Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
Vol. 22, No. 4 March 2002

Consumerism and the Web:
Helping Students Consume Information

by D. Scott Brandt

Students have immediate access to more information to support their education than any other time in history. Do they know what to do with it? Not entirely.

Though they are facile with the technology, students are not savvy about the content it carries. Students are expert “clickers,” but they need guidance from experts about the organization and evaluation of information. Students may not need help with basic searching, but they need to know where to search and how to do it better. They need librarians’ help. Without it, institutions are graduating students who are entering a workforce where such help is less likely to be found.

Students seem to have become very comfortable with, if not completely desensitized to, the Internet. They sit in classrooms engaged by information in various formats, from music to animations to movies and live cameras, all facilitated by access through the Web. They have to access class notes on the Web and submit homework through e-mail. They are required to engage in listserv and chat discussions which are facilitated by the Web. Students have learned the technology skills to do so at an early age, often at home even before attending school. Using the Web is no big deal for them.

And, in fact, using the Web shouldn’t be a big deal. Why shouldn’t everything be a mouse click away? That’s what technology does for us. But students see the Web not only as a conduit for information, they mistakenly see it as an information resource itself. It can be used to find references for reports, homework, term papers and the like. Web pages can actually comprise a variety of information sources, such as journal articles, book excerpts, expert opinions, etc. Unfortunately, due to a twist on Murphy’s Law (“anything which can be put on the Internet, ultimately will be”) many of those information sources are unreliable, biased, outdated, inaccurate or simply inappropriate for certain levels of coursework.

It is not likely that students will seek professional advice on their own. And in reality, students are probably unaware that librarians are information scientists who have kept up to date with the latest trends and applications in information technology. In fact, many educators are uninformed at how expert librarians are in the Internet Age. They do not realize that librarians put the “information” in information technology. And so there is confusion related to finding help with how, when and where to search the Internet.

What Does it Mean to Find Information on the Web?

Ideally, it would mean that students would search for sources, find possibilities and evaluate them both for objective (truthful, accurate, up-to-date, etc.) and subjective (pertinent to the topic at hand) quality. However, students aren’t taught how to be critical with qualitative aspects of information retrieval. And because there are so many sources, of so many types, the number of possibilities uncovered are often overwhelming, making the task of critically evaluating them an overwhelming task.

This problem has been “limping” around higher education for the past several years, manifested in confusion about how to use the Internet to find sources to supplement homework and other course-related assignments. The issue has not escaped the notice of The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which two related articles decried the Web as a one-stop shopping place for information because of students’ lack of critical ability to choose appropriate information sources there.1 It is not clear, however, that educators understand how the Internet can be used for course-related information retrieval, and, in fact, they might be sending mixed signals to their students.

Only Two Sources from the Internet may be Used

A student recently confided her frustration when a communications professor set the following restrictions on a term paper assignment: “You must use twelve sources, only two of which can come from the Internet.” The student’s response was, “What does that mean? I use the Internet for everything!” Implicit in these remarks are two inter-related themes. First, from the professor’s viewpoint, that how you find information may somehow value or devalue that information. Second, from the student’s perspective, that the simplest solution—“jump on the Web”—is the best.

Professors, teachers, and instructors know from first-hand experience that it is hard to use the Web. And, until recently, many of the sources found there amounted to personal Web pages of “lay persons” and commercial sites advertising their products and services. This is due in part to a reluctance (or, in some cases a legal prohibition) to add more high quality information freely on the Web. Recent changes in copyright practices are beginning to make an impact, whereby authors who retain copyright can, and will, post articles which have been published in print on the Web. Likewise, some publishers are adding content to the Web, though until issues regarding economics of profits are worked out this is not likely to amount to a lot of information.

That students will indeed “jump on the Web” to find answers to questions is not surprising (see sidebar). A study on students and computer learning has shown that they are able to point-and-click rapidly, in what amounts to “mindless” trial-and-error to find answers in a way which simulates learning.2 Thus, a simple solution for students is to click on the easiest available Web search engines to find possible answers to problems (i.e., homework or writing assignments).

Source vs. Resource. Instructors, however, must be aware of a paradox: While it’s true that anything and everything is likely to be found on the Web (a negative aspect), it is increasingly true that all things are found via the Web (a positive aspect). Simply put, this means that the Web is often a resource which points to other resources which can be used to find sources. For instance, in addition to pointing to the search engine Google, the Web also points to numerous online catalogs and journal indexes. This is not to say that using or Barnes and Noble to find books is out of the question, although retrieving them is probably not as easy as checking them out of the library. Thus, to say, “only two sources can come from the Internet” is tantamount to ignoring all the advances in information technology over the last decade and a half.

