What Google Teaches

Pamela Martin, in her article “Google as teacher” in February 2006 College and Research Libraries News contends that Google teaches its users to only look at the first page of results, to have difficulty broadening searches, and to feel stupid if they can’t find information quickly. In The World is Flat, Tom Friedman contends that Google is a flattening force in that it enables more people to find information for themselves (instead of going through an intermediary like a librarian) by “just Googling it.” I feel Google has impacted reference work by making the questions we get more difficult. Students now go to a librarian when their first pass through Google doesn’t work or they need more or different information. Recently I’ve been frustrated in that when I show students really good reference books, they just treat them as if they don’t exist. I have trouble understanding this. The book is here, it has really good information, you are right here, why don’t you look at this book? Does Google also teach that print reference books are somehow bad or unnecessary?

11 thoughts on “What Google Teaches”

  1. I agree with you, Marc. Last year while in library school I worked what I called the “last-minute” reference shift on Sunday nights, and consequently dealt mainly with undergrads who had put off writing their papers until the eleventh hour. They were always wary of print sources and also using microfilm. I don’t think Google has intentionally tried to create a bias against print, but I think it has created a proclivity toward always seeking the easiest manner of obtaining information.

    Even if the information found on Google is inferior, it’s very easy to use. One can bookmark it, or print it out, and this can be done anywhere. A print source may be excellent, but it requires the user to come to the library, take notes on the source or make a photocopy, and record the citation information. And then if the user forgets something, or realizes later that they really needed the information in the last chapter as well, they have to come back to the library and start the whole process over again.

    I think our task, then, is to convince library users – particularly the young generation who has always had a computer conveniently at their fingertips, that there is some intrinsic value in using print sources that is worth their trip to the library, their extra moments taking notes, and their dime for the photocopier. For a lot of users, one source is as good as another, and a source that is free and available at home is going to trump any other kind of source, be it print or even a subscription database. Our job is to teach them that easy doesn’t always equal quality.

  2. Books don’t highlight your keywords on the page, making print materials harder to scan. They also aren’t condusive to a copy-paste method of research.

    These are not good things, but they are the Google reality. We can hope that as users advance their education, they will develop more appreciation for in-depth research… in whatever form (print, online, or whatever’s next).

  3. When I teach students in my library research courses, I always have to remind them that books are not just for reading. I always make the point that a book can be used as a collection of resources through its bibliography, index, and citations. If you find a book on your topic, but the 567 pages seem intimidating, I tell them to look at the chapters, index, and bibliography. I try to explain that a book can often be used like a old school portable search engine ( I hate to compare books to a search engine, but its a way to change the students’ perception of books.)The concept I want them to walk away with is that one good resources, book, article, or website, can open up the way to other sources of information.
    “So you don’t have to read the 567 page, but:

    Read/skim the chapter that is releveant to your topic,
    note the citations and possibly look them up for shorter sources,
    plug the book into Google Scholar and see who has cited it and follow the trail of information.”

    Students may or may not find this useful, but I want the students to see a reference book or print source as an information tool just as much as it is something to read.

  4. Julie and Marc,
    We find this negative attitude toward print very difficult to combat. I don’t know if I can attribute it wholly to Google. We bought into the big online packages early, and once a student realized some articles were available online and “free”, they wanted them all that way. I often have students come to the reference desk and say they want an article about x, but they’d prefer it online – even though the periodicals are on the same floor as the reference desk!
    But if I start purchasing electronic reference books – like Oxford and others are making available, are they finding them? This is one of our bigger challenges, I think.

  5. Interesting comment Robin. I do see the students come in and ask for articles, and then looked dismayed if they are not online. I will raise you a step further. If the article is not online in the database they are using, but they have to go through something like Serials Solutions or TDnet to find it on a different database, even if the article turns out to be online, this is too much work. This is one of the issues I am facing as an instruction librarian, educating users that it is Ok to use the link to check for other databases for that article. Suggesting it is in print is like an insult, but often they swallow their pride if they really need it. Still, I think it boils down to education.

    The issue of electronic reference books is another wonderful question. I know librarians who think they are all great, but I do question if the students are finding them. And when they find them, are they satisfied or happy with what they find? For instance, the different interfaces between say, NetLibrary vs. Ebrary (Ebrary requires that little install for its reader). While I believe in time such resources may be found more by students, with education and marketing, it is still a challenge. Another example of what Google teaches, or rather, “unteaches?” Best, and keep on blogging.

