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Are College Students Techno Idiots? 297

Posted by Zonk
from the need-nerd-training-stat dept.
ict_geek writes "Are college students techno idiots? Despite the inflammatory headline, Inside Higher Ed asks an interesting question. The article refers to a recent study by ETS, which analyzed results from 6,300 students who took its ICT Literacy Assessment. The findings show that students don't know how to judge the authoritativeness or objectivity of web sites, can't narrow down an overly broad search, and can't tailor a message to a particular audience. Yikes. According to the article: 'when asked to select a research statement for a class assignment, only 44 percent identified a statement that captured the assignment's demands. And when asked to evaluate several Web sites, 52 percent correctly assessed the objectivity of the sites, 65 percent correctly judged for authority, and 72 percent for timeliness. Overall, 49 percent correctly identified the site that satisfied all three criteria.'" If they are, they're not the only ones.
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Are College Students Techno Idiots?

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  • by realmolo (574068) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:46PM (#16872980)
    *Most* people are terrible at critical reading. Just terrible.

    For that matter, most people don't really like to read at all.
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:46PM (#16872984) Journal
    It's critical thinking skills.

    This is nothing new. Decades of teaching to standardized tests and ignoring the thought process in favor of fact regurgitation has led to this.
  • according to who? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by destroygbiv (896968) <destroygbiv@NoSpaM.gmail.com> on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:49PM (#16873044) Homepage
    Basically, student answers didn't match up with the supposed "correct" answers. How do you even gauge the "objectivity" of a website, and how do you say somebody's assessment is incorrect? I don't think we have to worry about our college students. I'm sure pretty much all of them can utilize technology much more effectively than their parents can.
  • Yes. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ScentCone (795499) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:49PM (#16873060)
    Are College Students Techno Idiots?

    If, by "college students," we mean "most college students," just like we mean "most people" when we ask, "are people techno idiots?"

    Honestly, answers to a question like that, in this venue, are going to be so distorted by the abnormal slashdot nerd density as to be meaningless when talking about a wider demographic. My personal experience with most college students is that they are just as much in the "it's just magic, and it works" (as well as the "my computer is so slow! it won't even run the new free stuff I download any more!") camp as the average non-college-student person.

    The "technical" stuff with which they're comfortable (as in, feel mastery thereof) are the dedicated-purpose devices that don't really let you hose them up (phones, cameras, simple MP3 players, etc). But they don't know how or why any of it works any more than they know how or why their car, their democracy, their adrenal glands, or the free WiFi at Panera works. And I'm not just talking about the liberal arts majors.
  • by fishdan (569872) * on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:50PM (#16873062) Homepage Journal
    And I've felt guilty about the fact that some people who should not be taking distance learning are signing up for courses. I've also been irritated by the repeat calls to the helpdesk on topics that it is reasonable to expect a "distance learner" to know how to do.

    As a result we developed an information literacy class that is a required component for taking a Distance Learning class, and it is of course contained within our (home grown) Distance Learning platform. If you have not passed IL, you can't get to any of your other classes.

    Because we've got a home grown app, we were able to put in alot of specific things (how to submit an assignment, how to send an email to a specific address, how to upload a file, how to download a file and then find it again). It's the way of things. You can't blame the users if they are incompetent. You either have to ensure they are competent, or block them from using the system, and give them an opportunity to learn and demonstrate their competancy

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 16, 2006 @01:52PM (#16873100)
    This has nothing to do with technology and is just basically critical thinking and analytical skills
  • by Ynsats (922697) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:01PM (#16873280)
    I went to a school that ranks in the top five on Wired's Most Wired Campuses list. I work for a company that builds advanced computer systems with capabilities far beyond the average joe's imagination. Since my youngest days I have been surrounded by computers and technologically astute people. All of these intelligent people with vast amounts knowledge and experience yet, when it comes to things like emails, I get nothing but urban legends and forwards, even after I debunk thier tripe with snopes.com. If they need to find something on the internet, they ask me for help.

