"Digital natives" need help understanding search

A report from Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries documents research done on "digital native" college students to evaluate their skill with refining searches, evaluating search results, and navigating thorny questions of authority and trust in online sources. The researchers concluded that despite their subjects' fluency with the technology, the mental models and critical thinking they brought to bear on search results had real problems:
The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies, Asher told Inside Higher Ed in an interview.

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.

Lisa Gold concludes: "How are students supposed to acquire these important digital and information literacy skills if they aren’t being taught in schools, many parents and teachers lack these skills themselves, and the librarians who have the skills are basically ignored or fired as libraries close in record numbers?"

What Students Don't Know (Inside Higher Education)

Yet another study shows that “digital natives” suck at searching (Lisa Gold)

(Image: Digital Native, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from wakingtiger's photostream)


  1. Huh.  I consider myself pretty tech savvy, but I had never heard of “Google Scholar” until today.

    1. Google Scholar is wonderful for backtracking through sources you find in academic books and articles.  Makes it easy to find the referenced source and then it integrates into your library’s system for accessing articles, like JSTOR.  I use it all the time.

  2. Could you fix the links to the article in question?  The Publications section of the ERIAL site is empty, and the link to the resource is a 404.  Thanks!

    The broken links have been fixed – and fast! Thank you!

    1. I agree, and I don’t think it’s ageist.  It just reflects how the medium has matured and shifted focus from engineering to user experience design.  See also automobiles, telephones, airplanes, photography, etc.

    2. It would be ageist to insist that only “kids today” have this characteristic. It’s true of everyone who doesn’t work in the computer industry, regardless of age.

      1. It’s true of everyone who doesn’t work in the computer industry, regardless of age.

        No it isn’t.  I am a longshoreman, I drive a truck all night. My dad is a landscape gardener and general handyman. Neither of us work in the computer industry, and as far as I can tell we Google just fine.

        1. Sorry, you’re right. What I should have said is that the proportion of people who have this problem is probably consistent across age, adjusted for literacy.

  3. I’m not surprised. The standard for English literacy amongst native English speakers isn’t particularly wonderful, and I’m not convinced that it’s significantly different with other languages — so why should it be different for the language of search queries, which is learned later and used less?

    The idea of digital natives is based around the ‘mathland’ idea, but it is based on a fundamental overextension of it. The majority of residents of an area (be it a physical area like france or a mental area like engineering) will gain the minimal level of mastery necessary to get by in the circumstances in which they must. Students learn just enough math to meet their requirements, read just enough literature to pass their composition classes, and typically have trained themselves to forget everything as soon as they pass the test. It cannot be surprising that they also learn the absolute minimum they can get away with in the arena of research techniques.

  4. So basically what’s being said is:
    Today’s youngsters sure know how to use computers, but their language skills are lacking and they’re really not any smarter than mom and dad! Shocking! And please don’t blame it on the teachers.

    1. And please don’t blame it on the teachers.

      If I graduated from high school in 1975 not knowing how to do a footnote, whom would you blame? Many people refuse to learn good computer skills. If passing on knowledge is what you do for a living, that’s a peccadillo that you can’t afford.

      1. I graduated in 1999 not knowing how to write a footnote; I would not blame the teacher for this since, from my experience, most writing does not require the use of footnotes. That skill is generally reserved for more in-depth scholarly and technical pieces of composition — not a skill needed immediately in a college freshman composition course (from my experience), but one that is taught later.

        At the risk of turning this into a debate over the merits of The Powers That Be setting regulations in a field They don’t understand, I would point out teachers are told their careers are on the line if students don’t reach arbitrary standards set by the state. The result is teachers have to make judgment calls about what is covered between what they are passionate about and what the state requires. Those who are cunning enough manage to combine the two with some success.

        KerryG’s plea to not blame the teachers comes more from Lisa Gold’s concluding paragraph which implies schools, and by extension teachers, are not trying to teach these skills, or simply do not have them. There are attempts being made by teachers, but the immediacy of instantly clicking on the first link in a search is too great for even the best students to resist. I’ve taught lessons on digital research skills and seen the “media center technicians” — librarians — reinforce the same lessons only to have to go over the exact same lesson the next day, and later for new research projects.

        So don’t blame the teachers for the whole mess; there’s enough to go around for everyone.

        By the way, it was my parents who encouraged me to dig deeper when researching, my teachers only provided me with the tools.

        1. I graduated in 1999 not knowing how to write a footnote; I would not blame the teacher for this since, from my experience, most writing does not require the use of footnotes. That skill is generally reserved for more in-depth scholarly and technical pieces of composition — not a skill needed immediately in a college freshman composition course (from my experience), but one that is taught later.

          Are you serious? We started with the ibids and the op cits in middle school. If you wait until a student is twenty years old to start teaching them something as basic as how to create citations in a paper, well….you can just get off my lawn right now.

