraduate, should be replaced by the following vision expressed by a faculty member: “I think librarians, if they can adapt to all the information, are going to be more important than they have ever been because there is so much information to plow through that you’ve got to go to the expert. …Because it is changing so fast we can’t keep up with all the latest techniques, and even the students can’t keep up with it. So the librarians are going to be the ones to … be there to help people get through the information overload.”
Improving Library as a Gateway to Electronic Resources
Studies also propose several practical steps that can be implemented in libraries to help students with electronic resources. Grimes & Boening, for example, suggest that librarians should put more efforts in developing online catalogs by adding links to Web sites together with other resources available in the main library collections. Improved OPACs, linking students to the quality library and Internet resources, will help them to bypass irrelevant Web sites. Young & Seggern suggest developing instructional library Web pages and promoting them to students as a starting point for their independent research on the Internet. These pages should help students with evaluative criteria for Web resources, search strategies and research methods.
The studies showed that electronic resources have multiple effects on students’ information seeking and libraries in general. There is a consensus among researchers that students need more help and guidance from librarians and instructors as the information universe becomes increasingly complex. Librarians should adjust to the changing environment in order to remain in the position of necessary information gatekeepers for students and researchers. The research results of the four papers studies provide several ideas that are instrumental in achieving this goal.
Grimes, Deborah J and Carl H. Boening. “Worries with the Web: a look at student use of Web resources”. College & Research Libraries v. 62 no. 1 (January 2001) p. 11-23.
McDowell, L. “Electronic information resources in undergraduate education: an exploratory study of opportunities for student learning and independence”. British Journal of Educational Technology v. 33 no. 3 (June 2002) p. 255-66.
Young, Nancy J. and Marilyn Von Seggern. “General information seeking in changing times: a focus group study”. Reference & User Services Quarterly v. 41 no. 2 (Winter 2001) p. 159-69.
Dilevko, Juris and Lisa Gottlieb. “Print Sources in an Electronic Age: A Vital Part of the Research Process for Undergraduate Students”. The Journal of Academic Librarianship v. 28 no. 6 (November 2002) p. 381-92.