FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Students Abadon Libraries for the Web

Fewer grade-school and college students are relying on libraries for their research projects, instead getting their information online... causing teachers and librarians to worry about the quality of the information they're getting.

CNN.com features this telling anecdote:

Georgia Tech professor Amy Bruckman tried to force students to leave their computers by requiring at least one book for a September class project.

She wasn't prepared for the response: "Someone raised their hand and asked, "Excuse me, where would I get a book?"'

Bear in mind this occurred at one of our nation's elite technical universities...

Educators worry that while students are Internet-savvy, many have not developed the skills to distinguish quality information online from hoaxes and sources that are deliberately misleading. A case in point is a photo of a supposed "home computer of the future" that was reported to have been published in the 1950s:

The photo and related story were later revealed to be a joke, yet they were widely circulated on the Net as fact. Another false story recently circulated -- and that was picked up by liberal blogs and even some mainstream news media -- stated that President Bush had been arrested on war crimes charges while in Canada, complete with (obviously Photoshopped) pictures.

Educators also worry that the growing use of the Web for research may lead to sloppy research practices, such as ignoring multiple sources in favor what simply shows up first in a search engine. Many of those search results, moreover, are sponsored, further biasing the information students receive.

This kind of academic sloppiness falls in line with what Internet critics such as Clifford Stoll predicted over a decade ago. However, the Internet is not going away; in fact, the movement online is only growing as the first generation to grow up with the Web enters college.

To that end, everybody has some responsibilities here. Educators need to teach essential Internet research and information evaluation skills alongside stronger library skills, and point out where libraries can offer services that the Net cannot. Students need to have the research bar raised, with requirements for multiple, non-Web sources when doing research. At the college level especially, there is no excuse for research shortcuts.

Finally, producers of online information have a special responsibility to be as accurate as possible, and to carefully evaluate their sources. Surely there will be social and political biases, but those exist in the print world as well.

Sources: CNN.com, Snopes.com