Digital Natives Actually Stink at Search, Says Research

Digital Natives Actually Stink at Search, Says ResearchGen Y have been called the first generation of "digital natives," those who never knew a world without the internet. What’s the result of this early exposure to all things digital? The standard answer is that having tens of thousands of hours of practice processing information on screen, they are particularly adept at sorting, prioritizing and consuming digital information.

Multitasking may trip up those who once knew a different way of interacting with information, but Gen Y's brains have adapted to the constant wash of information and intuitively pick up the tools to handle and organize it, or so the thinking goes. But is this true?

Librarians to the Rescue

To find out whether the stereotypical understanding of Gen Y's information consumption habits is, in fact, true, a consortium of librarians at Illinois colleges conducted an in-depth, two-year, ethnographic study of students' research habits. What the project uncovered will shock some boosters of digital natives' abilities. Inside Higher Ed reports:

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.

Only seven out of 30 students whom anthropologists observed at Illinois Wesleyan "conducted what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search," wrote Duke and Andrew Asher, an anthropologist at Bucknell University, whom the Illinois consortium called in to lead the project.

Throughout the interviews, students mentioned Google 115 times -- more than twice as many times as any other database. The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources.

Know the Language, Not the Grammar

How is it possible that young people who have lived with and used this technology all their lives are so poor at making the most of the tools? The researchers offer acquisition of our native language as an analogy. We learn our parents' language naturally, but as any English teacher can tell you that doesn’t necessarily translate into an understanding of the underlying rules at work or the ability use that language in an effective, error-free manner.

Or as Inside Higher Ed puts it: "Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar." Asher even claims the research 'exploded this myth of the 'digital native.'"

Don’t Take Competency for Granted

What’s the take away for trainers? You’re not in the business of instructing students on how to write great research papers, but these studies may be useful for those tasked with getting the skills of employees up to scratch.

One lesson could be take nothing for granted. Just because an employee is a member of Gen Y with a Gmail address, a Twitter handle and lightning-fast texting fingers doesn’t mean he or she will have the skills to find, manage and evaluate information from online sources or databases.

Also, take young people's self-evaluations with a grain of salt. They often don’t know how bad they are at things they’ve been doing all their lives. "Students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else," concluded the researchers in another complementary study. They are also unlikely to ask for help, so trainers (and librarians) may need to offer their services rather than wait to be asked.

More about employee training and retention on the Mindflash blog.

Sign up for a free trial of Mindflash.

London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for

(Image courtesy of Flickr user Ant McNeill, CC 2.0)

Start a free trial.

See how your retail business can leverage Mindflash to deliver consistent, up-to-date, on-brand training affordably.