(Editor’s note: This is Part Two of a series of articles on developing web literacy among students. To read Part One, click here.)
Are you as worried as we are that the overall impact of technology on our children’s ability to solve complex research problems is negative? Have you heard a child near you say, “Just Google it,” when asked to describe the meaning of life?
Research shows that students primarily use one search engine and then only look at the first page of results. They can quickly give up or settle for something “close enough” when they don’t find the information they’re looking for. Huge amounts of time are being wasted in searches void of the rigor of research.
A very depressing view of the state of American students’ approach to internet research comes from a recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. When challenged, Yale students in Mr. Brill’s advanced journalism class wrote essays describing that they would simply use Google to solve the Watergate scandal by keying in words such as “secret fund.” After New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen heard about this, he posted on Facebook, “I don’t believe this anecdote about moronic Yale students. … It sounds made-up or very, very distorted.” In other communications, Bob Woodward, one of the individuals who broke the Watergate story, wrote to Mr. Brill after reading the essays, “…your students have what I can only call a heart-stopping overconfidence in the quality of the information on the internet.”
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Somehow, we do not think this problem is limited to the students admitted to Yale. We believe we have an endemic problem across the country, where our students have weaker research skills as a result of not being taught the rigor and discipline of using Google and other search tools across the curriculum in all grade levels. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, being an excellent researcher with print does not automatically make you thorough in a different medium, the web.
The K-12 students we ask (and the majority of our doctoral students) confidently explain that they know how to use Google. Then we start giving them research questions, such as searching for teacher websites in England that cover the American Revolution. When they cannot generate a single teacher website from the U.K., they discover they really do not understand the architecture of information on the web. Our general analysis is that our students don’t know that they don’t know. We probably would be better off if they knew that they did not know. Then, at least, they might ask their teachers for help with their internet research skills.
There are two driving forces that create an urgency to redefine what it means to be literate in today’s world: common sense and the Common Core. Common-sense observations demonstrate how students are misusing the web for their homework and everyday research. They typically do not realize why or how they are getting their results. As Woodward put it, they believed that “somehow the internet was a magic lantern that lit up all events.”