Too often, institutions characterise individuals’ reluctance to use their resources as a result of people wanting what is ‘convenient’. The problem with throwing up one’s hands over the desire for convenience, and the fact that people turn to convenient resources rather than quality or official or library resources, is that ‘convenience’ means different things to different people and can change radically depending on context.
The analysis of visitor and resident modes of engagement can be a way of parsing just what is meant by ‘convenient’, and is a way for institutions to have a better grasp of how to position their services and resources effectively.
A significant portion of our work to date has focused on libraries and so we’ll use that as an example. V and R data agree with other research projects that indicate that some individuals are frustrated with libraries and do not physically visit them because of limited hours, long travel distances, and the time needed to do their research in the library (Connaway 2013b; Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, 2013a; Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu, and Hood, 2013; Pullinger, 1999; White and Connaway, 2011-2012).
Speed and efficiency
Search engines (in particular, Google) are preferred because they are more convenient and faster – they are always available (De Rosa et al, 2005), and also because they are perceived to be reliable, as well as fast.
"I find Google a lot easier than going to the library website because I don’t know, it’s just like sometimes so many journals come up and when you look at the first ten and they just don’t make any sense I, kind of, give up."
USA, emerging female age 19
"I will say that I’ll probably go to Google before I will search [the library database system] primarily because it’s easy and I don’t have to log in."
UK, embedding female age 22
Speed and efficiency are relatively conventional ways of defining ‘convenience’, and they are certainly factors in the decisions people make about where to go and what to use, when seeking information. Data from the V and R project reveals that individuals in all educational stages cite the relevance of convenience/ease of use to their decision-making, trumping all other reasons for selecting and using a source (White and Connaway, 2011-2012; Connaway, White, and Lanclos, 2011).
This tree diagram shows the relative frequency of key themes that were mentioned by participants in the V and R study across all four of the educational stages. The larger and greener the square the greater the number of coded occurrences for that theme. What is of note here is how convenience is higher in the mind of our participants than themes such as relevance and reliability.
Aspects of convenience include choosing the source, familiarity with the source, perceived ease of use, time available, and physical proximity. If one is working in Visitor mode, primarily with operational tools online, ‘convenience’ is not interpersonal. In Visitor mode even if it is likely to result in a lower quality information than asking an expert, friend or family member, it is seen as less onerous or socially risky to not have to interact with a person.
"It’s convenience. It’s the immediacy of it. And also the fact that Google doesn’t judge you."
UK, experiencing male, age 52
If you’re in resident mode, operating widely and socially within digital spaces, ‘convenience’ might mean not just online on the ‘free’ web, but also embedded in trusted personal networks, valuing contact with people as a part of the process. See also people trust people.
"I use Facebook for organising my life basically, with friends and stuff. So, it’s extremely helpful, and then, umm, like I also use that in education to talk to my friends about an equation, the things I don’t understand and it works quite well."
UK, emerging male, age 18
It was important to emerging students that the digital sources they found were authoritative, specifically that they were identified by trustworthy human sources: people who, in their personal experience, had proven that they were knowledgeable, either generally, or specifically about the topic at hand (Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, 2012). They often were unaware that many of these sources actually came from the library (Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, 2013b), characterising them as simply ‘online’ resources.
It’s worth bearing in mind that those trustworthy human sources were not always experts in the field, but could simply be family members who had taken a class before, or gone to college ever, or who were just known to be ‘on top of things’. Getting a source quickly was not enough, the source had to also be perceived as a quality one, or time would have been wasted.
Familiarity appeared to also be a major component of individuals’ perceptions both of authority and convenience. If an individual had done something/used something before, they were more likely to perceive that thing as being ‘convenient’, even if it objectively took more steps and/or time than other solutions.
While the methods some individuals used to seek and assess information were inelegant, they had been developed at an early age, and had become well worn and comfortable, if not terribly efficient or sophisticated. They continued using these methods in part because they tended to yield effective results.
