Students and the World Wide Web
Watson, Jinx Stapleton, Teacher Librarian
In a previous study (Watson, 1998), I examined the perceptions of a small group of eighth grade students regarding their experience with technology. The students offered insights into personal attributes that included expressing self-confidence as they negotiated their way through the World Wide Web.
They articulated particular skills in reading and managing information needed for electronic searches.
The overall tone of the students' interviews revealed familiarity, openness, and independence regarding their use of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web. In the first interview, the students had been involved in a public school system's special technology program for three years. However, in that study, few of the students revealed how they assessed information or evaluated the quality of search results.
In adolescence, students may project a sense of assurance to mask insecurity or mimic adult behaviors, without sustaining the emotional maturity that adults should exhibit (Erikson, 1950, 1993; Meeks, 1986). Therefore, I wanted to interview the same students two and a half years later to see if their perceptions still reflected confidence and competence. I also wanted to hear from the same students because of their unique circumstances, having the benefit of their early years in the "twenty-first century" classrooms provided by state funding (Tennessee Code Annotated 493-351). That is, I wanted to know whether the previous tone of bravado might continue because of their developmental age or whether these students genuinely expressed confidence because of their particular competencies from sustained use.
Research questions and methodology
My umbrella question overlay all subsequent queries and probes: "How do you use the new electronic technologies?" I sought examples of ordinary and special use of technology, specifically of the Internet, to assess how these young people used the World Wide Web as a resource and how they used e-mail, chat rooms and other communication opportunities. I wanted to understand what I had previously perceived as the teens' overt projection of confidence and what skills and competence levels they revealed as they spoke of using technology. I asked how they learned to search for and access information. I listened for instances in which the young people analyzed the quality of information. I probed for examples of critical thinking and evaluation in searching. I remained open to hearing ways of using the Internet that might be particularly youthful endeavors, reflective of teens' developmental needs.
I reviewed all the interview texts as a whole in order to discern patterns amongst the users. In reading across all four texts, I noted similarities in the students' stories. For example, I found that their stories shared a common stance regarding personal use as different from school use. I noted that each of the students seemed relaxed and proficient in personal use of the Internet, but wary of accessing web sites for school research purposes.
These commonalities offer teachers and librarians a challenge: Can we find ways of using students' fondness for personal communication as an enticement for school research use? In appreciating what some students say about their use of technology, and in knowing about adolescent developmental needs, we begin to gain understanding about their sense of the current electronic technologies.
For the current study, each student -- formerly eighth graders -- was preparing to enter his or her junior (penultimate) year of high school. Of the nine students who participated in the original study, I was able to interview three: Polly, J.R. and Mike (aliases from the earlier study). To supplement the three student voices, I added comments from another 16-year-old (alias Tara). As an eighth grader, two and a half years ago, she participated in a phone interview regarding the question, "How do you find information for a research report? …