Deeper Info Habits

I’m reading Born Digital, by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, both of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.  There is not that much in the book that has surprised me, just another source of info on a generation that is different.  One part peeked my interest, however, more because of a couple of conversations I have had recently.  In the chapter called Learners, they say…

There are a lot of excellent questions to be answered about how kids are learning in the digital envrionment and how that compares to the way they learn in a predominantly analog world.  Does reading websites, instead of books and broadsheet-style newspapers, actually change the way peole process information, in the short and long terms?  Do kids end up remembering the information that they gather online more or less effectively than they remember matieral from the printed page?

Many DimensionsThe day before yesterday, when meeting with the administration for a private school I was working with in Atlanta, someone asked about the differences between how students read on the web and how they read in print.  I suggested that they look at the work of Donald Leu and his New Literacies Research Team, who are interested in literacy and web-based reading. 

When using work-tracking software to record and then analyze children’s operation of the mouse and keys to search for the answer a basic question, the researchers found that there was a great deal of higher order thinking going on.  Computer actions indicated that the readers were constantly having to decide on links to follow for alternative texts — and continually re-evaluate their decisions, sometimes deciding to click back.

In the following pages of Born Digital, the authors describe the various reservations that my generation has about our children’s info-habits.  Regarding the news, we assume that because digital natives absorb news through the day through various web sites, through their phones, from comedy programs and other unconventional sources, and not reading newspapers and news magazines, then their understanding of current events must be superficial.

We assume that these are biased websites, rather than authoritative organizations like the New York Times or the big television networks.  If it’s not outright wrong, then version of the story Digital Natives encounter online must be superficial, many peole fear.

But do we underestimate the depth of our students’ information pursuits and encounters.  Paufrey and Gasser say that we do, that we miss the fact that digital natives experience news by interacting with information in constructive ways.  They go on to say that natives process information in a three-steps:

  • Grazing
  • “deep dive”
  • feedback loop

They are exposed, according to the authors, to a huge amount of information through the day.  It comes in from various favored web sites, news flashes SMS’ed to their phones, other SMSes from their friends, etc.  It is a grazing process of picking up tidbits of stories and incorporating them into their word view.
As they encounter something that resonates in some way, they utilize a variety of techniques to dig deeper into the topic, including Wikipedia, Google, news services, and posts on social networks from others who have researched the topic.  YouTube may be another source for deeper information as well as powerhouses like CNN, the BBC, the New York Times, The Economist, Global Voices, and Talking Points Memo.

The last phase is not practiced by all digital natives, and, according to the authors, is the part that is the most difficult for traditionalists to grapple with.  I’m not sure I agree with this in that I have a long history of writing letters to the editor.  But today, these youngsters might write a post to their blog, comment on someone else’s blog or bulletin board.  With time and a more creative tilt, they might produce a podcast or post a video’ed plea to YouTube.  The difference between my letters to the editor and today’s forms of feedback are their immediacy, and the more real and direct conversation that can result — hence, the feedback loop.

I’m not sure how generally used this three-step process is or even if enough net-gen’ers are engagged in these deeper info habits to generalize in this way.  Maybe they have, I just don’t know.

But all of this got me to thinking, back to the original question about reading on the web and reading in print — and I think it’s the period. According to WordNet a Princeton, a period is “a punctuation mark (.) placed at the end of a declarative sentence to indicate a full stop..”  It is the end of the sentence.  It’s all be said.  If you don’t get it, then go back and re-read the sentence.

In a sense, to folks who have been raised on the Net, there are no periods.  Certainly there are sentences and hey end in periods.  But you can always go further — deeper.  You can dig, hyperlink, right-click and dictionary a single word or phrase.  Under some cercumstances, you can re-write the sentence, and ask for clarification from the original author.

I just wonder how important this is, how this three-dimensional, ever-expandable, and even alterable reading experience affects our student learners and how they learn.  If so, how do we leverage it.

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Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.