Contradictory Opinions About the Impact of Technology on Research Skills and Attention

A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project survey of 2,462 middle and high school AP and national writing project teachers showed that teachers are of mixed mind about the impact of digital tools on students’ study skills. 

Conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project, the study, How Teens do Research in the Digital World, focused on teachers’ perceptions of the ways digital technologies such as the Internet, search engines, social media, and cell phones are shaping students’ research and writing habits and skills. The report’s authors found that those surveyed had “complex and at times contradictory judgments.” For example, while 77% of teachers in the survey say that the Internet and digital search tools have had a “mostly positive” impact on their students’ research work, 64% of them believe that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

Learning to be Good Researchers

Many of the survey questions focused on the impact of digital devices and popular search engines on student research skills. On the positive side, virtually all (99%) of the teachers in the study agreed that “the internet enables students to access a wider range of resources than would otherwise be available” and a majority (65%) believed that “the internet makes today’s students more self-sufficient researchers.”

On the other hand, 83% felt that the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students and 71% believed that digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research. Other concerns cited by the majority included:

  • Internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily;
  • Today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information.

Not surprising, the vast majority of respondents (91%) agreed that courses and content focusing on digital literacy should be incorporated into every school’s curriculum in order to teach students how to “judge the quality of online information.”  In looking at student research skills, then, the Pew researchers concluded that, “The internet has opened up a vast world of information for today’s students, yet students’ digital literacy skills have yet to catch up.”

A New Generation of Distracted Learners?

More dramatic and worrisome were respondents’ concerns about student distractibility. A full 87% said that digital technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” with 86% agreeing that “today’s students are too ‘plugged in’ and need more time away from their digital technologies.”

In an article for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, VA, California State University psychology professor Larry Rosen cites the survey respondents’ concerns and adds some of his own. Reporting on observations of 263 middle school, high school and university students studying for 15 minutes in their homes, he writes:

“The results were startling considering that the students knew we were watching them and most likely assumed we were observing how well they were able to study. First, these students were only able to stay on task for an average of three to five minutes before losing their focus. Universally, their distractions came from technology, including: (1) having more devices available in their studying environment such as iPods, laptops and smartphones; (2) texting; and (3) accessing Facebook.”

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you agree that today's students have a shorter attention span and increased distractibility as a result of access to digital technologies? Take our QUICK POLL to share your opinion on this topic.

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