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International Student Search Query Support with the Freebase API



International Student Search Query Support with the Freebase API


Submitted by Susan Avery and Jim Hahn, Undergraduate Library



In recent years the University of Illinois has made a concerted effort to increase the international student population. The increases are clearly evident when examining the statistical data: in Spring 2005 there were 4,695 international students; in Spring 2014 this number increased to 8,909. Among these students, 4,756 were undergraduates. (See: These students bring with them a variety of experiences and cultural perspectives and an equally great variety of library experiences. Following the completion of an English Placement Test, international undergraduate students are placed in an English as a Second Language (ESL) course. During the course of their education, all students in a 100 level ESL course are provided library instruction to introduce them to academic research and our library system. This innovation proposal is for the development of a new website and corresponding web service that would connect ESL courses and students with services to help form search queries in library systems. The interface and suggestions would be roughly modeled after the Deneb 3.0 Subject Search Engine: however rather than drawing solely on data from the library catalog, the new website for query support would draw on the corpus of Google’s Knowledge Graph, available to developers from the Freebase API:


Objectives: what problem(s) will it solve


The library and research experiences of ESL students are very different from those of students native to the United States. Add to these experiences language complexities and library systems that are geared toward native English speakers, it becomes increasingly evident that ESL students are underserved by our current offerings. Search assistance in commercial databases is difficult for ESL students to utilize, since this cohort requires targeted support in formulating synonyms and alternative keywords to describe a topic and related topics. This proposal investigates the technology required to build out search assistance in finding related terminology to their topic. The technology and front-end system investigated would draw data from the set of APIs available from Freebase (, a resource tool that can support synonym development and query reformulation.


By building out a query support tool the library will better be able to meet the needs of International student searchers during library instructional sessions. During ESL library instruction sessions, the library will be able to intentionally and thoroughly address needs that international searchers frequently face when confronted with database systems that do not provide ample query support to English as a Second Language learners.


Since we envision this product to be both a website and a web service it would be theoretically possible to include this set of novel support tools to students within a bento style discovery search system as a component support module.


How it fits with existing activities in the Library


 International students are placed into an ESL class based on the scores of their English Placement Test. These ESL classes (ESL111/112 or ESL115) are required courses of ALL ESL students and fulfill the Composition 1 requirement for international students. All ESL 112 and 115 classes are provided a mandatory library instruction session taught by the UGL instruction department. These classes take place at a point in the semester during which the students are beginning a research paper that requires them to locate scholarly articles. As part of learning how to create a search strategy, students use a concept map to identify keywords and synonyms for those keywords. While a very important and necessary step in constructing a search strategy, it is a very difficult step for students who are not native English speakers. The difficulty of this step in the process has been shared by numerous ESL Teaching Assistants. This is a common problem international students discuss with TAs during office hours. Creating a tool that will help students identify appropriate alternative terminology for the topics will, in turn, lead to more search alternatives and improved results in database searches.    


Resources needed (be specific, e.g., for backfill, equipment, hourly employees)


Our budget request is for two undergraduate student programmers for one semester working at 10 hours a week. Student developers would be paid $12.25 and hour. Total student wages needed are $3,920 for completion of the query support website. Initial server hosting could be done on already existing servers that the Prototyping group has access.


Sustainability (for Innovation Funding)


This project may be sustained over time in the Instructional programs within the library, with IT maintaining any production server that the service would live on after it is completed. A future Discovery and Access department may also find this framework useful for query formulation in search systems the library develops or uses.




Fall 2014: recruit student developers to work on project and begin coding language support tools. By the end of the fall we expect to have a functional prototype.


Spring 2015: Begin to use the query support tool in instructional courses. Assess project output in courses. Push out to users in Virtual Chat environment during Spring semester as well.


How to measure benefits of the project / How to determine whether the project has succeeded or failed


UGL librarians and GAs using sample topics from ESL classes will do initial testing. The tool will be introduced to students in the course of the library instruction that takes place for ESL 112 and 115 classes in Spring 2015. Prior to the start of the library instruction the tool and its goals will be shared with ESL TAs in order for them to be aware of the tool. Feedback will be sought directly from the TAs. They are most in tune with sources students use in their research and the questions students ask during office hours. Their feedback will be most informative on the benefit of this tool. A strong relationship exists between the UGL and the ESL department and it is anticipated that this will lend itself well to the necessary feedback. In addition to feedback from the TAs, feedback from international students will be sought during Office Hours consultations in the UGL. ESL students tend to use the service with some regularity and the one-on-one consultations will provide the UGL the opportunity to observe how students are using the tool.