November 1, 2012

How Teens Do Research in the Digital World

Part I: Introduction

This research was developed to understand more fully the unique opportunities and challenges facing today’s middle and high school teachers in training students how to write and “do research” in a rapidly evolving digital environment.  In particular, the study was designed to explore teachers’ assessments of students’ research and writing habits, the broad impacts of digital technologies on their students, and the extent to which teachers incorporate digital technologies into classroom pedagogy, particularly for teaching research and writing skills. This study builds on prior Pew Internet research on the growing use of search engines and mobile tools to gather information, the rise of  social networks and texting, and the increasingly immersive digital world in which today’s teens live.

The Study

The study was designed to collect middle and high school teachers’ views of many aspects of the current role of technology in the classroom and in teens’ research and writing practices.  The findings will be summarized in a series of three reports, issued in succession. Broadly, the three reports will be guided by the following questions:

Report One:  How Do Teens ‘Do Research’ in Today’s Digital World?

  • How students define and conduct research in today’s tech environment
  • If and how new technologies are changing how research is taught
  • Whether and how the topics of digital literacy and information literacy are currently being taught in schools
  • What are the key skills students need to learn to conduct effective research given today’s digital environment

Report Two:  The State of Teen Writing in Today’s Digital World (forthcoming)

  • The specific impacts of digital technologies on student writing skills and habits
  • If and how new technologies encourage student collaboration, creativity, and personal expression
  • If and how new technologies are changing how writing is taught in middle and high school classrooms

Report Three:  Teaching and Technology (forthcoming)

  • How teachers experience and manage digital access issues among their students
  • The different ways digital technologies are being incorporated into classroom pedagogy
  • School policy and resource issues affecting teachers’ abilities to incorporate new technologies into their classrooms
  • Potential changes in assessments, curriculum, and the school environment teachers feel are necessary in response to today’s evolving digital environment
  • Whether and how new technologies enable and enhance teacher professional development and collaboration
  • Teachers’ personal use of and attitudes toward different digital technologie

Pew Internet’s prior research on teens

This report follows prior research conducted by Pew Internet in partnership with the College Board and the National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools and Colleges.  In 2008, Pew Internet collaborated with the two organizations to study the writing habits and practices of teens.  At that time, focus groups with teens and a national survey of teens and their parents demonstrated that while teens were heavily embedded in a tech-rich world and were crafting a significant amount of electronic text, they saw a fundamental distinction between their electronic social communications and the more formal writing they did for school or for their own purposes.1

This study also builds on Pew Internet’s extensive research on how children ages 12-17 use the internet and other digital technologies more generally.  Since 2001, Pew Internet has released a series of reports on teens’ digital lives, including online content creation, the use of social networking sites, the rise of texting as a central communication form, teens’ online privacy management, video gaming, distracted driving, and most recently, digital citizenship.2 Over the past decade, Pew Internet’s teen research has shown just how deeply the internet and digital technologies are woven into teens’ lives.

This study is Pew Internet’s first extensive examination of teachers’ perceptions of both the positive and negative impacts of this rapidly evolving technological environment on middle and high school students, particularly on their writing and research habits.

Pew Internet’s prior research on how adults find information online

The current study also builds on Pew Internet’s research on how U.S. adults locate and assess information online.  Over time, Pew Internet’s surveys of adults have consistently shown that search engine use tops the list of the most popular online activities, along with email.  Currently, 91% of online adults use search engines to find information on the web, up from 84% in June 2004. On any given day, 59% of those using the Internet use search engines. As early as 2002, more than eight in ten online adults were using search engines, and as noted in an August 2011 Pew Internet report3, search is only rivaled by email both in the overall percent of internet users who engage in the activity and the percent of internet users doing it on a given day.

Most recently, a February 2012 survey of 2,212 U.S. adults ages 18 and older finds that not only are adults increasingly reliant on search engines as an information resource, but they also generally trust the results they get and feel the quality and relevance of the information provided by search engines is improving over time.4 Specifically, 66% of adult search engine users say search engines are a fair and unbiased source of information and 55% say that the quality of search results is getting better over time. Another 86% report that they learned something new or important using a search engine that really helped them or increased their knowledge.

Information goes mobile

Finally, this work builds on Pew Internet’s extensive trend data on the growing use of mobile devices, particularly cell phones, as both communication- and information-gathering devices.  The most recent data indicate that among adult cell phone users, the reliance on these mobile devices for “just-in-time” information is steadily growing.  A March 2012 survey of U.S. adults finds that 70% of all adult cell phone owners had used the device in the past month to get a needed piece of information—including 35% who had used their phone to solve an unexpected problem and 27% who used their phone to settle an argument they were having.  Overall, these “just-in-time” adult cell users comprise 62% of the entire U.S. adult population.5

Given these findings, the current study explores the role search engines and mobile devices might play in how teens today conduct research and evaluate information, as well as teachers’ own use of search as an information gathering tool.  Without question, search engines and mobile devices have changed the way information is accessed, shared, and perceived.  How these trends are impacting the research habits of teens today is a central focus of this work.

  1. numoffset=”2″ “Writing, Technology and Teens,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2008/Writing-Technology-and-Teens.aspx.
  2. All of Pew Internet’s past research on teens, including reports, toplines and datasets, can be found at http://www.pewinternet.org/topics/Teens.aspx.
  3. See “Search and Email Still Top the List of Most Popular Online Activities,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Search-and-email.aspx.
  4. “Search Engine Use 2012,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Press-Releases/2012/Search-Engine-Use-2012.aspx.
  5. See “Just-in-Time Information Through Mobile Connections,” available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Just-in-time.aspx.