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A Sociologist Says Students Aren’t So Web-Wise After All

Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor in Northwestern University’s sociology department, has discovered that students aren’t nearly as Web-savvy as they, or their elders, assume.

Ms. Hargittai studies the technological fluency of college freshmen. She found that they lack a basic understanding of such terms as BCC (blind copy on e-mail), podcasting, and phishing. This spring she will start a national poster-and-video contest to promote Web-related skills.

Q. Why do people think young people are so Web-wise?

A. I think the assumption is that if it was available from a young age for them, then they can use it better. Also, the people who tend to comment about technology use tend to be either academics or journalists or techies, and these three groups tend to understand some of these new developments better than the average person. Ask your average 18-year-old: Does he know what RSS means? And he won’t.

Q. What demographic groups are less Web-savvy?

A. Women, students of Hispanic origin, African-American students, and students whose parents have lower levels of education, which is a proxy for socioeconomic status.

Q. What are the practical implications of your research?

A. Students have difficulty evaluating the credibility of information online. Students have been told Wikipedia isn’t reliable, but they haven’t been told why exactly. Most students don’t know that wikis can be edited at that moment. Their eyes just open up wide when they find out.

Q. Are there implications for workplace readiness?

A. There are positive outcomes for those who know how to work and employ tech information, and those who lack information will confront a different situation. In terms of a link with demographic differences, those people who seem to be more savvy are the ones who tend to be in more-privileged positions. There will be an increase in social inequality if this divergence continues this way.

Q. What are the challenges for colleges that hope to better educate students about Web use?

A. How do you fit this into the curriculum? Is it supposed to be an academic department, or through libraries? How can you legitimately stand in front of a classroom when the students have an assumption that they know more about technology than you? At the beginning of my classes, I tell my students, “I know you don’t think I know as much as you because I’m older. I assure you, I know way more than you guys about this.” And they sort of smile, but by the end of the class they realize I’m right. —Catherine Rampell

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