Monday, February 7, 2011

On the Internet, no one knows you're a Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

A colleague recently posted a story titled 'Tree octopus' is latest evidence the Internet is making kids dumb, says group on the CASL listserv. You should go read it, too, particularly because it's much more reasonable and balanced than the title would lead you to believe.

The researchers concluded that the fact that students fell for the tree octopus site meant that students weren't prepared to critically evaluate information they found online. Which is likely true, but that, I don't think, is the real takeaway lesson from this. What struck me is that the students' biggest mistake was not in trusting the information they found on the tree octopus site--it was in trusting that the researchers had steered them in the right direction.

Around the same time I read that article, I saw this one from the New York Times, about the proliferation of Q&A sites on the Internet. As more and more information is available, the harder it is to sift through it all on our own; we rely on other people to either help us sift through it or to answer our actual questions, not the ones that the SEO spam that is creeping more and more into Google search results thinks we're asking.

Wanting to know and trust that there is a person behind the answer--no matter how qualified or unqualified that person might be--is, I believe, part of why sites like Yahoo! Answers and WikiAnswesrs (and Wikipedia itself) are so popular. As much as we love having so much information at our fingertips, we don't trust information. We trust people. When people get starry-eyed talking about how the Internet has changed things, they seem much more likely to be talking about how it makes it possible to connect to people, not to connect to more information.

The students in this study fell prey to the most natural instincts of all learners--when you're learning something new, you turn to an expert. When I'm trying to learn something new, I don't start from scratch--I see if any of my colleagues have experience or expertise to offer. I search for what other librarians have done. I consult professional journals and listservs. As a very last resort I'll try random Googling, but if it comes to that I know I'm in for a long road ahead.

This, too, is what I try to teach my students about searching. If you want to make life easier on yourself, use the pathfinder I've created for your class, use the library catalog to find websites, and above all, ask for help. While I hope my students develop a bag of tricks for doing research in high school and beyond, more than anything I hope they develop the ability and the confidence to know when to ask for help--and who to trust when they ask for that help.

1 comment:

  1. What I found most interesting is that the kids trusted the researchers enough to believe the fake website, but then didn't trust the researchers when they explained it was a fake website. Kids sure are gullible.

    Now if you don't mind, I have to go make my annual donation to the Society for Tree Octopus Protection.