Today I had three different students send me nearly identical emails: "My TA in your class is ______. I didn't write down his email address on the first day of class. How do I get in touch with him?"

Granted, these are freshmen. I assume most of them are 18 or 19. But here's the thing. If one visits the university homepage, the first thing at the top page is the name and logo of the school. Immediately to the right of that is a large white box that says "FIND PEOPLE" with a blank line and a search button. The explanation cannot be laziness, can it? Certainly it took more time to email me (and await a response) than to open the most obvious website for finding this information, putting the TA's name into a search box, and hitting enter.

I have this kind of interaction with undergraduates constantly. Constantly. Often people question my honesty when I tell stories of some of the requests for information students make. For example, last fall at least 1/4 of my 325 intro American Politics students emailed me or asked me in person, "Where do I vote?" Exasperated, I went to class on Election Day, opened a browser on the projection screen, and typed "Where do I vote?" into Google. One-fiftieth of a second later, Google produced a line to enter one's address and then, another fraction of a second later, a detailed map of one's polling location.

These anecdotal findings are supported by a new study at five Illinois colleges of students' ability to find information and do research on the internet. The headline sums up the results: College Students Stumped by Search Engines. I'll go one step farther and say that not only are they stumped by search engines, they're stumped merely by the need for information. The idea of using a search engine to find it doesn't even occur to most of them. I have been asked the following questions in my teaching career:

  • Is there a website where I can read the Constitution?
  • How do I attach something to email?
  • Where can I order the textbook from?
  • How do I find articles about ________? (x1000)
  • I simply cannot comprehend how college students can attain this level of information illiteracy. Search engines are designed so that a child can use them successfully; you type a word in a box and it gives you websites about that thing, be it "Constitution", the name of a textbook, or literally any fathomable topic. Somehow about half of the students I encounter at a decent university cannot do this. More accurately, it doesn't even dawn on them to try to find the information they need. They just ask someone, or they remain silent and go without it.

    How can this be? These are "The Millennials", the generation raised on the internet. I see them every day, glued to their laptops and mobile devices. They probably spend anywhere from six to twelve hours every day online. And we are constantly subjected to cloying articles and news stories about how the U.S. has a generation of little tech wizards on the way. Unfortunately their talents with this hand-held mobile wireless technology appear to be limited to sending text messages and staring at Facebook. Maybe some of them shop online too.

    Yet even that much should be sufficient to give them basic facility with search engines. To find someone on Facebook, you put a name in the search box. To find Katy Perry's latest masterwork on Amazon, you search "Katy Perry." What is the disconnect here? How is it that they can find Joe Blow on Facebook or use the search function on a retail website but when they need to find out who wrote Federalist 10 they can't connect the dots? When they need to write a paper on the 1994 election, why doesn't it seem logical to start with a search term like "1994 election" and go from there?

    The basic skills and comprehension of how websites work appear to be present. The part that baffles me is why they seem so unable to find out things they need to know. Whatever the explanation, I feel confident that the relationship between Millennials and technology is being misrepresented considerably.