Technology is not a universal problem-solver.

Technology is not a universal problem-solver.

Though I’m a technology junkie, I continue to revel in the fact that so much of the world’s information is never more than a few keystrokes away. I remember the days of those terrible old search engines that returned 10 million results, most of them irrelevant. I marvel now at the ability of Google or Bing or Wolfram Alpha to deliver pretty much what I ask for.

Educators, from K to Ph.D., have assumed that our most foundational task is to put the best technology into the hands of as many people as possible. Once they have the tools, the assumption goes, our students can flourish. Whether delivering unbelievably cheap laptops or sophisticated scientific databases, education is in a providing mood despite the economic downturn. Many are predicting that the result will be a utopia in which education and technology create the super-student of the future.

My institution—Trinity Western University, in Langley, British Columbia—has technology: lots of it, from campus-wide Wi-Fi, to extensive library databases, to laptops in the hands of most students. One would think that utopia was just on the horizon, and the coming techno-student was emerging before our eyes. But, as necessary as technology is to education, something crucial has been left out. The give-them-technology movement is missing the point.

Let me illustrate: A student comes to me, an academic reference librarian, with a list of ISSNs (barcode-like numbers that identify journals and distinguish them from one another). She asks, “Can you tell me how to find these articles?” I see a whole series of erroneous notions running through her mind even as I tell her, “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t.” What went wrong? Well…

• She confused an ISSN with a library call number. An ISSN can only tell her what journal the article came from, not identify a specific article.

• She got the ISSNs from a journal database, not realizing that she had already found the needed citations but had ignored them in favor of copying down the ISSNs.

• She likely already had the full text of the article as a PDF attached to her citation, but now she lost it, because she copied down the ISSN and then closed down her session in the database.

The average college student can’t tell you the difference between an article and a journal, believes that you can get the full text of most academic journal articles from a Google search or at least Google Scholar, and has no idea what a subject heading is.

The average college student admits to finding even Google frustrating. The average college student is only vaguely aware of the range of journal and related databases to which the college subscribes at great cost. Boolean searching, use of advanced search options, and identification of criteria for evaluation of information are all low on the radar of the average college student. The average student submits a bibliography for a research paper that is 4 to 6 references long and contains no journal articles.

Throwing technology at our students is missing the point. It’s like saying, “Give them cars, and they will drive,” about a non-driving population. Certainly they will, and we can watch in horror as they ramble over the sidewalks and lawns of the nation until they inevitably crash into one another. Cars without drivers who have passed a driver education course are tools for mayhem.