Is the internet destroying or enriching education?

I was wandering around the room at a reception the other day; you know, one of those receptions where, once you get there, you really can’t remember why you accepted the invitation. Still, networking is everything, and so I sidled up to the first little cluster of people standing around with wine glasses. One of them turned out to be an educator, and he recognised me and rounded on me. ‘One of my students brought me this essay’, he said, ‘and he used your blog as a source for his argument.’ Good man, I thought; but I didn’t say it, because the face of my interlocutor betrayed clearly that he was anything but pleased. He continued: ‘I had to explain to him, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, that your blog is not a primary source.’ OK, I thought, I’ll have to bite now. ‘Primary source for what?’ I asked. ‘He was doing an assignment on higher education values.’ He paused, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the way the internet is misused. And it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t there.’

OK, I had to find another cluster of wine drinkers to bother, because if that conversation had continued I might have had to hit the man. Of course to be fair, he was right when he said that the internet could not be misused if it wasn’t there. But everything else was nonsense; well actually, that was nonsense, too, but at least it was logically correct, if stupid.

Of course we all know about the capacity of the internet to supply ready material for those tempted by plagiarism, and we know that not everything that makes it online is necessarily correct. But those who make that latter point often imply that in the past, once it was put on paper by a hot metal process every statement was infallible; in truth an awful lot of nonsense also got printed. And in any case, there were all sorts of hyperventilating people who in the 16th century were arguing that unless a monk had sat in a cellar etching something on to pigskin a written text had no scholarly value.

But now there is a whole industry of people shouting about the corruption of knowledge wrought by the internet. One of these is the writer Nicholas Carr, who became famous for criticising student habits with the phrase ‘Facebook is the dorm; Wikipedia is the library; and Craigslist is the mall.’ By the way, he issued that dictum on his blog, where else? Elsewhere he has argued that the internet is killing off ‘concentration and contemplation.’

I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy. Underlying this assertion is the view that knowledge cannot be shared, it needs to be mediated, and this needs to be done by a special priesthood of experts who will be there to tell you what is right and what is wrong. But actually, knowledge reaches its true value when it is provided democratically, openly and freely. Of course knowledge needs to be accompanied by understanding, and this needs to be secured by learning (and teaching), but we need to have much more confidence that in the end knowledge enlightens, educates and transforms. Why else are we in education?

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17 Comments on “Is the internet destroying or enriching education?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Ok but in fairness to the loon..don’t you agree that there are pitfalls, particularly for the unwary & the unscrupulous? So a student writing an essay, pre-internet, would probably have gone to the university library and consulted documents that had been peer reviewed in some fashion. So now both good sources and bad sources are easily available. Maybe for the top students it doesn’t matter, they’ll go and read Kant in the original German or whatever, but for the rest of us, the temptation to take the easy way out may be irresistable.
    So like any technology it presents opportunities but also challenges.

    • Jilly Says:

      Spot on.

    • Of course, Kevin – except that I would say that these risks always existed. Now we have the internet with its anarchic assembly of stuff, but before we had (completely non-refereed) newspapers, non-refereed journals (which often produced uncredited thoughts in student essays), books (also often non-refereed). I think it’s a myth that printed material was always verified; I remember reading somewhere that, in pure volume terms, less than 1 per cent was. That percentage would have been massively higher in a university library, but then again the risks came from materials sourced elsewhere.

      My only point in this: that access to information (even misinformation) is never a bad thing, we just need to know how to handle it. And that doesn’t mean being chaperoned by a knowledge nanny at every step.

  2. We should differ between at least two issues:

    1. What sources are suitable for academic writing? (Your blog is not one.)

    2. Does the Internet bring a net-benefit? (Yes!)

    The problem here is that your counter-part was too focused on issue like 1. That makes him an idiot—but does not change that he has a point. Besides, possibly he just was in a bad mood and needed to vent. (I was not there, so I can only speculate.)

    Where I certainly agree is on the naivete with which paper sources are treated by the “anti-Wikipedia” factions. Their blind-spot is truly remarkable.

    (As an aside: With a background heavy in mathematics, I am disturbed by the common attitude in the social sciences that “If I can find a book/journal that agrees with me in printed form, I can rest my case.”)

    • Michael, while I find it difficult to develop this without sounding ego-focused, this blog can be a primary research source, depending on what it is you are researching. So for example, in the case of the guy whose comments sparked this post, his student probably was using it correctly as a primary source.

      I do however agree with you as regards your final point in parentheses. Two people subjectively arguing the same point does not make that point an objectively true one. It’s a common bugbear.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Michael – you have a rather strange image of the social sciences!

