Research:Student use of free online information resources/Results

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Student demographics[edit]

The respondent set of 214 students included:

  • a mix of graduate and undergraduate students, with undergraduates (Freshman-Senior) constituting over 80% of respondents
  • students from across the university, with the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Engineering constituting over 70% of respondents
  • native speakers of 20 different languages, with English and Chinese (Mandarin or Cantonese) constituting over 80% of respondents

Questions about Free Online Information Resources used by students[edit]

What types of FOIR have you used in the past 3 months?[edit]

bar chart
Types of FOIRs used by respondents within the past 3 months

We first asked students what types of FOIRs they used most frequently for school work. The full list of options was:

  • government/institutional websites (other than UW)
  • news websites or blogs
  • online encyclopedias
  • online dictionary or thesaurus
  • free online courses
  • tutorials or how­to guides
  • question and answer websites
  • streaming video or video downloads
  • streaming audio or audio downloads (e.g. podcasts)
  • downloadable books or articles
  • online image repositories
  • online forums or message boards
  • social media
  • Other type of resource (please describe)


These responses present some interesting contrasts with the responses below, when we asked students to list the individual sites they used most frequently. Notice that "encyclopedia sites" and "free online courses" don't even make the top 5!

How do you find new free online resources?[edit]

bar chart
Ways students find new FOIRs

How frequently do you typically use each of the following methods to locate new free online resources?

The options were:

  • Use free resources recommended by instructor or mentor
  • Use free resources linked from free resources you already use
  • Use a search engine
  • Use free resources recommended by classmates/peers
  • Use free resources listed in a textbook or other official course resource

"Search" is far and away the most common way students discover new FOIRs, followed by FOIRs recommended by instructors and peers, and FOIRs linked from other FOIRs, in a three way tie.

Students are much less likely to find new FOIRs: either there's still a stigma in academia against referencing 'internet' stuff, or their textbooks are out of date. Probably a little of both!

How do you prefer to consume free online resources?[edit]

bar chart
Ways students consume information from FOIRs

How frequently do you consume information from free online resource in each of the following ways?

  • Listening to audio recordings
  • Reading books, articles, or other longform texts
  • Reading short posts, abstracts, or summaries
  • Watching videos
  • Using interactive tutorials
  • Browsing image galleries

We also asked students several questions about how they generally consume information from the free online resources they use for school work. Fortunately for Wikipedia, the results show that most students still read a lot on the internet, although most of what they read is short-form text, like summaries and abstracts. And they watch videos more often than then read whole articles or books online.

How do you prefer to access free online resources on mobile devices?[edit]

bar chart
Ways student consume information from FOIRs on mobile devices

How important are the following factors related to availability on mobile devices to you when deciding whether to use a free online resource?

  • I can download content from the resource to my mobile device
  • I can access the resource through a web browser on my mobile device
  • I can stream multimedia content from the resource on my mobile device
  • I can use a free app to access the resource from my mobile device

We also asked students to rank features or characteristics of the resources they use by importance. One area we were particularly interested in was mobile use, so we asked students how they prefer to access FOIR content on mobile devices: though downloads (like podcasts or ebooks), mobile web browser, multimedia streaming, or apps. On average students ranked access to content via mobile web and streaming as more important than downloads and apps.

Which qualities of free online resource content are most important to you?[edit]

bar chart
Information quality features of FOIRs by importance

How important are the following factors related to quality of information to you when deciding whether to use a free online resource?

  • the information is up­-to-­date
  • the information is presented in a way that is enjoyable or engaging
  • the information is accurate
  • the information is presented in a way that is easy to understand

Perhaps not surprisingly, accuracy is students most important consideration when they decide whether or not to use a FOIR—they're going to be graded on this, after all.

Contrast these responses with some of the sites that students reported using most frequently: YouTube is not known for its accuracy, StackOverflow answers are often out of date and difficult to understand (though it varies considerably), and Coursera and Khan Academy are intentionally designed to be easy to understand and provide engaging/enjoyable learning experiences!

It would be interesting to run a follow-up survey and ask students to rate specific sites according to these factors, and see how the distribution changes.

Questions about the free online resources students use most[edit]

The following questions are about the Free Online Resource that you have used most within the past three months. Please provide as much information as you can about the way you use this resource.

What FOIRs have you used most frequently in the past 3 months?[edit]

word cloud
Word cloud of top FOIRs used by students within the past 3 months

In the past 3 months, which free online resource have you used most frequently to find information or learn skills that are relevant to your coursework or academic research?

We asked students to provide their first, second, and third choice. The first choice was required, the second and third were optional.

Not surprisingly, we found that students draw on a wide range of resources of many different types, for many different reasons. However, there were definitely some stand-outs. Video streaming sites, online courses, and social Q&A sites were popular, as was a certain free encyclopedia. Many of the less common resources that people named were subject-specific, and many of these focused on sciences and engineering disciplines (probably because our survey population contained a lot of engineering students). Social media and news sites were also well-represented.

Top 5[edit]

Wikipedia was the most mentioned site by far. YouTube, StackOverflow, Khan Academy, and Coursera rounded out the Top 5.

resource mentions
1. Wikipedia 74
2.StackOverflow 32
3. Youtube 40
4. Khanacademy 20
5. Coursera 11

Reasons why students use particular free online resources[edit]

Wikipedia[edit]

YouTube[edit]

Note: these testimonials have been synthesized and grouped by themes. The second column contains the number of comments that reflect a particular theme.

StackOverflow[edit]

Khan Academy[edit]

Coursera[edit]

Other resources[edit]

Other resources mentioned by survey respondents, and their reasons for using them.