How even digital natives get tangled up in the web

Study shows children are not as internet-savvy as once thought

Adi Bloom

Today's schoolchildren have been born into a world where breaking news is found on Twitter and doctors offer a second opinion after Google's initial diagnosis. Many people, therefore, assume that the web has changed education, too.

In fact, the generation of children raised with the internet have no idea how to gather information effectively online, new research suggests. Children and teenagers are not capable of choosing useful search terms, selecting the most relevant websites for their purpose or questioning the validity of online sources, according to a study.

Academics from Maastricht University and the Open University in the Netherlands conducted a review of existing research to find out if there was any truth to the widespread belief that digital-savvy schoolchildren learned in different ways from their low-tech predecessors.

Many people wrongly assume that children who have been immersed in technology throughout their lives are "creative problem-solvers, experienced communicators, self-directed learners and digital thinkers", the academics write in a paper published in Educational Psychologist journal (see bit.lyDigiNatives).

However, a number of research studies across five countries reveal that, even by the end of school, knowledge of technology among these digital natives is often limited to email, text messaging and surfing the internet.

When they do use the internet for educational purposes, it is "mostly for passive consumption of information, eg Wikipedia, or for downloading lecture notes", the academics say.

The belief that digital-era children are adept internet users has also led to an assumption that there is no longer a need for teachers to present them with knowledge. Instead, children are encouraged to direct their own learning, making use of all the information freely available online.

But effective internet use requires an ability to distinguish good information from bad. The study cites research indicating that "learners not only have problems finding the information that they are seeking, but also often trust the first thing they see, making them prone to the pitfalls of ignorance, falsehoods, cons and scams".

Teenage internet users are often easily distracted by click-through hyperlinks. "Many a quest ends in a quagmire of possibly interesting but irrelevant pieces of information," the researchers say.

Several studies show that children and teenagers are not capable of choosing effective search terms, selecting relevant websites or questioning the validity of sources.

"It is what one already knows that determines what one sees and understands, and not the other way around," according to the Dutch academics. "Thus prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select and process information found on the web."

There remains a vital role for teachers, they write. "Students with more prior knowledge have an advantage because they can easily link their prior knowledge to the task requirements, and to information found on the web.Learners [do not] have the expertise needed to determine what they do not know, and what they, therefore, need to learn.

"The fact that students make use of many electronic devices and are called digital natives does not make them good users of the media that they have at their disposal."

Miles Berry, principal lecturer in computing education at London's Roehampton University, defended the educational role of the internet. "To say that access to Google, access to the internet hasn't changed the opportunities that people have to learn seems to be denying the reality of what technology has made possible," he said.

"Making use of that is an acquired skill. But the same is true of listening attentively or acquiring knowledge from the written page. These are things that are acquired with time and effort."

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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