Finding Good Sources: An Example

Professors and teachers rightly fear that things taken from the Web are not always of a high quality appropriate for rigors of homework assignments. But it seems to be a matter of the chicken and the egg—do students choose poorly from what is offered on the Web, or do poor offerings on the Web impact student’s choosing?

For instance, given an assignment to write a research paper on a current events topic with references, a student might use the popular Internet search engine Google ( Typing in the phrase, current events, she would retrieve, among other things, a topic heading (devised by Google) of News>Current Events. Clicking on this link retrieves a dozen topics to pursue, including Global Politics and War. Clicking on that link leads to sub-topics (links to sub-categories) as well as a dozen links to pages or sites directly related to global politics. Clicking on the sub-topic link Terrorism reveals another dozen sub-sub-topics, including Articles and Reports.

At this point the student surely assumes she has hit the jackpot! Among other things, this sub-sub-topic leads to a variety of government sites (F.B.I., Office of Technological Assessment, US Embassy, etc.), as well as numerous interest groups (The National Security Institute, Eagle Research Group, etc.). However, it is likely that when applying criteria for objectivity (authenticity, validity, timeliness, etc.) the student will have difficulty identifying crucial bibliographic information or meta-data to determine quality. It is especially likely that the student will fail to see the biases of any of these groups (neither the U.S. bias to nationalism nor interest groups bias to their clientele).

On the other hand, the resources selected and maintained by libraries provide access to sources for which there has been quality filtering. For instance, a search in an online catalog turns up Terrorism, asymmetric warfare, and weapons of mass destruction, a recent book by Anthony H. Cordesman, who has written several books on the topic. A similar search in a typical journal index is likely to turn up a cover story in Newsweek or Business Week, as well as an article by former Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger in Forbes. Both the publishing process and collection development ensure the reliability, accuracy and timeliness of the materials to which online catalogs and indexes point. In addition, the criteria upon which to base a decision are readily available and easily identifiable—full bibliographic information is always provided. This is in stark contrast to much of the information found on the Web, where it is often impossible to identify authors and dates, let alone authenticity and validity.


The Web + Consumer = Web-sumer

A Web-sumer is someone who consumes information from the Web. The principle of Web-sumerism is simple: “use the web to find what you need.” It reflects an acceptance (both in terms of faith and value) that “the first thing you find on the web should suffice for a homework assignment.” Students aren’t the only ones who consume from the Web, as indicated by the growing number of e-commerce sites used for everything from travel to entertainment. Almost anything you can buy in a catalog you can buy on the Web, from Radio Shack to L. L. Bean to Harrods.

Why Students are Great Web-sumers. Students are Web-sumers for a number of reasons. Their ease at using the Web is predicated on their ease of using computers in general. The Web is sometimes seen as a mere extension of the workstation desktop, pointing to millions of other people’s C: drives where information is conveniently displayed in Web browsers. Many of the students use Web e-mail and send multi-media attachments to their friends and family. A lot of Web sites are designed to be “cool”—in some way aesthetically appealing to them with bright colors and fun animations. Much of the information they access on a day-to-day basis is proximal—close enough to get them started (for instance, a phone number which they can call or a product price to which they can compare sales prices).

As it relates to finding information, Web-sumerism is based largely on the fact that students will settle for what they find. This is due to a number of reasons:

It’s Like Eating at the Mall. To simply turn students loose to gather information without any guidance is like telling them to eat at the mall. At best, they might find an excellent restaurant serving only well-balanced meals, but it is likely to be overlooked. Students are more likely to opt for fast food restaurants serving hamburgers, hotdogs or pizza. But if the lines are too long there, they may turn to the caramel candy, cinnamon bun or hot pretzel stand instead. Or worse, simply buy cookies or a candy bar at a vending machine.

Information is the same. Because the Web provides access to all kinds of information and formats, students are likely to pass over sources of great substance when “fast food information” in the form of short web pages presents itself. Like walking through the mall, students as consumers often stop at the first search result that presents itself from their favorite search engine.

Then students often neglect to review a second page of results, sometimes hesitating to scroll down to the bottom of the page. Even worse than the behavior of “settling” for what they find, is the behavior of changing their needs to accommodate what is convenient and available.

But this is typical consumer behavior. Students often wear the same clothes as their peers, and likewise, often use the same search engine. They share insights regarding the best places to shop at the mall, and the best places to find information online. Of course, “best” is subjective, and depends on the criteria used. Unfortunately, the criteria for purchasing material goods— inexpensive, popular, easy to access—are not the same criteria which should be used when searching for information.

Who Teaches Research?

The problem can be easily stated: students need information; the Internet provides access; some of the resources there point to information which is difficult to critically assess. So, as educators, what do you do?

First, recognize that the Web, not physical libraries, is the prime medium for retrieving information. (Remember that libraries are not the first place most faculty go either— they rely on a network among colleagues first.)

