The internet is dumbing down students’ studies, Yojana Sharma reports

Google goggles muddling research
(Saturday, March 15th, 2008 – South China Morning Post)

Students of the Google generation, used to surfing to find whatever information they need, may not be as well-informed as they think they are. Worse still, they don’t appear to be putting the huge amount of easily accessible information to best use. A recent study has found that Google-generation students and researchers–born after 1993 and who have no recollection of life before the Web–lack the critical and analytical skills of previous generations who got their information form books and papers. The change, the study said, was so evident that universities and research libraries were beginning to realize that simply rushing to put scholarly journals, books and other information online was not enough. They needed to teach students more efficient research skills. “We assume that young people are picking up knowledge by a kind of digital osmosis,” said David Nicholas, head of the Centre for Information and Evaluation of Research (Ciber) team at University College London, which carried out the first ever virtual longitudinal study on internet research behaviour among students.* The team tracked internet searching behaviour going back five years in order to compare older and younger surfers. “Today’s students are offered a cornucopia of digital services and they can access them whenever and wherever they like, but they are not effectively accessing the information they need for their degrees or their research They don’t seem to have an understanding of how to do this,” Professor Nicholas said. Based on analysis of computer log trails left behind by millions of people operating in cyberspace, the study, “Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future”, found the Google-generation students were not as cyber-literate as they liked to think. Nine out of 10 college students started any kind of hunt for information using a search engine. Yet it was a myth that young people were “expert searchers” and would eventually find what they needed. Their search behaviour was “promiscuous, diverse and volatile”, the study said. “What is endemic is a form of behaviour called bouncing and flicking,” said Ian Rowlands, a specialist on infometrics and co-author of the Ciber study. Rather than treating the internet as an information source, students and researchers treated it more like a “media source”, viewing rather than reading information. “They zip horizontally through many sources, bounce through and cross-check. They rarely go deep,” Dr Rowlands said, adding that the Google generation, particularly those born after 1993, lacked a “mental map of the information landscape”. 1

but they are actually disenfranchising people. “This is absolutely significant for us all. The Ciber study found that students and researchers had little idea where to find information other than via Google. The result was superficial knowledge and a lack of detail in university and research work.” Professor Nicholas said.” Professor Nicholas saw serious implications for degree-level teaching and beyond. superficial surfing and fleeting commitments.People in virtual libraries spent as much time finding their bearings as viewing what they actually found.” Professor Nicholas said.” he said. The University of Google. “I call this type of education the University of Google. author of a recently-published book. Meanwhile. Education in the (Post) Information Age. when a search resulted in many results.” the study said. 2 . Professor Brabazon said in a lecture at Brighton University. Instant access to information had diluted students’ sense of curiosity and stifled debate. But especially for governments. Yet they had an unsophisticated view of the internet. particularly for research and how university libraries should best operate. “Power browsing and viewing is the norm for all. “Google is filling but it does not necessarily offer nutritional content. “Society is dumbing down. Only a small percentage of people were persistent users. able to dig for the right information. The Ciber report is not the only one warning of the dangers of Web surfing as a means of finding information. “Google offers easy answers to difficult questions but students do not know how to tell if they come from serious. but I suspect that viewing is displacing reading. where she teaches. young people had difficulty assessing the relevance of the materials and often printed out pages with no more than a glance at them. caused a stir earlier this year when she described Google as “white bread for the mind”. “We like to think they view and then read.” it said. which were putting more and more information vital to democratic societies on the Web without any clear indication that citizens were able to get at it. thinking it is enfranchising everyone. refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas. adding that she forbade her first-year students to use Google or Wikipedia for research. Tara Brabazon.” Professor Brabazon said.” she said. “The [British] government is moving us all to a virtual environment. “They fail to appreciate that it is a network of resources from many different providers. The study said that the information literacy of young people had not improved with widening access to technology.

“We need to teach our students the interpretive skills first. “We can no longer assume that students arrive at university knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read. adding that the stakes were much higher now that self-directed learning was the norm. “There is already research that shows that the hard-wiring of the brain is changing in the digital age.” Professor Brabazon said.” Professor Nicholas said it was not going to be possible “to roll back things learnt in school”. he said. Students must be trained to be dynamic and critical thinkers rather than drifting to the first site returned through Google. If students saw that it was better for their university grades they would be keen to learn how to access and analyse information appropriately.” There were increasing calls for lessons in understanding where reliable information resided. said computer and information literacy were different.” Professor Nicholas said. 3 . January 2008). “Young people’s apparent ease with computers and technology is actually superficial. chief executive of the British Library. “The digital divide is no longer about who has the hardware and who does not. * University College London: ‘Information behaviour of the Researcher of the Future’ (Ciber briefing paper. hiding the reality of their lack of information skills.” he said.Dame Lynne Brindley. and suggested that schools should begin to teach young people how to find relevant information. but who can use digital information most effectively. before we teach them technological skills. a major resource for researchers.