As a child of the mid-nineties, I have had the joy of experiencing both the “old” and “new” sides of technology. In elementary school, I would store school assignments on floppy disks; in middle school, I made the transition to flash drives; and in high school, I started using cloud storage. I have lived the experience of wandering around my school’s library searching, sometimes in vain, for the five print resources I needed for a research assignment. This was, of course, before we were allowed to use internet sources.
Though I acquired my first computer at the ripe old age of 13 and became quickly acquainted with it, I didn’t really start the process of learning how to use the internet for academic research until my junior year of high school, and even then, my teachers still encouraged us to focus on print sources.
Most teachers these days are singing a different tune. In fact, according to “How Teens Do Research in the Digital World,” study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that surveyed teachers in the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) programs, 99 percent of over two thousand participants agreed that the internet gives students a larger range of resources than they would otherwise have access to. However, despite the fact that children grow up submerged in technology, today’s students don’t seem to have the necessary skills to weed out irrelevant information to find the true gems. Despite the positive praise about the internet in general, 87 percent of all teachers also believe that this same access is creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” At the same time, 76 percent of teachers surveyed “strongly agree” with the assertion that internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.
The Pew Internet & American Life Project also performed a series of focus studies with students and teachers alike, and both groups believe that, for most students, researching simply means “googling.” The study reported on what resources students typically use for their assignments. Turnitin, an online resource for student evaluating and learning, compiled an infographic of this data, which shows that the top three sources for student research are search engines like Google, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia and social media websites like YouTube. Most of the time, this isn’t enough to give students enough rich source materials to complete their assignments at the expected level of quality.
One major contributing factor seems to be the lack of an explicitly stated demand for teaching online researching skills in the first place. While many school districts do make it a focus, they do so by teaching select components of internet research as an aside to a major assignment. However, some teachers and librarians are taking the initiative to teach these skills by using a separate lesson plan, making sure to focus on individual aspects and providing exercises to help students improve. For example, students practice smart searching, which involves using precise words, learning Google shortcuts to refine searches, and learning to evaluate websites for legitimacy. Teachers may also provide their students with student-tailored search engines, such as SweetSearch, and show them how to use academic databases that the schools pay for, such as JSTOR.
While many educators are starting to tailor their lesson plans to include online research, there is the added question of when to start. Children are becoming more familiar with the internet at younger ages—so at what grade level should teachers step in and start honing research skills? That answer is still unclear and, depending on the school district, might just be up to the discretion of the teacher.
Luckily, there is a healthy community of online teachers willing to share their knowledge and advice. Teachers such as Mary Beth Hertz and Jeff Utecht have shared their favorite online resources and lesson plans for teaching research at all levels. As Hertz notes, research is one of the hardest things to teach, and it might be one of the hardest to learn. With the ever-increasing scope of the internet, however, the results are more than worth the effort.
Did You Know?
Though learning how to efficiently teach internet research skills might be a challenge, it certainly isn’t the first for teachers. Classrooms have always had to adapt and change due to new technologies. The school slate of the 1890s, for example, created the opportunity for kids to goof off by drawing “infelicitous” things, and the 1957 reading accelerator was meant to help students read more efficiently (though it didn’t really catch on). In the near future, classrooms might have to adjust to augmented reality (AR) glasses, which will layer data or images on top of a student’s visual field, perhaps allowing the student to have a “conversation” with historical figures about their past.