    I think the problem lies not in comprehension ability but in the ability to ask the right question to get what you want. The way people are taught to solve problems in school affects how they solve problems in life. It doesn't help any that so few students actually grasp the idea behind problem solving and even less are any good at actually doing it. Most people see a problem that has a solution or a question that has an answer. If they don't get the right solution, they immediatly think that there is something wrong with that question or problem or how they worked it out. They waste time and energy trying to find thier mistake. In reality, the first thing that should be taught is if you are asking a question and not getting the answer you expected, maybe you are not asking the right question.

    To illustrate the point, working in IT, I, like many others, have had an opportunity at one point to have the luxury of operating a help desk hotline. What fun! The most tedious part is getting the clueless user on the other end to get you the information you need to solve thier problem and send them on thier blissfully merry way. I cannot count the number of times I asked a question that seemed entirely sane to me only to recieve the most insane answer from the user that I never expected. At first I would be frustrated and blame the user and bring in to question thier level of intelligence. Eventually I learned that it might not be the user...or anybody for that matter. There is a communication break down because of different realms of knowledge relating to both parties involved. For me to get the answers I needed, I had to find creative ways to rephrase the question. I asked numerous users the same questions 9 different ways from Sunday and very few actually figured out that I asked the same question over and over again, just in a way to shift the focus of the question to get the right detail I needed in an answer.

    Search engines work much the same way. If you didn't get the results you wanted, rephrase the search terms or change the priority of the terms in the search string. The same principle can be applied to questioning the validity of a website. Unfortunatly, this way of dealing with a problem is not taught at school. It is also unfortunate that it would be difficult to do so without real world application. The fact that so few actually eventually pick it up later in life is a testament to the idea that there something fundamentally wrong with how we teach and develop problem solving skills at an earlier age than college. These kids should be entering higher education with the foundations of these skills already laid. If they were, there wouldn't be these cognitive problem solving issues.
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:03PM (#16873322) Journal
    I'm not knocking the tests themselves (though some do deserve it), I'm knocking teaching to the test. My 7th through 10th grade English Lit classes were just vocabulary classes, a complete waste of my time. One year our final exam was a friggin' crossword puzzle the teacher designed -- and a poor one, at that. I learned absolutely nothing from those classes, since I had an extensive vocabulary already.

    I was fortunate to have parents and college professors that demanded I develop critical thinking skills -- there is no way I would have developed them otherwise. This is from someone who went to a school district regarded as one of the best in NJ (at the time).
  • by DoofusOfDeath (636671) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:03PM (#16873332)
    *Most* people are terrible at critical reading.
    I totally agree. For instance, most /. comments on this story fail to critique the validity of the test's questions or whether there was any bias in the study's selection of test-takers.
  • by borkus (179118) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:07PM (#16873398) Homepage
    I was an English major and made my way into IT through the workplace. I constantly encounter situations where I use my college skills to write and speak clearly. In fact, I'm struck by how well those skills have aged at this point in my career versus the skills of IT/CS majors my age (I'm 40).

    So, for Computer Science/IT/MIS majors, I'd recommend the following -

    • Take at least one class a year outside of your field that requires writing assignments. It can be in Literature, History, Economics,Psychology - whatever interests you - but learning about diverse subjects and being able to write in response keeps your writing skills honed and your abstract reasoning skills sharp. Also, learning outside of your major may help apply your technical skills to real life domains.
    • Take a Public Speaking class. Some degree programs require it, but anyone who graduates from a university should be able to give a coherent oral presentation. Most Public Speaking classes aren't just about the mechanics of speaking (vocal projection, enunciation, body language and eye contact) but also how to organize your thoughts and shape a presentation for a given audience and time frame. People won't see the value in your ideas if they don't understand what you're talking about.
  • by flynt (248848) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:11PM (#16873452)
    Mod parent up! When a conclusion of a study is something we want to believe, in this case, "Most college students are idiots with computers and information", and this reinforces something we believe about ourselves, "I am smarter than these people", we don't question the methodology as we should. Contrast that to a study which shows something you don't want to believe, the first thing that happens, you question the methodology. Of course, my idea here has not been proven, it's just something I'm guessing.
  • Mod parent up! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:25PM (#16873754)
    From the .pdf :
    When constructing a presentation slide designed to persuade. . .
    -80% included irrelevant points with relevant points
    -Just 12% used only points directly related to the argument
    -8% used entirely irrelevant points

    Well DUH!!!

