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Research:Student use of free online information resources

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Research:FOIR survey
22:49, 7 December 2015 (UTC)
Duration:  2015-December – 2016-June
This page documents a completed research project.
Tracked in Phabricator:
Task T127515

We investigated what kind of free online information resources (FOIRs)[1] college students use to supplement official learning materials[2]. We worked with students and faculty at the University of Washington to develop a survey, deploy it to other UW students, and analyze the results.

Read the full report of findings from this survey.


word cloud
Top FOIRs ("free online information resources") used by University of Washington students within the past 3 months

The internet contains a wealth of resources that provide high-quality information to the public for free. How do people decide which of these websites to visit when they want to learn something new?

This directed research group[3] will focus on developing a survey to find out where learners turn to find high-quality information on the internet, whether they are interested in digging deep into a particular subject, or getting a high-level overview.

Potential research questions include:

  • What FOIRs are most popular with students interested in learning particular subjects, and why?
  • How do students use FOIRs to supplement official (university-provided) learning resources?
  • How does the way content is presented in different FOIRs influence who uses them, and what they are used for?
  • How does the availability of FOIRs across different platforms and devices (desktop websites, mobile-optimized websites, smartphone apps) influence who uses them, and what they are used for?

The research group will run for two quarters. In Winter quarter, group members will have an opportunity to engaging in a literature review and readings on survey methodology, and develop a set of survey questions, identify your audience, and pilot the survey. In Spring quarter, students will deploy the survey to the target population, and analyze the results. Students are not required to participate in both quarters, but that is encouraged.

The results will be published online and shared with a non-profit foundation that seeks to understand the information-seeking behavior of people who use publicly available online information resources. Students who participate in the research group (either quarter) will be listed as research contributors.


Draft of a survey to be deployed.

The research will involve a survey of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled at the University of Washington during the 2015-16 academic year. Participation in the survey will be elicited primarily through UW listserves and social media.


  • December 2015: plan project, schedule research group, develop research group syllabus and reading lists
  • January-March 2016: develop and pilot survey
  • March-June 2016: deploy survey, analyze and publish results

December 2015[edit]

Preparatory work
  • Consolidate resources we know of (past WMF surveys, academic studies, etc.)
  • Develop an initial list of variables that are relevant to include in the survey (e.g., multimedia, mobile...)
  • Consult groups with relevant expertise (for example, WikiEdu) or an interest in the results (for example, Product teams, The Wikipedia Library) for input
  • Propose a set of content areas / subjects that we think are high-traffic for students, and where...
  • we'd really want to know whether they are serving students' needs the way they should (for example, medical content, where there's been a lot of work (e.g., from WikiMed), or
  • we believe that other (non-WP) external tools are currently serving students' needs better than WP (for example, Khan Academy or StackExchange)

January-March 2016[edit]

UW Winter quarter

April-June 2016[edit]

UW Spring quarter

Policy, Ethics, and Human Subjects Research[edit]

The survey will be evaluated and approved by the University of Washington Institutional Review Board before it is deployed. Informed consent will be elicited from respondents according to the university's policies. Survey results will be published in an open access venue under a free license. If any personally identifiable information about survey respondents is collected, it will NOT be published or shared outside the research team.


Presentation of findings given at the June 2016 WMF monthly metrics meeting. (video)
Presentation given to Wikimedia Foundation product staff in August 2016.

Go to the results page



  1. any online information resource that is provided free of charge on this internet and that can be used to learn—including, but not limited to, Wikimedia projects.
  2. handouts, textbooks, research databases, etc which are provided by the institution or recommended by the instructor.
  3. "Consuming Information: Identifying usage patterns associated with free online information resources". Deparment of Human Centered Design & Engineering - University of Washington. Retrieved 2016-01-13.