by Julie Coiro
In November 2012, the Pew Internet Project published the first of three reports designed to explore teachers’ views of the ways today’s digital environment is shaping the research and writing habits of today’s middle and high school students as well as the instructional practices that teachers use in their classrooms. The study compiled data from two main sources, including 1) an online survey of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers drawn from the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) communities; and 2) a series of online and offline focus groups with middle and high school teachers and some of their students.
The first report, titled How Teens Do Research In The Digital World, builds on prior research that has shown just how deeply search engines, mobile devises, and other Internet technologies are woven into the lives of today’s adults and teens. Some of the most interesting findings from this first report include the following:
- Over three-quarters of survey participants (77%) say the impact of the Internet and other digital technologies on students’ research habits is “mostly positive.” Virtually all teachers (99%) reported that “the Internet enables students to find and use resources that would otherwise not be available to them” and the majority of teachers (65%) believe that “the Internet makes students more self-sufficient researchers who are less reliant on adult help.“ For example, one teacher commented on the most positive aspect of being able to conduct research online with the statement, “Students have quick access to some of the best available research online…and when they come across information they don’t understand…the Internet allows them to conduct, quick, tangential searchers to learn needed information in support of their primary search.” In addition, a majority of teachers “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree” that the internet and digital technologies encourage learning by connecting students to more resources about topics that interest them (31% “strongly agree,” 59% “somewhat agree”), enabling them to access multimedia content (24% “strongly agree,” 52% “somewhat agree”), and broadening their worldviews (23% “strongly agree” and 49% “somewhat agree”).
- However, the findings are not all positive. In fact, the large majority of teachers also agree to some extent that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming for most students” (83%) and that “today’s digital technologies discourage students from finding and using a wide range of sources for their research” (71%). When asked what was believed to be the most negative aspect of students today being able to conduct research online, one teacher commented, “Same as the positive! Students have access to a seemingly endless amount of information…They don’t know how to filter out bad information, and they are so used to getting information quickly, that when they can’t find what they are looking for immediately, they quit.” Another wrote, “Students have a hard time reading online for extended periods of time. They get distracted so easily with the computer screen as opposed to salient, extended reading in books/texts.”
- Notably, the majority of teachers (60%) agree with the idea that “today’s digital technologies make it harder for students to find and use credible sources of information.” Teachers are concerned that students are not skilled enough in thinking critically about or synthesizing the information they find online. In fact, 93% of those surveyed somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.” Some of the essential skills that teachers indicated students need for the future included judging the quality of information (91%), writing effectively (91%) and behaving responsibly online (85%). However, there was less agreement among teachers when it came to deciding when these skills should be taught and by whom.
- Perhaps the most troubling finding is that for many of today’s students, research has become synonymous with the fast-paced short term process of “Googling” to locate just enough information to complete the assignment as opposed to a slower long-term process guided by intellectual curiosity and discovery. In follow-up focus group discussions, many teachers noted that the time constraints that today’s students face in their lives more generally have begun to impact the very nature of what many would consider as “doing research.”
To learn more about current approaches used to teach critical research skills as well as secondary teachers’ concerns about the broader impacts of digital technologies on their students, you can access the full report at http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Student-Research.
Julie Coiro is from the University of Rhode Island, email@example.com.
This article is part of a series from the International Reading Association Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).