Are College Students Techno Idiots?

They can Google and network on MySpace, but new report questions whether they can use technology to learn something worth knowing.
November 15, 2006

Susan Metros, a professor of design technology at Ohio State University, says that reading, writing and arithmetic are simply not enough for today’s students. What is important for learners is information: how to find it, how to focus it, and how to filter out nonsense. But for many students, their main source for information is Google, which Metros finds troubling.

Last year, she was surprised to learn at a conference that most people look only at the first few hits that come back from a Google query. In fact, only a tiny percentage of Google users even bother to glance at the second page of the search results. “It is well below 1 percent ,” she said.

Overreliance on Google is only one of many technology problems facing college students. A new report released Tuesday by the Educational Testing Service finds that students lack many basic skills in information literacy, which ETS defines as the ability to use technology to solve information problems.

The original impetus for the study came from librarians and professors who have found that students can use technology for socializing or entertainment but still have problems finding information, evaluating it and then putting it to use, said Irvin Katz, a research scientist with ETS. “It’s not only in academics,” he said, “but also in the workplace that people don’t have the necessary critical skills to access information.”

For the study, information was gathered from over 6,300 students found at 63 universities, colleges, community colleges, and high schools (seniors). Each institution selected participants to take an information and communication technology literacy assessment. Because the institutions did not make random selections , caution should be taken when evaluating the results. The challenge was to see if students could identify trustworthy information, manage that information, and communicate it effectively. The results do not inspire confidence.

Few test takers demonstrated effective information literacy skills, and students earned only about half the points that could have been awarded. Females fared just as poorly as males. For instance, when asked to select a research statement for a class assignment, only 44 percent identified a statement that captured the assignment’s demands. And when asked to evaluate several Web sites, 52 percent correctly assessed the objectivity of the sites, 65 percent correctly judged for authority, and 72 percent for timeliness. Overall, 49 percent correctly identified the site that satisfied all three criteria.

Results also show that students might even lack the basics on a search engine like Google. When asked to narrow a search that was too broad, only 35 percent of students selected the correct revision. Further, 80 percent of students put irrelevant points into a slide program designed to persuade an audience.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Emily Sheketoff, the associate executive director of the American Library Association . “Not enough students are getting the skills they need in information literacy.” Sheketoff said that this is especially problematic in states like California which is not hiring enough certified librarians for elementary schools. These librarians, she said, have the technical skills and teaching ability to train young students to access information.

Metros said that her institution, Ohio State, recently placed information literacy into its core requirements for undergraduates. More colleges are looking to do this in the future. “It’s not a lot yet,” said Metros of this trend in core curriculum. “But we are starting to see this.”

Katz said that he hopes the results will inspire more universities to support initiatives to improve information literacy. “These abilities need to be learned,” he said. “Students just don’t pick them up on their own.”

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