Is the Internet Creating a More Easily Distracted Generation of Learners?
Gathering information has never been easier than it is today. Mobile devices and increasingly widespread access to wireless networks mean that research can be conducted by almost anyone at any time.
But a recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that when it comes to academic research, many educators worry that the Internet and digital search tools are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”
Only 12% of educators surveyed said their students were “very likely” to use printed books in a typical research assignment, and just 16% felt that students were very likely to consult research librarians.
Unsurprisingly, the most likely research resource for today’s students was thought to be Google, with 94% of teachers saying their students were “very likely” to use it.
The popular search engine was followed closely by Wikipedia at 75% and YouTube and other social media sites at 54%. Sources that were thought to be used some of the time included peers, SparkNotes, CliffNotes or other study guides, and news sites such as CNN or the New York Times.
So is this switch to online resources a bad thing or simply par for the course?
First of all, it’s important to note that 99% of educators surveyed believe that the Internet enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available, and 77% said it has had a “mostly positive” impact on students’ researching habits, so they aren’t opposed to the idea of students using the Web.
“Students use the internet far more than print books because it’s easier, cheaper and faster,” says Angela Ambrosini, adjunct professor of design, photography and social media at New York University
“The internet is a great resource – but only if used properly and effectively,” she says.
“I come from the “Encyclopedia” background growing up – where we had to find the adequate book, the number, find the page and then read through this really heavy book to only find out that we had to then go to the library and start the research all over again.”
Educators’ biggest concern is that Internet search engines have conditioned students to expect that they will be able to find information quickly and easily.
Many educators report that for today’s students, “research” has become synonymous with “Googling,” and has changed 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.
“It is not necessarily that students don’t know how to use the internet properly,” says Ambrosini.
“It is that the information is available in a variety of different ways and no one is actually taking the time to learn what they are reading. ‘Why retain it if it will always be a Google search away,’ a design student once told me.
I’ve noted that my all my students are fast and they can find anything in a heartbeat – but when they have a reading or writing assignment and then have to perform a task based on what they read and wrote about, it takes more time for them to really dive into the assignment.”
Other problems the survey identified include the fact that the amount of information available online today can be overwhelming to students.
Digital technologies also make it more difficult for students to find credible sources of information and tend to discourage them from using a wide range of sources. Readily available mobile devices and easy access to the Web also mean more distractions, and a lack of time-management skills can be problematic.
Teachers point out that students often use the digital tools at their disposal to waste time or procrastinate, rather than get things done more efficiently.
But although some people speculate that these problems stem from students’ overexposure to digital technology, the report notes that they may partly be a reflection of educators’ slow response to shape their own expectations as well as learning environments to better reflect the world that today’s students must navigate.
With this in mind, what can educators do to combat digital distractions and teach students how to use online resources and technology the right way?
Many teachers said they shape research assignments to prevent students from relying too much on search engines and online encyclopedias.
Nine in ten said they direct students to specific online resources that are appropriate to a specific assignment, and 83% said they develop research assignments that require students to use both on and offline sources.
“I think, as a professional, that we need to find a happy medium between the Internet and print books – and many universities are doing just that,” says Ambrosini.
“A lot of students think that what they read online is true – even on Wikipedia. This, as we know, is not a fact based database, but a lot of students don’t realize this,” she explains.
“I have had to work with a few students to explain that they cannot cite what they read on Wikipedia in their papers. Once they were told – they understood, but again this is a case of using the internet properly. Professors need to teach and explain this to students.
All schools want students to learn, and as a professor I am always being trained on how to work with students on anything from Wikipedia to plagiarism.
Schools do spend a lot of time training their professors and I think we will be able to start using the internet in a more positive light.”