Research Libraries are Going the Distance

The rise in distance learning has plenty of advantages for students and institutions, but there are major considerations that can affect the success of distance students—limited support networks, delayed feedback, and overreliance on technology, to name a few. There’s a growing body of literature that suggests that one way to mitigate the risks is to expand and adapt the role of academic library services as the number of distance learners grows. First, though, we have to figure out to what extent online libraries are meeting distance learners’ needs, and in what ways they might be failing to support online students. Tury, Robinson, & Bawden explored a case study to identify the kinds of information sources and channels distance learners are currently using, as well as the barriers they encounter when using online library resources, and addressed the need to foster the ‘library as place’ idea for distance students as well as traditional students. So how can libraries implement practical solutions to help online students overcome the barriers to seeking, accessing, and using information sources when they can’t physically get to the library?

Tury, Robinson, & Bawden surveyed 649 students about their educational contexts, information-seeking activities, and interactions with information resources. The results indicate that online students are very task-oriented: they generally seek information when they have a direct, immediate need—like a class assignment or upcoming test. They also tended towards course textbooks and free internet resources. The university’s online library was less frequently used, and students used their course’s specific online environment even less. These results might be tied to another finding, which is that students’ most important criteria for resource selection were if it was easy to access, easy to use, and readily available. Quality, reliability, and relevance were much less important to students, although graduate students seemed to value relevant, reliable resources more than undergrads.

When it came to using the university’s online library, students reported mixed success. Though there was no clear pattern of related factors, only a third of students claimed to consistently find the information they needed—and younger, more isolated students had the least success. This suggests that comprehensive library instruction in how to use the online library systems is key, and perhaps even more critical than providing additional resources.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that distance students tend to use their public libraries as places to study, even when they find the collections lacking, and that slightly over half of the respondents lack access to any local library. This, along with the finding that more isolated students have less success finding the information they need, suggests that a community or group gathering space (whether physical or digital) might be a crucial factor in whether students succeed in online courses.

Tury, S., Robinson, L., & Bawden, D. (2015). The Information Seeking Behaviour of Distance Learners: A Case Study of the University of London International Programmes. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 41(3), 312-321.