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Google as white bread? (and ICT lit matters)

Shortly after my discussion of the need to de-criminalize student use of Google, I discovered two interesting news stories from the UK about young people’s searching behavior and ICT literacies.

The JISC, a British educational ITC organization, and the British Library released a 35-page report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future  that claims "the Google generation is a myth."

The report contends that the generation of students born after 1993 lacks information skills and displays impatience when searching and navigating.  These students do not find library-sponsored resources intuitive.

Dr Malcolm Read, Executive Secretary of JISC notes:

These findings add to our growing understanding of subjects that should concern all who work in further and higher education – the changing needs of our students and researchers and how libraries can meet their needs. We hope that this report will encourage debate around these important questions. We hope it will also serve to remind us all that students and researchers will continue to need the appropriate skills and training to help navigate an increasingly diverse and complex information landscape.

The report’s seven recommendations include: that the library profesion develop leadership and vision for the 21st century and "reverse its declining profile and influence."  It advises a shift from "a content-oriented to a user-facing perspective," reversing the process of dis-intermediation in a do-it-yourself consumer marketplace, becoming more e-consumer friendly, and getting information skills on the agenda. 

An article in The Times (London) quoted media studies professor Tara Brabazon who calls Google, "white bread for the mind."  She claims that the Internet is producing a generation of students that relies on unreliable information and urges teachers to equip students with critical thinking and information literacy skills. Brabazon believes that students rely on the most basic search tools and do not possess the critical and analytical skills to asses the information that they find on the web. Echoing Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur, Professor Brabazon, who bans her own students from using Google or Wikipedia as research tools, said in her Brighton University inaugural address:

Students live in an age of information, but what they lack is correct information. They turn to Wikipedia unquestioningly for information. Why wouldn’t they – it’s there.

She continues:

Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments.

Google is filling, but it does not necessarily offer nutritional content.

Alexandra Frean, author of the article explains:

With libraries in decline, diminishing stocks of books and fewer librarians, media platforms such as Google made perfect sense. The trick was to learn how to use them properly.

The article expresses the importance of information literacy.  Nevertheless, I found much of the piece disturbing: The very easy assumption that libraries are in decline. The assumption that research is about answers, rather than questions. (Perhaps we own some of whatever problems exist?)  The assumption that Google is content, not a search tool.  The assumption that one truth actually exists. The assumption that students could not do better if they searched Google better.  The assumption that book (or good) content lives only in printed books. 

The article’s many comments asked my questions and shared my concerns. 

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Lesley Edwards says:

    Joyce you have articulated my exact concerns. My first reaction to the article was that Ms. Brabazon was shooting the messenger, Google. And, how will she know if her students use Google as their search engine? As you have suggested she would be better served if she focused on asking questions which promote critical thinking and originality.

  2. Mary Ann Harlan says:

    I have been meaning to read this and the recent PEW report about young adults as library users to see how they agree and disagree. It seems as if they are in contradiction on one another – so is it a country issue?

  3. I have been struggling with people over Google for years. Students and adults would rather use it and search through pages of ads than try to go to a new more reputable source, or a printed source.

    It does make an easy yellow pages, however.

  4. Nandini Dutta says:

    White Bread is the right terminology for these scholars. Empty calories for empty minds. Students are not interested in the meat of the matter. They lack analytical skills.

    However do us Professors inspire them? Motivate them? I would love to get my students off the Wiki and the Google search engine.

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