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Generation Y: Are they reaslly digital natives or more like digital refugees?

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Abstract

Recent research indicates that Generation Y is not as tech-savvy as is often portrayed. If this is the case, then assumptions about the information-seeking behaviour of today's students need to be re- assessed. This paper discusses some of the findings of a PhD study on the information-seeking behaviour of Generation Y and the need for schools to become more involved in teaching students how to use the electronic environment effectively.
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Since the post-WWII period, social anthropol-
ogists and the popular media have created catchy
labels and assigned an associated list of attributes
or characteristics for each new generation. Social
commentators vary slightly in the labels assigned
to each generation and the length of time each
generation lasts, but they are all agreed that
there have been several defined groups that have
emerged during the last century. There is the
G.I. Generation (1900-1924), the Silent Generation
(1925-1945), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964),
Generation X (1965-1979), the Millennials or
Generation Y or the Net Generation (1980-2000)
and Generation Z (2001-present) (McCrindle
Research, 2008).
Generation Z is the newest generic label to
be assigned, but are included in the group
known as the Millennials, Net Generation or
Generation Y for the purposes of this study.
While Generation Y is given a variety of start
dates by social commentators, this study uses
the introduction of the Internet Domain Name
System (DNS) in 1984 as a starting date, with an
end date that is ongoing.
Generation Y theorists and social commentators
make a number of startling claims about this
generation that are in stark contrast to social
commentary describing previous generations.
Previously, attributes and characteristics of each
new generation were based on personal values:
attitudes to work, politics, and leisure; and
changing fashion in clothes and music. However,
with Generation Y, social commentators have
assigned a range of skill-based attributes, based
on the premise that constant exposure to
technology from birth automatically means
young people must be able to use it to find and
use information effectively.
Generation Y theorists claim that children born
after 1984 have an in-depth grasp and almost
‘intuitive’ knowledge of how to use technology,
simply because they have never known a world
without the Internet and technological change.
It is interesting to note that this theory first
appeared in 1998 in the popular press in the
publication, Growing up digital: The rise of the
Net Generation by Donald Tapscott (Tapscott,
1998). Even though this title was published ten
years ago, the idea of a tech-savvy or Internet-
savvy generation has persisted. The longevity
and persistence of this idea of a tech-savvy
generation is due to the ubiquitous and global
nature of the Internet, which has been used as a
publishing and marketing tool. So this title was
not only available in print, but excerpts were
also freely available on the web.
In 2001, Marc Prensky took the theory a step
further and first coined the terms ‘digital natives’
for members of Generation Y and ‘digital immi-
grants’ for anyone born before the Internet and
ICTs became such a major part of the information
landscape (Prensky, 2001). These descriptors
have been picked up by all forms of the popular
media and even taken seriously by academics.
Recently, two Harvard academics, Palfrey and
Gasser, released a publication based on the
Generation Y theory, extolling teachers and
senior education administrators to re-think how
they cater for young people in education (Palfrey
and Gasser, 2008). Thus this idea of a tech-savvy
generation of effective and efficient users of
technology has become established in serious
research and the popular press.
While there is no doubt that technology has
affected and continues to affect the way we live
and influences nearly every aspect of our daily
lives, the idea of a generation of tech-savvy users
requires closer analysis. These labels and the
attributes assigned to Generation Y first appeared
during the first flourish of the Internet and long
before any serious research about the Internet
and social-cultural consequences had occurred.
While evidence from schools and emerging
research studies suggest that young people are
not using technology as espoused by the
Generation Y theorists (Barr, 2006; Branch, 2003),
the labels and the idea still persist, even though
the information landscape has radically altered This is a refereed article
Generation Y: Are they really digital
natives or more like digital refugees?
Barbara Coombes
Recent research indicates
that Generation Y is not as
tech-savvy as is often
portrayed. If this is the
case, then assumptions
about information-seeking
behaviour of today’s
students need to be
re-assessed This paper
discusses some of the
findings of a PhD study on
the information-seeking
behaviour of Generation Y
and the need for schools to
become more involved in
teaching students how to
use the electronic
environment effectively.
The basic
premise of the Net
Generation theory,
that familiarity with
technology equates
with efficient and
effective use . . .
is flawed.
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since they were first introduced over ten years
ago.
