Search engines can be mysterious beasts—a paradox, given how frequently we use them to find information. The algorithms used to deliver results are complex and change frequently; Google updates its own formulas over 500 times a year. So it’s hard to fault anyone, and perhaps especially young people who are learning how to learn, for not understanding the role search engines play in research.
In fact, according to a new study out from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 83% of teachers surveyed believe that search engine results are overwhelming to their students, a statistic which may be particularly surprising as it comes from educators working with some of the country’s top students in Advanced Placement and National Writing Project classes and programs. It’s easy enough to find information, but learning how to separate from the credible from the questionable is a daunting and confusing task, even for the experts (for an example, look to coverage for Superstorm Sandy). However, even with most teachers describing their students’ online research skills as only “good” or “fair,” the report also found that only 35% commit class time to explaining how search engines work. To sum up: Our top students don’t know how to assess information online, but not even four in ten teachers are addressing the issue directly.
The process of asking questions, identifying bias and thinking critically about information should be among the most basic literacy skills taught in schools. Proactive and creative engagement is essential in an environment of data and message overload, so the implication that this takes a back burner in even our top schools is disturbing. Yet one item not addressed in the study is why these skills are not being taught. 91% of teachers surveyed agreed that digital literacy should be incorporated into the curriculum, but what exactly is holding them back is not clear.
The low number of teachers using class time to cover search engines suggests that professional development may be part of the problem. As stated earlier, search engines are complicated, and without a focus on teaching how to incorporate media literacy into daily lessons, of course they fall by the wayside. For all of the talk about how digital literacy is needed in schools, we can’t expect educators to teach something they themselves haven’t learned, let alone mastered. Organizations like The LAMP are here to fill in the gaps, but as this study reveals, as long as the need for professional development in 21st century skills for educators is this vast, expectations for our students are far too high.