TECH WIZARDS

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.

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    79 Responses to “TECH WIZARDS”

    1. Da Moose Says:

      Unfortunately, I work in IT and at the federal level at that. (not recommended if you have lone gunman tendencies) This has afforded me the opportunity to gain certain insights into human behavior. Often, when someone asks for help on something, it is not because they need help necessarily but it is because they need human interaction. Years ago I worked on a help desk. I'm pretty sure 20% of the calls were from lonely people. So, next time one of your students asks for seemingly mundane help, view it as them asking you if you want to get to know them or if they can stop by to chat. I've come to realize that Amerians, and perhaps most humans, are very passive aggressive by nature so often what we hear is not what is truly meant.

    2. acer Says:

      I think it's a bit of all of these things. Psychological blocks against anything that falls outside the sphere of "entertainment." Deeply conflicted attitudes about authority. The general dumbness, laziness and mediocrity of the age. And a pinch of "mechanic's syndrome," the assumption that anything that relates to one's own vocations and interests should be "common sense." You're probably more savvy and engaged with the world than the average Southern-state-school freshman. (I was one, and can say with authority that many of my classmates were sweating it out until they could get a gig in Dad's insurance company and were not qualified to operate pencil sharpeners.)

    3. acer Says:

      @Da Moose:
      Occasionally, I'll ask people questions to which I know the answers because I'm curious about how they'll spin it. And my long conversations with extremely isolated elderly people were the most harrowing moments of by brief telemarketing career.

    4. cromartie Says:

      @hoosierPoli

      I know. I was just trying to be optimistic. Won't happen again, I assure you.

    5. Cheap Jim Says:

      Yeah, young people today sure are stupid and lazy. Not like when we older folks were young. Nope, we were all sharp cookies.

      I'm 43, by the way.

    6. BruceJ Says:

      "Let Me Google That For You" is a great, and generally gentle reminder:

      http://lmgtfy.com

    7. Black_Rose Says:

      Damn you Ed! This should be Friday's post!!

    8. ToastCrust Says:

      As a so called "millenial" myself, of the tender age of 20, the best answer I can give for this is completely anecdotes from my high school and elementary years (my area in Canada lacks middle schools).

      I see two major problems with the way kids are brought up through the school system (which, due to the authority instructors command–or what little is still recognized–almost makes them a larger influence than domestic affairs).

      The first is from grappling with plagarism and the untrustworthiness of many websites as sources. When they are told to research for class assignments, most public schools don't have the resources to buy into journal indexing services and the like, and as a result the "internet" is often just blacklisted completely as being a valid source of information. Instead, students were always directed to libraries and books (even if the school library is dusty at best, and full of outdated information).

      The second comes from, I think, changes in the way instructors deal with students in public schools these days, due to helicopter parenting, the power of PTA's, etc. One of the things instructors will constantly stress is encouraging students to approach them with questions after class/school, and that no question is a stupid question (and somehow, the qualifying statement that they should have made an effort to solve the question beforehand is somehow lost in the chaos). This effectively breeds a dependency on the instructor by students as the primary source of information.

      And well, the two put together, you have a pretty strong stigma towards finding information in the academic setting via the internet (wikipedia being the most actively reviled source, often) and an affirmation that instructors are apparently "there to help you" and no question is not worth asking.

      Which, when graduating into the university environment, is entirely the wrong attitude to have. And this is exacerbated by the fact that society seems to apparently have suffered a decline in its respect for PhD holders.

      But hey, at least this is in email. I think the greatest travesty is when an entire lecture is being held up by dumb questions, which is why I've long felt larger classes are in fact better than the "small class sizes" many community college institutions try to sell as pedagogically superior.

    9. anotherbozo Says:

      @ToastCrust re: "the fact that society seems to apparently have suffered a decline in its respect for PhD holders."

      Really? Profs were never much respected in American society before, anti-intellectual as we always were. And now still worse? Sigh.

      Away to Germany or Korea! where you'd be stunned to see how scholars are really, actually, truly revered. (But according to my German friend, "not as much as they used to be.")

    10. Mackeyser Says:

      @Georgia Jeff: Two words my friends to ease your worries: Soylent Green

      I've got one child who's graduated HS and another who's a Senior and I talk to their friends and while some can be engaging, there are some that I genuinely worry about.

      I mean this quite seriously, beyond their ability to navigate the manifold dramas among their various circles of close and extended "friends" on facebook and other forms of social media, I as a former engineer and hiring manager see no discerning skills among these young mostly college-bound adults.

      Forget the complete unwillingness to conform in the slightest for a work environment. I just mean with respect to more basic things like work ethic, timeliness, organizational skills, communication skills, cleanliness in one's work area, etc.

      These are things one needs for entry level work, the crap we ALL had to go through when we started. So, when college students essentially can't use Google to find their ass from their elbow, it paints a pretty bleak picture.

    11. pjcamp Says:

      You're forgetting — this generation thinks the Internet = Facebook. They quite literally don't use it for anything else.

      I always thought email was the killer application for the Internet but it is fading fast.

      They've also forgotten that phones can make calls.