It is vitally important that educationalists don’t
make assumptions about this generation and its
level of expertise when using electronic resources
to find information. Governments and information
agencies worldwide are currently employing
digital initiatives which will ultimately make all
government information and services transparent
and publicly available via egovernment web
portals. Digital information repositories are also
a feature of the corporate world, as the almost
ubiquitous use of technology in the workplace
produces an ever increasing amount of information.
The endorsement of environmentally-friendly
solutions to information storage also makes
digital solutions very attractive.
Supporters of egovernment solutions argue
that digital information is more cost effective,
easier to store (takes up less space), easier and
faster to produce, easy to manipulate and with
search engine technology, easier to locate. The
latest policy document from the Commonwealth
Government also maintains that Australians
want service delivery using this delivery mode
(Commonwealth Govt, 2008). Governments also
argue that information accessed by electronic
means is catering for the next generation which,
according Generation Y theory, prefers and
already has the skills to access information in this
format. For citizens in the twenty-first century,
government and public information is increasingly
being published only in digital format. Being
able to locate, interpret and use this information
is going to be an essential skill set for citizens in
the future.
Thus, assumptions currently being made
about the information-seeking behaviour of
today’s students need to be re-assessed at both
the systemic and the school level to ensure that
tomorrow’s citizens do not become the digital
refugees of the future. Future proofing for both
the current and future generations is essential in
a world where governments are increasingly
committed to the provision of essential services
and information wholly online. This paper
discusses some of the findings of a much larger
PhD study on the information-seeking behaviour
of Generation Y and the need for schools to
become more involved in teaching students how
to use the electronic environment effectively. This
research is based on the premise that we need
to know exactly what young people are doing
when navigating the Internet/web if we are
going to cater adequately for their educational
and social needs as they become twenty-first
century citizens.
Generation Y
According to the Generation Y theory, members
have a range of attributes and skills that sets
them apart from previous generations. Their
increased access to information via the Internet
and electronic resources gives this generation
a greater knowledge base which fosters
independence and the ability to question and
confront information (Tapscott, 1998). As a result
of being exposed to a lot of knowledge on the
Internet, members of this group are more socially
active, responsible and discerning users of
information, and they are preoccupied with free
expression and have strong views (Tapscott, 1998).
Members of Generation Y know what they want
and have greater digital literacy skills (Skiba, 2003;
Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005); are intuitive visual
communicators, who have strong visual-spatial
skills and are readily able to integrate the virtual
with the physical world (Oblinger & Oblinger,
2005). They are exploratory learners and there-
fore develop skills which enable them to retain
information and use it in innovative ways (Skiba,
2003; Dorman, 2000; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).
“Students feel they know how to find valid infor-
mation on the Net” (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).
Multi-tasking, a craving for connectivity and
social engagement, the ability and a propensity
to use a wide range of technologies allows the
Generation Y to communicate with a broad
range of users and exposes them to a wide range
of ideas and cultural differences, thus leading to
a more socially inclusive outlook (Tapscott, 1998;
Dorman, 2000).
The basic premise of the Net Generation
theory, that familiarity with technology equates
with efficient and effective use and these
achievements are only applicable to a specific
group because they have grown up with
technology, is flawed. Does this mean that children
born into an era where cars are the ubiquitous
mode of transport will therefore not only drive,
like driving, but also be good drivers simply
because they have never known a landscape
that is different? The theory also ignores the
changing nature of technology, which has in turn
produced an information landscape that is
increasingly complex and populated by old and
new information forms and technologies that
require multiple skills to interrogate successfully.
Much of this literature hinges on the work of
social commentators such as Tapscott and Prensky
and is observational rather than research based
on rigorous research method.
Tapscott makes sweeping statements about
the abilities of Generation Y and gleefully recounts
how children are showing adults how to use the
Internet (Tapscott, 1998, Skiba, 2003). This
commentary implies that young people are
socially active, responsible and discerning users
of information technologies. Indeed, Generation
Y as a group has been variously described as
tech-savvy, web-savvy and Internet-savvy. Of
major concern is the appearance of these terms
in a number of major educational reports,
including Toward a New Golden Age in American
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Education (U.S. Department of Education/Office
of Educational Technology, 2004); Voices & Views
from Today’s Tech-Savvy Students, part of a
national report sponsored by the non-profit
group NetDay (NetDay, 2004; Murray, 2004); and
the Australian Curriculum Corporation’s report
from the Le@rning Federation (Curriculum
Corporation, 2005).
