Martin Philip (Subject Librarian for Accountancy, Law and Informatics) reflects on a focus group held with a group of our ‘non users’ from the School of Computing and Engineering.
I recently conducted a focus group with five Computing students, a department that has been identified as low users of the library.
The focus group was conducted using the ‘flipchart paper and post-it notes’ format, as designed by Ellen. There were five parts to the session, beginning with an activity that asked students to explain where they got information that was used in their last assignment. Questions asked included ‘what was the information?’ and ‘how did you find it?’
Initially, the students were asked to think about their last assignment and answer questions including ‘What was the information you were looking for?’, ‘How did you find the information?’, ‘What format did the information come in?’ The students were asked to discuss their answers with one another and then they were then to write down the answers onto orange post-it notes. The students had to then put the post-it notes onto a piece of flip chart paper which had a scale on it from ‘use lots’ to ‘never use’.
Examples of answers students wrote down near the ‘use lots’ end of the scale included Google, Internet, MSDN, Tutorials Online, UniLearn (VLE) and E-books. At the other end of the scale, students said they rarely spoke to third years, when looking for information, nor did they consult suggested module reading or use many books.
The students were then given lots more post-it notes to place on the scale with the difference being that these were pink and had already been written on with examples of resources. As before, I asked them to discuss and then place on the scale. Google, Websites and YouTube were examples of resources the students rated as ‘use lots’. Resources at the ‘never use’ end of the scale included Journals, Library Subject Enquiry Desk, Total Training, ACM Digital Library and Unitube.
Here’s a photo of the flipchart paper with both sets of post-it notes (students answers in orange, my suggestions in pink). The scale lies on the paper left to right:
I then split the students into two groups, one with three, the other with two, and asked each group to choose one thing from the scale which they rarely or never use. On a blank piece of flip-chart paper, they brainstormed all the reasons that they rarely/never use this specific resource or service.
After 10 minutes, the students then looked at the other groups ‘brainstorm’ and made some brief comments. I then closed the focus group with an open discussion based on questions they had come up with during the activities.
The students began discussing reasons for not using Unitube and Magazines, the resources that each group picked out during the brainstorm session.
The main reasons for not using Unitube were that they do not know what it is, what information is provided on it, or how to get access to it. Many students admitted to noticing the logo being advertised around campus but made assumptions that it wasn’t required for them. They explained that they regularly use YouTube which they find easier to navigate than Unitube.
The students didn’t make use of the university-subscribed magazines because they felt like they could find the same content online but in a quicker, easier way than visiting the library. They didn’t feel like there was any benefit to using magazines to find information for their assignments. “Using magazines is going out of your way to use it when instead you can just Google it.”
A key theme of the discussion that was repeated throughout was a sense that the students would only use resources that they were told to use by their lecturers and didn’t see the benefits of using other resources. “We don’t see the point (in using x) because we’re not told to use them” one student said. Another added “We’ve not been told about certain things so we just stick with what we know.”
This particular sample of students gave some reasons why they don’t tend to use the university’s paid-for resources. “The thing is, we’re on courses that don’t require us to use some resources that are heavily book-based. We can just find everything online. Other courses do a lot more essays and have to reference things, when we do more practical work so using video tutorials is better than finding references in books.”
Other reasons for not using resources include a lack of awareness. “I’ve no idea where the Library Enquiry Desk is and I’m a second year.” (This refers to the help desk that is staffed by librarians.)
“For the ones (resources) we don’t use much are I think we’re not aware or there is another alternative we use instead or they’re not really relevant.”
A number of students talked generally about where they get their information from. One explained “You have your preferences and everyone is different but you have stuff that you have grown to use something so if it works I’ll keep using it, why use something else if you’re getting on fine doing what you’re doing?”
Another agreed detailing “For me, its books and Google. They’re the two main places I go. If I know things are in them, I’ll keep going back because I get into the habit of it. If it’s been published it’s got to be decent. I don’t like to venture out.”
And finally, another student explained that it was about location, “For me it depends where I am. I do use Summon a lot when I’m at home, but if I’m in university I prefer using the library and getting a book.”
Lots of reasoning was to do with how ‘easy’ a resource was to use rather than a recognition of quality. When talking about why the students preferred to use the ‘open’ internet, one student explained “With stuff that’s provided by the uni and that, none of us have used them before we came here so we just stick to what we know.” The students didn’t seem to have a desire to search for information beyond what they are told.
Some students found the session helpful, explaining “I think it’s good to know that there is more to use than what I’ve been using to find stuff. So if it’s not on the things that I use, it’s good know there are some alternatives.” There wasn’t the recognition that the university-subscribed resources were providing superior content to the free online resources the students preferred to use.
One student did conclude that there was merit in using the university-subscribed resources adding “For me I hadn’t heard of Digital Tutors until I came to university because you have to pay for it. I know that Digital Tutors, EatsD and 3dmotive are just three of the resources that we have access to through the university. I never used these before because you had to pay for them. It is something I use a lot.”