April 5, 2011

Ill just Google it: College students find plenty of information online, but often go offline to verify

So have Facebook and Google become the bibles for college students? Do young people rely on social media and search engines for all or nearly all answers needed in their daily lives?

According to a new University of Washington study, students use online information for decisions in their personal lives, but rely almost as much on family and friends for finding and making choices about information.

Alison Head, a research scientist at the UW Information School, and Michael Eisenberg, a professor and dean emeritus, led the study, which included a survey of 8,353 sophomores, juniors and seniors 20 to 30 years of age at 25 two- and four-year college campuses around the U.S. in the spring of 2010.

The findings appeared in a First Monday article published April 4.

Respondents described searches that involved both online and offline sources. If youre curing ham, one student said in a follow-up interview, you have to do it properly or you could get sick and die. “I looked online,” the student said, “but I also went to the county extension office.”

“Personal research is not just about settling bar bets or finding whats playing at the local movie theater, but is also about complex issues, such as health, significant purchases and careers,” Head said.

Three-fourths of survey respondents reported looking for information about health or possible purchases. Two-thirds had searched for information about jobs or a career. But only 32 percent had searched for material about social advocacy and fewer, 24 percent, reported online searches for spiritual material.

Also, despite widespread use of search engines, students said their biggest problems lay in sorting good, relevant material from not-so-good or simply worthless.

A sites design received the most scrutiny. If theres bright pink, lots of ads, or the site “looks like it was made by a 15-year-old,” said one student in an interview, “then I think it probably isnt worth my time.”

Broken links were also cited as red flags. Fifty-four percent of students also considered timeliness of information, and 49 percent cited the origin, the URL address, as a key factor in determining a sites credibility.

When asked about involving someone they know to help evaluate information for personal decisions, 83 percent of respondents said they turn to family and friends. They also ask classmates (74 percent) and instructors (45 percent). Far fewer (35 percent) ask licensed professionals, such as therapists or attorneys, and even fewer ask librarians (14 percent).

“Overall, we found evaluation rarely occurs in a vacuum,” Head said. “Most students turn to a few people in their lives they can conveniently reach and whom they trust. When it comes to finding and applying information in their daily lives, very few students live totally immersed in the Web.”

Head and Eisenberg are co-principal investigators and co-directors of Project Information Literacy, which is based at the UW Information School. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation provided funds for the study.

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For more information, contact Head at 707-939-6941or ajhead1@uw.edu; Eisenberg at 206-616-1152 or mbe@uw.edu.