Angela Maiers posted a wonderful blog, “In Google We Trust,” in which she cites a recent study from Northwestern University researchers who found that many college students have no idea how to conduct or evaluate good searches on the Internet.  Rather than pay attention to the sources of the information, they tend to rely on simple page ranking, often just accepting the first thing that shows up on the screen.  The full study can be downloaded here.

This is a topic about which I have been speaking since the 1990′s! I put it in the context of 3 skills for functional literacy today.

1. How do you find information?
2. How do you evaluate its relevance?
3. How do you evaluate its accuracy?

Students may have the first skill under control, but need guidance on the others. These are skills that, in the past, were the primary domain of librarians. Now we have become our own librarians, but have skipped developing the rest of the essential skills.

What was interesting to me about the study was that it focused on college students – an age group we think should know better.  But how can we expect them to figure all this out on their own without guidance from us?  Yes, an appreciation of relevance probably grows with age, but accuracy?

Are we teaching students to be conscious users of information, or to just accept what they see in print or on the screen?  In the old days of textbook delivered curriculum we never asked students to question the authorship of their textbooks.  Instead, we just taught from them assuming they were valid.  This helped build the concept that, if something appears in print, it must be true.

Of my many reasons for disliking textbooks, the reinforcement on this assumption is one of my hot spots.  I recall reading an astronomy textbook years ago that said that Jupiter was the only gas giant without rings.  It then went on to explain why Jupiter didn’t have rings.  All very interesting, except that photos of the rings of Jupiter had been sent to Earth by Voyager in 1979, well before the book was published.

I could go on all day citing cases where textbooks should be placed in the fiction section of bookstores.  I won’t even start asking if US History books (most published by British companies like Pearson) may have cleaned up some of the British behaviors during the Revolutionary War.

But back to our point.  The Web is a powerful resource – probably one of the best ever assembled in history.  The truth is there for those who find it, but to find it we need to teach a new set of skills to young people, and failure to do so carries a high penalty.