Has the Internet changed the way students conduct research? Yes, and not always for the better, reports to a study released last week by the Pew Research Center, “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World.” According to a survey of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers, “research” for today’s students means “Googling,” and as a result, 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.”
While teachers in the survey acknowledge the benefits of the web for students—great depth and breadth of information, material presented in engaging multimedia formats, and the opportunity to become self-directed and self-reliant researchers—many of them express concern that easily-distracted students with short attention spans are not developing the skills required to do deep, original research.
From the report: “Some 77% of advanced placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers surveyed say that the internet and digital search tools have had a ‘mostly positive’ impact on their students’ research work. At the same time, 76% of teachers surveyed ‘strongly agree’ with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.”
Here are a few ways teachers, parents and others can help students go beyond Google.
PROMOTE DIGITAL LITERACY — AND TRADITIONAL LITERACY, TOO. In the Pew survey, a majority of teachers agreed that “today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.” Instruction in digital literacy techniquescan show students how to
determine whether an online reference is legitimate and how to check its claims against other sources. But what students really need to navigate the inaccuracies and flat-out falsehoods so common on the web is a store of knowledge saved on the original hard drive: their own minds. Students must possess abundant factual knowledge in order to evaluate what they encounter on the web, and the best way to acquire content knowledge is still reading nonfiction books.
ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO FACT-FIND FACE-TO-FACE. Young people who’ve grown up in the digital age often have the impression that everything anyone needs to know is located somewhere on the web—so devise assignments that show them it isn’t so. Ask them to find a book in the library that hasn’t yet been scanned by Google Books; require them to consult with a research librarian, who will give them a sense of how many and varied non-digital resources are available; have them conduct an oral history project, collecting stories from living people that can’t be found on a website.
GUIDE THEM TO SEARCH DEEPER.The Internet is not the enemy of careful research; after all, historians, scientists and other experts rely heavily on the web in their work. But they’re using their computers to access in-depth resources like online databases and academic journals—not only Yahoo and Wikipedia. Make sure students know that the results turned up by a search engine are only the topmost layer of information about their subject: from there, they’ve got to do a lot of digging. Google isn’t the end of their search, in other words—it’s just the beginning.