Why Johnny Can’t Search

Searching is the new reading

January 2, 2007

A couple of generations ago, a catchphrase entered the American lexicon, representing growing concern about the quality of education and in particular a perceived decline in literacy. “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” from the title of 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch, became a byword for the perception of relaxed standards and concomitantly lower achievement in schools.

It didn’t take long before that got generalized to concerns about why Johnny can’t add, or write, or think . . . or now, so Google tells me, to code, or program, or encrypt, or blog. Poor kid; it’s a wonder he can find his way home at night.

This all came to mind when I saw the preliminary findings from Educational Testing Service (the fun folks who brought you the SAT) on the firm’s “Information and Communication Technology” literacy assessment. These findings, based on tests of over 6,000 college students, are meant to measure students’ “ability to use digital technology, communication tools, and networks appropriately to solve information problems in order to function in an information society.” (A quick Google search on “ETS ICT” will get you there, complete with a Flash demo of what the test looks like.)

The 75-minute test (not a multiple-choice gizmo, which I suppose is something) is scenario-based: Students are given tasks to perform, though not of their own making or choosing, and given dummy search engines, websites, and bibliographic databases to play with.

Students were asked to evaluate these faux websites based on objectivity, authority, and timeliness (only 49% could pick the one site that met all those criteria), to narrow an overly broad search (which only 35% could do), and select a research statement for a class assignment (only 44% picked the one that captured the demands of the assignment).

So—at least for this week—searching (and researching, evaluating, and presenting) is the new reading. In an information world increasingly dominated by the digital and the networked, these kinds of skills are important, and increasingly more evident. When elementary school students are using Google and PowerPoint in their assignments, then finding and assessing information shoots to the top of the charts.

Will the fact that ETS has got its meathooks into this area mean that these skills will be taken more seriously? This test is being marketed at higher-education institutions, with ETS claiming its applicability to curriculum planning, accreditation data, and resource allocation.

I’m of two minds about that—attention must be paid, but if this falls into the standardized test bucket it becomes merely part of a checklist of “skills” looked at yet not really thought about. Still, I suppose better to be thought about than not—assuming libraries are among the players involved in those curriculum and resource decisions. I sure hope that’s the case, though I find very little mention of libraries in the ETS documentation, other than a single buried reference to the information literacy standards from ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries as the vague basis of the test. Once again, we’re an afterthought; I think I’ve seen this movie before.

So let’s rewrite the ending. Those of you who work for educational institutions of all stripes should grab these results and march yourselves into the presence of the dean or provost or principal or whoever is calling the shots and tell her that you’ve got the answers to these problems. Talk about information literacy, about curricular integration, about the value of libraries and librarians in a 21st-century world, about what you can do. Do your homework; figure out what you can do, do it, and then share what you did with everybody else.

Many of you will be reading this as you prepare to make your way to our fair city for ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. All of us in the Puget Sound region welcome you to the area and wish you the best of times here. Grab a latte, pull up the hood of your waterproof parka, and come and visit the University of Washington iSchool’s booth in the exhibit hall. That’ll be a search and evaluation mission all its own . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor in the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle. Send ideas to intlib[at]ischool.washington.edu.