Gerry White discusses in DERN, various changes in research skills before and after the emergence of technology.


In the past, research has been a slow but a deliberative and persistent process of locating specific books, using libraries, consulting with research specialists, discussions with content experts and careful exploration of a field of knowledge. School and university students were gradually brought into the complexities of research processes as they progressed through education. The use of digital technologies and search engines has changed the ways in which research is now undertaken. There is a need today to understand the digital research skills that are necessary to learn and how educators can make a difference to quality online research by students.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project have recently released a seminal report about How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (0). The report not only focusses on teens but also on teachers. How educators teach research skills in a digital environment and structure their teaching activities to reflect these new realities is also explored in the report in some detail.

The research surveyed 2,462 leading edge teachers of high achieving year 9-12 students, mostly in public schools across the US. A small number of focus group discussions with teachers and students preceded the surveys. The results are particularly interesting because they are skewed towards proficient students and identify some of the gaps in the ways that those students learn research skills.

‘Overall, teachers … in this study characterize the impact of today’s digital environment on their students’ research skills as mostly positive, yet multi-faceted and not without drawbacks’ (p. 2). In fact, the study found that teachers equated Google with research because that is the first service to which teachers and their students turn, to investigate a topic. Students also use Wikipedia, YouTube, their peers, study guides, news services, textbooks, online databases, research librarians and printed books but all to a lesser degree than Google (p. 34).

Teachers rated the research skills of high achieving students as only ‘good’ or ‘fair’ and certainly not excellent (p. 6). This may be an indication of a need to teach specific research skills. The study reported that 91% of teachers felt that teaching digital literacy to all students was essential nowadays and that digital literacy ‘must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum’ (p. 7). Further, 80% of teachers reported that they spent class time ‘discussing how to assess the reliability of online information’ (p. 50) including accuracy, relevance and currency of information, and 70% of teachers also spent ‘class time generally discussing how to conduct research online’ (p. 50). Most teachers structured their learning activities so that students were directed to the quality online resources that were most appropriate for their studies, in order to expand on the Google research condition.

Most teachers agreed that ‘today’s students have fundamentally different cognitive skills because of the digital technologies that they have grown up with’ (p. 7). If this is the case, then teachers may need to expand their knowledge of research practices and modify their teaching practices in order to incorporate the use of digital technologies and new research skills.

How Teens Do Research in the Digital World (0) is a study about teachers’ views of students’ research and writing skills. It is a very important study because it adds significant dimensions to our understanding of some of the major gaps in teaching research skills using digital technologies. The report also succinctly raises some of the online disadvantages, such as distractions, and some of the barriers, such as filters, that can inhibit the development of strong research skills in educational institutions. 


Gerry White is Principal Research Fellow: Teaching & Learning using Digital Technologies, Australian Council for Educational Research

This article was first published on the Digital Education Research Network (DERN)

Read the article on DERN (free registration required)

Photo: Flickr / x-ray delta one



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