"What I’ll do is I’ll just Google it. And it’s like ‘Oh, I need this. Hold on.’ And I was like ‘Specifically it involves these three words – bam, bam, bam.’ And then whatever comes up. And if I’m not satisfied with that I’ll try another set of words until I get it."
USA, embedding female, age 30
"I Google things occasionally when I’m stuck. When like I’m sitting in the canteen and doing work and stuff, if I get stuck on something, I don’t have the right textbook, I might Google it because it’s easy to get out of my pocket which is actually really useful."
UK, emerging female, age 17
These students also weighed the cost of their time against the importance of the assignment on their potential grade, in declaring a course of action ‘convenient’. That is, it was not just about the time and effort, but also about some sort of academic return on investment. Such a perspective was also reported in several other studies (Connaway, Radford, Dickey, Williams, and Confer, 2008; Connaway, 2013b; Connaway and Radford, 2011; Connaway, 2008; Connaway and Radford, 2007; Connaway, Lanclos, and Hood, 2013a; Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu and Hood, 2013).
Students are acutely aware of what sort of academic product they are working towards, and how they look for and evaluate sources for their five page essay will be different from a 20 page senior honours thesis (see also 'academia isn’t always learning'). Such differences in approach, such flexibility on the part of individuals in deciding what is convenient or easy to use within the wide array of higher education micro contexts is of great concern at a time when pedagogical conversations are much concerned not just with what students use in their academic work, but how they use sources in constructing and supporting arguments (cf. for example B. Fister’s blog post on library agendas and 2013 Library Orientation Exchange (LOEX) talk about information literacy).
So while convenience does appear as the most significant factor in choosing information sources, what is convenient is still dictated by the context and situation at the time of the information need and can be either physical or digital (Connaway, 2013a; Connaway, 2013b; Connaway, Lanclos, White, Le Cornu, and Hood, 2013; Connaway, White, Lanclos, and Le Cornu, 2012). The everyday practices of the web also mean that people do not have to learn complicated systems to find satisfying information.
Authoritative, valuable information
People of all academic stages had difficulty finding answers to the question, “Can you think of a time when you struggled to find information you needed in a personal (non-academic) situation?”, because it was genuinely hard for them to remember a time when they could not easily find what they needed. They were far more likely to have examples to share of struggles in searching for what they needed in academic contexts. That is, it was relatively easy for people to find useful information but more challenging to find this information in an authoritative form that would be acceptable in the context of formal education, ie a source they would be prepared to cite.
The point is that convenience is not necessarily the same as the most ‘simple’ or ‘quick’ solution but is about the perceived value of the effort required to find relevant and authoritative sources in a given context. Convenience is also closely linked to the preferred mode-of-engagement (visitor or resident) at a particular moment in time. Someone operating in visitor mode may have a very personal motivation, one linked just to the need they have for a source to use in an assignment, and for that source to be an acceptable one given the guidelines for effective academic work.
The motives that arise when operating in resident mode, however, can be about the potential that a given piece of information has to travel through their digital social network. Someone operating within resident mode might be thinking far less about the content (or quality, or authority) of what they are passing on than in the potential visibility that content might yield within their digital social network, whether it is Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.
In the context of an institutional service convenience does not necessarily mean making everything look like Google. It does mean making the value of the resources you offer clear, and make the logic behind using more complex resources (like databases) evident. People have to trust that the more complex resources will actually yield a return on their investment (of time, effort, etc), such that it was worth learning how to use a completely new interface and resource. This is not to say that the clarity and ease with which people can use your resources is a trivial matter. For services to be perceived as valuable, they need to be easy to access, and not require training to use (Connaway, Dickey, and Radford 2011).
"It’s number one. I actually learnt that like it’s placed number one because it has the most links to other websites. It’s more credible."
USA, emerging female, age 19
"So if I’m looking for something and I know there’s somebody at work who can answer that a lot better, instead of contacting them in whatever way – you know, calling them or emailing them or whatever – just thrashing a few things into a Google search. I do tend to rely on that."
UK, experiencing male, age 52