Monday, January 21, 2008

And we're...back! AKA Libraries and the "Google Generation."

I don't really know yet if I can be considered a "blogger." I mean, I guess I have a blog. But it seems like a "real" blogger would have not let a month go by without posting something. Be that as it may, I have been working on something that I'm getting ready to post about soon. I just need to get it into better shape. Because, you know, the world is reading this. I've also got a long overdue post about a superbly interesting course that was taught at Vanderbilt last semester. But for now, I just want to mention a report (PDF) from the UK on the "Google Generation." A convenient summary can be found here.

A couple of the findings are particularly intriguing for someone who is interested in teaching with technology. First is that the so-called "Google Generation"--those who have grown up with the Internet--is not any more savvy with interactive (i.e., web technologies) than other users. What the study does turn up, according to the summary, is that while young people are comfortable with computers, they "rely heavily on search engines, view rather than read and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the web."

This opens an interesting problem that I think gets ignored frequently: what do we mean when we say "web-literate"? Do we mean the students who are most comfortable with computers? Those who can process the most simultaneous streams of information? Those who know the fastest ways to find a particular piece of information? Or the locations where this information might most logically be? Or do we mean those who can be "critical and analytical [in] assess[ing] the information they find on the web"? While I'm all in favor of critical and analytical skills--especially for those students who are in my classroom--I do not think that our older models of literacy are necessarily and 100% applicable to the concept of literacy in a web environment. After all, this is a new medium we are dealing with and who's to say that models of reading/literacy taken from other media such as painting, architecture, music, or engineering aren't better models of literacy for something that is so hybrid? How much does the definition of web-literacy at play in the report have to do with its originating from an institution that has natural biases toward reading printed texts?

Regardless where you come down on these questions, it becomes important to recognize that the students coming into your classroom--even graduate students, these days--are going to know a lot about how to find particular pieces of information very quickly. But this doesn't mean that they know how to decide which pieces of information are most germane to their arguments. I know that when I started college, I wasn't adept at always knowing what articles I'd read didn't really contribute to my term papers. The only difference between me then and them now is perhaps the number of hours I had to spend in finding the sources--and which I tended to think justified my citing as many of the things as I'd read/found as possible.

But the lack of critical skills qua materials should also serve as a reminder that just because a student knows how to use Google does not mean that s/he is going to be comfortable writing HTML or even blogging. Students who watch YouTube have perhaps never made their own video project. Or if they have, they haven't necessarily uploaded/hosted it anywhere. Some of our students certainly will have as much and more experience than we have. But those of us who teach with technology can, I think, sometimes forget that what we see as new, exciting, and useful might just be another unfamiliar task in a classroom full of unfamiliar tasks (like analyzing a novel or a poem).

The second of the report's findings that I find interesting is that all users, from freshmen through professors, show a tendency to be "impatien[t] in search and navigation, and [have] zero tolerance for any delay in satisfying their information needs." (I can certainly relate to this emotion. I was still using dial-up at home less than a year ago.) However, what is intriguing is the library's response: that libraries need to respond more accurately to the needs of these petulant researchers.

So...if the professors are just as impatient when working in a library as their students, doesn't this betray some radical shift in the literacy of the professoriate? Shouldn't these people be able to take the advantages of a quick, online catalog search--rather than card catalogs--and then graciously ascend to their library's stacks to put to use their "critical and analytical skills"? How is it the "fault" of libraries that we all suddenly expect them to play a different role now than they did a dozen years ago?

Of course, one can say that it is the duty of the libraries who have got us hooked on all this fast information in the form of the catalogs or of the databases they provide to become equally fast and flat in all its operations. But given my final dissertation chapter, I'm suspicious of all these claims of the advantages of speed. What libraries and universities as institutions stand for is, in part, a validation of the benefits of slow and careful study. This doesn't mean we must remain hidebound or that some changes or fields don't need to move faster than others. But in a world so saturated with RSS feeds delivering the latest information without your even having to remember the URL of where it is originating from, I see slowness as one of the principal things for my students to learn. And judging from my dissertation progress and the experience of compatriots, I'd say that a Ph.D. is all about the same thing.

How do I reconcile my suspicions about what digital literacy should mean and my unwillingness to blame libraries for my research-related ADD? I'm not sure. I suspect that this will be a thematic question that will haunt me throughout my career. And I suspect that it will matter to yours as well. The turn to the digital may not affect English types as much as the vaunted "turn to linguistics." But this will matter more to more people.


Dance said...

[followed you from The Salt Box]

re changing literacy--one of the things I notice is that I write differently for the web. Many more headings and subheadings. This is something I consciously had to learn. It's carried over into my class handouts. I look back at early things I put on the web and wince at the expanse of unbroken text.

Anyhow, reading this type of web writing encourages skimming for a relevant heading, and lets the skill of identifying the most germane points atrophy.

Brian said...

I think you're right, Dance. The web is, in many ways, styled more journalistically than other forms of writing that are common in an English/lit classroom.

I suspect that this has something to do with the origins of the Internet, where it is used as a form of mass media, for information dispersal rather than deep reading. (This of course also has something to do with the physical experience of reading on a screen, which frequently becomes unpleasant after a while. Kate Hayles's flickering signifiers and all that).

But I think it also has something to do with the fact that writers on the web must always be conscious that their audience can easily be distracted by a new website. If the text goes on to long without presenting easy to follow cues, then the reader is apt to move on to another piece that allows her to read more effectively.

The problem becomes how we can encourage digital literacy that will allow for the flexibility of the new medium and how to teach these important reading skills.