Second, define the essential ingredients required for sources of “term paper quality.” At the very least these should include obvious bibliographic elements (author, title, source, date, publisher, etc.) and information which verifies authenticity or validity (the author is a member of the major society in his area, has published on the topic before, the publisher is a leader in books on this topic, etc.).

Third, point out to students that if they use resources which are selected and maintained by the library, they have a significantly stronger capability to critically assess the sources than they would for sources found using other resources.

Don’t focus on the means for accessing resources or where information is found, focus on the criteria for assessing the information sources used.

Using ISD. As a proponent of instructional systems design (ISD), this author believes that skills and attitudes can be changed by identifying and developing appropriate learning objectives. ISD is an educational approach which says that by designing concrete learning outcomes you can help facilitate student’s attitudes and behavior. For instance, if students do not scroll down the page to look at the next five or ten results from a search, the behavior can be targeted with an objective that helps them learn why it is important (“When confronted with a search engine results screen, students will be able to identify three reasons to scan through the entire list:1. the search query may have been misinterpreted by the search engine; 2. relevancy ranking may have given a lower “score” to appropriate items; 3. a document which appropriately addresses a topic may use different terminology and thus be given a lower overall ranking.”) Students should also be taught that not all sources are created equal when it comes to critically assessing them. (“Given a typical search engine result and a related journal article, students will use a list of criteria to identify elements and compare the ease of finding them within both sources.”)

Instructors, Librarians, Point of Need. But who should teach the students these concepts and skills? Most professors and teachers don’t feel they have enough time to spare in their already packed curriculums. Many libraries currently cover these concepts and skills in their information literacy curriculums, whether they teach a credit course or provide guest lectures. Thus it seems natural for instructors to defer to the librarians for advice on navigating and using information resources to find and evaluate information sources. Note, this is not to say that librarians would address issues of determining appropriateness of or how to use a source for its ultimate purpose (homework assignment, report, term paper, etc.)—that is and should be the purview of the instructor.

There are several factors which have an impact on such learning. Clearly, the educators need to ensure there is a context for it— a specific paper or homework assignment. Students need to be shown the relevance of such learning, such as its direct impact on an outcome (i.e., better paper, higher grade). Librarians need to focus directly on specific needs of students of a particular class. All too often in the past librarians have insisted on teaching skills, such as using Boolean logic operators, which, while important, do not directly address students’ immediate needs.

Integration into a Classroom Plan. By working with educators, librarians should be able to help modify lessons to integrate class outcomes and student needs with appropriate information literacy skills. For instance, an instructor and librarian might identify three goals for a 50-minute class:

From that goal-setting exercise, specific outcomes would be listed: a list of criteria; assessment of two sources based on the criteria; URLs for resources; explanation of basic search and results within a specific resource; and identification of appropriateness of a source based on analysis of criteria.

From these outcomes, specific learning objectives are developed (“Given a typical search engine result and a related journal article, students will use a list of criteria to identify elements and compare the ease of finding them within both sources.”) Finally, some proof of learning should be evidenced, either in a specific assignment related to the lesson, or as evidenced in the ultimate outcome for the course (i.e., an annotated bibliography which indicates how and where sources where found).

The Opportunity to Educate Savvier Web-sumers

The goal is not to change the “bad habits” of students— as disciples of supervision and management will point out, such behaviors are hard to change. There is no reason why students shouldn’t remain Web-sumers, since advances in information technology will only make it easier to access information over cell phones and wireless laptops and PDAs.

However, they should be taught to be savvier Web-sumers. The time to do it is now, and the place is here. Education has the perfect balance of expertise and opportunity to ensure that students get the knowledge they need from librarians, and the reinforcement they need from instructors in the form or homework and reports. Academic administrators come out ahead because they support a program that graduates knowledgeable workers in their chosen field. This can be a win-win-win situation.—D. Scott Brandt is an Associate Professor of Library Science at Purdue University. <>


1Kari McBride, & R. Dickstein, “The Web Demands Critical Reading by Students” Chronicle of Higher Education. March 20, 1998, v. 44, issue 28, p.B6; D. Rothenberg, “How the Web Destroys the Quality of Student’s Research Papers” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 15, 1997, v. 43, issue 49, p.A44.

2Sherry Turkle, “Seeing Through Computers: Education in a Culture of Simulation” The American Prospect, 31(1997): 76-82.

3D. Scott Brandt, & Lorna Uden, “Insight Into Mental Models Of Novice Internet Searchers: Adaptation of Task Knowledge Structures” submitted to Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery.


The Clash with Copyright: What Higher Education Stands to Lose

Mountainside Publishing, Inc.

Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 22, no. 4. © 2002 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $75/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at <>


last modified: Mar 2002


Produced by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc.