Stéphane Lévesque recalls his days as a university student, sifting through archives into the late hours of the night, working on research papers and historical essays.
Those days are long gone – replaced by quick, keyword searches into Google and Wikipedia – but Lévesque doesn’t think this is a bad thing.
In fact, he’s excited by these new technologies, and how much historical information has become so readily accessible to students and teachers. So much so the University of Ottawa professor directs the university’s Virtual History Lab.
What concerns Lévesque is how we consume this information.
A recent study he conducted among graduate students revealed that over 80 percent use the Internet regularly for their historical research. But at the same time, when asked to rank the reliability of sources, they ranked the Internet at the bottom, just above family stories.
The problem is not students using online historical sources, he says. The problem is that people in general, digital native students in particular, haven’t developed the digital literacy skills they need to consume online information in a critical and intelligent way. He calls this the “Google Reflex.”
People, almost by rote, search for information the way Google has taught them to. They type in a few keywords, expect to find what they’re looking for immediately, and generally only look at the first one or two pages of search results.
Instead of digging deeper and questioning sources for their reliability and provenance, digital users – both students and adults – simply use whatever is cited at the top. There’s very little added consideration of whether or not these sources are correct and reliable – despite, as Lévesque says, most people being aware that anything can be forged, edited, or simply made up on the Internet.
Through his extensive research, Lévesque hopes to create a system that better prepares both students and teachers for our digital world, by giving them the skills and training they need to navigate the endless amount of available information and see the online world through a critical and historical eye.