Hits and misses

Does the Google generation, which has grown up with a deluge of data just clicks away, lack the independence of thought and critical rigour needed for higher study? Matthew Reisz investigates

June 5, 2008

Not long ago, a group of Britain's leading Crusader historians got together to discuss the future of their subject. Times were good, they agreed. Much important work in the area was being published. Television and even Hollywood left little doubt about the level of popular interest. And, perhaps because of a fascination with the dark side of religion and "the clash of civilisations", student numbers were buoyant. But what were the most promising directions for future research? One suggestion was that someone should go and take a proper look at the archives in Milan.

This is very much the voice of traditional scholarship. The Crusades took place largely in the 12th century. Since documents from the time have survived, it would be nice if a qualified researcher were finally - after 800 years - to give them some serious attention. One wonders if the Milanese may eventually get fed up that historians are taking such a leisurely approach and decide to shut down the archives and build a shopping mall. But, until that happens, the Crusader papers still await the scholars who will do them justice.

This story illustrates the immense gulf between the world of old-time scholarship and the assumptions made - or often said to be made - by today's "Google generation", where everything is about instant gratification and "facts at one's fingertips", and information that lies more than three clicks away simply doesn't exist. Many are now concerned that this generation gap presents a fundamental challenge to some of the things that universities have long stood for, and that universities are either unable or failing to bridge it.

The problem can be phrased in many ways and focus on practicalities (do we still need libraries?) or large philosophical puzzles (can we still learn from history?). But at its heart are a number of questions about the values and learning styles of the coming generation of students. Is there a genuine culture of instant gratification, accompanied by a lack of interest in (and certainly a lack of piety towards) the past in general and the scholarship of the past in particular? Does a world of blogging mean that everybody's views are assumed to be equally worth hearing, and how does that translate into attitudes towards authority and expertise? British universities have developed their fair share of traditions and archaic rituals. Do these rituals seem absurd or offensive to a generation focused on the here and now? Or are all such claims about "the young" just the lazy assumptions of grumpy old men and women?

A recent briefing paper by the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (Ciber) at University College London, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, attempts to throw more light on the Google generation - defined as those born after 1993, "a cohort of young people with little or no recollection of life before the web". Because the research was commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, a central focus is the impact of such people on research libraries, although the implications for education and beyond are far wider. But whatever the truth about the new generation's attitudes and behaviour, one thing is certain - they are coming soon to a university near you.

To try to get to grips with what this means, the library seems a good place to start, although it is up for debate whether libraries are now mainly "places" or distribution services that pipe to people's desks, often unacknowledged, the research findings of the whole world. When founding the University of Virginia in 1819, Thomas Jefferson made a point of putting the library at its very heart. For Tara Brabazon, professor of media at the University of Brighton, "libraries were the centre of my university life, and I owe more to generations of librarians than I can ever convey in words".

Even ten years ago, says Alexander Halavais, assistant professor in the communications department at Quinnipiac University and author of the forthcoming book Search Engine Society, "I literally counted the number of steps to the library in order to lobby for the best office." Yet now, he continues: "I haven't set foot in a library building this year." Academics and researchers, particularly in the sciences, can get all the key journals online and so have no need to go near the university library.

For the moment, of course, many undergraduates do still need to visit libraries to look at their core texts. Yet as soon as books go the way of journals and make the digital transition, it is often argued, this may become far less common.

Some dispute this claim. Academics and researchers may say "I don't know when I last went into a library", admits Deborah Shorley, director of library services at Imperial College London, but they remain highly supportive. There has as yet been no decline in footfall among undergraduates and postgraduates; Imperial's library is open 24 hours a day and six days a week from Easter until the end of the exam period; and even book loans at Imperial, unlike those at many other institutions, are not in decline.

Libraries may have to reinvent themselves. Shorley's team have set out to create "a study space where students feel comfortable doing their work, with learning suites, 'think-tanks' and places to relax". One key decision, she says, was to restrict the choice of books on the first floor to "a few core texts and nothing else". But as long as students need the support of their colleagues and a place where they can make the best use of a precious few spare hours, Shorley believes that the library will retain its centrality in college life.

Jane Savidge, director of library and learning support services at the University of Surrey, makes many similar points. After a notable decline about five years ago, library usage by undergraduates has now bounced back - it has increased by 40 per cent from last year - with a better working environment, longer opening hours and the development of self-directed and group work as learning styles.

Even as the world becomes ever more digitised, she predicts, libraries will retain their crucial dual role as "hubs of information delivery and places for students to work". Both research-skills training for postgraduates and information-skills training for undergraduates tend to take place on site, the joint responsibility of library and academic staff.