The assumptions enshrined in these systemic
educational policies have meant that virtually no
funding has been allocated to training for teachers
or students; there is no recognition that these
skills need to be actively taught in schools as
part of the curriculum; and there is a real belief
that technology is a solution rather than a tool.
This type of thinking is particularly evident in the
current Prime Minster of Australia’s ‘computer for
every child’ policy which does not include training
for teachers, and the latest draft policy document
for the digital economy (Commonwealth
Government of Australia. (2008).
Other research studies
Generation Y theory contradicts traditional
information theory which contends that
information-seeking behaviour is a complex
activity that is affected by cultural, educational and
social contexts (Case, 2002). Anecdotal evidence
from schools and public libraries has long
suggested that, while young people actively use
technology, they do not use it as described by
the Generation Y theorists. In recent years there
has been an emerging body of research on how
young people from Generation Y use technology
for information-seeking (Banwell, & Gannon-Leary,
2000; Barr, et. al, 2006; Combes, 2006 & 2007a;
ETS, 2006; Fallows, 2005; Livingstone, et. al.,
2005; Nicholas et. al. 2008) that largely debunks
the myth of an intuitive user who is capable of
using electronic resources to find information, a
fact many teacher-librarians have long suspected.
Detailed, longitudinal research studies on
Internet use and the information-seeking behaviour
of young people are only now being published.
Large scale population studies such as the UK
Children Go Online (UKCGO) and the American
Pew and Internet & American Life Project indicate
that Generation Y theorists do not have all the
answers.
UKCGO is a rigorous and timely investigation
of 9-19 year olds’ use of the Internet (Livingstone
& Bober 2004) that is an ongoing, large scale
population study. Findings from this study indicate
that significant inequalities in access to the Internet
still exist, especially home access. The study found
that while Generation Y are confident in their
abilities and claim greater online skills than their
parents, a significant number admit they often
can’t find their way around the Internet. This
finding is also supported by research conducted
in educational contexts where the information-
seeking behaviour of students from a variety of
age groups has been studied. In two small scale
studies, Branch (2003) discovered that students
require specific instructional intervention to
develop effective information skills. Students
were often confused and they found the amount
of information on the Internet daunting. As a
result, they often experienced significant levels
of frustration. One UKCGO study reports:
It seems that ‘access’ to the internet is not
as simple as turning on the computer and
clicking on ‘Google’. A range of skills, some
more complex than others, is required to
access the range of online facilities. . . . These
skills are variably, and unequally, distributed
across the population, with age, gender and
socio-economic status all associated with
differences in literacy (Livingstone, Bober &
Helsper, 2005).
The PEW Internet & American Life Project has
conducted studies on Americans’ use of the
Internet and how teens use technology. These
studies produced similar findings to the UKCGO
study. While users feel comfortable using search
engines and are satisfied with their search results,
few users know much about them or use sophis-
ticated search strategies. They trust search engines
and the information provided (Fallows, 2005). Even
though users admit to knowing little about search
engines, they are confident in their ability to use
search engines to find information. Teens in these
studies also stop searching once they think they
have found the answer and have a tendency to
rely on single sources of information (Fallows,
2005). The PEW studies also concluded that the
majority of teens prefer to communicate with
friends on the Internet rather than strangers.
The JUSTEIS project (JISC Usage Survey
Trends: Trends in Electronic Information Service)
also found that young people rely heavily on
search engines to access information. This study
concluded that both students and academics
used electronic journals and specialist electronic
information services infrequently (Griffiths, 2003,
Griffiths & Brophy, 2002). Students tended to
navigate web sites by clicking on links rather
than utilising sophisticated or complex search
strategies. This finding is also supported by a
number of other studies.
Martzoukou (2004) and Fidel et al. (1999) found
that students used ‘landmarks’ or favourite
websites as starting points for a search, and
regularly used the back button to navigate.
