Faulty Assumptions About ‘Digital Natives’

by Kevin Makice

This is now a couple weeks stale, but a study conducted by the ALA surfaces important insights about the digital skills of students. A two-year, five-campus ethnographic study took a look at student use and perception of libraries and librarians. They found that students overused surface digital tools like Google and rarely consulted librarians for assistance in research. Furthermore, librarians (and professors) may have unreasonable expectations of the research skills and practices available to current students, making any interaction that does happen intimidating and ultimately unproductive:

“If we quietly hope to convert all students to the liberal ideals of higher education, we may miss opportunities to connect with a pragmatic student body,” wrote Mary Thill, a humanities librarian at Northeastern Illinois. “… By financial necessity, many of today’s students have limited time to devote to their research.” Showing students the pool and then shoving them into the deep end is more likely to foster despair than self-reliance, Thill wrote. “Now more than ever, academic librarians should seek to ‘save time for the reader.’ ”

While this is a specific study about academic research as it pertains to libraries, the research also generalizes to challenge a wider assumption about the effect growing up surrounded by digital material has had on young adults. The notion of  ‘digital natives’ is that the way humans learn and communicate has fundamentally changed for a generation that has never known a world without email. As a result, designers (and others impacting the design of project) presume a certain level of literacy about digital tools and even a preference for new communication methods. As Steve Kolowich writes in IHE, “Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.”

The research will be published in a paper this fall, “Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know.” The full IHE coverage of the work is worth reading, particularly in the discussion of how this points to a systemic approach to addressing the problem of digital literacy (i.e., professors and librarians need to work together to cultivate a better relationship with information).

Inside Higher Ed (August 22, 2011, by Steve Kolowich)