Struggling to assess online info

Published on: May 17, 2013

Struggling to assess online infoBECAUSE they've grown up with the internet as a ubiquitous part of their lives, young people are assumed to have an advantage over older classmates and coworkers in the information age.

When it comes to discerning the credibility of information available online, however, research suggests that the "Google generation" may fall disappointingly short of their elder counterparts.

The "ability to obtain and process information" is one of the top five skills and qualities employers are looking for in new recruits, according to the latest survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges & Employers. A study involving both employers and recent college graduates found that there is a gap between new hires' research skills and employers' expectations.

According to an October 2012 "Project Information Literacy" (PIL) report published by Allison Head, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the basic online search skills of new college graduates are only attractive enough to help them get hired.

"Yet, employers found that once on the job, these educated young workers seemed tethered to their computers," the study found. "They failed to incorporate more fundamental, low-tech research methods that are as essential as ever in the contemporary workplace."

Head and her collaborators reported that a majority of employers interviewed said they were surprised that new hires rarely used any of the more traditional forms of research, such as picking up the phone or thumbing through an annual report for informational nuggets. Instead, many relied heavily on what they found online, and many rarely looked beyond their screens.

The young employees said they leveraged their online search skills to "save time" and "gain and edge" over their coworkers. Employers, on the other hand, felt that the recent grads were simply delivering the quickest answer they could find from a search engine — i.e., entering a few keywords and scanning the first few pages of results.

The findings of the PIL study are supported by the results of a separate study of more than 2,000 high school Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers. Conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the study found that 87% of teachers think that the internet and its digital search tools are creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans," with 64% saying today's digital technologies "do more to distract students than to help them academically."

According to the teachers surveyed, students rely mainly on search engines to conduct research in lieu of other resources, including online databases, the news sites of respected news organizations, printed books or reference librarians (Figure). In fact, the vast majority of these teachers said a top classroom priority should be teaching students how to "judge the quality of online information."

A significant portion of the teachers surveyed reported spending class time discussing with students how search engines work, how to assess the reliability of the information they find online and how to improve their search skills. They also spend time constructing assignments that point students toward the best online resources and encourage the use of sources other than search engines.

While virtually all of the teachers surveyed (99%) agreed that the internet allows students to access a wider variety of resources than would otherwise be available, 76% said search engines have conditioned students to expect to find all information quickly and easily. Confounding the issue further, 71% of teachers said search engines discourage students from using a wide range of sources when doing research, and 60% said digital technologies actually make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

When asked what sources students were most likely to use in a typical research assignment, teachers reported that Google, Wikipedia and YouTube were the three most likely "sources" of information. Only 18% said textbooks were a "very likely" source, 16% thought a librarian was likely to be consulted and 12% reported that students would likely consult a non-textbook print source.

"Perhaps the greatest impact this group of teachers sees today's digital environment having on student research habits is the degree to which it has changed the very nature of 'research' and what it means to 'do research,'" the report concludes. "Teachers and students alike report that for today's students, 'research' means 'Googling.' As a result, some teachers report that, for their students, 'doing research' has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment."

Volume:85 Issue:20