Sandvig and Baiwa (2004) found that university
students “have a significant preference for using
browsing methods (hyperlinks) over search (via
search features) and hybrid (combination)
methods”. Poor searching skills and an inability
to know where they are in virtual space (some-
times called Internet or network literacy) was also
a finding of the UKCGO studies. Many students
do not have the cognitive skills to navigate
hypertext (Scott & O’Sullivan, 2005). They browse
. . . while
Generation Y are
confident in their
abilities and claim
greater online skills
than their parents, a
significant number
admit they often
can’t find their way
around the Internet.
. . . reliance on the
Internet, coupled
with poor search
skills and a lack of
critical information
evaluation skills
compounds the
problem of poor
Internet or
information
literacy skills.
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or surf the Internet or use Google to get quick,
easy results.
The JUBILEE project also found that students
rarely use even simple Boolean logic to refine their
search strategies and seem to be disinterested
or unwilling to alter their current patterns of
information-seeking behaviour. Loss of face and
admitting to a lack of knowledge and skill was also
posited as a major difficulty for the researchers
when collecting data for the project (Banwell &
Gannon-Leary, 2000). This reliance on the Internet,
coupled with poor search skills and a lack of
critical information evaluation skills compounds
the problem of poor Internet or information
literacy skills. The JUBILEE project also found
that the possession of basic IT skills does not
necessarily translate into users having comparable
information handling skills (Coulson, Ray &
Banwell, 2003). Students were confused about
the quality of academic resources and regularly
failed to find information using the Internet or
electronic information services. These studies
concluded that “further work needs to be done
to equip students with the awareness and skills to
use a much wider range of academic information
resources and services” (Griffiths, 2003).
These research studies indicate that there is a
changing culture of information use amongst the
young people of Generation Y. Determining
the significance and the various facets of the
developing culture of use that surrounds the
Internet and how it affects the information-seeking
behaviour of young adults is an important
objective of this research. It would appear that
young adults demonstrate a different culture
of use when using technology. This was first
observed by Tapscott and social commentators
at the end of the 1990s. Hence, a major aim of
this research has been to discover exactly what
young people are doing when they use the
Internet to search for information; to determine
if there is a prevailing culture of use; and what
this may mean for education.
Method
Three phases of data collection occurred
during the research. The first phase included an
extensive search of the current research literature.
The second phase was an anonymous web survey
designed to test the Generation Y attributes
and to act as a filtering mechanism to target
participants for the third phase. An anonymous
survey was also considered to be an essential
component of the research design to ensure that
the reluctance of young people to admit to having
difficulties with technology, as identified in the
literature, was also tested.
The Web survey targeted first year students
between the ages of 18 and 22 (now the oldest
members of Generation Y) across two universities.
The invitation was a two-sentence (all that was
allowed) challenge to all first years at one
university and on public online bulletin boards
at both universities. No follow-up messages were
allowed and the survey was only available for
three weeks. The final survey dataset numbered
533 participants, with 232 or 43% of the total survey
group volunteering to be part of the follow-up
study. A further 500-plus students also answered
the survey, but fell outside the target age group.
The number of students volunteering to be part
of the follow-up study and the number of partici-
pants overall indicates that both young and older
people feel a need to discuss technology and
how it affects their lives.
The initial dataset obtained from the web survey
was used to develop two metrics to determine
the confidence levels (Affective Domain) and
technology use (Effective Domain) of participants.
It was used to target participants for the second
phase of the study. Contrary to the Generation Y
theory, it was hypothesised that, in a normal
population, there should be participants in all
four categories according to their index of ‘Net
Gen-ness’:
1. LC/LU-NG: Low Confidence, Low Use Net
Gen Attributes
2. LC/HU-NG: Low Confidence, High Use Net
Gen Attributes
3. HC/LU-NG: High Confidence, Low Use Net
Gen Attributes
4. HC/HU-NG: High Confidence, High Use Net
Gen Attributes
The third phase of the study included a
semi-structured, in-depth interview and two
information tasks, conducted with 40 students
who exhibited a range of Net Gen attributes as
determined by the above metric. If the Generation
Y theorists are correct, all or most of the
participants should have emerged in category 4:
HC/HU-NG: High Confidence, High Use, Net
Gen Attributes.
Forty students who were identified as having
certain Net Gen attributes were selected for
interview using a random selection technique.
Participants were asked to complete two tasks.