These are the positive views. Brabazon is more pessimistic. "Students are unable to do what many of us used to do," she says, "which is read the 'new books' shelves on our chosen topic and keep up with the journals in the field. Those journals are now too expensive to purchase, and book budgets are being stretched to service increasing numbers of courses, campuses and degrees... Google is a Band-Aid, but it is also a symptom of our underfunded libraries. Our students are not only reading low-quality sources because they are easier, but because the higher-quality materials are not available to them on or off line."

But what do we really know about the typical profile of members of the Google generation? As a group, according to the Ciber paper, they were "turning away from being passive consumers of information", as revealed by the decline of television and newspapers. Though they were generally "more competent with technology... older users are catching up fast". And some of the more critical claims made about them seem to apply across the board: "From undergraduates to professors, people exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, 'flicking' behaviour in digital libraries. Power browsing appears to be the norm for all. The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away."

So is it not just a particular generation but the whole academic world that has been Googlised? There seems to be some evidence for this. "With Google Scholar and Google Library under way," Library Journal reported in 2006, "Google strengthened its claim as the ubiquitous front door to the web and all of its content... 72 per cent of scholars surveyed for a report on self-archiving confessed to using Google to find scholarly literature on the web. Journal publishers of all sizes and importance are shaping their business plans around this phenomenon, sharing metadata with Google and other web crawlers in hopes of drawing users to content behind their tollgates."

Yet appearances may be deceptive, argues David Nicholas, director of the School of Library, Archive and Information Studies at University College London, one of the authors of the Ciber report. He describes himself as part of a team of "voyeurs" who deploy technology to offer "completely evidence-based" analyses of "what people do in cyberspace and how they behave in information-seeking environments".

Their research indicates that academics and students are "driving the same car and in increasingly similar ways - the behavioural patterns are similar across the whole virtual scholarly community". Indeed, one of Nicholas's colleagues claimed that it always gave her "a great sense of scholarship" when she browsed through a selection of e-books for 15 minutes. But before we simply conclude that everybody is dumbing down, we need to remember that experienced researchers may be more far effective at "power browsing", because they "know the literature" in their subject and have formed a conceptual map that helps them cut to the chase.

The web, claims Nicholas, "has made information-seeking a fundamental activity in every aspect of our lives", such as when we go to comparison sites to do our shopping. But are we any good at it? Libraries used to function as a "validated environment", and universities give students guidance on where to look for data, but Nicholas's earlier research made him wonder how effectively people were seeking information in areas without such quality controls. It is not unusual, he says, for people to seek healthcare advice from Tesco rather than the Department of Health because they have more positive associations with the brand.

Even in the strictly educational arena, Nicholas is clearly worried that Google "is becoming too much of a crutch" for students. Its users are "characterised by bouncing more - they don't penetrate sites. They are more promiscuous and spend less time online. One could call them the economy-class - and less satisfied - searchers." Where an ill-thought-out search leads to millions of hits, many people focus on the first 50 at most, often the sites of rich organisations that know how to play the system. The Ciber report points to the continuing "prevalence of full-phrase searching" and that "users make very little use of advanced search facilities, assuming that search engines 'understand' their queries".

None of this suggests a very sophisticated level of searching skills among the students of tomorrow. But that is only the half of it. Uncritical reliance on search engines may be a reasonable way of accessing information, despite their many limitations, but it is of no help for the core educational goal of learning to assess such information. The Ciber paper expressed concerns about whether students' "having 'facts at their fingertips' and a surfeit of information is at the expense of creative and independent thinking".

Speed of search, based on the principle of "getting by with Google", clearly didn't allow sufficient time for evaluation. And, most depressing of all, American research implied that information skills "need to be inculcated during the formative years of childhood: by university or college it is too late to reverse-engineer deeply ingrained habits, notably an uncritical trust in branded search engines to deliver quick fixes".

Even those who are not quite so pessimistic have serious worries. "Teachers need to be vigilant," argues Halavais, "and recognise that teaching students to find material is not the same as teaching them to understand it. The ease of locating information - facts - often gives students a false sense of mastery, in many cases bolstered by assignments and approaches to teaching that are out of date. There is a danger, I think, that analytical skills will atrophy if there isn't an effort to demonstrate their necessity in a world where facts are more easily available and transmissible than ideas."

