Monday, November 7, 2016

Students and the google

It doesn't quite count as distraction from the main preoccupation of the next 36 hours (at least for those of us in the U.S.), since it's framed with examples from the campaign (and my explain some aspects of said campaign), but in case you need something else to be horrified by, take a look at this commentary drawing on recent studies at Northwestern and Stanford of how students actually use google. 

One key finding is that most students believe the highest-ranked results are the most appropriate ones, and have little idea of how to focus searches or filter results. 

Another is that students, unlike professional fact-checkers, try to judge the reliability of a site by reading the site, rather than by googling others' references to the site, its author(s),and/or its sponsoring organization(s).  That creates results like the following:

One task asked students to determine the trustworthiness of material on the websites of two organizations: the 66,000 member American Academy of Pediatrics, established in 1930 and publisher of the journal Pediatrics, vs. the American College of Pediatricians, a fringe group that broke with the main organization in 2002 over its stance on adoption by same-sex couples. We asked 25 undergraduates at Stanford—the most selective college in the country, which rejected 95 percent of its applicants last year—to spend up to 10 minutes examining content on both sites. Students could stay on the initial web page, click on links, Google something else—anything they would normally do to reach a judgment.

More than half concluded that the article from the American College of Pediatricians, an organization that ties homosexuality to pedophilia and which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, was "more reliable." Even students who preferred the entry from the American Academy of Pediatrics never uncovered the differences between the two groups. Instead, they saw the two organizations as equivalent and focused their evaluations on surface features of the websites. As one student put it: "They seemed equally reliable to me. ... They are both from academies or institutions that deal with this stuff every day."

This is, of course, both horrifying and discouraging.  It also, as the author of the Curmudgucation blog (where I first read about this piece), points out, one more reason why google will probably not make formal instruction obsolete. 



  1. Very informative. Not at all comforting. *Throws away empty bottle of Apothic Red, opens a fresh one*

    1. Oooh, did you get to try Apothic Inferno? It was amazing.

    2. I haven't seen it on the shelves here, but it sounds delicious and seasonally appropriate.

    3. It was apparently a much smaller run than they anticipated and I only got my hands on one bottle before everywhere around here sold out. My sister has connections, though, and is bringing me EIGHT bottles for Christmas. :D

  2. My favorite was when I had to explain to a student why an infamous paper (written by a fringe academic SOME of us may know) that more or less attempted to justify anti-semitism was complete horse manure.

    "If it's all a bunch of bullcrap, how come his paper hasn't been refuted?"

    Lol. No, sweetheart. Not how it works. FIRST of all, something can be "critiqued" (which is the word you should be using) and still be correct. Einstein's Theory of General relativity was critiqued. The theory of gravity was critiqued. So on and so forth.

    What's more, something can not be critiqued and still be wrong. As soon as I publish a paper, it's out there, but it hasn't been critiqued. According to your logic that would make it correct. It exists and hasn't been critiqued. Every paper, even ones that are critiqued, exist for a non zero amount of time in a non-critiqued state.

    FINALLY I got to the punchline: In order for a paper to merit a critique it has to pass certain thresholds. It needs to incorporate serious thought and research. It needs to be serious. It needs to not be deductive reasoning aimed at a specific, awful agenda. There has to be a line where we don't critique things because it's not worth it. If I smeared donkey crap on a piece of paper, would you have to critique that?

    1. The question there (well, one question there) is where were the journal editors (and peer reviewers)? That's a question about which I will have more to say anon, since it's been coming up a lot lately as I help students evaluate sources that come from at least theoretically peer-reviewed, edited journals.

    2. It was not peer reviewed is the answer.

      The proponents of the paper (including its author) will claim it was tacitly endorsed because he was allowed to present it at a conference in his field. There was not a proper vetting process in place for the applicants. So he snuck in.


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