Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Well, Duh....

A new report from the CIBER research team at University College London just reaffirmed what every teaching librarian already knows: most students are functionally information illiterate. The so-called "Google generation," while far more at ease and familiar with computers and the online environment than adults--at least when it comes to social networking--know squat about finding, recognizing and managing information.

Well, they phrased it more eloquently.

You can access the entire report here, but I'll summarize what I thought were the most interesting points.

User Behavior
According to the report, 89% of college students use search engines to start an information search. (I'd say that's even higher in secondary school.) Only 2% actually start from a library website. 93% are satisfied/very satisfied with their search, compared to only 84% who use a library assisted search (this surprised me).

What was especially interesting was the change in reading habits to what the study called "horizontal information seeking." And this was in adults (teachers, professors) as well as students. Users engage in "power browsing," bouncing and flitting from subheading to subheading, clicking on links, viewing no more than a page or two on any individual site. 60% of ejournal users view not more than 3 pages, and 65% never return.

In fact, people spend most of their time just trying to navigate around.

Information Management
Not only has students' information literacy not improved with technology (though it hasn't worsened, either), technology masks troubling issues.

  1. "The speed of young people's web searching means little time is spent evaluating information.
  2. Students have a poor understanding of their information needs, and thus find it difficult to develop effective search strategies.
  3. Their preference for natural language searching hinders an analysis of more effective key words
  4. Faced with a long list of search hits, students find it difficult to asses for relevance, and often print off pages with no more than a glance
  5. Many young people do not find library-sponsored resources intuitive, and therefore prefer to use Google or Yahoo."
Most interestingly, while many of the teachers interviewed were information literate, their skills and attitudes were not passed on to their students.

And, of course, students don't get it.

The problem here is that they simply do not recognize that they have a problem: there is a big gap between their actual performance in information literacy tests and their self-estimates of information skill and library anxiety.

As my title suggests, we all knew this. Yet as we continue to advocate for our increasing relevance in today's informationally overloaded environment, it's good to have the actual statistics to back ourselves up.

What I do find worrying about this study, and about my own students' information behavior, is the implication that we're doing a poor job of meeting their needs. As the study states,
Information consumers--of all ages--use digital media voraciously, and not necessarily in the ways that librarians assume. Any barrier to access: be that additional log-ins, payment or hard copy, are too high for most consumers and information behind those barriers will increasingly be ignored....students usually prefer the global searching of Google to more sophisticated searching....provided by the library, where students must make separate searches of the online catalog and every database, after first identifying which might be relevant.
In other words, when I tell students to ignore the interface that allows them to search every database at once (regardless of its relevance to their topic), and to search the databases individually (returning more useful results), I'm actually working against my intentions of making their lives easier.

I need to think about this one, and will certainly be posting more on it later.

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