Halavais finds it "a bit surprising that scholars have so delayed in making their work openly available to all readers, though this is slowly changing". But in the meantime, he acknowledges, the issue of "what sort of research is easily accessible via the open web (which is roughly synonymous with 'via a search engine')" has a crucial impact on undergraduate life.

Brabazon has also written a powerful polemic on this theme, The University of Google (2007). In 2005, she says now, "I saw a quick and odd change in my students' bibliographies. Instead of citing the material that I had given them to read - on immigration, post-colonial theory, youth culture or creative industries as examples - I would find the same low-quality and basic sources being cited by large numbers of students.

"I thought this was odd, so I played around with keywords and came up with the Google list that offered those references. While most of the time the students were citing material that was unrefereed and too basic for university-level scholarship, on a few occasions the students went to xenophobic or racist sites and made politicised statements about 'Asian gangs', 'youth' or 'single mothers' as truth.

"I have no problems with deploying diverse political perspectives, as long as the approaches are interpreted and theorised. But when I saw British National Party statistics and 'policies' being cited as scholarly source material for a discussion of immigration policy, then I started to become concerned.

"Google was not the problem. Google will never be the problem. The difficulty emerges when any group of students or citizens are overreliant on any single platform or media (outlet). If students are not conducting wide-ranging reading from diverse sources and are only using the first two returns from Google, then they are not enacting university-level work. We require a great deal of reading, from multiple perspectives and views, to develop an interpretation."

Brabazon rejects many of the broad generalisations about the Google generation and clearly believes that, through radical changes to the curriculum, committed teachers can help "create a generation of multi-literate, intellectually rigorous scholars who question everything they read but have the framework to synthesise, interpret, create and intervene... When they have the opportunity to work with strong curriculum and powerful and evocative readings that are relevant to their lives, then they are motivated and enthused." But although these goals are achievable, Brabazon makes clear that she often has to struggle against many of the assumptions her students bring with them into the university.

A rather different perspective is provided by the historian James Aitken, academic director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Studies in Cambridge, where he is organising a conference on "Memory in a Memory-Less Age" this September. While the event will offer an opportunity for participants to debate whether we are indeed living in such a "memory-less age" (and whether Google is to blame), Aitken clearly believes that there is something in the notion. He notes "an antipathy to remembrance days among the under-thirties. They don't seem to see the point and have reacted against the idea of heroes in history. Holocaust Memorial Day is not particularly supported by the non-Jewish young."

Aitken is also concerned by two seemingly opposite but related attitudes to history he encounters among his students. One is a tendency to see the past in much "too simple and linear" a way, as offering facile lessons for today or a quick route to "understanding one's roots". The other is a tendency to see history as having no links at all with the present. Students signing up for courses in Arabic studies, for example, are often surprised that course topics include Koranic Arabic and the medieval period, as if it had never occurred to them that these might still exert an influence on contemporary life. One could explain these fundamentally ahistorical attitudes among students in several different ways - as the result of laziness, an excessive focus on the present, a more instrumental approach to education or even a conscious embrace of postmodernism. But they are surely in some tension with traditional academic ideals.

As for the impact of the web, Aitken doesn't feel he has seen "a decline in reading, but perhaps a decline in grammar, by students who don't seem to know when a sentence stops". At least on some occasions this could reflect a lack of solid argument. He also finds that students tend to complain when he puts "too many articles on a reading list rather than a single book", suggesting that they are heedless of "the danger of being guided by a single person's opinion".

While sites such as Wikipedia are fine for basic factual information, he says, "you miss the delight in books of finding what you don't expect. It is good to be able to confirm the source, to acquire depth by going through a whole book."

Aitken also mentions issues of quality control. "There is no equivalent of a university library on the internet," he says, "and the more academic pages can look worse (online) than the more superficial material."

As always, this problem can also be seen in a positive light. In the past, suggests Shorley, the purchasing decisions of university librarians made it all too easy for students to find good material and avoid the bad. Now they have to learn how to evaluate sources for themselves, looking at issues of provenance, date, reputation, peer review and so on. It is one of the crucial new roles for librarians to help them.

Savidge puts equal stress on the role of library staff in developing students' information skills. Some come from comparatively computer-free environments in the poorer parts of the world, while others have grown up surfing the web almost from infancy. In the latter case, she says, you can build on the skills they've got but often also have to "help them undo what they've learnt though Google and social-networking sites". She refuses to be drawn on whether lack of experience or the wrong kind of experience poses greater problems - and, unsurprisingly, she believes that most undergraduates can develop the core skills and that even bad habits can be overcome.

We can only hope she's right. As the Google generation take up places in universities, we're certainly going to find out.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.