      Anything that doesn't take place on Facebook or text message doesn't exist. And those nonexistent skills are exactly what you're calling on. Sure, none of it is that hard. But something you never do is not something you think of doing in any situation. God forbid you leave them a voicemail. It had better not be about anything important.

      If the Secretary of State has a Facebook page, they'll know where to vote. Otherwise they won't.

    12. Carrstone Says:

      @ andrew

      Typical! You're so busy making your point that you've ignored what the other guy's (me!) issue is. Thank you, though, for making my point for me: the purpose of university attendance isn't only the gleaning of knowledge (books and/or apprenticeships will do that); it is the interaction with dons and peers, that should turn you, irrespective of the course of study, from the thick hick you are into a thinking man.

      Thinking before you speak is important, you see, you may look so silly otherwise; just look at the comment placed by duck-billed placelot, who follows your reply; erudite and insightful, isn't it?

      I, for one, readily admit that I, thickest of hicks, had to be taught to seek my own answers, to do my own research, to be self-reliant and to be able to defend cogently what I produced. As the old are entitled to say, it hasn't harmed me in any way.

      And, no, I didn't have to be taught to dress myself by a university don, my mother did that for me – what a dumd-assed question that was!

      BTW, you can call me anything you want if it makes you feel superior, even a troll – just don't call me a liberal, the antithesis of the thinking man.

    13. ddt Says:

      Ed,

      Not to contest or diminish any of your experiences, but…

      My grad dept is all about researching how people find and interact with information — and nobody here relies on using the university's home page (and people search). Because it's a hot mess. Many projects out of my department have been about user research on how long and difficult a time average users have in navigating or even finding out proper navigation clues on the university's ste. And that site is not abnormal amongst uni sites, nor particularly evil or broken; it's just had so many content and branding and link content thrown at it over the years that, well, see my comment about "hot mess". I feel for the few people who have the responsibility for upkeep, as I know it's perhaps two people with tons of other pressing mandates taking up their days.

      Also: do the TAs always use the same email address for TA-ing as for their general student accounts? When working with undergrads, I usually create a dedicated email account for the project/position. The students may realize this on some level and really be asking which email address for the TA should they have?

      Also: well, they know you know it. Weak, but there it is.

      That said, I have similar horror stories as to the ones above. (You can also find What's the Matter with Students stories from SEK, such as http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2011/05/conversations-with-former-students-in-food-courts.html — also check his archives about when he assigns a class the task of finding information WITHOUT going online.)

      When I was a teaching fellow (relax, it's just their fancified way of saying TA) at Harvard, I had a student in a Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Jonson class turn in a paper that was, basically, her lecture notes made grammatical. It was obvious that she'd just repeated everything from the lectures and turned it in as a paper. Now, she did not seem to be trying to cheat — she didn't contest that this is what she'd done. In fact, she seemed genuinely perplexed when I said that this isn't what she should have done. "But… are you saying what the professor said was wrong? Isn't this what there is to know about this play?"

    14. skeptical Says:

      I think they are just trying to signal to you that they are interested. They are 18-19 years old after all, they are probably just be seeking your approval, and do not know how else to do so.

    15. evodevo Says:

      As a college instructor who has watched the intellectual level of students descend over 30 years from clueless to dumb and dumber, i would say that most of them spend their time gaming and have ABSOLUTELY no interest in researching topics/concepts/beliefs/hoax emails or anything else (except maybe pron sites). My husband also teaches at the CC level and is increasingly frustrated with having to answer queries concerning test dates (IT'S IN THE SYLLABUS), assigned material (IT'S IN THE SYLLABUS), paper due dates (IT'S IN THE SYLLABUS), what's a syllabus and why don't I have one (or, I lost mine ???). We have both noted the absolute lack of knowledge of general information (which one would assume anybody growing up in the 21st century would know) or critical thinking skills, or initiative, despite Kentucky's "educational reform" having been in place for 15 years, at least. Our "older" students (35+) are usually more clued in and harder workers.
      WASS

    16. squirrelhugger Says:

      Interesting comments, as I have little contact with people of that age. I'd summarize that you're seeing routine behavior by a generation more concerned with communication channels than content, and they're just doing what comes normally– unnecessary contact to feel connected.

      Structured and supervised playtime, team sports, constant academic monitoring and support, helicopter parenting, cell phones, text messages, social networks, emphasis on success through networking. It's a generation that gets the heebie jeebies when they're out of contact for an hour. They're just gravitating to any reason to make contact; the utility of it is not much considered or relevant, and possibly has little to do with aptitude. Of course kids nowadays are all lazy shits too, but that goes without saying.

    17. Jessriv Says:

      I think it reflects their impression of the information they seek. The Constitution seems dusty, old and irrelevant, therefore it cannot be found in through the same methods employed to find Katy Perry. Similarly, the "1994 election" seems mysterious and old. Be happy the did trot down to the archeology department or the rare book collection seeking answers.

    18. Jessriv Says:

      *correction – they didn't

    19. H. B. Acker Says:

      Regarding your befuddlement: You wrote that "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."

