Born Digital Students and Research

A recent ethnographic study at a number of Illinois academic libraries suggests that students who have grown up with computer and Internet access are not as sophisticated at accessing the world of online resources as is often assumed. A very brief article on the project appeared in many daily papers last month and my colleague Humayun Rashid brought a much more detailed report in Inside Higher Education to my attention. The Inside Higher Ed. article provides an excellent summary of the study.

The results of the ERIAL Project (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) are perhaps not very surprising to those of us who work with the students that the literature has dubbed “digital natives” – but they are nonetheless very interesting and instructive. The ERIAL Project is a two year study of how students do research. The study’s research methodology was much more sophisticated than the typical library use survey and included anthropologists observing how students work at research, as well as interviews and other exercises such as keeping diaries. A book reporting on the project is coming out soon: College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know (Table of contents here)

Some highlights noted in the Inside Higher Ed. report include:

– Students overuse Google and do not know how to use scholarly databases. Online searches tend to be simple and do not take advantage of more sophisticated searching features. Anthropologist Andrew Asher from the Inside Higher Ed. article: ““Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”

– When students do use scholarly resources they tend to not use the appropriate ones for their subject or needs (e.g. an over reliance on JSTOR at the expense of more appropriate subject resources)

– It turns out (as we knew all along), the explosion of online information makes the need for experts in collections and the research process even more necessary. Unfortunately, the study observed that students do not ask librarians for help or think of them as possessors of knowledge about the research process.

I know that in the law world things are different, in that librarians are relied on heavily, both in the academy and in the firms (I’ve forgotten how many times recent grads have dropped by the library and mentioned how their firm librarian has “saved” them.) Still the results of this study are very sobering and the implications for how students research and learn are great.

I’ve just skimmed the surface of this very important study. I encourage you to read the Inside Higher Education article. I’m looking forward to reading the full report when the book is published.


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