The Myth of the Digital Native

Why Googling Is Harder Than It Looks

Why do students struggle to assess the credibility of online information? We asked some of New York City's finest educators, who told us the problem centers on how search engines are creating a radically new experience of information—one that is increasingly unguided, decontextualized, and impersonal.

At Brainly we’ve grown suspicious of the myth of the digital native. In the fifteen years since Mark Prensky coined the term and proclaimed that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” a curious paradox has emerged. If young learners “are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers,” then why is the internet so often a bewildering place for students seeking answers to their questions? Above all why do students struggle to identify the credibility of online information?

On a rainy spring evening in Manhattan we sat down with a dozen expert educators to find out. Our panel of teachers represented public, private, and charter schools and specialized in the hard sciences, mathematics, social sciences, and humanities. Together, they emphasized that even as internet technologies have definitively reshaped how students seek and consume information, conventional research skills are not empowering young learners to distinguish good online information from bad. Our panel agreed that the internet has unquestionably helped students access information more easily, but emphasized how students are experiencing unprecedented difficulties in understanding and assessing that information. “My students really struggle to see a difference between good information and prominent information,” one teacher reported. “If something shows up at the top of their Google search they take it as gospel.” For another teacher, students “simply don’t know why one website is trustworthy while another website isn’t.”

Simply put, a generation of digital natives exists today only to the extent that a generation of library natives or book natives existed in the past. Those generations required careful, customized training to understand their media environments, and today’s students are no different.

Nevertheless, information-literacy pedagogies routinely discourage the use of search engines on the grounds that tools like Google interfere with the acquisition of tried-and-true library skills. Yet our panel expressed doubts about this approach. Several teachers argued that for students the experience of navigating a search engine’s overwhelming proliferation of results is anything but simple, and the message that search engines somehow replace or simplify research skills ends up deepening students’ confusions about what is and isn’t credible. For the teachers on our panel, information credibility is taught most effectively when educators acknowledge the immense difficulties students face when attempting to locate excellent information using a search engine, and most importantly when teachers transform those difficulties into classroom opportunities.

Even as internet technologies have definitively reshaped how students seek and consume information, conventional research skills are not empowering young learners to distinguish good online information from bad.

The unusual results of a 2010 study published by MIT Press highlight how information-literacy approaches must account for students’ real experiences of the Web. The study found that students are deeply suspicious of Wikipedia’s credibility but are almost universally confident in the websites of conventional encyclopedias like Britannica. Nevertheless, when students were asked to evaluate entries from both sites without knowing which entry came from which encyclopedia, they were far more likely to identify Wikipedia’s entry as the more credible. After years of hearing that Wikipedia’s crowdsourced model was untrustworthy, the study argued, a generation of students was inadvertently permitted to bypass the task of evaluating Wikipedia’s content on its own merits. Rather than learning a process of critical analysis customized for internet resources, many students had instead learned that finding credible information on the Web meant turning to a school-sanctioned online brand.

Our information-literacy strategies long overlooked how the internet is not simply a digitized version of conventional information sources but a rapidly evolving, highly networked conversation that requires its own set of evaluative criteria.

Most problematically, pedagogical approaches to teaching information credibility have often implied that familiar brands from the print world (like Britannica) are always more credible than brands born into the digital medium (like Wikipedia). As a result our information-literacy strategies long overlooked how the internet is not simply a digitized version of conventional information sources but a rapidly evolving, highly networked conversation that requires its own set of evaluative criteria.

Google is Not the New Library

Our panel’s ambivalence about internet technologies centered on the concern that traditional research skills are incompatible with online information-seeking. Search engines, our panel emphasized, give students far more information than they can handle without also giving them tools to comprehend that information. This opinion matches a broader trend in teachers’ concerns. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 83% of teachers nationwide believe that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.”

Coupled with what our panel identified as the often solitary nature of students’ online information-seeking experiences, navigating the internet becomes a lonely struggle through both a maze and an obstacle course. Whereas libraries are moderated spaces, visibly curated and staffed by experienced educators, online searches too often leave students with the erroneous impression that the pursuit of information is by nature an unguided excursion into a deluge of media.

Online searches too often leave students with the erroneous impression that the pursuit of information is by nature an unguided excursion into a deluge of media.

The use of online search engines, our panel insisted, certainly has a valuable place in how students seek information, but must not be mistaken for research itself. “Obviously Google is a great resource,” said one teacher. “But when students jump onto Google to answer a question they end up having a completely different experience of information than they would have had by stepping into a physical library. And for one reason or another they have a much easier time evaluating information quality when they’re in a library than when they’re online.”

Students have a much easier time evaluating information quality when they’re in a library than when they’re online. Still, the solution is rarely as simple as sending students to the library.

