Tuesday, 6 January 2009

How Digital Natives research.

I just came across an interesting study by a team from UCL's School of Library, Archive and Information Studies. Despite the rather unpromising title, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, this study makes some important observations about the "Google Generation" [=Digital Natives].

This was a five year study, commissioned by the British Library and JISC [who are clearly worried that they will be out of a job if they don't do something!], to identify how the specialist researchers of the future, currently in their school or pre-school years, are likely to access and interact with digital resources in five to ten years’ time.
Based on the analysis of the computer logs used to access information from British Library and JISC, these findings suggest that the ways in which society as a whole is conducting research is changing and that these changes are most pronounced amongst young people. The most worrying aspect is that:
Young scholars are using tools that require little skill: they appear satisfied with a very simple or basic form of searching .... Findings from CIBER’s deep log analysis work are very consistent with the information seeking literature and other research based on observations or surveys. For example, observational studies have shown that young people scan online pages very rapidly (boys especially) and click extensively on hyperlinks - rather than reading sequentially. Users make very little use of advanced search facilities, assuming that search engines`understand’ their queries. They tend to move rapidly from page to page, spending little time reading or digesting information and they have difficulty making relevance judgements about the pages they retrieve. p.14
Here is a clear challenge for educators at both secondary and tertiary level to encourage young people to develop some of the key traditional research skills.

Part of the study challenges many of the claims made on behalf of the Google Generation in the popular media fail to stack up fully against the evidence, their conclusions are outlined below:

[Confidence level: high***, medium** or low*]

They are more competent with technology**
Our verdict: Generally true, we think, but older users are catching up fast. However, the majority of young people tend to use much simpler applications and fewer facilities than many imagine.

They have very high expectations of ICTs**
Our verdict: Probably true, since we live in a global webculture dominated by a handful of unifying brands. Again, this expectation is relative, all of us are information consumers now.

They prefer interactive systems and are turning away from being passive consumers of informationn**
Our verdict: Generally true, as borne out by young people’s media consumption patterns: passive media such as television and newspapers are in decline.

They have shifted decisively to digital forms of communication: texting rather than talking*
Our verdict: Open. it is very difficult to see messaging as a fundamental trend, its current popularity is certainly influenced by its relatively low cost compared with voice.

They multitask in all areas of their lives*
Our verdict: Open. There is no hard evidence. However, it is likely that being exposed to online media early in life may help to develop good parallel processing skills. The wider question is whether sequential processing abilities, necessary for ordinary reading, are being similarly developed.

They are used to being entertained and now expect this of their formal learning experience at university*
Our verdict: Open. Information media must be interesting or they will fail to be used: this is a circular argument. We are a little concerned by the currentinterest in using games technologies to enhance students’ learning and library-based experience. When broadcast news makers introduced entertainment show production techniques 20-30 years ago, research showed that these enhanced `interest’ but impeded the absorption of information.

They prefer visual information over text*
Our verdict: A qualified yes, but text is still important. As technologies improve and costs fall, we expect to see video links beginning to replace text in the social networking context. However, for library interfaces, there is evidence that multimedia can quickly lose its appeal, providing short-term novelty.

They have zero tolerance for delay and their information needs must be fulfilled immediately*
Our verdict: No. We feel that this is a truism of our time and there is no hard evidence to suggest that young people are more impatient in this regard. All we can do is repeat the obvious: that older age groups have memories that pre-date digital media experiences: the younger generation does not.

They find their peers more credible as information sources than authority figures**
Our verdict: On balance, we think this is a myth.
Research in the specific context of the information resources that children prefer and value in a secondary school setting shows that teachers, relatives and textbooks are consistently valued above the internet. We feel this statement has more to do with social networking sub-culture and teenagers’ naturally rebellious tendencies. Its specific application to the world of education and libraries is pretty questionable.

They need to feel constantly connected to the web*
Our verdict: We do not believe that this is a specific Google generation trait. Recent research by Ofcom shows that the over-65s spend four hours a week longer online than 18-24s. We suspect that factors specific to the individual, personality and background, are much more significant than generation.

They are the `cut-and-paste’ generation**
Our verdict: We think this is true, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and plagiarism is a serious issue.

They pick up computer skills by trial-and-error**
Our verdict: This is a complete myth. The popular view that Google generation teenagers are twiddling away on a new device while their parents are still reading themanual is a complete reversal of reality, as Ofcom survey findings confirm.

They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text***
Our verdict: This is a myth. CIBER deep log studies show that, from undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal,`flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsingand viewing appear to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down.

They are expert searchers***
Our verdict: This is a dangerous myth. Digital literacies and information literacies do not go hand in hand. A careful look at the literature over the past 25 years finds no improvement (or deterioration) in young people’s information skills.

They do not respect intellectual property**
Our verdict: This seems to be only partly true. Findings from Ofcom surveys reveal that both adults and children (aged 12-15) have very high levels of awareness and understanding of the basic principles of intellectual property. However, young people feel that copyright regimes are unfair and unjust and a big age gap is opening up. The implications for libraries and for the information industry of a collapse of respect for copyright is potentially very serious.


  1. Based on the anecdotal evidence told to me by Media students, and by the comments they have been leaving on their blogs and Facebook accounts, they are aware that they tend to waste time online, knowing full well they could be using the Internet more productively; or indeed going out and doing something else instead.

    Part of the challenge for educators, I believe, is going to lie in teaching the research and information skills required of anyone hoping to have a successful adult life in a media/information saturated world.

  2. A challenging piece of research/entertainment. Is the digital experience our servant or our master though? I concur with Sacha: intelligent use, possibly therefore less use, is essential. I should add that whilst the networking and file-sharing etc are indeed a whole new world, there is huge need for basic education to avoid the pitfalls, especially in the religious sphere!

  3. I have long thought that RS and History, which teach the skills of managing conflicting sources and of evaluation, have an important part to play in equipping the next generation to cope with the vast range of information available on the Internet.

    "The wisdom to know the difference" seems to be something that is increasingly getting lost in a world where Google decides what is most relevant and Wikipedia is infallible.

    In a world where Wikipedia is available ubiquitously on mobile phones, factual knowledge becomes worthless; the ability to find it is of some value; but the ability to do something with it - to make connections, or to come to a reasoned conclusion or to incorporate it into an argument - becomes the most important skill. This is the very essence of education and, happily, is best done through interaction with others in a classroom.