          1. I may have misunderstood what you meant by “footnote.” If you meant in text citations for quoted and paraphrased materials, we teach that at the middle school level using the MLA formatting (which I’m on the fence about the use of MLA versus APA, but that’s another discussion) just not with the Latin terminology (I do remember the first Ibid. I saw in an entymology book back when I was in junior high: the confusion and later sense of wonder at discovery of what Ibid. meant was amazing.) The fiddly little text at the bottom of the page (to me, a footnote) wasn’t covered until later — again, in college. It’s hard enough getting seventh graders to process panetheses, names, titles, and page numbers. And I’m not on your lawn… I’m on the parkway; which is owned by the municipality and is open to foot traffic by the public.

  5. Computer education is not usually done right. They need to be teaching technology literacy. Instead they teach kids narrow tasks like “This is how to create a word document” – “This is how to do a Google search and page through the results” – they need to be teaching critical thinking, they need to be teaching exploration and experimentation. Technology moves too fast to teach a kid “How to use a computer” or “How to use the internet” You need to teach them to teach themselves how to use computers. Give them access to Google and a pile of computer parts and tell them they’ve got a week to get them set up and playing Minecraft on a dedicated server. 

    1. Hah. That would involve the critical thinking that isn’t being taught, to be taught by people who obviously do not think critically.

  6. I’m not surprised. From what I hear from my young friends schools no longer teach typing, it’s as if educators assume that everyone has a computer these days and therefore knows how to type, so they don’t have to be taught. I think it’s the same with search, adults assume kids are all tech-savy because they grew up in the computer age so there’s nothing we can teach them. It’s frustrating as hell to see my young friends hunt and peck at their keyboards and not find a bloody find a **** thing on the net.

  7. This reminds me of the arithmetic skills  vs. calculators debate.

    (posted via my abacus at the barber shop)

  8. This looks suspiciously like another round of “the problem with this younger generation…” to me.
    Kids language skills are lousy. Kids don’t know how to type anymore. Why, when I was growing up…

    When I was in school, the only typing classes available were after-school electives. I learned home position on those mechanical typewriters but learned to type at home on an Apple IIe.


  9. Or we could just teach ourselves how to learn. Google made a fun game the help understand the search: http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/trivia-game-where-using-google-is.html

  10. Around five or six years ago, I had noticed that students that I was seeing in the high school I worked at had very poor computer skills.  They knew how to enjoy what stuff they found, and how to maneuver around on myspace, but they were really pathetic when it came to picking the right words to search for.  They never seemed to grasp that they shouldn’t load their search with words that no one else uses.  Plus, there was a really bizarre focus on wikipedia.  A lot of students would just print out an article that they think answered the question.  No effort to read it or grasp the point of the question.
    It’s easy to think that the young are always worse than we were.  The truth is that they’re probably, on an average, exactly the same.

  11. Pardon me but, no sh*t.

    I took a class in college about a year ago on sound editing for film. As the instructor was teaching us how to navigate the sound editing software that we were to use for the semester, he went over – in absolutely painful detail – such tasks as saving files and the difference between ‘Save’ and ‘Save As…’ This was horrifyingly necessary. 

    He would say over and over, “Your computer should not be a mystery to you.” However, as has been mentioned already, the so-called “digital natives” tend to have a very shallow understanding of the technology that they use, and are more concerned with a thing working than with how it works.

    Of course, when I was a wee lad and my Dad was trying to teach me how to navigate the file structure of DOS on our 80486, I really just wanted him to write down what I needed to type in order to make a game start up. So, I don’t understand why anyone might assume that kids will decide to learn the “how/why” of things on their own. (Goes for parents, teachers, etc.)

    Then again, I don’t understand why people don’t try to figure out the “how/why” of things they interact with on a regular basis anyway. 

    1. …he went over – in
      absolutely painful detail – such tasks as saving files and the
      difference between ‘Save’ and ‘Save As…’

      I took a second level AutoCADD class, in which we would be learning to write scripts to customize CADD. He asked everyone to sign on with generic student logons and passwords. One student shrieked because she typed in the password and it came out as asterisks.  We spent the first class learning Windows basics.

  12. Yeah. I’m really fighting the urge to be the crotchety old man (35) reminiscing about how much shinier the electrons were in my day, but the whole “digital native” idea is not only wrong but backwards. My current 18-year-old students are almost without exception less adept at basic computer tasks than my 40-something friends who still identify themselves as not knowing anything about computers. They’re digitally dumb for precisely the same reason that I’d need six hours and three trips to AutoZone to change my own flat tire, which used to be routine maintenance for anyone who owned a car. 

    Most of the digital services that impact our daily lives are 100% pre-packaged and idiot-proofed. That’s not such a terrible thing, but yeah, a little constructive adversity early in the learning process goes a long way towards real “fluency” in what computers can be made to do.

    1. “Most of the digital services that impact our daily lives are 100% pre-packaged and idiot-proofed.”

      I agree, and I’d take the stance that the packaging is flawed more than that idiots are using it.

      People not knowing how to fine tune their use of Google’s service isn’t a flaw of educational systems or users, it’s a flaw in Google’s presentation. The trend of overbearing asceticism so prevalent in interface design these days maddens me. Look at google.com and try to find a mention of any sort of advanced search features. If Google can’t be bothered to mention a feature they support on the front page of their corporation that millions of people a day look at, why are we wringing our hands because the average user hasn’t found it? How about a simple button marked ‘advanced search features’ that takes you to a page where you can select what you want? Then at least curious users would have an avenue through which to explore and learn.

