Originally submitted as an assessment for CSU subject ETL401 – Introduction to Teacher Librarianship as Secondary Students Information Seeking, Selection and Evaluation of Online Sources and The Implications for Teacher Librarianship: A Literature Review. 27/04/17.
The 21st Century information landscape is one defined by the process of increased consumption, dissemination and creation of information. The increasingly integrated use of Information Communication Technology (ICT) for information development and movement in modern society, and specifically in education, is viewed simultaneously as a matter of celebration, concern and commentary.
However, given the speed of transformation, both teachers and students are at risk of not developing relevant skills to utilise the opportunities this greatly expanded information landscape provides. Increasingly, online information seeking and use by students, across stages of education, has become a matter of investigation. Recent reports of a set of Stanford University study results, which reflected that ‘digital natives’ ability to reason when using the internet was ‘bleak’, resulted in much discussion and concern (Gardner, 2017; MacDonald, 2016; Moody, 2016; Valenza, 2016).
This literature review focuses on the use of ICT byy secondary students, specifically those utilising the internet for seeking, selecting and evaluating information for research. While the area has many possible avenues for review, the most prevalent reoccurring themes in the literature focus on: the perceived equivalence of Google and the internet, the reliance on initial search engine results for information source selection and the problematic or absent methods students have to evaluate online information.
These themes have implications in the teaching and learning of Critical Thinking, an identified 21st-century skill (White, 2013, p.3). In the Australian Curriculum, the importance of Critical Thinking is emphasised as a general capability asking students to ‘generate and evaluate knowledge’ and to ‘seek possibilities’ (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2017, para 1). The importance of students being able to evaluate information critically extends beyond the classroom. In an “information society’, the ability to both search for and evaluate information is and will be, crucial for an individual to integrate on multiple levels of society including employment (Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, & Lee, 2012, pg. 13). The importance of critical thinking, the capacity to seek, understand and evaluate information presented is an increasingly important skill to succeed in both education and 21st-century society.
Online Information Seeking: Google as the Web
Regarding secondary students’ online information seeking during research, the literature reflects the complete permeation of Google into the information landscape. Google entirely dominates as the primary method of information to the extent one study described it as ‘universal’ (Watson, 2010, pg. 10). Google being viewed by students as essentially the web itself is reflected in other research (Julien & Barker, 2009, pg. 14; Sundin, & Francke, 2009, para. 21). Though some students will use other avenues of online information seeking, Google dominates as the first information seeking tool, to the extent that students ignore other possible online information seeking tools or sites that focus, for example, on multimedia. (Fidel et al. in Markus-Sandgren, 2011, pg. 28; Sundin, & Francke, 2009, para. 104).
Google’s role in the information seeking process is additionally typically seen as both beginning and end. Secondary students are noted as focusing on locating online information that is considered ‘good enough’ to use for a task without greater reflective or critical thought. (Markus-Sandgren, 2011, pg. 28). A focus on identifying answers and content as opposed to participating in research, the study and deep consideration of the information presented, is not an isolated phenomenon (Turnitin, 2017, pg.5). Watson likewise refers to Gigerenzer’s ‘stopping rule’, the concept of the minimising of effort for task completion, to clarify the common student focus on only the first few results of a Google search (Watson, 2010, pg. 10). The issue of confirmation bias also comes to the fore here as commentators have pointed out that preconceived beliefs being confirmed are more likely to trigger a cease in search, while an alternative view increases the likelihood of further exploration (Mackey & Jacobson, 2016, para. 49). With some students in studies, such as Watson’s, validating information they locate with their preexisting knowledge, it is likely many students begin and end their search in Google, having identified information with which they already know and agree (Watson, 2010, pg.8).
However, alternative research has found that other factors can be at play in terminating the internet or ‘Google’ search, including physical and logistical issues, leading teenagers to decide that the information currently acquired is sufficient (Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, & Lee, 2012, pg.47). Additionally, Marcus-Sandgren argues that these results, of a more ‘shallow search’, are consistent with prior information seeking techniques in other forms of online search such as library catalogues, nor are these methods limited to youth (2011, pg. 28).
The reliance on Google as the sole method of information seeking online by secondary students, in addition to early search termination, regardless of student reasons for either of these choices, should be concerning for educators. It is particularly concerning for educators focusing on critical thinking and ‘seeking possibilities’. Without a greater information source base to utilise in research, as well as the early ‘completion’ of the information seeking process and issues of confirmation bias, it will be difficult for students to move beyond a ‘shallow’ understanding of information into higher-order thinking such as analysis or evaluation. This concern should be expanded further when considering the impact of search engine information in source selection.
