The Myth of the Digital Native

Today’s episode of Spark on CBC had an interesting segment called the myth of the digital native (skip  to 40:00).

Basically, it explains what academic librarians and library and information science researchers have known for years.  Society has a myth that young people are “tech savvy” and know how to search because they are conformable using google. Yet students show a complete inability to think critically about search results, or ability to search effectively and efficiently.  Students do not understand subject terms or controlled vocabulary.  As a general rule students enter the first keyword or keyphrase that they think of and then click on the first few links.  Without understanding how search algorithms work.

This fact is sad, however, just as sad was the fact that this segment never once mentioned librarians.  Librarians have known about this for years.  We are the ones who help students search, and teach search skills.  This phenomenon has been researched (look up Gross & Latham).  Gros and Latham found that students have a false confidence in their search skills. For decades now, librarians have known about the lack of search skills (and just generally information literacy skills), and have been working to fix this.  Librarians (and LIS researchers) are the ones developing courses, one-off instruction sessions, and online tutorials/screencasts/webinars, and many other methods of teaching students information literacy skills (including search skills, as well as critical evaluation skills).

We need to be careful about the assumptions we make about college students and young people.  We assume they are tech savvy because they have an smartphone and an ipad or say that they know how to search.  Research shows that students almost only use google, and cannot critically evaluate information found online.  Students do not know how to find good credible resources for their assignments, and in their everyday lives.  Not only librarians, but also high school teachers and university instructors (and administrators) need to prioritize information literacy as a critical skill that young people need to develop, and do not have.

Unfortunately, these are not intuitive skills and must be learned, and learning requires a teacher, and quality teachers cost money.  It isn’t enough to prioritize with our mouths, administrators and government (education) officials need to prioritize information literacy/search skills with their budgets.

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2 Responses to The Myth of the Digital Native

  1. Carla jm says:

    hmmm… i still feel like a search & find newbie. and yes… i still use google. 90% of the time the results are sufficient for my day-to-day needs. in truth, i had really hoped to learn more about effective searching techniques, etc., in 503. which class(es) did you find most helpful?

  2. Andy says:

    I have been working in an academic library for 20 years and I have to say academic librarians tend to simultaneously follow two lines of thought that seemingly contradict each other and I have a theory as to why this is. Academic Librarians are both in awe of the techno-savvy of the students and also disparaging of the quality of the student knowledge and research skills. Why? First off, Academic Librarians are in general not very techno-savvy, but they think they are because they have so little lack of knowledge of what being techno-savvy actually means that they are very impressed with what little they do know. Second, Academic librarians tend to be generalists as far as knowledge goes and this leads them to confusion when assisting patrons who are actually trying to formulate a thesis. I have seen over and over again students struggling with both the lack of technology skills and the simple lack of understanding of research that librarians tend to have. Librarians are almost never “researchers.” In an academic library “system admin” = “techno-savvy” and “here is a random list of 200 articles” = “research.” Outside the library no one is impressed.

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