Let’s start with the research skills item. The column reports on a study conducted by the British Library in collaboration with University College London that,
...spent years poring over its online resources' visitor logs to determine how young users were behaving. They discovered that – surprise, surprise – kids might not make the best researchers, even with a Google assist.In fact, the study (and the column’s author) conclude that new technology doesn’t turn us all into information-seeking mavens, tacitly suggesting, as one would expect, that there is still an important role for libraries and people who are information-seeking mavens, namely, librarians.
“Digital literacies and information literacies do not go hand in hand,” the report says. “A careful look at the literature over the past 25 years finds no improvement (or deterioration) in young people's information skills.
There’s an old adage: seek and ye shall find. In the research game, this often means, ye shall find that which ye seek. Even those with admirable and well-honed research skills like those who conducted the study on behalf of the British Library and University College missed the larger context within which this question of understanding the world makes sense. An education system that teaches today's youth (and taught yesteryear's youth, as well) that finding a "right answer" and moving on to the next question is entirely culpable in fostering poor research and contextualizing skills, even among otherwise capable, professional researchers.
When history, for example, is taught as a collection of "right answers" set in a frame of winners and losers, when quantitative and post-positivist qualitative methods are overwhelmingly favoured among scholarly journals and policy makers alike, when the limitations of the scientific method are ignored, students are systemically trained that the world can be explained in a relatively straight-forward, deterministically causal manner, and that the name of the game is to efficiently find that answer. In an ironically reflexive way, there is little wonder that each new technology is embraced as a type of ultimate knowledge machine.
What the education system does relatively poorly is to train the critical thinking skills necessary to do proper and complete research. And for those who might jump to the conclusion that I'm anti-science, check out the John Ioannidis article from 2005 called “Contradicted and initially stronger effects in highly cited clinical research” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (vol. 294, no. 2, pp. 218-228), or his companion article in Public Library of Science - Medicine called, ”Why most published research findings are false.” You might also want to have a look at my article, How do we know: the changing culture of knowledge. And speaking about critical, when will the education system begin to teach an introduction to critical theory - issues of voice, power, marginality, inclusion and exclusion? With all of these as base preparation, then having instant access to a wealth of information online becomes truly useful.
Which brings us to the growing debate over the creation of the artificial bacterium, m. genitalium (which sounds like a South Park punch line if there ever was one). There will undoubtedly be much sturm und drang over the ethicality of creating life, and the potential for terrorist use, counterbalanced by its potential for (finally!) creating utopia and solving all of the world’s problems (notably in the current reportage, cast as a replacement for fossil fuels and a cure for global warming). Notice how this is set up as a debate between two polarities, rather than as a more reasoned examination and understanding of contexts. One answer will have to be right (so that the other one is wrong) – we just have to find the right answer, and then we can move on to the next question, just like we’ve all been trained to do.
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