One had a personal or recreational information-
seeking focus (data gathering/finding information
for a holiday trip), while the other had an educa-
tional information-seeking focus (interpretation
and finding information for an essay and tutorial
presentation). Hence, both tasks were set in a
real life context. Verbal protocols (think alouds)
were used to track the participants’ information-
seeking behaviour and thought processes. Use
of the software program Morae, allowed the
researcher to photograph the participants, record
verbal protocols and track their information-
seeking on the computer. The software allowed
the tasks to be conducted in a less intrusive
manner and enabled the researcher to compare
participants’ body language and dialogue as
they verbalised their actions (what they thought
they were doing) with their information seeking
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behaviour real time (as it was happening) by
tracking and recording their use of the technology.
Wherever possible, the task analysis was
followed by the semi-structured, in-depth
interviews. The interviewer used a structured
interview format and an interview prompt check-
list to provide consistency and to act as a quality
assurance measure to balance the influence of
the novice interviewer during the qualitative data
collection (Woodhouse, 2005). During the
interviews, participants were asked to rate them-
selves as an Internet user, how often they used
the Internet, why they used it, using technology
for study, use of the library and electronic
resources, and use of specialist library personnel.
They were also asked to rate their information-
seeking skills, how they compared with their peers,
time spent using the Internet, skills acquisition,
what they find easy and difficult about using the
Internet to find information, confidence levels
and information literacy skills (using information
effectively for academic purposes).
Use of Wikipedia and Google, planning,
method/s for information seeking and how they
use search engines was also discussed. Social-
cultural attitudes to technology, the importance
of the Internet in their lives, types of technology
and how they use it, financial constraints and
whether they consider themselves to be multi-
taskers were other aspects covered during the
interviews. Data collected during the empirical
study, the task analysis and the in-depth interviews
were then analysed using an interview checklist
and a recording marker system in the Morae
software to determine the information-seeking
behaviour of individual participants. Analysis of
the data will provide an in-depth snapshot of how
this particular group of Generation Y students
are seeking information using the Internet/Web.
Findings
A cluster analysis was conducted on the web
survey dataset which revealed no significant
clusters for this particular group of users. Few
participants could be easily identified as HC/LU
and LC/LU. Participants selected for interview
from these two groups often exhibited only one
of the descriptors and had a mean value for the
other. A major finding from the anonymous web
survey is that there are no significant clusters in
this group. The way participants are using
technology, the types of technology they are
using, where/how they acquired their skills in
using the Internet and their levels of confidence,
are extremely homogenous. Rather than being
‘blanket’, high-end users of technology, they
appear to be discerning and average users of
technology when level of use is determined by
technology type, length of use and frequency
of use. However, no one in the survey group
indicated that they had not used the Internet in
the previous three months and 91% indicated
they used the Internet often or very frequently.
The theorists are right about the frequency of
use for members of this generation. Thirty-nine
of the 40 interview participants reported daily use
of the Internet, even those who disliked using it.
Even though Generation Y use the Internet, not
everyone enjoys using technology. Almost 20%
of the final survey group reported they strongly
disliked or disliked using the Internet for study
purposes.
In a three year study conducted at a senior
college in Western Australia, a post doctoral fellow
investigating how students felt about using online
course materials reported that approximately
20% of students did not prefer or enjoy using
technology as a vehicle for their learning (Aldridge
et al, 2002). These results question the assumption
that young people are automatically attracted to
learning using the Internet and online materials.
However, if tech-savvy means frequent use, then
Generation Y are frequent users of technology.
However, if this survey group is representative
of Generation Y, they are not ubiquitous or blanket
users of technology. Participants are predominantly
using email (89%), instant messaging/chat (53%)
and library databases (62.288%). Smaller groups
are using other technologies such as discussion
forums/bulletin boards (25%), web-based lookups
eg White Pages (30%), Internet telephony (11%),
peer-to-peer file sharing eg Bit Torrent (34%) and
social networking/web 2.0 eg MySpace (24.5%).
In this survey, the participants did not use a wide
range of technologies. As reported in the research
literature, they use communication technologies
such as email and instant messaging and/or chat.
The smaller groups were discrete user groups.
A correlation analysis indicated that the peer-
to-peer users were not the same group as those
using Internet telephony, both of which require
some technical expertise to set up and use. This
result suggests that young people are discerning
users. They use technology based on satisfying a
need rather than the ubiquitous use stated by the
Generation Y theorists and the popular media.
