Worried that the Internet may be less of an educational tool than the techno-evangelists promised? Well, the news is even worse than you imagined: forget about fretting over the decline of handwriting, mental arithmetic skills, memorizing poetry, using a printed dictionary or other reference books composed and edited by experts, reading a newspaper, or reading passages of text longer than 500 words, todays kids – Generation Google – are pretty useless at using Google. That’s according to a new study from University College London, commissioned by the British Library to
identify how the specialist researchers of the future, currently in their school or pre-school years, are likely to access and interact with digital resources in five to ten years’ time. This is to help library and information services to anticipate and react to any new or emerging behaviours in the most effective way. In this report, we define the `Google generation’ as those born after 1993 and explore the world of a cohort of young people with little or no recollection of life before the web.
Life before the web meant learning how to learn. Life after the web appears to involve not learning much about anything. The digital divide, rather than suggesting that people without access to laptops are on an information dirt track, seems a more apt way of denoting the opposite: that a life lived on the information superhighway is a fast track to stupefaction. The report outlines key areas of concern:
• the information literacy of young people, has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems
• internet research shows that the speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority
• young people have a poor understanding of their information needs and thus find it difficult to develop effective search strategies
• as a result, they exhibit a strong preference for expressing themselves in natural language rather than analysing which key words might be more effective
• faced with a long list of search hits, young people find it difficult to assess the relevance of the materials presented and often print off pages with no more than a perfunctory glance at them
Looking at recent research in the U.S., the study’s authors say there are two “powerful messages” that need to be grasped:
When the top and bottom quartiles of students – as defined by their information literacy skills – are compared, it emerges that the top quartile report a much higher incidence of exposure to basic library skills from their parents, in the school library, classroom or public library in their earlier years. It seems that a new divide is opening up in the US, with the better-equipped students taking the prizes of better grades. At the lower end of the information skills spectrum, the research finds that intervention at university age is too late: these students have already developed an ingrained coping behaviour: they have learned to `get by’ with Google.
The problem here is that they simply do not recognize that they have a problem: there is a big gap between their actual performance in information literacy tests and their self-estimates of information skill and library anxiety. The findings of these studies raise questions about the ability of schools and colleges to develop the search capabilities of the Google Generation to a level appropriate to the demands of higher education and research.
So there you have it, information isn’t going to set you free unless you know how to find it, and the best chance of having those “information skills’ is to have highly-educated parents who can impart what they learned before the advent of the Internet. The implications for branded and non-branded authoritative knowledge, whether a newspaper, or an archive, or an entire professional field are mind boggling. But one might venture that we’re staring at class warfare between those in possession of real knowledge versus those in possession of virtual garbage.