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Editorial: Students overuse Internet as a research tool

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 11:54 PM

We live in an age of exciting technological innovation.

Almost every day, we learn of new ways that computers, smartphones and other digital devices can put information at our fingertips. Much of it is helpful, accurate information, but as we have all learned, a lot of the content in the digital realm is suspect or just plain wrong.

Even on the information highway, the credibility of sources is critical, and in some ways more important than ever. But it is easy to lose sight of that, even in the world of education.

A recent study by the Pew Center for Research shows that many students are skipping the library stacks these days and doing almost all of their research on the Internet.

The survey of about 2,500 middle school and high school teachers found that only about 12 percent of students were "very likely" to use printed books, other than their textbooks, in a typical research assignment. Instead, the most popular sources for research, according to the teachers, are:

Google or other popular online search engines, with a 95 percent "very likely" score.

Wikipedia or another online encyclopedia, 75 percent "very likely."

YouTube or other social media, 52 percent "very likely."

Their peers, 42 percent "very likely."

Spark Notes or CliffNotes, 41 percent "very likely."

The disturbing part about that list is not that the sources are "online," but that so many of those searches are likely to lead to information that is incomplete or "second-hand" at best.

For example, a Google search of "Harry Truman" turns up several sites with brief, often unattributed, information on the former president. But none would hold a candle to David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize winning biography "Truman," which can be found in almost any library.

Social media and peer groups could provide individual opinions on a topic, but they are not likely to produce much authoritative information. Are the students using those sources able to distinguish between reliable research and opinion? Teachers have their concerns.

"Students see the internet as a cool place where they can get quick information," one teacher commented in the study. "They don't know how to use it properly."

But convenient information is not necessarily the best information, and educators need to make sure today's students understand the difference.

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