This result was verified during the interviews,
where the participants using social networking
tools such as MySpace and FaceBook, had
adapted these Web 2.0 technologies and were
using them in a very specific way – as an
alternative to email and to keep in touch with
very specific friendship groups.
Recent reports from the US indicate that young
adults change their usage patterns of personal
space sites such as MySpace and experience
‘Internet burnout’ (Lee, 2006). However, these
changing patterns of use may reflect a lower
actual usage rate than has been reported in the
media (current usage versus cumulative use
statistics), or a change in behaviour that is a
response to changes in lifestyle and new goals
ie, they are growing up.
The participants in this group were also using
They use technology
based on satisfying
a need rather than
the ubiquitous use
stated by the
Generation Y
theorists and the
popular media.
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. . . they are
discerning users
who use technology
to satisfy specific
needs and they are
not afraid to try new
technologies and
leave old ones
behind . . .
specific technologies (hardware) for specific
purposes. Almost everyone was using a mobile
phone (86%) and interviewees reported that,
while they could live without the Internet, they
could not live without their mobile phones. This
generation are indeed the connected generation.
Interestingly, 85% of the survey group also rated
printers as major or essential to their lives. When
questioned in the interviews, participants said they
almost always printed information, maintaining it
was easier to read and engage with printed text
than with text on screen.
During the tasks, participants exhibited several
types of behaviour when trying to locate and
interpret information from a screen. They either
used the cursor as a line-of-sight guide or peered
very closely at the screen. These behaviours and
the result from the web survey indicate that this
generation do not have good human-computer
literacy skills when using the Internet and find it
difficult to make meaning from text presented on
a screen. This result raises some serious questions
about fundamental literacy skills required to
locate, interpret and use text presented on a
computer screen. If this generation have not
acquired these specific literacy skills via familiarity
and constant use of technology as posited by
the theorists, then they need to be embedded
into all areas of the curriculum.
Other results from the web survey indicated
that this generation were mainly using hardware
such as desktop computers (84.5%), flash/thumb
drives/USB sticks (72%), laptop computers (62.5%),
digital cameras (50.5%), iPods or portable music
players (48.5%) and CD/DVD burners (47.5%).
However, during the interviews, participants
revealed they only use their mobile phones for
texting and phone calls due to cost (everyone
was paying for their own mobile), iPods are for
music only, digital cameras are for photography
(mobile phone cameras are only for spur-of-the-
moment photos) and the cost of using the Internet
is a factor only if they aren’t living at home. These
results indicate that they are indeed the connected
generation who want and expect instantaneous
communication/gratification. Few participants
were using online facilities such as online shopping
and banking. However, they are discerning users
who use technology to satisfy specific needs and
they are not afraid to try new technologies and
leave old ones behind if they think the newer
technology will be better.
Confidence when using technology is also a
characteristic of this generation. While males in
the survey are more confident than females,
the difference in confidence is not statistically
significant, an indication that girls are fast closing
the gender gap reported in earlier studies. When
asked how they acquired their skills, most
participants (>87%) indicated they had learnt to
use the Internet by experiential learning by
themselves. This is the most powerful learning
pedagogy, where the learner constructs his/her
own learning which is incremental and built on
personal success and gratification. No one
appears to be teaching this generation how to
use the Internet and electronic resources for
information-seeking. Scanlon recently observed
that:
those writing about digital natives confuse the
ability to navigate around ready-made online
environments or download content from the
net for a general ease with technology. . . .
Far from helping so-called digital natives, we
may be creating large numbers of digital
refugees: people who are lost when it comes
to using technology simply because nobody sat
down and showed them how to use technology,
or use it effectively (Scanlon, 2009).
A significant percentage of students also
reported they had difficulties with simple
information literacy skills such as collecting
(30.206%), managing (28.705%) and evaluating
information (25.202%); finding information again
(22%); and even storing information (16.885%) for
later use (Combes, 2007b).
A correlation analysis was also conducted
using the web survey data to establish any further
relationships between how the participants were
using technology, their levels of use and levels of
confidence. Results from the correlation analysis
supported earlier findings from the web survey
and indicate that frequency of use and level of
confidence have a significant positive impact on
how young people feel about their ability to use
the Internet successfully, particularly for finding
information, communication and entertainment.
Is this a case of familiarity breeds contempt?
