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Can the Digital Generation Do Anything Right?

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Last week, the news media, including Education Week, wrote about a new study from the Pew Research Center surveying 2,000 teachers on how their students do research in the digital world. Many of those teachers, 77 percent, believed digital tools have an overall positive impact on research, but 87 percent said the tools were a distraction causing short attention spans.

This week, a new report from Project Information Literacy (PIL), a large-scale study into adults' research habits, suggests that concern for the competency of the digital generation extends into the workplace, where young people are often hired for online dexterity but, employers say, don't know how to go beyond Google.

"[T]hese educated young workers seemed tethered to their computers. They failed to incorporate more fundamental, low-tech research methods that are as essential as ever in the contemporary workplace," says the report, "How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace." The report is sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

The report surveyed 23 employers and 33 recent college graduates, who exited college between 2005 and 2011. It's not a large enough sample size to make any sweeping generalizations about how the "Net Generation" solves workplace problems (there is a proposal for a longer, quantitative study). But some of the responses show a persistent gap between the skills employers expect from new hires, and what they are actually being taught, and suggest deeper tensions between generations within the workplace.

Employers—ranging from Microsoft to Marriott to the FBI—were asked how they perceive college graduates' and new hires' ability to solve "information problems," which can include things like researching competitors, planning a conference, or looking up tax regulations. Solving those problems—essentially synthesizing and analyzing the noise of the digital age— is becoming more important, the report says. In 2011, the biennial National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook Survey listed "obtaining and processing information" fourth on its list of biggest employer needs for the first time.

Regardless of the discipline, the report found that employers were initially impressed by job candidates' digital skills, but that when faced with workplace problems to solve, they relied too closely on those digital skills, simply "Google-ing it" and going off the first two pages of results instead of using more traditional, offline research methods or leveraging coworkers' expertise.

"They do well as long as the what, when, why, and how is clear in advance," one employer said. "As long as it doesn't require them to go past using a basic search engine, that is. It's that their toolkit and their whole sense of searching is limited."

Or, as another respondent put it: "They expect information to be so easy to get, that when it's not, it's frustrating to them. They've lived in a world where it's always been there."

Other respondents bemoaned new hires' tendency to follow procedures and finish tasks quickly in favor of doing them well. They blamed a combination of factors, including the reduced standards at higher education institutions, the on-demand digital culture, and reasons that essentially amount to "kids these days."

Judging by the Pew findings, these concerns start earlier than college. Teachers, who primarily taught high school and middle school and were involved with Advanced Placement or the National Writing Project, also worried about students' reliance on Google. Seventy-six percent believed the Internet, while increasing access to information, conditions students to expect information quickly; 71 percent believe it discourages students from using a breadth of information sources. A majority of teachers said students' patience and determination in finding information, ability to recognize bias in online content, and ability to assess accuracy of information was "fair" or "poor."

To hear teachers and managers tell it, the Internet is creating a generation of lazy, incompetent employees who believe everything should come easy. In a recent New York Times piece, Robert Goldfarb, a consultant, did his own informal survey of CEOs, and found: "Every C.E.O. I met described recent graduates as lacking the skills and discipline required in today's workplace. They complained that young employees deemed themselves entitled to promotion before mastering their assigned tasks."

Graduates in the PIL study—73 percent of whom had full-time jobs, ranging from teachers, to attorneys, to brewmasters— admitted that the fastest way to complete a task is often the preferred way. One said it's about "getting from point A to point B and getting paid for it."

But some of the other responses, along with those cited in Goldfarb's piece, suggest there is more to the problem than one generation not living up to another's standards. For one, Goldfarb says, corporate training is dying off. He remembers a time when companies looking for a diversity of ideas and approaches would hire graduates from a variety of disciplines, including liberal arts, and then give them corporate training. In tough times and during a perceived skills gap between college graduates and available employment, companies are only looking for candidates' with "hard" skills who don't need training, Goldfarb says.

"We no longer have the luxury to hire bench strength," one CEO told him. "If an applicant isn't ready to step into an open job, we don't hire them."

The PIL study suggests many of the problems start right there, with hiring. Employers admitted to not doing enough due diligence during the interview process. They hire candidates' based on impressive digital skills and expect social and analytical skills to follow. In these cases, it's often the employers lack of digital literacy that leads to the misunderstandings, said Alison Head, the executive director of PIL and the author of the report.

"Employers are mistakenly thinking research competencies are the same as digital competencies," Head, who is also a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center, said in a phone interview. "One is a set of skills and the other is a way of thinking and strategizing. There's a real cultural divide."

(It should be noted that I am 27 years old and Head is 55 and we were able to have a completely civil conversation about these issues. Progress!)

And once new hires start working, not only do they not receive training, but they are being asked to do more, making it easier to rely on the speed of the Internet over the social aspects of research, respondents in the PIL survey said.

"I never have time to learn anything in depth because I have 20 other things to do," one employee said.

The elephant in the room, of course, is education. In the case of the Pew study, far fewer percentages of respondents said they spend time helping students understand and use search engines than those who were concerned about negative impacts of those tools. And in many cases, teachers who have either grown up on or embraced technology have developed the same professional habits of their students, as Justin Reich, who writes the EdTech Researcher blog for edweek.org and is a colleague of Head's at Harvard, points out.

"If you are an educator with an established social network, it's often considerably easier to find information from your colleagues than from the open Web," Reich writes.

In the PIL study, recent graduates—alumni of Harvard College, University of Texas in Austin, Santa Rosa Junior College, and University of Puget Sound— said university-level research projects are much more procedural and have much longer timetables than those assigned in the workplace. Plus, the stakes are much lower when a company's bottom line or reputation isn't on the line.

Some schools and businesses are trying to reverse these trends. The PIL study references a workplace that pairs young employees with veteran employees for information projects. One young respondent said a science professor left out the typical procedural steps to an experiment to get students to think less linearly. I've written in the past about Stephen Wolfram, the computational scientist, whose educational search engine—and accompanying textbooks—does more than spit out facts, it produces detailed reports about topics so students can get used to analyzing deeper sets of information.

Goldfarb suggests the solution is as easy as some much-needed empathy from older generations of managers. Remember when someone helped you along when you were overwhelmed, or when someone believed that your unique set of skills could add value, he says. As one economics major who graduated with a 3.6 GPA told him: "All I ask is a chance to prove I'm as good as the best of any generation."

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