Study Explores Internet Use

Many of the online search, information evaluation, and creation skills that shape students’ academic activity are actually developed in their personal and social lives, according to a study conducted by The Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The two-year study on the intersection of youth, digital media, and information quality is the first formal analysis of these issues.

“If you look at online safety or privacy stuff, I think schools have already started to respond to that quite a bit,” said Urs Gasser, executive director of The Berkman Center and principal researcher for its Youth and Digital Media: From Credibility to Information Quality study. “But here, where arguably it’s as critical a skill to find stuff online and have to sort through it and make judgments about the quality, that’s still not even on the radar. That’s the finding that bothers me the most.”

Gasser said that an important first step is for educators, administrators, students, and parents to start a conversation about information quality and Internet use both in and out of school.

“The system has to work with students about how they use and interact with information...as opposed to being led to junk and just saying, ‘You’re on your own to figure out what’s good and what’s bad,’” said June A. Casey, a Harvard Law School Research Librarian who collaborated on the study.

Casey suggested that education about classifying high quality information should be seamlessly integrated into curricula and that after spending 10 to 15 minutes searching for information, students should ask a research librarian for help.

However, some schools are limiting access to potentially useful information, making rules or using URL blacklists to restrict student access to certain websites at school. According to Gasser, students use many of those sites to find information. Even teachers have pushed back against such rules. In August, the Missouri State Teacher’s Association sued the state for trying to ban social networking between teachers and students.

“You basically cut off this very important activity and reinforce the delegation to the personal and social space outside of school instead of trying to incorporate it and have conversation around it,” Gasser said.

Just this month, several website publishers that direct resources to lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, and transgender youth sued a school district for filtering its content as inappropriate for “sexuality” while allowing access to anti-LGBT materials labeled under “religion.”

Instead of creating laws or rules that mandate Internet usage, Gasser recommended that policy-makers help schools develop innovative approaches and curricula to incorporate digital technology and ensure that they have the requisite resources.

The Berkman Center’s Youth and Media lab has already built and tested five curriculum modules focused on information quality and hopes to continue it’s research.

“This is a starting point, this report, and I hope it stimulates a discussion within the research community,” said Gasser. “This is an important as well as interesting topic.”

—Staff writer Juliet R. Bailin can be reached at jbailin@college.harvard.edu.

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