‘Free-Range Learners’: Study Opens Window Into How Students Hunt for Educational Content Online

Milwaukee — Digital natives? The idea that students are superengaged finders of online learning materials once struck Glenda Morgan, e-learning strategist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as “a load of hooey.” Students, she figured, probably stick with the textbooks and other content they’re assigned in class.

Not quite. The preliminary results of a multiyear study of undergraduates’ online study habits, presented by Ms. Morgan at a conference on blended learning here this week, show that most students shop around for digital texts and videos beyond the boundaries of what professors assign them in class.

“It’s almost like they want to find the content by themselves,” Ms. Morgan said in an interview after her talk, which took place in a packed room at the 9th Annual Sloan Consortium Blended Learning Conference & Workshop.

It’s nothing new to hear that students supplement their studies with other universities’ online lecture videos. But Ms. Morgan’s research—backed by the National Science Foundation, based on 14 focus-group interviews at a range of colleges, and buttressed by a large online survey going on now—paints a broader picture of how they’re finding content, where they’re getting it, and why they’re using it.

Ms. Morgan borrows the phrase “free-range learning” to describe students’ behavior, and she finds that they generally shop around for content in places educators would endorse. Students seem most favorably inclined to materials from other universities. They mention lecture videos from Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology far more than the widely publicized Khan Academy, she says. If they’re on a pre-med or health-science track, they prefer recognized “brands” like the Mayo Clinic. Students often seek this outside content due to dissatisfaction with their own professors, Ms. Morgan says.

The study should be welcome news for government agencies, universities, and others in the business of publishing online libraries of educational content—although students tend to access these sources from the “side door,” like via a Google search for a very specific piece of information.

But the study also highlights the challenge facing professors and librarians. Students report relying on friends to get help and share resources, Ms. Morgan says, whereas their responses suggest “much less of a role” for “conventional authority figures.”

They “don’t want to ask librarians or tutors in the study center or stuff like that,” she says. “It’s more the informal networks that they’re using.”

Ms. Morgan confesses to some concerns about her own data. She wonders how much students are “telling me what I want to hear.” She also worries that she’s tapping into a disproportionate slice of successful students.

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