      1. You articulated my viewpoint better than I ever could: interface design is still woefully lacking on even the most visited sites on the internet. 

        I just glanced at Google’s main search page. There’s a link to “Learn More about Searching with SSL” that navigates to a dense, user-hostile article that emphasizes the safety of SSL. How about something more fundamental (that doesn’t do double-duty as subtly disguised  propaganda for Google’s supposed commitment to the security of their customer’s data)? 

        There’s also an Advanced Search link which navigates to a dense interface of fields and menus, but nary a word on how to use it to best effect. 

        I have a shockingly non-commercial proposal: Add a prominent link to the main search page labeled “How to Find What You Need Using the Search Engine.” Post a clear article on the fundamentals of search engines, the logic behind them and the terms and techniques which garner the most useful results. Include copious examples of those terms and techniques in use. Add exercises and self-tests for better mastery and retention. Just going way out on a limb here, but the search lesson could even be designed to be fun. /gaspAs a long-time UX designer who also teaches basic computer literacy to 65-96 year-olds, I know that people can be taught to use search engines with just a bit of effort. It ain’t rocket science… but it requires that companies and institutions re-evaluate their priorities and recognize that education should be one of them. Of course, these days anything created for the greater good is labeled Manchurian Candidate-style, Komm’nist brainwashing. So be it. Let Capitalism drive the creation and adoption of this simple education program. After all, a user who doesn’t know how to search won’t find all the products she’s required to buy as a Good ‘Merkin. So, hell, re-frame it as Education = Profit. 

  13. “that we assumed they would have mastered in high school”
    Well, there’s your problem. High school doesn’t teach mastery of anything. It teaches bare-minimum competency, and if anything discourages mastery.

  14. In one important sense our latest generations of young people are no different than those who came before them. Most of them are average and a few are fortunate enough to be gifted, talented, intelligent. An even smaller subset of the latter are also inquisitive and motivated and will do great things. The trappings may change but it’s the same as it ever was. The “look how stupid the kids are” lament is tired and it’s a shame it gets so much use these days. You’d think we adults with all our critical thinking skills might see past it and give it a rest. 

  15. This seems a standard thing: *nobody* reads the manuals anymore. If you go into the help Google provides, it describes all the things you can use to qualify a search. But nobody bothers to go and read up on it before using Google.

  16. Yeah, I think the phrase “digital native” shouldn’t be taken for more than “grew up around certain technology, so knows *basic* functions of said technology”. I had a couple incidents where I was taught to search, but it seems to be something that’s widely overlooked. Signsofrain has it right. I think if you went over how to search one class session or two per year in high school, kids would (hopefully) graduate with a basic understanding of how to search. I’ve had classes on how to search the library’s database at college, too, which was pretty necessary.

    “Digital native” also assumes all younger people are at the same level technologically, which isn’t true. I’ve had no special computer training, but I know more than some people my age but less than others. (I do know ctrl-F though which makes me in the top 10%!)

  17. I think it is more likely that this simple explanation holds: academic skills aren’t magically absorbed but have to be taught to and practiced by students. Or rather, some people pick up these skills on their own, but you wouldn’t want to rely on that if your job is to educate students.

    It isn’t about search, it is about lack of ‘research skills’. Knowing to use the right query/index/database for the job, being able to evaluate sources, finding further sources from the ones already identified, etc., are learned skills. Complaints about beginning students’ lack of academic skill predates the Internet. Even a decade ago, when I went to college (post Internet, pre-‘digital native’) the university had just made its ‘remedial writing and research’ course mandatory for all freshman, specifically because of concerns students were so poorly prepared. (That ‘one size fits all’ approach angered me at the time. However, once the tables were turned (when I was grading freshman lab reports) I could certainly see why the administration might think that was a good idea. 

  18. But no one trained me and probably no one trained you. There is a
    difference between education and training. An education equips people
    for a changing world. A training does not. These people don’t need training
    they need an education that gives them curious minds so that they use their imagination when interacting with a system. Perhaps they will discover something you and I don’t know.

    Having a curious mind is nothing to do with technology it is to do with cultural attitudes.

  19. I don’t think the point of this research (or any serious research) is to find out who to blame. Rather, it’s to identify problems, critically think through processes and use our best capabilities to find solutions. 

  20. I’m a university librarian.  Part of my job is training students how to research effectively.  A lot of new students I’ve encountered really do suck when it comes to creating a useful search strategy.  They tend to just chuck random words at google and stick to the first page or two of results.  The problem is that googles page rank does a very good job of moving useful information to the top of the list.  So when they move to an academic database, which is far less forgiving when it comes to search terms and only has basic relevancy rankings, they use the same strategy and end up not finding anything useful.  Those databases depend more on the quality of your search and use of syntax then fancy algorithms on the results.  I don’t think page rank style algorithms work as well on scholarly articles as it does on web pages.

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