Key characteristics of the internet generations

A range of studies has identified a series of key characteristics of the information-seeking behaviour and general internet use of the current and forthcoming generations of student. A summary of the main findings follows.

1. An over-reliance on search engines
Several studies show that search engines (Google predominantly) are the first place students will go in the search for information. An OCLC survey found that 89% of college information searches began with a search engine, and only 2% consulted a library website (De Rosa et al., 2005). The same study showed that 19% of college students were not aware of the existence of the library website. The Pew 'Internet Goes to College' survey (Jones and Madden, 2002) found that 73% of students use the internet more than the library. A study of mostly undergraduate students using the electronic library at the University of Georgia, US, found that the most commonly used resource (75.7%) was other web resources (Van Scoyoc and Cason, 2006). Griffiths and Brophy (2005) report on a UK-based study, EDNER, which showed a lower, but still significant, reliance on search engines, with 45% of students using Google as their first port of call, and only 10% using the university OPAC as their starting point.

However, this reliance on Google is not limited to the younger generations. Older generations - the so-called 'digital immigrants' who have come to use the internet in later life - have also been influenced by the Google effect. 72% of academic authors use Google to search for scholarly articles (Swan and Brown, 2005). The Swan and Brown study predates Google Scholar so the figure is likely to be even higher now. For most people, living and the working in the information age requires some form of engagement with the internet, and most of us have been seduced by the ease and simplicity of Google, regardless of age or technical fluency.

2. Lack of evaluation skills
Despite repeated exposure to the internet, many do not have the key skills to evaluate online content. The UKCGO (UK Children Go Online) Project in 2005 found that children aged 9-19 lacked the skills to judge the reliability of online content, with over a third trusting most of the information on the internet, and only 10% being sceptical about most of the information (Livingstone et al., 2005). The Educational Testing Service in the US conducted some research from 6300 students who took ETS’s ICT Literacy Assessment in 2006. They found that students lacked the critical thinking skills to perform the required information-seeking and research tasks for academic success. During a task in which students were asked to evaluate a set of Web sites, only 52% judged the objectivity of the sites correctly. When asked to narrow an overly broad search, only 35% selected the correct revision, and only a few task-takers were able accurately to adapt existing material for a new audience (Katz, 2007).

3. Shallow, horizontal internet usage: the 'bouncing' phenomenon
Log-analysis studies show that undergraduates conduct many searches, but do not view many pages per search. A study by Nicholas et al. (2007) found that 1) a high proportion of users penetrate a site only very slightly, viewing just a few items or pages per visit, and 2) a high proportion either do not return to the site, or do so infrequently. This behaviour is referred to as 'bouncing', since users bounce from one site to another, spending little time at each location. This behaviour was very evident in senior researchers too, although they found that students exhibited a more pronounced 'bouncing' behaviour than teaching/research staff. The authors conclude that bouncing behaviour could be caused by users finding it difficult to find what they need on the web, and that it provides evidence for the inefficiencies that arise out of disintermediation. Search engines encourage self-sufficiency, but with inadequate skills in information literacy (IL), users become overwhelmed by the choice on offer, almost randomly flicking from page to page in search of relevant results.

4. A lack of understanding of the language of searching
Google use encourages users to use simple, naturalized search requests, such as full-sentence questions, which leaves users at a disadvantage when using more traditional databases, which require an understanding of the language of searching: keywords, synonyms and subject categories. Also, very few search-engine users have an understanding of search query operators, which provide a simple and effective way of improving search results. In a study of over 500,000 search-engine users over a 13-week period, White and Morris (2007) found that less than 10% of users used query operators (such as "+", "-" or "site:") in any of their searches. They also found that the subset of advanced searchers were active online for longer, deviated less in their trails, and were more successful in their searches than non-advanced searchers. These findings are consistent with CIBER's deep-log analyses, which showed that young users make little use of advanced search features, assuming a basic search is enough for their needs (Nicholas et al., 2008).

5. Poor understanding of intellectual property
The online culture of file-sharing, coupled with the explosion of Web 2.0 user-generated content, have blurred the boundaries of ownership on the internet. Whereas only a few years ago, the web consisted of static content-based sites created by the few with enough technological know-how, the web is now dominated by the culture of participation: anyone can create a site, a blog, a wiki, or contribute to existing blogs, wikis, fora, social-networking sites, youtube etc. The concept of authorship is therefore less cut and dried, and leads to poor understanding of the perils of downloading content from online sources without the requisite levels of attribution. Some commentators argue this "type-in-download-cut-paste-submit" culture (Brabazon, 2007) reflects the dumbing-down of scholarship and general student laziness, but I suspect it is partly due to naivety. Many simply don't realize they're doing anything wrong.

6. New learning theories and styles
In an economy where information is constantly changing and being updated, the 21st century workplace requires employees who are equipped to find relevant information quickly, rather than those who have intrinsic knowledge. This dovetails neatly with the current focus on constructivist teaching methods, including problem-based learning, which favours understanding over memorizing, process over content. A crucial component of that process is knowing where to look for information, and recognizing relevant sources. In this context, the most able members of society are not those with the fullest minds, but those who have the fastest and most efficient access to information (Monereo 2004). This explosion in user-generated content has also led to a preference amongst today's students for interaction and collaborative learning. This also fits with constructivist theory that learning is a social activity, rooted in the work of Vygotsky (1978), and that learning is formed through social interaction.

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