Today's student: text-rich, information shy

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
They are the generation born with "texting thumbs"

They are the generation born with "texting thumbs". They also poke and get poked every day. (For those of you not in the loop, these are not the prurient ramblings of a deviant fiftysomething, but the recently coined terminology of online social networking sites.)

We assume that anyone under the age of 30 is at home with the brave new world of IT. After all, they've grown up with it, haven't they? In an information age, surely they are the best placed of all of us to access the information they want, when they want it? Well, yes . and no. You see, it all depends on what you mean by information.

Finding out what your mates were up to last night on Bebo - that's a doddle. But tracking down authoritative and accurate information online for an academic enquiry is an entirely different matter.

According to recent research, many students arrive at university with only the vaguest notion of how to conduct online research. Instead of in-depth reading, they "power browse" or skim over material, whisking through whole academic journals in just a few minutes.

In truth, most teachers would say that they don't need a research project to tell them that. They see it in action every working day. Many students simply don't have a tolerance for the precision that is needed to search successfully online. Too often they fumble, stumble, hit the wrong key . and then give up.

Even if they do find what they're looking for, there's still the problem of differentiating between serious and lightweight information providers. "They don't have the idea of different sources," concludes one of the researchers. "There is no mental map."

Like many lecturers in FE, I frequently find myself working with students to combat these difficulties. But when I think about it, I've never actually had any training in online information retrieval myself. My formal education was pretty much over before the information age began. Thus most of what I know has been picked up on the hoof.

In the US, students are now being taught information literacy as a separate, accredited skill. Maybe we need to import this to our colleges. And where better to start than with the teachers?

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