• July 23, 2014

At Sea in a Deluge of Data

At Sea in a Deluge of Data 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

This spring, more college students than ever received baccalaureate degrees, and their career prospects are brighter than they were for last year’s graduates.

Employers responding to this year’s National Association of Colleges and Employers’ "Job Outlook 2014 Survey" said they planned to increase entry-level hiring by almost 8 percent. But what they may not realize is that these seemingly techno-savvy new hires could be missing some basic yet vital research skills.

It’s a problem that we found after interviewing 23 people in charge of hiring at leading employers like Microsoft, KPMG, Nationwide Insurance, the Smithsonian, and the FBI. This research was part of a federally funded study for Project Information Literacy, a national study about how today’s college students find and use information.

Nearly all of the employers said they expected candidates, whatever their field, to be able to search online, a given for a generation born into the Internet world. But they also expected job candidates to be patient and persistent researchers and to be able to retrieve information in a variety of formats, identify patterns within an array of sources, and dive deeply into source material.

Most important, though, employers said they need workers who can collaborate with colleagues to solve problems and who can engage in thoughtful analysis and integrate contextual organizational details rarely found online.

Many employers said their fresh-from-college hires frequently lack deeper and more traditional skills in research and analysis. Instead, the new workers default to quick answers plucked from the Internet. That method might be fine for looking up a definition or updating a fact, but for many tasks, it proved superficial and incomplete.

It turns out that students are poorly trained in college to effectively navigate the Internet’s indiscriminate glut of information.

Another Project Information Literacy study, involving more than 8,300 undergraduates at 25 American colleges, found that most make do with a very small compass. They rely on tried and true resources such as course readings, library databases, Google, and Wikipedia.

Only 20 percent of the students said they ever sought help from librarians, the mavens of searching and finding in the digital age, especially when it comes to learning how to "ping pong" effectively and strategically among offline sources, experts, and online information, blending the full range of knowledge sources in all their forms.

The skills that students cultivate through traditional assignments—writing essays based on library research—are far different from those required to perform efficient, high-level, accurate research in the digital world. All of those types of research skills take practice under the eye of experts.

Sharon Weiner, a professor of library science at Purdue University, has argued that those essential core competencies belong not to any single discipline, but to all of them.

This skills gap is not necessarily the fault of faculty members, administrators, librarians, or even students themselves. Part of the blame lies with the crowded information landscape that students inhabit today.

Knowledge work—processing information and thinking for a living—is faster in the 21st century, and meaning and credibility are more fluid and tougher to ascertain than they were in the 20th century. Frequently now, subjects are, as the information-technology thinker David Weinberger put it, "too big to know." One undergraduate we interviewed told us that while traditional research skills still matter, "the hardest part of research is figuring out the question to ask."

While students will always need to think critically and ask the right questions, emerging in this new world is the need for a skill set we call "knowledge in action," a kind of athletics of the mind aided by Internet-enabled devices, search engines, and pools of data from a wide variety of outlets.

We recognize knowledge in action when we see it done effectively, but too many professors don’t teach this fundamental skill systematically and progressively as part of an academic program. Sure, students know how to use keywords and how to refine searches. But imagine that you’re Googling "vaccine autism" or "violent video game" or any other hot topic. You’ll soon be flooded with a torrent of conflicting findings, many not credible. Knowledge in action means being able to sort through that growing thicket of information. This is a lifelong learning skill, crucial to health, wealth, social equality, and well-being. In an era of partisan fog and the polarization of many subjects, it is a skill vital for effective citizenship.

This goes well beyond search techniques. Engaging knowledge at the speed of the web takes three additional things, which tend to be separate in our curricula rather than integrated: a basic understanding of statistics and inference; a sense of the major research institutions—a basic understanding of what it means when you see results attached to URL’s such as "cdc.gov," "imf.org" or "pewresearch.org" and how those institutions produce knowledge; and a sense of how the scientific method works and what it means to test a hypothesis with data.

Further, because our web experience will increasingly be personalized through algorithms that key off of everything from geolocation to our prior digital traces, students must learn to recognize the limits of their online environment and to seek information creatively outside of channels that serve up results skewed by Internet companies and other paternalistic, biased, or profit-driven gatekeepers.

Yet from community colleges to the Ivy League, a significant learning gap is widening. Librarians, trained in both digital and print research techniques, are in the best position to step into the breach. But that will require more support for library services at a time when budgets are under siege. And it will take an administrative commitment to ensure that training is incorporated comprehensively throughout the curricula.

This is not to say that everyone must develop the hybrid expertise of an investigative journalist, high-level consultant, or front-line infectious-disease analyst. But that blend of speed, smarts, and problem solving will prove essential in the 21st-century workplace for effective and informed decision-making, creative solutions to problems in both science and public policy, and breakthrough discoveries and innovations.

Alison J. Head is director of Project Information Literacy, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Information School, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. John Wihbey is managing editor of JournalistsResource.org, a project of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, and a lecturer in journalism at Boston University.

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