      Has it occurred to you that they do know how to access information on the internet, but what they really want is to establish contact with you, to get to know you on a more personal basis? You may not want that. But I suspect that many of your students do.

      I was introduced to your website through another website. I don't remember which one. But after reading your work, I found myself reading your column on a regular basis. Now, it's usually on a daily basis. Why? Because you write well and have what I consider to be a mature and intelligent perspective on the current state of affairs with respect to our failing and broken government.

      On a personal note, I graduated from the UGA and completed my doctoral studies in psychology at GSU. Honestly, I don't know how you can abide living in Athens, Georgia. From what you've written, I guess you were looking for a job and took their offer. Finding rewarding work is hard these days. It's been that way for a little over 12 years, as I recall.

      While in Georgia, I worked for the Fulton School System for a while, but had to get away from the administrative bullshit that I suspect you have to deal with on a regular basis. After getting away from "them" I opened my own business and practiced independently in Atlanta for many years, and loved my work. I still do. But for the last 15 years I've lived in Anchorage, Alaska. I love it here. I needed to get out of the South. I'm 67, but still maintain my own practice on a part-time basis.

      Again, I enjoy reading your work and wish you well.

      Regards,
      H. B. Acker

    20. cleter Says:

      I've encountered this too. I've also encountered students who's idea of looking up something is to go to (subject) dot com rather than google. Maybe the student who asked you about finding the Constitution had gone to the bafflingly confusing Constitution.com and was bewildered by all the libertarian claptrap about buying gold.

      But part of what at least some of them are doing is testing the Professor Response System. Now they know how you respond to dumb questions, and how quickly.

    21. 30yearsoldbutnotashittycrankyet Says:

      I enjoy a good round of telling the kids to get off my lawn as much as the next cranky old fuck, but what you smug geniuses seem to have overlooked is that asking for the TA's email is being respectful of boundaries. Being the tech-savy youth that they are, they know that everyone has multiple email addresses, each given out to certain groups and withheld from others to separate their business from their personal life. Asking for the email address is precisely equivalent to asking for an office phone number instead of using the phonebook to look up a professor's home number. But by all means, don't let me get in the way of this little "all the kids are fuckups"convention. Also, their music is just noise and their clothes look stupid.

    22. joemac53 Says:

      Don't be nice to freshmen. When they ask a stupid question, stare at them and say "Cut the (bleep)". If you are old enough, that is the end of the conversation. If you are only a few years older than the questioner, an expanded answer is expected.
      By the way, my own children heard this enough that they made a side business: CTS Inc, Life Coaches and Consultants
      They have real clients, and they owe it all to their impatient dad.

    23. Halloween Jack Says:

      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.

      As a librarian in Illinois, I have to say that that's fuckin' great. I may not have to live off of rabbits and dandelion soup for another five years or so!

    24. Art Says:

      IMHO a lot of this comes from two related dynamics: First, there is the tendency of experts, seniors, professionals of all stripes, to make what they do seem more difficult and harder to get a handle on than it really is. An account I read claimed that the vast majority of issued medical doctors face could be effectively handled by a nurse-practitioner. China had, at one time, the 'barefoot doctor' program where a well educated EMT acted as a doctor to handle most cases but handed off anything unusual.

      The point here is that even in very complicated professions the majority of the time is spent doing simple grunt work that a reasonably dedicated and talented student could pick up in a few months.

      Of course it doesn't serve the profession's interest to have this simple fact become common knowledge. So you get people acting like it is harder than it usually is, and obscuring the rank simplicity of most of the work behind technical jargon, mystery, and a demand beginners jump through flaming hoops to be accepted into the club.

      Second, you get issues around an entrenched establishment. There is little good, in their eyes, that might come from young turks taking over and shaking things up. So you get at least as much indoctrination as you do information and education.

      The education system is, in many ways, a holding pattern to allow time for the existing experts to reign. It also amounts to an obstacle course for people moving into professions. A goodly number of people get 'weeded out' by the university system. Any serious physical, mental, emotional, or financial weakness can snowball into having to drop out. And professors can, potentially, increase any stress if they don't like 'the cut of your jib'.

      So you get students who have been told again and again that they don't know anything. They are told to respect, sometimes fear, professors and elders. They are told they don't know anything and that they don't even know what they don't know. That they are getting indoctrinated into the mysteries of higher education and that doing well means the difference between flipping burgers and raking in money and power. That this is 'it', the big time. Connections and understanding here is magical. It isn't something just anyone can learn. It isn't a mechanical process. They must sit at the master's feet and strive to gather the pearls of wisdom he/she may cast in their general direction.

      Certainly nothing useful in such an arcane process might be gained with such pedestrian practices as a simple Google search.

      And then, of course, there is the simple fact that nothing they do is ever going to be right until they pass the first few hurdles. If they fail to Google simple information they are 'stupid freshmen'. If they do and catch on, or answer, a little too swiftly they are 'smart asses' who are 'to smart for their own good'. Knowing you're screwed either way the least offensive option is to feign ignorance and let them spoon feed you what they want you to know.