    When you "persuade" someone, "irrelevant points" are useful if they can be used to emotionally "persuade" someone.

    You see this all the time in political discussions.

    The problems with "testing" people is that the people who write the tests have their own biases and opinions about what is "better" or "bad". And since they write the tests, their opinions are naturally considered to be more "correct" than the people they're testing.
  • by archen (447353) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:33PM (#16873916)
    As an extension of what you're saying, I was discussing with my wife about digital knowledge vs age. The former joke used to be if you didn't know how to do it, then you pay some kid down the street to show you how to use your computer. I think we're over the "it's new" hump and that's no longer a given. She used to say her little brother (he's 3) would be a computer wizard that would run circles around us all one day, but I think she's seen enough kids now days who are just point and click masters who don't have the skills to do something as simple as HTML - she's kind of retracted that statement now.

    At this point I'm sure it's just going to be a matter of time before popular opinion catches up with the reality. I'm sure people were the same when cars first appeared and old fogies didn't know how to work them. I doubt anyone in the 70's assumed a kid was a wizard mechanic just because he'd been around cars all his life.
  • by fatdaveinthesky (783750) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:33PM (#16873938)
    ..of Warcraft. This is not anything surprising, and is not limited to those tubes on the internets. As people are constantly bombarded with spin or outright falsification, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually discern what is legitimate, objective information from what is not. Mass media constantly and actively subverts peoples' critical reasoning skills in order to convince them to buy an item or believe a statement based on limited or dubious claims. They purposely subvert and abuse data in order to create pseudo-scientific claims of validity. Corporations and political parties are especially guilty of this. But it extends much deeper when fundamental research is compromised in an effort to build data for a claim. Think tanks, R&D labs, and even research units at universities are often funded by organizations with an inherent conflicting interest in the objective conclusions of the research conducted. With so many competing and conflicting claims of validity, the decision to be an idiot is a rational statement on utility. When actually getting to the bottom of some claim, weighing evidence on multiple sides, and making judgements on their validity becomes excessively time-consuming or difficult, it is much easier and better to just go along for the ride. Everyone does this, to a certain degree. You have to find some source of information that is trusted, since it is impossible to independently verify every claim you see. But outside of incredibly boring peer-reviewed scientific journals that often bear little impact on peoples' daily lives, almost every other source of information from CNN to Fox News can have significant questions of trustworthiness, bias, or objectivity raised against it. It's almost miraculous when people can work out ingenious ways to actually wade through all of the crap with any degree of success at all, such as Google searches or Wikipedia. Make no mistake, civilization and progress are intimately connected to the ability for mankind to learn. Truth is under a relentless unresting attack by organized interests. - Reality has a well-known liberal bias. Stephen Colbert
  • by Kadin2048 (468275) <[slashdot.kadin] [at] [xoxy.net]> on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:37PM (#16873988) Homepage Journal
    Your comment got me thinking about something. I, too -- as well as most others here on Slashdot, I'd expect -- just "figured out" the internet, and most things about computers and technology in general.

    However, I think that we had some motivation to. At least I did -- I was curious about the internet, and what information (insert porn joke here) I could find on it. So I figured out how to use it.

    I suspect that a lot of people out there, have never really had any burning desire to use the internet to accomplish some task that wasn't trivial. Thus, they've never bothered to figure it out. I doubt they're completely incompetent, if they wanted to do it; they just don't care.