Online Source Selection: Using search engine information
Once students have utilised an information seeking tool, typically Google, they then use the information provided by the search engine to make further decisions, such as selecting a main or first source of information to use in research.
Typically, the selection of information sources by secondary students in this context is reliant on result order ranking and keyword matches from the search engine (Julien & Barker, 2009). Keyword relevance is of primary importance, particularly in younger individuals, even if the context in which they are used do not match a searches purpose (Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, & Lee, 2012, pg. 8). There is a noted undercurrent of thought within some secondary student communities of the first page of Google providing the ‘best’ and most accurate results (Markus-Sandgren, 2011, pg. 30).
Post search engine use, students select which sources of information they will utilise for their research from the results. The first search result, typically Wikipedia, is the first selection for many students (Sundin, & Francke, 2009, para 31). Wikipedia is another element of the information landscape, whose use is widespread in secondary student research, specifically as a starting point in information seeking (Sundin, & Francke, 2009 para. 31; Watson, 2010 pg.8).
A focus on the first few links within a Google search, based on key word matches, is noted in Julien and Barker’s research (2009, pg.14). It is supported by similar results in Watson’s, with the first ranked results being the most likely to be accessed and considered, due to perceptions of the site being the most relevant (Watson, 2010 , pg 7). Many students make selections of what they considered the most relevant and appropriate information source based on the web page titles and information excerpts provided on a Google results page (Subramaniam et al., 2015, pg. 560).
There is the potential for a significant impact on critical thinking for students reliant on matching keywords, initial search results and the information excerpts provided in those result pages. This reliance includes the links to sites such as Wikipedia or otherwise. Research supports the notion that many students do not understand how search engines function, how to utilise the full functionality of the web and therefore Google, and when they do, skill levels are varied. (Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, & Lee, 2012 pg.8; Subramaniam et al., 2015, pg. 567; Turnitin, 2017, pg. 5). This lack of understanding would lead in most cases to a ‘shallow’ search; searches which do not take advantage of Advanced Search functions in search engines to narrow relevancy and currency of information. For students who have to demonstrate the ability to ‘seek possibilities’ and ‘ generate and evaluate knowledge’, this type of searching and information selection, greatly impacts their ability to select and analyse a wide variety of evidence and provide opportunities to improve their evaluation skills.
Online Information Evaluation
The importance of evaluation of information, as part of research, of Critical Thinking and 21st Century education makes it an essential skill and process students must master. However, the process itself is viewed by many students as quite involved (Francke, Sundin, & Limberg, 2011 pg. 691). Online information seeking is a process that is often self-referential, seeking and then using specific information within a larger source such as a web page to make judgements about other related or adjacent information. The fluid and interlinked nature of the internet can make it difficult to separate information into distinct ‘packets of data’.
It is also important to note that the meaning of terminology used to discuss information or source evaluation differs across studies. As Lupton points out, the term evaluation itself and meanings of related terminology can also differ across different learning areas (Lupton, 2015). Regardless of when a task asks students to use information for the evaluation, judgement or assessment of other information, if there is a basis in criteria, there is an element of critical thinking and is relevant to the discussion.
Students typically utilise some online information sources and compare the information within, before deciding on which sources are reliable or credible (Sundin, & Francke, 2009, para. 44; Watson, 2010 pg. 11). This in itself is not a poor method of seeking clarification. However, this process has been noted as having the unfortunate side effect of creating a dilemma for students when accessing contradictory information or viewpoints, making them unsure of how to continue with a task (Coiro, Coscarelli, Maykel, & Forzani, 2015, pg. 9). Another concern is that students often use Wikipedia as a source for verification, particularly for source credibility, which given the dynamic nature of Wikipedia can be problematic (Sundin, & Francke, 2009, para. 47; Watson, 2010 pg.7).
Various literature beyond the previously mention Stanford study express concerns over student ability to make an evaluation of online information at all. A quarter of students in Barlett and Miller’s 2012 study made no attempt at any form of assessment or ‘check’ on websites they visited. Three-quarters of Year 7 students in another study could not accurately judge website reliability (Coiro, Coscarelli, Maykel, & Forzani, 2015). These judgements were based on generalisations, perceptions and assumptions of internet sources, mostly inaccurate, rather than just site information. (Coiro, Coscarelli, Maykel, & Forzani, 2015, pg. 6) The absence of judgement of content used across all groups of users, which would include secondary students, is a common phenomenon (Turnitin, 2017). Additionally, well-known or respected organisations and individuals are perceived as having authority by students regardless of actual information content they provide (Pickard, Shenton, & Johnson, 2014, pg. 12; Subramaniam et al., 2015, pg. 564)
The use of online information in the process of evaluating an entire online source is a process which clearly many secondary students struggle with. As one of the central aspects of critical thinking, evaluation is a vital skill that students must develop and their difficulties mean teachers must adapt their teaching methods to support student development in this area.
