Monday, August 11, 2008

Students' Internet-seeking Behaviours

A number of workshops at the 2008 IASL Conference in Berkeley reported on the Information-seeking Behaviours.

Eric Meyers of The Information School at the University of Washington had undertaken a study with Mike Eisenberg (Big 6) administered using PRS (personal response system) technology of the ways grade 9 students sought and used information. As the title of his session would indicate, they were “more and less savvy than you might think.” Research, he began, shows that students cannot distinguish authority, credibility, or relevance of online materials. Further, there is a technology disconnect between educators and students and a currently-held view of students as “digital natives,” not a view espoused by the presenter.

The researchers' use of the PRS device to gather data generated a lot of interest from staff and students in the study schools. Appropriate for its instant research feedback, its applications for classrooms and schools were enthusiastically considered. Students were observed to be particularly keen to participate in the research process.

Of the nearly one thousand Seattle-area grade 9 respondents, 84% had access to the internet at home. When not at home, students most frequently accessed the internet in social settings at a friend’s home, or at school or the public library. There was evidence younger teens were going online in greater numbers but that they had a limited range of places they went.

Asked about the trustworthiness of resources, 32% trusted websites, 37%, books. Least trustworthy, said 20%, were websites; mass media, 35%. Asked what information sources they used for homework, 48% said websites, 25% said friends and family; 19% said books.
Meyers and Eisenberg found that students were both more sceptical and more discerning than adults give them credit for. Strong factors in their use and trust of information sources were motivation and satisficing (finding information that is “good enough” for the task).

What concerned the researchers was the strong indication that students did not perceive the services and resources of the school library as being as helpful as was hoped. For example, although all the schools surveyed provided students with a bank of databases, 80% said they would bypass these and head to Google or Yahoo to search for magazine and newspaper information. Few of the grade 9 respondents perceived periodicals as trustworthy. Few start their research with the school or district library website and they aren’t widely introduced to the use of databases for homework before high school. Furthermore, asked about the role of the teacher-librarian in gaining access to resources, most recalled they had been taught to find a book (74%), fewer recalled having been taught to find a website (60%), and only 29% had any recall of having been taught to find a magazine article.

We know that information literacy skills empower students as lifelong learners. The grade 9 student survey sample are developing essential skills to participate in an information-rich learning environment, both in their personal and in their working lives. They access a wide range of resources and they do critically examine these. Given the importance of database collections as sources of relevant, scholarly, and timely information, the findings are distressing, report Meyers and Eisenberg. The “combined challenges of underutilization, misperception, and inadequate instruction” require further consideration by teacher-librarians, educators, and information providers to remove the barriers to use.

Barbara Combes, lecturer and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, undertook at study of the “net generation” (also called Y Gen or Millennials or digital natives) and its information-seeking behaviour. Intuitive more than effective users, some would say, because “they have never known a world without the Internet and technological change,” it is time to challenge the myths as these are based on what the young appear to be doing. If we are at risk of making educational and other information-delivery decisions on mythic understandings, educators must understand, challenge, and re-shape the assumptions “to ensure that tomorrow’s citizens are not disenfranchised or disempowered as users in a world where government, education and economic information, and the provision of essential services is provided wholly online.”

Ms Combes’ study group consisted of over 500 first-year university students who were surveyed; a follow-up interview sequence was undertaken with 40 students. The survey group was found to be rather homogeneous; they were confident daily users of the internet. However, the interview group gave indications that their confidence belied the reality: few planned their search strategies and some admitted they had trouble re-finding information. They tended to use Google, choose the first page and the first four results. They did not use advanced search features or Boolean strategies, even if they had been taught to. They did not save best sites. They did not change keywords if the search was not productive. They were satisfied with satisfactory results. They gave no thought to the search engine and its results. Wikipedia was not cited because students had been warned not to use it as an academic source but was used as a “landmark site” for its sources. About half said they used social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook as an althernative to email and chat. There was no evidence of political action or social inclusion when using these tools. This is a culture of internet use that research confirms and that analysis of this and other study information reveals to be extremely difficult to change.

A look at their online task behaviour also revealed that they would routinely spend a great deal of time revisiting sites. One confident student, for example, was multitasking – if what is meant by moving between several related tasks -- and tended to stay with a site that had some of the information he needed rather than seek new sites; this “landmark” site was the starting point for subsequent searches. He engaged in satisficing (taking the first information available, a behaviour alluded to by Meyers in his study of grade 9s), trusted the search engine, and took the first two results; he did not plan, nor did he revisit the assignment. This same student moved to a second assignment, resorted to EBSCO Host (which he would have learned to use in high school but which would not have been the best database for his purposes) and checked out the first four articles even though the titles would have indicated the material would not be appropriate, and when unsuccessful, chose Wikipedia. He spent three minutes on the task, using a simple keyword search, and revisited the site multiple times. He used the cursor to guide his reading. This student did not complete either task successfully.

Students generally had reported difficulties reading and engaging with text online and often printed and highlighted relevant articles. 85% had reported that the printer was an essential learning tool.

