8 February 2011

Evidence about the "Google generation"

Much of the attention during the first week goes to the notion of Digital Natives, a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 (ref), to characterize a generation of young learners (roughly born after 1990) grown up with the internet and the corresponding information overload.  According to Prensky, this generation is qualitatively "different" from earlier generations because of their ICT proficiency, their different way of accessing information and even the way their brains are structured (a claim repeated put forward by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows and here).

This generation is very good at horizontal skimming of webpages, searching information and multitasking, prefers visual information to texts and is very impatient to find immediately the correct information.  Prensky warns that teachers and educators, dubbed digital immigrants, should adapt their teaching style urgently to accommodate this information behaviour.

Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. (Prensky, 2001)

Two large-scale studies were presented to test students' experiences with technology.  One study, on 1200 first-year students at the University of Melbourne, looked at:

1/ students' access to IT
2/ students' proficiency with IT
3/ students' willingness to use IT in the classroom

The authors pointed out that digital literacy is very different from information literacy.  Having access to computers and using search engines can disguise the lack of information literacy skills.  These are the skills to define information needs, select appropriate instruments and evaluate the accuracy, relevance and quality of the information.  Moreover, the Google generation is a diverse generation, counting around 25% of proficient IT users but with an equal share of digital dissidents, those who avoid technology where possible.  The study does not discourage the use of ICT in education, but states that information literacy should be explicitly taught, and not taken for granted.

Secondly, the authors warn that familiarity with the tools in their private sphere (what they call "living technologies") does not automatically mean that learners would like to use these tools for their education. However, the results seem to imply that familiarity with a tool is strongly correlated with the agreeing on its potential for education.
Thirdly, agreeing on the educational potential of a tool does not mean that there is agreement between learners and educators about the best use of a tool.  Texting, for example, could be used to inform students about cancelled lectures or their grades, but also to text them questions prior to a lecture.  

The second study (CIBER) uses literature research and the use of two e-library portals to analyze whether:

1/ The Google generation searches for and researches content in new ways. 
2/ This generation is different from other generations;
3/ (Physical) libraries will become obsolete.

The conclusions are similar.  The authors also point to a trend that young people tend to skim horizontally through information, spend very little time on websites, download lots of resources (probably) without reading them (squirelling behaviour, great term) and hardly check the quality of the information.  However, they point that older generations display the same characteristics, with older scholars just reading the abstracts of journals.  The Google generation (and the previous Y generation) were early adopters of this trend, but are quickly caught up by others, such as the Silver Surfers (55- plus, who on average turn out to spend more time online than the Google generation).

Both studies refrain from judging the new information behaviour. They point out that copyright seems to be less respected (in some cases), but both projects didn't really investigate whether this different way of dealing with information would produce better learning outcomes. 

Effects of the internet on brain structure were not discussed, but here is an excellent discussion on Scienceblogs, after the publication of The Shallows (Nicholas Carr).

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