New research from Germany finds kids aren’t the Web wizards we think they are. They’re using the Internet for the same things that have fired kids up for decades: interacting with peers, finding entertainment, and goofing off. But all this fancy Web 2.0 collaborative creation we bloggers get all excited about?

Odd as it may seem, the first generation that cannot imagine life without the Internet doesn’t actually consider the medium particularly important, and indeed shuns some of the latest web technologies. Only 3 percent of young people keep their own blog, and no more than 2 percent regularly contribute to Wikipedia or other comparable open source projects.

Similarly, most young people in Germany ignore social bookmarking websites like Delicious and photo-sharing portals such as Flickr and Picasa. Apparently the netizens of the future couldn’t care less about the collaborative delights of Web 2.0 [Manfred Dworschak, “The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World,” Spiegel Online International, 2010.08.06].

Teachers, take note: this study finds “no evidence whatsoever that the Internet is the dominating influence in the lives of young people.” If anyone tells you the Internet has made kids so different that we can only reach them with high-tech hypermedia, ask them to show you some empirical studies to back their claims. Dworschak says they’ll be looking for quite some time: aside from a few outlying wunderkinder, today’s kids aren’t so different from yesterday’s.

Teachers, don’t let the media fool you into thinking the kids are experts. They may be pretty good at clicking around to find their friends and new music videos, but they still need a big dose of instruction in information literacy so they can use the Internet productively.

Encyclopedia Britannica is publishing a blog series on “Learning and Literacy in the Digital Age.”

The SVO of that sentence — The Encyclopedia Britannica is publishing a blog series — is a fine synecdoche of what’s going on with our brains and social knowledge.

EncyBrit offers the following questions for its bloggers. Here are my Sunday-morning swings at these profound issues:

Will students continue to learn in classrooms? DSU’s graduate program already has at least as many off-campus students as on-campus. (In one class I took, off-campus outnumbered on-campus 2:1.) My wife is pursuing ordination as a pastor through an online seminary program that meets on the Luther campus for just two two-week sessions each year. Online resources will expand opportunities for students, especially adult students, to get training and certifications without interrupting their work and family life.

People still want to get together. Teachers and students generally feel they can communicate most effectively in person. But as Internet tools advance in capability and ubiquity and as we get better at using them, we will find ways to “make the channel richer” — i.e., to convey more of the social cues, the emotion, the body language, the signals that human interaction more informative and satisfying. As that channel gets richer, learning online will feel less isolating, and more students and teachers will find it a suitable substitute for traditional classroom learning.

Will students still use print-based libraries? Do they now? I’d love to do a survey of DSU students to see how many have actually picked up a book in the Mundt Library.

I hope print materials will stick around. I find a profound difference in how I read online and how I read when I’m holding a book. I can feel it even with my netbook. I can rotate my display and hold my computer sideways to read a full page (especially a PDF) in portrait format. In that format, I hold the computer like a book. My fingers are out of typing position. I can’t suddenly punch in a URL or click as conveniently to check my other e-mail or RSS reader. I’m more likely to sit and read that single document longer. Holding the computer like a book feels more contemplative, more patient, more… right.

But then I cut my teeth on the paper library. Kids growing up with Kindles may not feel the same comfort and tranquility I feel interacting with old paper books.

Just remember: books boot instantly.

Will they learn to read and write on the basis of traditional rules of grammar, the building blocks of writing as a potential artform, or merely at a level sufficient for texting and search-engine utilization? Here I don’t anticipate a major change. We’ve been teaching the traditional rules of grammar and writing as artform for generations, but even pre-Internet, how many could compose a truly artful and effective business letter? The Internet, with so many convenient venues for self-publication, may reveal more writers who can produce essays and other literature worthy of public attention. It will also capture a great deal more of the informal chats and semi-literate rantings about work and sports and TV and sex and everything else that makes up the bulk of everyday communication. I doubt online tools will decrease our language skills; they’ll just record a lot more of our generally sloppy language skills in e-print (much to the joy of linguists everywhere).

Will reading even be necessary when (and if) we reach that brave new world of direct “brain-to-brain communication”? – the “mind meld” some fear and others eagerly await. Numerous cultures, like our Lakota neighbors, transmitted knowledge from generation to generation without ever developing reading on their own. Even in our text-heavy culture, we learn all sorts of tacit knowledge by experience and practice. Reading is certainly necessary, but it is far from sufficient for mastery in most fields.

Reading is an artifact of cultural practice and available technology. Build a better means of transmitting explicit knowledge (“I know kung fu“), and certainly reading will become obsolete for learning. The bigger question will be not what technology might replace ink on paper or electrons on screens, but what effect that technology will have on our minds (See Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess for the effects of alphabetic literacy on our brains.)

From Jill Walker Rettberg:

Just as we would not traditionally assume that someone is literate if they can read but not write, we should not assume that someone possesses media literacy if they can consume but not express themselves.

– Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p 170.

Consume and produce: conduce!

I may be teaching a section or two of Speech 101 this fall. Yahoo! I love teaching speech. The study of public speaking requires a discussion of so many diverse yet interconnected topics: politics, democracy, civic responsibility, philosophy, psychology, language…. Speech class is a chance to discover your inner Renaissance man.

Among the many topics we can discuss in an introductory speech class is information literacy. Actually, literacy, the ability to make sense letters and words, may no longer be a sufficient term. Aaron Barlow suggests neteracy, a term that perhpas better captures the idea that we have to understand not only the words on the page but where those pages come from and how they relate to other pages in the many networks of knowledge and knowers.

Given how much information speakers get from the Internet (will any of my students cite books?), it is vital that we talk about critically evaluating Internet sources. Howard Rheingold posts a wonderful article on SFGate’s City Brights on how to evaluate information on the World Wide Web. He honed his online crap detection skills in the crucible of practice, teaching his daughter how to filter the good from the bad online just as search engines took off at the turn of the century. He lists a number of useful tips and resources for evaluating the quality of sources:

  • Look for real people. Hidden identity is signal #1 for suspicion (shades of my stance on anonymity online).
  • Use to see who owns the website.
  • Look at who the author links to and who links to the author (in Google, do the latter by searching “link:http://… and the URL of interest”)
  • Triangulate: check mulitple sources!

Expect this article to make my reading list for Speech 101.