  6. Today we had a speaker on campus (Ken Bain) who discussed student and instructional “mental models” for our annual campus retreat on active learning. Seated at a table of librarians, I got to be part of an excellent discussion focused trying to articulate just what mental model we want students to have about research/information seeking. It is a struggle since we want them to want “the best” information – but reality is that in many cases “some information” is all that is needed (or assigned for retrieval). In those cases, why not go for the convenience of finding an article online? We all admitted that a Google search (or some equivalent) meets our own information needs many times each week. I personally am always happier to find that the article I want is online – rather than having to go get it from the stacks. So .. just what is the mental model we want students to have about information? Tough to articulate….

  7. Ken Bain rocks. His book on what the best college teachers do is well worth a read. Informative and well-written.

    I think this problem all boils down, as Lisa says, to what the student believes he or she needs. If the need is “to finish this paper so I can make it to my meeting tonight” the path will be very different than if it’s “I have this theory and I need to find out if it’s supportable” or even “this stuff is pretty interesting and my teacher is way into it, so I’d like to do a good job on this project.”

    The mental model I think is most important is not “I understand how to use search tools to select the best information and will use it properly” or “for now I will switch on my college student identity and act out the role of writer of research papers” but “I’m a participant in making knowledge; I’m not an outsider, harvesting bits of it following a set of rules so that by not breaking the rules and harvesting enough of the right stuff I can get through this task – I’m right in the thick of it and I’m an agent in the making of my own knowledge, and possiby others’ knowledge.”

    Agency: how’s that for ten-dollar word? But for me, that’s the nub of it. Feeling as if you are a participant in the world of ideas. And knowing enough about how that world works to be an effective particpant.

    This also connects, I think, to a big issue: what effect does what we do have on developing a disposition for life-long learning? The role of “college student” has a four-year run for most of our students. And then they leave the stage. They need a different script. And they need some method training so they can explore their motivation.

  8. Good points everyone. Another example of the preference for ease of access over proprietary and ostensibly high quality reference works is Wikipedia. For many students, if they need to look something up, they start with Wikipedia. I don’t think it’s too great an exaggeration to say that Wikipedia has basically replaced the entire print reference collection (to the extent any of them used it anyway) for most students. Although I think it’s a good insight that in some contexts (make it to my meeting tonight) some information quickly available is good enough, ultimately it’s a betrayal of academic values to settle for mediocre information over the best content available regardless of format. Settling for good enough really shouldn’t be good enough for higher education. Here’s where the problem connects with grade inflation and what professors expect from students in their papers.

    Wikipedia fits perfectly with Barbara’s notion of agency-centered epistemology, where people “make their own knowledge” for themselves and for other people as well. I agree that learners should be active in creating their own understanding, but I draw the line at calling this knowledge. Knowledge has a higher standing, it has an objective component, it has to connect to the external world in the right way, it has to be true. We don’t “make” knowledge in the same way that we make breakfast.

    As for life-long learning, I don’t understand what the phrase means. Do you mean looking up car reviews in consumer reports, finding information on a hobby, looking up a disease on PubMed, reading Shakespeare in your spare time? All of those? Studies show that college graduates already do all these things more often than non-college graduates, so what’s the problem?

  9. By “creating knowledge” I don’t mean writing Wikipedia entries (or even blog comments like this). I mean that students should recognize that information isn’t value-neutral stuff that exists ab eterno, it’s invented by people like themselves. And that they need to interpret it. Scholarship is the process of engaging knowledge, rather than simply plucking it off the shelf and transcribing it without being, in some way, changed.

    Life-long learning is what we’re doing now. We’re engaging ideas. We’re critiquing them. Higher education claims to prepare people for the rest of their lives – not just as workers or consumers, but as citizens and fully-formed human beings. I’d like to know how our efforts to teach students to use academic libraries does that. If we’re focused on training students to use particular databases in particular libraries to complete college assignments, we’re not thinking of its impact beyond college. In other words, I’d like to know what we mean when we say “information literacy” as if it matters.

  10. It occurs to me I might have shared the mental model I have as my vision of what it is I am teaching toward…. It is sort of poor form to quote one’s own writing but since I like how I said it back in an editorial titled “Information Literacy as a Way of Life” (Research Strategies, v18, n2, doi:10.1016/S0734-3310(02)00068-X) I’m going to risk it:

    “For me, the learning vision that motivates and inspires is best summed up in the phrase “Information Literacy as a Way of Life.” That is what I want for my students—for them to become habitual askers of questions, seekers of new knowledge, critical thinkers, and informed decision makers … the student with an information literacy habit is disposed to a particular kind of approach in preparing to take action and, because information literacy is a habit, the student does not differentiate between the approach taken in the classroom and the approach to be taken in the workplace or in civic life. The information literacy disposition prepares the student for lifelong engagement in an information literate community and in the general information society.”

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