As software developers create programs that are
‘smart’ and super user-friendly, where embedded
artificial intelligence (AI) processes information in
a pre-determined manner, does this lead young
people into a false sense of confidence about
their ability to find and use information?
High levels of self-efficacy have also been
reported in the literature. UK researchers also
found that students were reluctant to admit to a
lack of knowledge and skill when using the Inter-
net and electronic resources (Banwell & Gannon-
Leary, 2000). In this group, 70% of the participants
were confident about judging the reliability of the
information they found on the Internet, but none
of the interviewees planned their information-
seeking when searching the Internet and a
number admitted they had problems when trying
to find information again. Also, very few of the
participants successfully completed the tasks in
the allotted time frame.
Interviewees indicated that convenience, ease
of use, the ability to always/eventually find some-
thing, speed and user-friendly search engines,
especially Google, attracted them to using the
Internet for information-seeking. Major issues
included too much information; difficulties
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37
sYnerGY voLume 7, NuMBer 1
ascertaining authority, using the wrong keywords
and finding relevant information; time wasting and
the distracting nature of the online environment.
Students appear to exhibit a strong culture of
use, based upon their use of the technology and
how they learnt to use it. Hence their information-
seeking behaviour is based on simple keyword
searches, and few participants use browser
facilities to re-find information, relying instead
on memory and search engines. The participants
trust search engine results, they assume the first
sites on a results page are the most relevant and,
disturbingly, tend to use the words relevant and
authority interchangeably ie. if the result is relevant
to my needs then it must be good information
because it appears first in a search engine results
list. This idea of relevance = authority may also
explain why most participants felt that they find
what they are looking for most of the time. Many
participants indicated that problems only arise
when they are searching for very specific
information. However, this was not evident during
the task analysis.
All participants are using Google almost
exclusively and they rarely go beyond the first
results page. When asked about their search
method only three answers were given:
“it works for me”;
“guess it’s habit”;
“if it ain’t broke why fix it?”.
Most of the participants were also using
Wikipedia, even though they know it is not an
authoritative academic resource. One student
commented: “Google knows everything” and
“Google is king”. This anthropomorphisation of
a search engine is an extreme example of this
trust, where the participant appears to be
attributing intelligence to the search engine.
Reliance on keyword search methods occurred
across all areas in Google/search engines, closed
systems/repositories (databases) and on the
public domain web (Wikipedia) and indicates a
lack of sophistication in search methodology that
also limits the quality of information retrieved.
The level of trust and confidence in search
engines and the tendency to equate relevance
with authority and accuracy indicates that the
young people in this group do not really under-
stand how different search engines and databases
work. Their Internet literacy skills (knowing where
you are in virtual space) were extremely poor and
most participants do not appear to know when
they were in a closed system (university and library)
or out in the public domain. Trust in search engine
results and participants’ confidence also means
that if they can’t find anything after trying several
searches, they will often assume that the infor-
mation isn’t available electronically, rather than
concluding they can’t find it.
Participants exhibit two different types of
information-seeking behaviour when looking for
information. They all exhibit satisficing behaviour
where ‘near enough is good enough’, and
individuals are satisfied with the first piece of
information that appears to fulfil their need.
They also exhibit ‘snaffling’ behaviour and click
on the first available link either in a search
engine results page (public domain), a website
page (public domain), a catalogue/index results
page (closed public system), or a database
results page (closed system).
This behaviour is very fast and indicates that it
is a reflexive action. Participants do not have
time to read the results abstracts or text on a
page. On some occasions they click on a result
even when it was obvious from the title that the
information is totally irrelevant to their search
query. If information they are seeking isn’t
recognisable in the first page of search results
(often the first four), then they will change their
keywords, repeatedly revisit the first four results
or assume the information is not available online.
Some participants had difficulty finding
information in the tasks because they expected
to find everything on a single website, while
others had great difficulty using the electronic
databases to find journal articles and very quickly
resorted to Google and the public domain web.
They use keyword searches in closed systems such
as the university databases (if they are using them),
and open systems such as Wikipedia and search
engines within websites. Thus participants in this
research group transfer their culture of use when
searching for information across all electronic
resources, even after receiving specific instruction
on how to search for information using other
techniques either in university preparation courses
or in specific first year units.
