Students are increasingly using information from the Internet to learn for their studies. According to recent surveys, they even cite the Internet as their main source when searching for learning materials. Research shows that students often rely on inappropriate, irrelevant and scientifically unsupported sources when searching the web. Little is known about exactly how self-directed learning takes place on the Internet and how information is selected and processed. This will now be addressed by the new research group “Kritisches Denken in Online-Lernumgebungen in der Hochschulbildung (CORE)” (Critical Thinking in Online Learning Environments in Higher Education), which is being funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) with more than 5 million euros over the next four years.

The CORE project will investigate the critical use of digital media and information among students in the four study domains at three locations nationwide. The multidisciplinary research group with 16 participating disciplines has a strong international focus. Project partners of DIPF in this project are Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and Ludwig Maximilian University Munich (LMU); the international project partners include the U.S. universities of Stanford and Harvard.

Studies show that students’ learning behavior has not only changed since the Corona pandemic – with the switch from face-to-face courses to online teaching. Even before that, 95 percent of students in economics, for example, had used search engines to gather information. Students use the Internet not only as a source of information, but also as a learning environment. In the CORE project the participating researchers have access to an elaborate digital assessment platform to be able to record which digital sources and content students look at and how they use this for their studies.

As an example, students are given typical tasks that occur in their field of study, such as creating a presentation on a specific topic. Their research is carried out on virtual computers, via which the students’ approach to solving the task is recorded, even over longer periods of time, and subsequently analyzed. The researchers can then reconstruct the entire search process and answer the question of whether appropriate, up-to-date, relevant and scientifically validated sources were used by the students. This is especially of interest as previous studies have shown that students are often unable to distinguish well between independent sources and less reliable information, especially when the information comes from supposed experts.

The key is to capture not only students’ learning behavior, but the entire information landscape. This includes all digital media, including newer developments such as ChatGPT, but also analog sources such as textbooks.

The research project focuses in particular on the four domains of economics, medicine, sociology and physics. The results will be transferred into a multidisciplinary model and ultimately provide a basis for the development and implementation of innovative digital training tools for universities. With the help of online training, the competencies for the critical handling of information could be promoted in a targeted and effective manner, if possible already at the beginning of studies. One of the main goals is to make a practical contribution to higher education in order to support students in their search for and critical evaluation of online information.

With more than 30 project leaders, the unusually large research group was initially approved for four years and can be extended for another four years after a positive interim evaluation. In DFG research groups, several outstandingly qualified scientists work together on a special research task. The research task must be characterized by scientific quality and originality at an international level.

The approval of the new research group is also a recognition of the transnational strategic alliance of the Rhine-Main Universities (RMU), which is formed by Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and Technische Universität Darmstadt as renowned research universities. With a framework agreement in December 2015, this long-standing partnership was expanded into a strategic alliance to strengthen the universities’ scientific performance, jointly improve study programs, and shape knowledge transfer and networking with society.