The Implications for Teacher Librarians
The role of Teacher Librarian within the Australian Education system currently is in a state of flux. Increasingly the role is focused on ICT and its applications in the classroom. As an information specialist, the position presents opportunities to improve the critical thinking skills of students regarding the seeking and use of online information, as well as developing teacher understanding of methods to support students.
Knowledge of new ways of seeking and using online information, moving beyond previous literacy knowledge and skills into the digital world, is central to the Teacher Librarian role and teachers as a whole, in preparing students for the challenges of the 21st-century information landscape (Bartlett, & Miller, 2012; Valenza, 2016). The development of student ability to seek and use online information effectively is, and should not be, the domain of any one teacher, subject or key learning area (Bartlett, & Miller, 2012). The role of all staff including Teacher Librarians, Teachers and Senior Executive is collaborating and advocating in their domains to ensure students develop digital information literacy skills; this cooperation is vital for ensuring improvement in these areas (Barclay, 2017).
Within the domain of Teacher Librarians themselves, considering its dominance in the information landscape and student research, it would be futile to ban Google’s use outright. Instead, a more appropriate method, would be to provide information and opportunities for students to use Google, and thus the web and other online sources, more efficiently and effectively. Teaching refining results, use of Boolean searches and encouragement of comparison between search engines would increase student information seeking skills and use of relevant information (Dar, 2012). Teachers, through both teaching and learning activities, should encourage a greater understanding of ICT, and digital content, such as online information sources (Caulfield, 2017). Areas could include different types of information search systems and the nature of search algorithms (Bartlett, & Miller, 2012).
The focus of students on the initial results in search engines, specifically Google, is another limiter on student information seeking skills. Teachers, including the teacher librarian, can begin to develop greater critical thinking skills in students through embedding within tasks opportunities for evaluation, comparison and questioning of sources at various points during the information seeking process (Watson, 2010). Students also need to move beyond Wikipedia and first few websites from Google and expand their focus to other digital formats such as social media to broaden their understanding of online information sources (Coiro, Coscarelli, Maykel, & Forzani, 2015; Watson, 2010).
The call by some to address source credibility throughout schooling is reasonable given the difficulties students have with using information (Francke, Sundin, & Limberg, 2011). In the past, there has been a focus on a checklist method of ascertaining the value of information sources. These checklists have been noted as being the relics of previous paradigms, developed in the world of print and applied to the online landscape, without considering the unstable state of the content within (Sundin, & Francke, 2009). While some Teacher Librarians continue to teach utilising these methods, others acknowledge the shortcomings of this type of evaluation and have begun developing alternatives or adapting the old techniques (Gardner, 2017, Valenza, 2016). One option would include the opportunity for practising information evaluation in areas of already existing student use, such as Wikipedia (Gasser, Cortesi, Malik, & Lee, 2012; Subramaniam et al., 2015). Moving towards a constructivist method of evaluation, providing the opportunity for students themselves to generate their own criteria allows for more student direction in tasks, in addition to developing their understanding of evaluating information (Benjes-Small, Archer, Tucker, Vassady, & Resor Whicker, 2014).
Additionally, another possibility would be to have annotated citations in any online research task, using online information to test and evaluate specific information students have selected. While a massive undertaking on the part of classroom teachers and Teacher Librarian, it would increase the critical thinking skills of students including in areas such as information seeking and evaluation. (Bomar, 2010, Valenza, 2013).
The importance of Critical Thinking, the ability to locate, comprehend and evaluate information is a central 21st-century skill for students in the classroom and beyond. Teachers have a responsibility through their implementation of teaching and learning techniques, and the embedding of Curriculum requirements, to develop these skills.
The seeking and use of online information by secondary students, and their current methods of, as reflected in the literature, illustrate a minimal understanding of the processes and tools of online research. Reliance on Google, limitations in source selection and student difficulties in evaluating information, as well as problematic verification methods and source knowledge, reflect a need for teachers, and the Teacher Librarian, to make a concerted effort to improve students’ knowledge and skills in digital and information literacy.
Teacher Librarians, faculty and students have an opportunity to capitalise on the expanding information landscape to ensure students have the best possible knowledge and skills to operate in the 21st century. Through increased collaboration between all levels of school staff, teaching students how to more effectively use existing information seeking tools and online information generally as well as refining source evaluation methods, students should be able to develop as critical thinkers and ensure their place in the 21st-century information landscape.
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