Is the Web helping or hurting millennials' critical thinking?

Is today's young generation too hooked on the Web to distinguish reality, or does this generation bring promise of a new productivity surge?

In recent weeks, there has been a mixed picture emerging about Generation Y, the millennial generation of individuals born between the years 1982 and 1995, many of whom are now leaving school and entering the workforce.

We all know the stereotype about the Gen Yers -- always and obsessively online, living life on the Internet, always connected with 500 others at any given time.

With that, we assume they are bringing enormous tech savvy into the workplace as well. But a study of 1,000 University of Illinois, Chicago students cautions that members of this generation still may need help finding their way around the Web.  As ReadWriteWeb's Sarah Perez summarized it, the study "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."  (Access to the full study is available here from the International Journal of Communication.)

This may be great news for companies putting their money into search engine optimization strategies, but doesn't inspire confidence in the students' critical thinking abilities. To quote Perez:

"A quarter of the students, when assigned information-seeking tasks, said they chose a Website because - and only because - it was the first search result.  Only 10% of the students made mention of the site's author or that author's credentials while completing tasks. However, in reviewing the screen-capture footage of those respondents, the researchers found that even in this supposedly savvy minority, none actually followed through to verify the identification or qualifications of the site's authors."

Interestingly, while there is an over-reliance on search engine rankings, trust or reliance in Wikipedia seems to have diminished. "Only a third of the students used Wikipedia to search for answers when given particular tasks. This is a drop from earlier studies which showed Wikipedia use at 46 percent among students." This may be due to teachers' repeated warnings that Wikipedia may not always be the most accurate source of information.

Is this just a Gen Y problem? What's not clear is if too much trust in search engine rankings is exclusively a Gen Y thing, or if Gen xers and Baby Boomers also are inclined to rely too much on the first listings that pop up in search results. But, as the study's authors put it, we expected more from a generation raised on the Internet:

"While some have made overarching assumptions about young people’s universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them, as our study suggests, empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position. As our findings show, students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content.

More education in the assessment of online content credibility is needed, the study concludes.

Don't lose faith in Gen Yers just yet, either. MIT's Andre McAfee, for one, says an interesting and productive tendency members of this generation show is the willingness to get work done out in the open in a more collaborative style:

"Older generations of knowledge worker, including mine...  basically work in private, or in small groups of close colleagues, and only share our output — papers, reports, plans, presentations, analyses, and so on — once we consider it done.  Gen Y finds this approach somewhere between quaint and dumb. They inherently follow the advice of blog pioneer Dave Winer to "narrate your work" — to use 2.0 tools like blogs, microblogs, and social networking software to broadcast not only the finished products of knowledge work, but also the work in progress."

As a result of this ongoing, online collaboration, the narration for projects "becomes part of the digital record of the organization, which means that it becomes searchable, findable, and reference-able," McAfee points out.

So, you have two points of view about the potential of this incoming generation -- not afraid to use technology to get things done, but still not asking enough questions.  Maybe once they get firmly planted in the work of guiding our organizations, they'll learn to question the obvious "answers" to complex problems as well.

(Photo Credit: University of Rhode Island.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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