Student confidence is not the same as meaningful and effective use of the internet for academic purposes, concludes Combes. Social networking is not as pervasive, except as the alternative to email, as the dominant thinking would like us to believe. Students try new technologies and use them discerningly, that is, as long as they are useful; they have no loyalties and switch if they find something better. They don’t tend to diarize, and increasingly they are locking down their personal sites. Their patterns of use change with the changes they undergo in lifestyle. They adapt the technology to suit their needs.

As educators, we need to be asking, suggests Combes, whether the tools we are incorporating are really the best for the purpose, what the students will learn, and how we will know if they have learnt it. We need to challenge the corporate-driven statement, “everyone is doing it” and find effective ways to guide our students who are at risk of being “lost forever in virtual space.”

Marlene Asselin (UBC LLED) and Maryam Moayeri (PhD student, UBC) also presented their pilot study of students using the internet for learning and they too found good reason to challenge the “savvy-ness” of high school students. Using both interviews and MORAE software as a means of data-capturing, they presented clips of an audio/visual record of two students’ “thinking-aloud” as they used the internet to complete homework assignments. Asselin and Moayeri sought answers to the questions, how do young people use the internet for homework? What skills and strategies do they need to be taught? What recommendations do students, teachers, and parents have for using the internet to improve learning?

Research is building a bank of studies that identify the need for strategic instruction. It has also identified digital divides based on gender, stages of development, and socio-economic status, as well as in students’ in- and out-of-school use of the internet, a given in that the internet has had a minimal effect on teaching and learning. There are also significant user, task-design and -approach, and text factors that influence how well an individual is able to access, use, and process information. The researchers were very clear about what the research indicates: “Schools have an enormous responsibility to address effective usage and instruction to fully support student learning of the academic disciplines.”

So what evidence did they find that our students need strategic instruction for the new literacies and for more meaning integration of the internet in learning, including information literacy skills for effective search, comprehension of text, critical evaluation, and social and ethical use?

The students consistently began their searches with Google. They quickly chose the first hit which was inevitably Wikipedia; they read the first few lines at the top of the page, then moved onto the other hits in seconds. They skimmed the tops of pages and moved on in a “click and grab” approach. The students explained that they were satisfied if this process revealed the information they were looking for; they did not apply skills of critical evaluation at any time. They did not compare sources on the topic. One expressed a need for teacher-selected sites.
Teachers themselves had a range of internet skills, attitudes, and abilities.

A recurring theme amongst parents, teachers, and students was the lack of internet work assigned particularly because of concern for accessibility issues. Teachers expressed frustration with school access, and with the lack of time to learn new technologies and their applications for teaching and learning. They wanted more time to attend workshops, more school and district support. Students wanted to have more use, to have electronic copies of lessons, and to be able to bring their own laptops.

At the administrative level, despite support for promoting information literacy, initiatives are limited by fund and liability issues. Banned were the social sites and limited was the use of the internet in assignment design, with fears of bullying and misuse as the deciding factors. Parents expressed concern about the “dark side of the internet,” but also felt that school districts were underutilizing the internet as a resource, “remaining in a very traditional kind of textbook mindset, and ... not really supporting students to use the internet.” Interestingly, there was confusion over the use of the term internet as interchangeable with the word computer whereby any assignment that used a computer for production or presentation was given as an example of internet use, possibly revealing participant responses to the use of technology in general.

The study, posited Asselin and Moayeri, reveals the need for more studies and they will extend their study to include a more longitudinal look at more diverse learning environments. They affirm the research findings that students need instruction in internet literacy beyond Google to understanding search engines, databases, services available including school libraries and school library websites. They saw little evidence of analysis of information, critical evaluation, interpretation, and communication of new information. They searched and found the facts for assignments that could as easily have been completed with textbooks. Students were not learning the skills to be independent learners.

The new 2008 American NCTE and AASL standards provide guidance for our thinking about what we want students to know how to do with information in the 21st century. They need to be proficient with technology tools; inquire and think critically; access, manage, analyze and synthesize multiple sources of information; create and apply new knowledge and share it ethically and productively in a variety of ways as citizens of a democratic society; and grow aesthetically and personally.

Teacher-librarians who embody the principles of lifelong learning are keys to resolving the challenges faced in education. They have curriculum knowledge, access to new technologies, understandings of the policies and of information literacy, and a willingness to share their expertise with teachers, administrators, and parents. If schools are going to prepare young people for the demands of citizenry in the 21st century, they will need ways of re-shaping curriculum and pedagogy and of drawing upon the vital input of teacher librarians for integrating the internet into teaching and learning to build the skills and contexts in which the internet is a most effective resource.

Me again! What a lot to be thinking about! This body of research affords us a thoughtful look at what we have observed ourselves as students blithely click their way through the onslaught of results or furtively click out of the databases when you are not looking to head into Google territory which they have minimized for when you are finished trying to teach them. It also gives us a much-needed opportunity to reflect upon the importance of instruction for information literacy in the online environment across the educational community. Our work may never be done, so pervasive and long-term are these behaviours! We must remain undaunted and fixed on achieving information literacy ... and it is political, they suggest.

Oh my, she repeats, oh my! So much to take in and so much to think about. Can you see why I was exhausted ... much more tiring than the hiking for my coffee and the moving from session to session was the listening, recording, and considering of all this new information. My reflections aside, I know we are on the right track!

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