The evolution of the internet has produced a generation of students with "a preference for quick answers" and a "casual" approach to the evaluation and attribution of information, an inquiry has found.
The Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience was set up to examine the impact on higher education of Web 2.0, the second generation of web design typified by social networking and collaboratively produced wikis.
Its final report, to be published on 12 May, will say that these developments are having profound impacts on students' attitudes and behaviour - both positive and negative.
Academics who spoke to the committee, which was led by Sir David Melville, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, expressed "strong reservations" about students' ability to critically evaluate information from the web.
The committee says that information literacy is a "significant and growing deficit area", although it adds that Web 2.0 has also encouraged experimentation, collaboration and teamwork by students.
Sir David said: "The use of these technologies does seem to lead to a tendency for very shallow searching for information and increases the desire for instant information.
"Even more seriously, it seems that critical skills are becoming much more of a deficit area. We heard of examples where students would take stuff off the internet - in one case, material from the BNP - and put it into essays in a totally non-critical way.
"Universities are not controlling information any more. What they should be doing is supporting students in becoming much more critical thinkers."
The committee's report, Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World, will also say that universities face a "digital divide" when it comes to the ability of tutors to use social networking in their teaching.
While some academics have embraced the use of websites such as Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook and Bebo, others lack the technological knowhow or are "hostile to all but the most cursory engagement with ICT".
Use of Web 2.0 technologies in learning and teaching was "considerable but patchy", and driven by the enthusiasm of individuals or small groups.
The inquiry found that students as yet only "dimly perceived" the potential of Web 2.0 as a learning tool, and could be uncomfortable with staff-initiated online discussion.
Primarily, students still valued face-to-face contact, influenced by their school experience, and believed this is what they were paying fees to receive.
The committee speculates that, in an age where information is so readily available, "the personal - interacting face to face - acquires added importance and significance".
It argues that students want traditional approaches in a modern, web-supported setting.
The committee suggests a "re-negotiation" of the role of student and tutor, under which students would help teach their tutors how to use Web 2.0 technology.
Chris Brauer, lecturer in online journalism at City University London, said he planned to respond to Twitter messages in lectures: "There are lots of academics who won't engage with social media in any form, let alone use it in their teaching - but those who have are finding all kinds of new ways to engage their students.
"A lot of the discussion that previously you could manage within your classroom environment is now happening outside," said Dr Brauer.
"You can look quite foolish in the classroom talking about something that has already been addressed thoroughly by the students in a virtual environment. If you say to them 'Now let's talk about this', they may well say 'We already did - where were you?'"
See www.clex.org.uk for more information on the report Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World.
E-JOURNALS LEAD THE WAY
Academics who use electronic journals produce more research papers and win more research grants, a new study has found.
The study - by the Research Information Network - looks at the use, value and impact of e-journals, concluding that the £80 million spent by UK universities each year on these represented "good value for money", with downloads of 102 million last year bringing costs to 80p per paper on average.
The study also found that academics who consumed e-journals were more successful in research.
Looking at moderate, high and "super-users", the study found that super-users produced more than twice as many research papers as moderate users, received over three times as much grant income, and had nearly double the number of PhD students.
It also found that about a third of traffic to e-journals came through Google or Google Scholar and readers used e-journals "well into the night and over the weekend".