Still, the solution is rarely as simple as sending students to the library. Digital information literacy, our panel told us, must not be relegated to the occasional library activity but integrated across disciplines as a top objective for student learning outcomes. Teachers, we learned, are adapting to the realities of students’ hyperdigital lives in part by recognizing the immense power and allure of online search tools in motivating how students explore knowledge. Increasingly, educators are finding the greatest success at teaching information credibility not when they dissuade students from turning to online resources but when they empower them to understand what they find there. In an important 2007 study of middle- and high-school students, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that as students gain experience with internet resources their abilities to judge the credibility of online information tend to increase.

Increasingly, educators are finding the greatest success at teaching information credibility not when they dissuade students from turning to online resources but when they empower them to understand what they find there.

Several teachers also highlighted the difficulties of teaching information literacy when stringent testing requirements have left little time or incentive to do so and when library resources at their schools have either been scaled back or eliminated altogether. That complaint conforms to an urgent report published in 2014 by the American Library Association, which found sharp decreases in spending on books and audiovisual materials in school libraries nationwide. The same report found that the New York City Department of Education, though required by state law to employ librarians in middle and high schools of a certain size, had applied for state permission to offer fewer librarians and library resources.

For the teachers on our panel, the defunding of libraries bespeaks a widespread misconception that internet technologies have made information literacy less relevant to student learning outcomes. For our panel, however, students’ abilities to assess the quality of information has never been more critically necessary. In the past educators perceived the ability to assess the credibility of information as a secondary skill that students must acquire in order to accomplish some separate curricular task (writing a research paper, for instance). More and more, educators are positioning this skill as a learning outcome in its own right.

The Internet Has a Genre Problem

To find out more about how search engines shape the experience of information we turned to Dr. Christopher Leeder, a scholar at Rutgers University who specializes in information credibility. Leeder argues that the problem with search engines is not just the volume of information they offer but the difficulty students face in understanding the “form and purpose” of what they find. The transition from print to online sources, Leeder says, has caused the traditional contexts of information to disappear, making it far more difficult for students to identify what exactly they’re reading.

The problem with search engines is not just the volume of information they offer but the difficulty students face in understanding the form and purpose of what they find.

For Leeder, this “erosion of information contexts” explains students’ struggles to identify the genres of online sources. In a breakthrough scientific survey, Leeder asked 204 university undergraduates to name the genres of a selection of online sources. Troublingly, he found that 60% of students’ responses were incorrect. Respondents also struggled to gauge which genres were most difficult to identify, and were in fact more likely to be wrong in identifying a source’s genre when they were most confident about their selection. Still, Leeder also found that students who had received prior instruction in information literacy “showed significantly higher accuracy in identifying online genres.”

To teachers, these findings come as no surprise. For generations the first step in teaching information credibility was to train students to identify the genre of a particular source. By showing students early on that a reference text, a memoir, and a newspaper all contain very different kinds and qualities of information, we equipped students with advance knowledge of each genre’s credibility. Knowing from the outset that a particular source is an encyclopedia or a popular magazine, Leeder explains, sets students’ expectations about the reliability of each publication’s information even before they’ve consulted its content. Libraries are designed to make this task easier, not only by grouping genres together but by inviting students to notice the aesthetic and material cues that distinguish one kind of source from another.

For generations the first step in teaching information credibility was to train students to identify the genre of a particular source. In a digital environment, that approach no longer meets students’ needs.

But educators have come to realize that in a digital environment that approach no longer meets students’ needs. The internet, and search engines in particular, destabilize conventional genres and organize information in ways that are wholly different from what students might find in a library. For one, search engines create a false sense of equivalence among all results. By arranging scholarly journals, blogs, newspaper articles, and personal websites into a uniform list structured around the student’s query, search engines suggest that these media belong in a common category and should be evaluated on equal terms.

Compounding the problem, the internet proliferates with what Leeder calls “novel, hybrid, and emergent genres,” obliging students to evaluate the credibility of genres that either lack a stable definition or can be difficult to identify. Crossover sites like the Huffington Post, for instance, package blog entries as newspaper articles, while general-interest sites like Buzzfeed might post serious investigative journalism on the same blogroll as magazine-style listicles. This confusion is made worse, Leeder found, by students’ tendency to confuse media (the publication format in which information is delivered) with genre (the stylistic and rhetorical features of a category of information). As a result, many students erroneously determined that “website” was the common genre for any and all online sources.


Information Literacy 2.0

To adapt information literacy to the digital age, educators are categorically reassessing certain tried-and-true presumptions about how students experience of information.

To adapt information literacy to the digital age, educators are categorically reassessing certain tried-and-true presumptions how students experience information. Where in the past the familiar boundaries of recognizable genres stabilized a student’s experience of information, today’s students must navigate online content without the help of those guidelines. Trends suggest that changes in research-skills curriculum should not lament that transition but embrace it as an innovation. The internet has not obliterated the genres of the print world but networked and integrated them, producing not a digital version of a library’s thoughtfully curated and carefully organized archives but a fluid, buzzing conversation conducted on its own terms. For educators, the future of information literacy may require a move away from teaching conventional genres in favor of customized pedagogies that will help students understand and critique emergent digital information formats.

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