By Taylor Marvin
At Wired, Clive Thompson points out that today’s web-savvy students aren’t actually that good at separating out reliable sources of information on the internet:
“High school and college students may be “digital natives,” but they’re wretched at searching. In a recent experiment at Northwestern, when 102 undergraduates were asked to do some research online, none went to the trouble of checking the authors’ credentials. In 1955, we wondered why Johnny can’t read. Today the question is, why can’t Johnny search?”
Thompson goes on to argue that schools should teach good searching techniques, which makes sense. Roughly 80% of the academic research I did in high school was online. In high school I probably relied on the internet more than in college, because at UCSD I’m lucky enough to have access to a much larger library than I did at Salinas High School. Despite this, I can’t remember receiving any formal instruction in search beyond “Google works well” before coming to college. While the emergence of Wikipedia has made academic search simpler for students — instead of using Google, today many students will just go to a given subject’s Wikipedia article’s references, which are mostly pre-vetted — search-illiteracy is still a huge issue. Wikipedia is nowhere near comprehensive, and the sources it references are often biased or incomplete. Even internet-literate students often have no idea how to search or even understand peer-reviewed papers, and students from a low-income background are at a huge disadvantage to students who grew up with a computer in the home. The ability to understand what makes a source reliable has a much greater impact on students’ future success than the library skills currently taught, and schools should begin teaching search skills at the elementary school level. It’s that important.
I think that widespread search illiteracy says something interesting about the importance of web design. If a large portion of undergraduates can’t use content to decide whether a source is reliable, they must use other signals to determine reliability. In my own experience, site design often serves as a substitute signal. This makes sense: if a site looks professional, its content must also be reliable. Media websites — whether magazines, blogs, or commercial sites — are more likely to be trusted if their design fits the market’s ideas of what’s modern and professional. Of course, site design doesn’t actually tell us anything about trustworthiness, but this bias towards good design is understandable if many undergraduates don’t have to skills to determine if a site’s content is trustworthy. Given that current undergraduates are one of the most web-savvy populations out there, other groups rely on design as a reliability-cue even more. If consumers are more likely to frequent online media sources they deem trustworthy, good design is vital to growing a media organization’s market presence. Sites that look cluttered or antiquated aren’t just losing customers because they’re not user friendly, but because they’re more likely to be wrongly judged as unreliable by users with poor search skills, however unfairly.