“Technology and Researching: Step Away from the Distractions” by Maryanne Mills

Asilomar Beach

Asilomar Beach is Maryanne’s favorite place…
to ponder.

On any given day in the library, I am amazed at the amount of information our students manage. Most of it is online in the form of updates to social media sites, watching videos, creating presentations, and writing papers. The academic library of today is a convergence of multiple spaces: entertainment center, “third place,” tutoring area, rehearsal studio, creative space, coffee shop, study room, test center. And that’s just the physical library. The digital library is another destination altogether: research portal, e-book collection, digital archive, exhibit hall.

Contrary to popular belief, the library as an institution is alive and well in the 21st century. Visits to academic libraries in 2011 increased 8.89% over 2008 according to the American Library Association (“State of America’s Libraries” 30). Electronic book borrowing is also growing in number. No doubt that this revered American institution will morph and take on different forms as humankind progresses—as it should. As the caretakers, librarians are prepared to meet these challenges and embrace transformation as we did with the advent of the World Wide Web nearly 20 years ago. Here at West Valley College, our physical library may be stuck in a 1970s time warp, but our collections and the tools to access them are progressive.

When it comes to our student’s research skills, West Valley College has been at the forefront with the development of our information literacy requirement in 2005. Thousands of students have successfully gone through the program and it continues to be a skill crucial to our students’ success. According to the American Library Association’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries,  a survey of first-year students entering college in the fall of 2011 found that 60 % do not evaluate the quality or reliability of information; 75 % do not know how to locate research articles and resources; and 44 % do not know how to integrate knowledge from different sources (28). Once they are in college, however, many are taught these important research skills. Information literacy skills (aka information competency skills in California colleges) are a student learning outcome at 56 % of associate-degree granting institutions, at 44 % of baccalaureate institutions, at 52 % of comprehensive universities, and at 43 % of doctoral-degree granting/research institutions (28).

The passing of California’s Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act (SB1440), however, has changed everything. Information competency courses in community colleges across California will soon no longer be a graduation requirement for students getting AA-Ts and AS-Ts.  Enrollment in Library 4, our information competency class at West Valley College, will decline because only students getting AA/AS degrees will be required to take it. I am saddened by this legislation, but I understand why it was passed. Community college librarians across the state are brainstorming ways we can still impart these research skills to our students transferring to four-year institutions.

The reality is that many students try to rush the research process. In my encounters with them, I find that many expect to spend only five to ten minutes doing their research gathering. If they haven’t found anything after that amount of time they begin to lose patience with the entire process. (I hope that these are the students who haven’t taken Library 4). They lose interest and become frustrated. My pleas to try different search strategies and the importance of browsing contents and indexes (both electronic and print) fall on deaf ears. How do I make conducting research important to our students? How do I get our students to read more than the abstract of an article or more than a few lines of a book? How does technology play a part in the processing of knowledge? Will it help to make it more interesting? I’m no theorist, but my interactions with students both online and in person tell me that technology plays a key role, but only as a tool for gathering, organizing and delivering/communicating information. When it comes to making the deep connections between pieces of information, technology takes a backseat to the human mind.  The mind must make the inferences and connections on its own. There needs to be time and energy spent on deep thinking and pondering. Asking the “what ifs” and “why nots” should be a natural response, but these questions are woefully absent in the life of an average college student.

“A piece of information is not knowledge,” I implore. “So, you’ve found this concept, and what are you going to do with it? Yes, paraphrase it in your paper, but then what? Does it make you think differently about the subject? Can you make a connection between this new information to something else you read, saw or heard? What new knowledge is borne of this symbiosis?” OK, so I’m earnest—and I want our students to be too. Some of them do get it, but as faculty know, it doesn’t happen overnight. When that connection does occur, knowledge is not far behind. And when you witness it, it is a glorious thing. There is no greater joy to an instructor than to behold a student forming new thoughts and relationships between disparate ideas. And this gets back to my first question. Conducting research becomes important and interesting when one experiences the novel ideas that come out of synthesizing information. It only has to happen once and the bug is caught. The problem is how to get students to catch that bug? I argue that information competency is a basic skill which sets the foundation to finding those novel ideas. Along with this skill, there is one very simple exercise all of us can do to make those information connections happen: step away from the distractions.

Turn off any and all electronic equipment that is not assisting you in the deep thinking exercise. In the case of me writing this post, I have nothing beeping or ringing at me while I write. All I have is Microsoft Word open on my laptop. When I walk around the library, I see students trying to write a paper or to conduct research while toggling to Facebook every minute or so. Next to them their smart phones beep every five seconds with a new text message that they must read and answer. How can any synthesizing of information happen in this environment? The Millennials tout that they can multi-task. Multi-tasking social media apps while eating or chatting with a friend is one thing, but a person cannot adequately be present in the moment of researching, studying or writing while planning her next tweet. There is research to prove that.  Clifford Naas of Stanford University’s Communication Department studied students who considered themselves highly functional multi-taskers (able to do three to four things at the same time) and found that when you switch from one task to another you experience what psychologists call “task switch cost”: you must turn off one part of your brain to turn on another part. There is a cost associated with doing that. It takes time to concentrate on that new task, and every time you switch, you require more time to get back to concentrating. Multi-taskers also have problems identifying irrelevancy and make more errors.

I am a recovering multi-tasker and a firm believer in the importance of deep thinking. When I am writing, grading or creating lectures for my students, I turn off all distractions. It didn’t use to be that way. I was caught up in the social media craze until I realized what it was doing to me. I’m one of the lucky ones, because I remember how my brain functioned pre-Internet; I could sit for hours at a time reading, writing, creating. Suddenly, there were all these fun distractions—dopamine hits that I became addicted to. I realized my concentration was shot. I then read Nicolas Carr’s book The Shallows and realized that my brain had transformed. Thankfully, I got back to being a one task at-a-time person. But, what about those who have never known a world without the World Wide Web?

There is a place for technology in our daily lives and in teaching and learning. It can help us with so many tasks.  But let’s leave the thinking, reflecting and pondering to the most precious tool: our brain.

Bibliotheca Alexandria: the modern version, built in 2002 in the shape of the sun rising out of the Mediterranean Sea, invokes Egypt’s first library built in the 3rd century BC. Image from globalpost.com.


“The 2012 State of America’s Libraries.” America’s Libraries. American Library Association, 2012. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.

Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price. Perf. Clifford Naas. YouTube.com. Stanford University, 25 Aug. 2009. Web. 2 Mar. 2013.

Maryanne Mills is the Outreach and Instruction Librarian at WVC. When she is not pondering or blogging or tweeting, she enjoys learning new software to try in her online classes. She represents faculty in WVC’s Academic Senate and is currently the President of the West Valley College Toastmasters Club.


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