    It reminds me of a (much) younger brother of mine, who was never much into computers. At about the same age that I started getting interested in technology, he found other hobbies. He knew where the power switch was on his iMac, but that was about it. When he wanted to look something up on the Internet, he'd usually just ask or call me, and I'd research it and send him back some results. When I started working and moved further away, it wasn't practical to do this anymore. The last time I went back and spent some time with him, he was significantly better at doing internet research. Not only that, but he had figured out how to install software, access technical forums and ask the right questions when it didn't work, and generally troubleshoot. He'd even bought and installed a new hard drive and RAM, and set up a WLAN and shared printer (by finding and following the right HOWTO-type articles). While it might seem trivial to the Slashdot crowd, this isn't bad for a casual computer user.

    This was somebody who I had basically written off as so incompetent at anything electronic or mechanical, that he'd be a hazard to himself. (And in truth, later I found out that he had hosed his system more than once in the learning process.) But when there wasn't someone there to ask questions of, or do research for him, he had a reason to figure it out. And he did.

    Sometimes you have to let people fail and learn on their own, if they're ever going to succeed at all.
  • by fatdaveinthesky (783750) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:39PM (#16874042)
    ..of Warcraft.

    This is not anything surprising, and is not limited to those tubes on the internets. As people are constantly bombarded with spin or outright falsification, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually discern what is legitimate, objective information from what is not.

    Mass media constantly and actively subverts peoples' critical reasoning skills in order to convince them to buy an item or believe a statement based on limited or dubious claims. They purposely subvert and abuse data in order to create pseudo-scientific claims of validity. Corporations and political parties are especially guilty of this.

    But it extends much deeper when fundamental research is compromised in an effort to build data for a claim. Think tanks, R&D labs, and even research units at universities are often funded by organizations with an inherent conflicting interest in the objective conclusions of the research conducted.

    With so many competing and conflicting claims of validity, the decision to be an idiot is a rational statement on utility. When actually getting to the bottom of some claim, weighing evidence on multiple sides, and making judgements on their validity becomes excessively time-consuming or difficult, it is much easier and better to just go along for the ride.

    Everyone does this, to a certain degree. You have to find some source of information that is trusted, since it is impossible to independently verify every claim you see. But outside of incredibly boring peer-reviewed scientific journals that often bear little impact on peoples' daily lives, almost every other source of information from CNN to Fox News can have significant questions of trustworthiness, bias, or objectivity raised against it.

    It's almost miraculous when people can work out ingenious ways to actually wade through all of the crap with any degree of success at all, such as Google searches or Wikipedia. Make no mistake, civilization and progress are intimately connected to the ability for mankind to learn. Truth is under a relentless unresting attack by organized interests.

    - Reality has a well-known liberal bias.
    Stephen Colbert

  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @02:51PM (#16874278) Journal
    So for young kids, I don't think it's either teaching them "facts" nor is it teaching them "process", but instead in might be something like "forcing them to practice".
    Like any good practical instruction, it's theory + implementation. The student must master both.
  • Where do you stop? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @03:03PM (#16874494) Homepage Journal
    The link says the test's reliability is .88. At least they give a definition: that's the correlation between results on multiple administrations of the test. So a critical reader will ask what in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that has to do with anything normal people call "reliability".

    Then you have to ask, if college students can't judge the objectivity and authority of a web site, how can the test administrators do it?

    For that matter, I could have some recursive fun with the parent post. If realmolo will promise to take it as a joke and not an attack:
    o How is "terrible" defined? Is it a relative or absolute measurement and how is it assessed?
    o How many is "most"? "Most" out of what sample? How were their numbers counted or estimated?
    o What's the chain of transmission between measurements of critical reading and the parent post? Did the parent refer to primary sources?

    And that's what you can do to a statement that your own experience confirms (mine sure does).

    Reading everything critically can leave you feeling like you were dropped on this planet by mistake and don't belong here.

    "Ours is a high and lonely destiny".
  • by Bender0x7D1 (536254) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @03:04PM (#16874526)
    I would like to think that I am not a techno idiot - I am working on my Ph.D. in computer engineering so I have to read and review a lot of technical papers. However, I am not sure how I (or anyone else) would teach someone how to judge web pages in an entire semester, let alone a single class period.

