Where students of the past would have been expected to develop the skills necessary to access the library’s card catalog, today’s students simply launch a Google search or consult Wikipedia and they’re done. What is lost is the ability to be parsimonious and discriminating about which sources are most relevant and credible for the purpose at hand.
While no one seriously advocates going back to card catalogs, today’s students do need greater familiarity with the advanced search features in Google, for example, the ability to use Boolean operators. They need to know how to distinguish between a credible source and a questionable one, in part by reading the “About” section on a website before relying on the information it contains. They need solid training in the nature of plagiarism, sufficient to eliminate the plea of ignorance when evidence of it is found.
Perhaps most important, they need to be encouraged to develop the habits of mind associated with conducting research, to be thoughtful and reflective, to question and examine all evidence and assertions, to be thorough in collecting evidence, and to be ethical in the ways they incorporate source material into their writings and projects. These habits can be taught as skills.
Assuming that students already have these skills because they can type with their thumbs is a serious oversight and a disservice to them. A commitment to quality instruction on how to access, evaluate, and synthesize online information needs to be a high priority for all educational programs that prepare students for college, careers, and long-term success.
David Conley, PhD, is a professor of educational methodology, policy, and leadership at the University of Oregon, the CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center and President of EdImagine Strategy Group.
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