Tech-savvy doesn’t mean internet-savvy

A commitment to quality instruction on how to access, evaluate, and synthesize online information needs to be a top priority

tech-savvyMany people, pundits and educators alike, operate under the assumption that the current generation of students is the most technologically savvy in history.

While today’s young people certainly are surrounded by technology, and they use it in their everyday lives, this is not the same as mastering technology as a task-specific learning tool, especially for gathering online information for research reports, reviews, and syntheses.

While the vast majority of students may consult their smart phones dozens of times a day to view Facebook and Instagram or to send text messages, far fewer know how to access and evaluate quality information online to help them complete academic tasks and assignments.

Many high school and college students either don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge that cutting and pasting information verbatim from the Internet into a report without citing or acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism. Few seem to have developed the ability to make discriminations regarding the veracity and value of the multitude of websites that offer positions and documents of dubious quality.

Increasingly, students in lower-division college courses are expected to complete assignments requiring them to acquire and synthesize information that would have only been expected of graduates two decades ago. This is not because anyone has raised expectations for college freshman; it is instead a reflection of the ubiquity of and ease of access to information, particularly of the type needed to do literature reviews or term papers.

(Next page: Preparing students for a successful future)

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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