    I have seen a couple of lists on how to judge a site. The one [cornell.edu] from Cornell has points like:
    • Is the author different than the webmaster?
    • What URL/domain is used?
    • Is it an information page or an advertisesment?
    • Modified date/is it current?
    • Are the links correct and match the page?
    Sure, these are nice - but they hardly apply everywhere. There are a lot of things in the sciences that haven't changed, so a date of 1998 hardly impacts the validity of the page. There are also a lot of old pages with broken links. Still doesn't impact their information. This happens quite a bit when you find a white paper and an organization decided to redesign their entire site. You can still find the paper through Google, but the old URL is useless.

    Same problem with requiring contact information for the author. A lot of government agencies only list the webmaster as a contact in the page footer. Does that mean the page is invalid? No. It means that government sources don't have specific authors. A USDA report is still a USDA report even if it is 5 years old, doesn't list an author and has broken links. How do we teach when the rules don't matter?

    I think the problem is people are trying to come up with rules to apply, and there are a lot of exceptions. Remember Dihydrogen Monoxide? [dhmo.org] it was a complete joke - but the site "passed" the criteria. So it must be a valid source. Right? If people were trained to think on their own, instead of being taught how to apply rules, I think we would be better off.
  • remember (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Thursday November 16, 2006 @03:58PM (#16875466) Homepage Journal
    to users the UI is the system.
    or more broadly, what they can see is the system.
    For her intentions, the most probabaly correct answer is yes.
    Technically correct? no. Is it correct for practical purposes? yes.

    At least she grasped it was something outside her computer.
  • by krotkruton (967718) on Thursday November 16, 2006 @05:17PM (#16876856)
    I agree. Since I couldn't reach either of the ets.org links, I can't see any of their sample questions, if those were even posted. Without that, how do we know that the people giving the tests can even decide the validity of a web page?

    I hate to bring it up cuz it will start the same old argument again, but since a lot of people can't decide whether or not wikipedia is a valid source, how can we trust most of them to know what's acceptable?

    A\long with that, there are a lot of schools that teach certain guidelines as absolute. I was taught that that any web page with a "~" towards the end was bad, regardless of whether or not the webpage was .com or .edu. The problem is that a ~ means you can't necessarily trust a source from an edu because it is a personal page, not the edu's page (yes, that's a really loose explanation of how that works). The problem is that just because a page can't necessarily be trusted, doesn't mean that it can't be trusted absolutely. Now consider some of the so-called colleges out there that are teaching that the world is only 6000 years old [liberty.edu] (or the Museum created to support such an idea [answersingenesis.org]). Knowing that Liberty University would teach such a thing tells me that they are not a trusted site. To me, a professor's personal page at Stanford would have much more credibility, but that doesn't fit well into specific criteria.

    Point is, I don't trust this study until I know what their criteria is or what their questions were. As for the questions, it's just like statistical surveys that ask "Do you drink A) never B) one or two drinks a night C) more than 2 drinks in a night" and conclude that 50% of people are binge drinking alcoholics because they answered C, even though that doesn't take into account how often they drink more than 2 drinks in a night, or a variety of other problems.
  • Lack of knowledge (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 16, 2006 @07:16PM (#16878286)
    I'm 13, and most kids I have spoken to think that Microsoft Windows is the only operating system that exists. Its sad really, how they think that they are computer experts. Replying to what someone said before, I agree that kids don't know much about the computer and the Internet. If they knew about effective Web design, they wouldn't use Myspace anymore.

    I think the problem lies with the schools. In my school, students don't learn about the computer, they just learn about how to use programs. The students don't learn about how a computer works, or the computer's parts. If you ask them basic computer/Internet questions (and I have), they won't know the answers. Many of them don't even know how to protect their PCs from computer virii, malware, worms, and the likes, let alone know about the parts of a computer.

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