Ed Tech | Survey

Digital Technologies Have Mixed Effect on Students' Research Habits

Teachers are conflicted about the effect of the Internet and digital search tools on their students' research and writing habits, according to the Pew Research Center's report, "How Teens Do Research in the Digital World."

The survey found that three-quarters of teachers think the Internet and digital search tools have had a "mostly positive" effect on students' research habits, but 87 percent said digital tools are creating an "easily distracted generation with short attention spans," and 64 percent said the tools "do more to distract students than to help them academically."

The Pew Research Center conducted the survey early this year to find out how teachers think today's digital environment is affecting the research and writing habits of middle and high school students. The organization conducted an online survey of nearly 2,500 middle and high school teachers from the Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) communities, as well as a series of online and offline focus groups with middle and high school teachers and students.

According to Pew, the teachers surveyed "skew towards 'cutting edge' educators who teach some of the most academically successful students in the country," and therefore the results may not be representative of all teachers in all schools, but that it's worth noting that the findings of this survey come from "some of the nation's most advanced classrooms."

Positive Effects
The survey found a number of positive effects of digital technology on students' research habits.

Nearly all (99 percent) of teachers surveyed agreed that the vast range of resources technology puts at students' fingertips is a major benefit, and 65 percent said technology helps make students "more self-sufficient researchers."

Teachers also reported that technology enables top students to study topics that interest them to a greater depth and breadth and that students are more engaged by the multimedia formats available online.

The presence of smartphones in classrooms is also enabling students to look up information on-the-fly during class. According to the report, 72 percent of teachers said they or their students use cell phones in class or for assignments, and 42 percent said looking up information during class was the most common school-related use of phones by students.

"Cell phones are becoming particularly popular learning tools, and are now as common to these teachers' classrooms as computer carts," said the report.

Despite the prevalence of smartphones in classrooms and their usefulness for conducting research, school policies and Internet filters are inhibiting their use. The survey found that 97 percent of teachers work in schools that employ Internet filters, restrict cell phone use, and have acceptable use policies (AUPs).

Emerging Concerns
The use of digital technology for student research is also raising some concerns among teachers. Fewer than 10 percent of teachers rated their students' skill at recognizing bias in online content as "very good" or "excellent," and fewer than 15 percent gave their students that rating for their ability to judge the quality and accuracy of online information. "This is notable, given that the majority of the sample teaches Advanced Placement courses to the most academically advanced students," said the report.

Both teachers and students surveyed reported that students today equate "researching" with "Googling," a phenomenon that 76 percent of teachers said is conditioning students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily. Nearly three-quarters (71 percent) of teachers surveyed think Google and Wikipedia-centric research discourages students from using a wide range of sources, such as online databases, sites of respected news organizations, printed books, or reference librarians.

"Some teachers report that for their students, 'doing research' has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment," said the report.

That sentiment is echoed in teachers' ratings of their students' "patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find," with 43 percent of teachers rating their students' as "poor" and 35 percent rating them as "fair."

Other concerns raised in the report included diminished general literacy levels, lack of good time management skills in the face of digital distractions, potentially diminished critical thinking capacity, and ease of plagiarism.

But the teachers surveyed indicated they don't see these concerns as a reason to discourage digital research. Rather, they see the emergence of these issues as an impetus to teach better research skills, digital or otherwise.

The teachers surveyed said teaching effective online research skills is so important that 91 percent "strongly agree" or "somewhat agree" that digital literacy skills "must be incorporated into every school's curriculum."

The vast majority of the teachers surveyed are already confronting poor research skills head-on in their classroom by directing their students to specific online resources (90 percent of teachers) and developing assignments that require students to use a variety of online and offline resources (83 percent). They also think it's important to teach students how to judge the quality of information and how search engines work.

Although digital technology is transforming student research, 86 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that "today's students are too 'plugged in' and need more time away from their digital technologies." But the teachers were evenly divided on the statement that "today's students are really no different than previous generations, they just have different tools through which to express themselves."

"While some frame these issues as stemming directly from digital technologies and the particular students they teach, others suggest the concerns actually reflect a slow response from parents and educators to shape their own expectations and students' learning environments in a way that better reflects the world today's students live in," said the report.

The complete 115-page report, "How Teens Do Research in the Digital World," is available in PDF form on the Pew Research Center's site.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at [email protected].