Tuesday 16 June 2015

What do students (really really) want?

David Nicholas, CIBER Research
CIBER have been researching the reading, viewing and information seeking behaviour of the virtual scholar for more than a decade. Professor David Nicholas presented highlights from the main findings at the Personalised Learning and Publishing Partnerships seminar, showing what young scholars like, and don’t like.

We have been conditioned by the platform. Every time a new one comes along it conditions our behaviour. Again. We are getting smaller and smaller. Deep is no longer good. The digital generation have been conditioned by 18 years of digital. the foundations of behaviour are already in place.

Students are:

  • Hyperactive: love connectivity and massive choice, big information pipe, 24/7 with vast amount of use
  • Bouncers: most people view only 1-2 pages from thousands.
  • Promiscuous: around 40% of us do not revisit a site
  • One-shots: one visit, one page characteristic - it's all you've got
  • Multi-taskers: but not necessarily good at it. Always one eye on something else.
Of course not everyone is doing this all the time, but it does present challenges to how universities are set up to operate. All of this is because everyone using search engine searching, massive and changing choice and a lot of rubbish out there. People have poor retrieval skills (2.2 words per query, first page up on Google). People forget, they leave their memory in cyberspace. Neurologists have observed that our memories are shrinking. This is a direct result of disintermediation and end-user checking (with poor evaluation skills).

The digital conditioning of human behaviour means the horizontal has replaced the vertical in search and engagement. Students skitter with frequent light contact and change of direction. Nobody does much reading in the traditional sense: 15 minutes reading is now considered a very long time. Shorter content has a much bigger chance of being used, and it doesn't get much shorter than Twitter. Abstracts have never been so popular. We are conditioned by email, messaging, tweeting and Power Point to like short shots of information, with mobiles as the ultimate take-away.

And it's not just behaviour that is changing, so are our brains. They are rewiring. Memories are losing capacity because of easy search and digital is not so memorable. Levels of concentration and contemplation are diminishing. Levels of insecurity are rising and we have a problem with addiction. Smartphones are taking behaviour to another level. The first transition, from physical to digital, transformed the way we seek, read, trust and consume information, but the environment that scholars conduct activities has not. 

There might be an opportunity for the smart phone always-on information needs. But they're not in the way that publishers expect. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that the content equivalent of the 'Big Deal' can be accessed from a smart phone. What does that mean for publishers? Mobile also dissolves the divide between grey and formal literature. Patterns of mobile usage are different. Visits from mobiles are less interactive. There is limited screen real estate. People access day and night.

What then of e-textbooks? What are their characteristics? They offer condensed, distilled knowledge and are typically more accessible than journal articles. Libraries are hugely intense rationing systems. You have abstract and keyword, can be seen anywhere and at any time. They have also boosted the humanities, who were the last to make the transition, but are now making the most of it.

Nicholas cited data from the Jisc ebook observatory report here. With ebook usage 5% of users spent more than 5 minutes viewing a page and 85% spent less than a minute. Content is consumed in small chunks.  The typical super user - those who looked at least 5 ebooks in 4 weeks - tend to be older and good at using everything. Staff and students don't read whole books, they just read bits of them. Ebooks do meet information needs.

The bigger picture is one of topsy turvy and parallel universes. The world is upside down: we use a smartphone to read a book. It has gone from text to voice and back again. University education exists in a parallel universe in obsolete formations and denying reality. Even the most prestigious institutions have not evolved. Does that make any sense at all?

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