Is the Internet disparate or unified, sourced or sourceless? It may be a question of NetGenerations

The other day I was discussing the future of history with a number of students in my historical methods class (a regular end of the semester activity in this class). I was asking them how they think the Internet is transforming the practice of history. I expected a discussion of the importance of online primary sources, the broadening of research possibilities for undergraduate students, and the topics that could be found and explored through search engines. To be sure, that was the gist of some students’ comments.

What I found particularly interesting, however, was that several students discussed how distracting online research was for them. When I pressed them on what they meant, they noted that while online primary sources were great, that during those times that they were researching online they constantly found themselves involved in other online activities (IM, Facebook, entertainment sites, etc.). When I suggested they turn IM off while doing research, they indicated they knew that they should, but that they never did. [A couple students pointed out that even if IM was off, online research required being online and therefore the temptation to click elsewhere was always there.]

What occurred to me as I listened was that there was a gap between the students’ understanding of the Internet and my own. [This post title suggests one explanation for that gap, though I acknowledge the small sample size and my own particular biased perspective.] I see the Internet as a collection of various repositories of information (albeit linked together in what is hardly a seamless way); I am constantly conscious of their origins (a fact especially true
when I discuss online collections of primary sources and historical information). For my students, the Internet is a more-or-less seamless information source, and one for which they have trouble tuning out particular parts. In fact one student said that she much prefers offline research (in books of all things) because of the lack of distractions.

If that’s true (and I acknowledge that I may be overstating the dichotomous perspective) then what are the potential effects on our teaching? I now believe that it is even more important than I realized before to get students to identify the sources of particular information in order to better ascertain bias and veracity of online materials. Overcoming the seamless (sourceless?) nature of the web may be a bigger problem than I thought. Or should we of a slightly older NetGeneration just accept the view that the Internet is increasingly seamless and come to terms with a new more-or-less unified way of presenting information?