“Digital Natives” not so savvy (or, I could have told you that)

Read Write Web had a piece I’ve been meaning to blog about for a few days:  “So-Called “Digital Natives” Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows.” A quote from the beginning:

Having been born into a world where personal computers were not a revolution, but merely existed alongside air conditioning, microwaves and other appliances, there has been (a perhaps misguided) perception that the young are more digitally in-tune with the ways of the Web than others.

That may not be true, as it turns out. A new study coming out of Northwestern University, discovered that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.

This study isn’t really so much about the extent to which young people “automatically know” how to use various computer/internet/device tools just by virtue of being “native” to the technology– in other words, “the kids today” just automatically understand texting and facebook and whatever because they are kids and have never known anything different.  Rather, this study is about how young people (the study included just over 1,000 college freshmen, I think) aren’t particularly thoughtful about evaluating the credibility of things they find on the Internet.  These students more often than not just picked the first thing that came up in Google, paying no attention to any citation information (authors, dates, sources, etc.).  It also turns out that students in this study thought less about the reliability of Wikipedia, perhaps because so many high school teachers hammered into these students that “Wikipedia is bad, m-kay?”

And then the comments on the article tell their own story about who is (and isn’t) “digitally literate.”  First, many commentators complain about the study itself as being too small (there was a typo that it was 100 instead of 1000 subjects) and not really to be about what it claims to be about.  Then there were a wave of comments that more or less say “I don’t believe it because I’m digitally literate,” along with a lot of comments that agree with the study’s results.

Well, first off, if you are reading and commenting about anything on ReadWriteWeb, you are not in the “general population” demographic, period.

Second, I suspect if you studied 1,000 (or more) people in the general population without any controls for age, class, education level, etc., etc., you would get similar results:  that is, one thing I always see missing from these studies is the acknowledgment that maybe the basic assumption that the age of users is not as significant as proponents of the “digital native” argument might think.

Third, it is hardly surprising to me (and to anyone else who has ever taught first year writing) that freshman doing research usually settle on the first piece of research they find, regardless of the quality and usefulness of that research.  Google searches and the like make it a lot easier to find that piece of research, but I can tell you as someone who started teaching freshman long before people just “googled it” that doing what can only be described as “lazy research” is not a new phenomenon.

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