Kids these days...What with their newfangled "Myspace" and "Instant Messaging", always "texting" each other. Why, back in my day, we just talked on the phone.
OK, so I'm only 30 and I've sent my share of text messages. However, in computer years, I'm still old enough to remember a time when card catalogs had some value and Google and Wikipedia didn't hand you research papers on a silver platter. Unfortunately, a few recent studies, and certainly the observations of us old-timers suggest that having the sum of human knowledge at your fingertips doesn't mean you know what to do with it. Two articles highlighted in the last couple of weeks on ZDNet ("Kids not so tech-savvy after all", and " Are College Students Techno Idiots? ") both point to the inability of high school students and recent high school graduates to differentiate between fact, opinion, and outright fiction on the web. Perhaps even more importantly, students don't seem to be able to do anything meaningful with all of this information once Google dumps it in their laps. Another article ("Students unprepared for workplace, but DE says it’s improving") points to students' overall lack of critical thinking skills and creativity:
"What it says is that while the basics are very important, we can't stop there," said Dr. Linda Barrington, research director at the Conference Board, one of the companies that conducted the survey, which was released last month. We need them to be able to write a grammatically correct sentence but then we need them to be able to communicate an effective business memo."
"They draw information from questionable resources because they don't know the difference between information they find from an ad or a biased source and that which they find on an authoritative, timely, objective site," said Alexius Macklin, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University.
Many of us have watched students effortlessly and naturally sit down and begin using a computer. I've used Mark Prensky's term "digital natives" before, pointing to this level of effortlessness so sorely lacking in many older users who have not grown up with computers and, more significantly, the Internet. Yet as these articles point out, where older users lack ease of use, high school and college students all too often lack wisdom, perspective, and patience. Those years standing at a card catalog certainly breed a special something that the cut-and-paste-from-the-first-hit-of-Google generation lacks.
I spoke with an old friend over the Thanksgiving holiday. He left education for the private sector about the time I made the opposite move. He has since moved into management and complained about the outright laziness of many new hires. Whether high school or recent college grads, too many have grown up with the idea that if Google says it, it must be right, and therefore can be cut, pasted, and handed off as a finished product, regardless of actual content. These same students treat Wikipedia with the same degree of respect once reserved only for Britannica (or at least World Book).
So what do we do? I maintain that the fault actually lies with us as educators. We were recently cited by state auditors for our small collection of physical volumes in our library. Who cares? The Internet and a genuine revolution in the way we store and access data has made reference books a thing of the past. We don't need to teach kids to use a card catalog anymore (lucky little digital natives). However, all that time that our teachers spent showing us how to research and effectively synthesize information obtained in books, periodicals, and microfilms (remember the microfiche?) must now be directed towards effectively evaluating and synthesizing information obtained online.
This ability to think critically can't be replaced by the order of search results in Google. It's time to stop teaching outdated research skills to students who will never use them. A focus on memorization in a world where everything we need to remember is a few keystrokes away is senseless. Rather, a curriculum that focuses intensively on the ability to evaluate, use, and communicate a wide variety of information is vital to creating a new generation of skilled, thoughtful members of an information-driven society.