Most participants were using the Internet
before their teenage years, ie. in primary school,
while LU and LC users tended to be latecomers to
using the Internet. Information-seeking behaviours,
as reported by participants and observed during
the tasks, are consistent, even for students who
indicated they have completed units/sessions in
how to use databases and the library at university.
Thus young people in this generation appear to
. . . the tendency to
equate relevance
with authority and
accuracy indicates
that the young
people in this group
do not really
understand how
different search
engines and
databases work.
The School Library Association of Victoria
will use the virtual learning space,
Elluminate,
to present a series of online seminars
during Terms 3 and 4.
Be prepared by attending an Elluminate
Training Session at your SLAV Branch.
Contact your branch or check the SLAV
website for details.
See: http://www.slav.schools.net.au
RESEARCH
38 sYnerGY voLume 7, NuMBer 1
have developed a culture of use when seeking
information using electronic sources, because
they are teaching themselves. This culture of use
is based on experiential learning and is very
difficult to change.
Does this really matter? If educators are going
to graduate lifelong learners who are able to
adapt to an evolving information landscape and
changing technologies; if we are going to produce
citizens capable of navigating essential informa-
tion in a world where everything is online; then
yes, these skills are extremely important. Educators
must provide young people with an alternative
culture of use. Since most of the participants in
this survey group acquired their information-
seeking skills using the Internet at approximately
ten years of age, education intervention must
begin early and be included across the primary
school curriculum. Since traditional literacy skills
are a prerequisite component for information
literacy skills building which is an ongoing process,
a consistent approach, embedded across the
curriculum and occurring throughout all levels of
schooling, is required if schools are going to
graduate students equipped to be citizens of
the future.
Conclusion
Confidence is perhaps the key to understanding
how this generation use technology, an aspect the
Generation Y theorists observed and postulated
about at such length. They misinterpreted confi-
dence and assumed that this also translated into
intentional, meaningful and effective information-
seeking. Young people are confident, which
means they are using the Internet on a daily
basis, even those who are less confident. This
confidence may be the one fact the theorists got
right and it is borne out of familiarity with the
technology. The technology is a ubiquitous part of
their information landscape and something they
have never been without.
Even if they dislike using technology, they still
use it and with confidence. This confidence also
means they will try new technologies. This attitude
towards technology also means they use it in a
discerning manner, and pick and choose and
adapt technologies to suit their needs at a
particular time. Hence, participants report that
their usage patterns have changed, as their
lifestyle and information needs have changed.
This explains why the levels of use in the web
survey were quite low, as the metric was based on
the Generation Y theory which postulates that
this generation use a wide range of technologies.
This is not the case. They use technology to be
connected more than anything else, and they
use it for entertainment. They use it for finding
information when the need arises and they have
acquired a culture of use when seeking informa-
tion via electronic means.
While the technology is playing a part in the
development of this culture of use, it is also being
driven by the fact that students are being left to
learn their information-seeking skills on their
own by experimentation. This lack of formal
information-seeking skills instruction is due to
the fact that educational administrators and
teachers believe the myth promulgated by the
Generation Y theorists and the popular media.
It is assumed that Generation Y (digital natives)
already have the skills to locate information
using electronic resources, are able to engage
with text/information on screen and
consequentially can use information they find to
meet their needs. The assumption that students
have the skills to locate information in the virtual
environment simply because they are familiar
with technology and confident about using it, has
meant that information-seeking behaviour among
members of Generation Y is unsophisticated,
demonstrates a culture of use that is hard to
change and the result of a lack of formal
information literacy education. They have poor
Internet literacy skills, rely on keyword searching,
trust search engine results and as a consequence,
exhibit a high level of satisficing and snaffling
behaviour.
This generation’s lack of understanding of
how the web works, coupled with high levels of
confidence, means they often fail to realise the
limitations of their abilities and assume that if
they can’t find it on the web, then it doesn’t exist.
If schools don’t take steps to teach this generation
of students how to use electronic sources
effectively, then our future citizens will be unable
to operate in a world where information is the
key to educational, social and economic success.
The world and technology will continue to move
forward and the information landscape will
become even more complicated, overloaded
and dense, as business and government place
everything including service delivery online. Far
from being digital natives, Generation Y and
those who follow, will in fact be the digital
refugees of the future.
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This is a refereed article
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