    • @universitydiary You are partially right: I tend to view sources through the lens of Wikipedia (of which I am an avid reader), and its policies on sources need not apply in all contexts. However, for academic writing, they are a good starting point, and Wikipedia usually provides good reasons for how it classifies various types of sources. Blogs have the (in this context) black mark of being “self-published”. Cf. e.g.

      @Perry Share: Do I? I would be wrong in generalizing, but many works in the softer sciences (I am not certain that “social sciences” is the appropriate phrase) fall into this trap when supporting claims are concerned, sometimes even the main claim: P -> Q, Smith and Wesson (1996) states P; ergo, Q.

      • Wendymr Says:

        Speaking as a social scientist, I can tell you that I would have expected students to be aware of controversies, or of varying opinions in a particular area. So, yes, a student could indeed cite Smith and Wesson to argue that P -> Q, but I would also expect that student to point out that Jones and Glock argue that P -> A. The student can decide which side of that argument s/he prefers, but I would have expected more evidence, in the form of argument and if possible empirical data, to support the student’s preference for P -> Q.

        As for whether blogs, for example, could be a primary source: of course, depending on the subject-matter under discussion. Of course a blog is not an acceptable substitute for a review of the academic literature, but it’s perfectly acceptable as empirical evidence – as an example of anything from the internet offering greater accessibility of senior managers to their staff and ‘customers’ than ever before to the fact that some university presidents enjoy photography 😉

  3. Iainmacl Says:

    Interesting coincidence. I was called the other evening by a radio station in LA which supplies a topical news/debates to NPR (National Public Radio) asking if I would be prepared to go onto a discussion show where the topic was about the impact of the internet on education. Primarily the show’s producers were motivated by what is happening in the public library service in California, where librarians are being made redundant and one librarian had written an op-ed piece to argue that their skills were needed in the information age to help develop critical digital literacies. What they were looking for on the show was someone who would challenge this and argue that librarians really weren’t needed any more. I had a long chat with them and it was clear that they were looking for people to go head to head and they seemed a little disappointed that despite being an internet enthusiast I was actually also very supportive of librarians and their information literacy skills. Personally, I also felt that the implicit lack of sympathy for mass sackings/redundancies was a little distasteful. Anyway, they were very polite (the producer was extremely articulate) and eventually concluded that my opinions were ‘too nuanced’ for the show and they headed off to find some more extreme voices. Says a lot about the nature of ‘public debate’, sadly. Personally though, I rather regard ‘too nuanced’ as a badge of honour!

    • Ah, Iain – of course we do still need teachers and experts, and you were right to be ‘nuanced’. Just as long as the teachers and experts do not regard it as their job to stand between the people and the available knowledge.

      What the future holds, or should hold, for librarians is actually a fascinating topic. I would agree that their skills, or perhaps skills that have been adapted to the new age, will be vital.

      • Iainmacl Says:

        yes. That was my point and in fact most librarians in higher education have long migrated to be ‘information specialists’ offering a wide range of skills training to academic staff and students alike, particularly valuable in terms of issues such as e-journals, citation indices, digital repositories, plagiarism and integrity, judging and critiquing sources, referencing, etc – oh and where to find the occasional book!

  4. Brendan Says:

    Actually your post illustrates one of the very interesting points about the internet and information access and truth and validity and all these things. Carr didn’t criticise students with the “Facebook is the dorm….” quote, it was an observation on student online behaviour and he explictly stated it was a generalization. It certainly was not a “dictum”.
    And when you said he argued elsewhere that the internet is “killing off concentration and contemplation” this is a very selective precis of what is a rather good, thought provoking article.
    And when you immediately follow the paragraph about Carr with “I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy”, you imply that Carr is one of those people. But he is not.
    So someone reading your blog might see Carr through the distorted lens of Prondzynski and get an entirely erroneous impression. And they may miss the point that warping the views of another and using selective quotes without context to suit your own argument is intellectually lazy if not downright dishonest.
    Unless of course they are aware that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true.

    • Brendan, I don’t think that this was a ‘selective précis’ of Carr’s article, it was the exact point he was seeking to make with it. Anyway, as I always do, I referenced the original for people to check. I do agree that it’s a thought-provoking article, but I also believe he is wrong.

      I should however emphasise that the next paragraph was not intended to be a reference to Carr, and indeed I know that is not his view; though equally I would have to say that he is, I think, a little bit at war with himself as to what to make of the internet, and on balance he is against it – but as you might rightly suggest, people need to read him directly to make up their own minds.

      In any case, my point here was not to suggest a critique of Nicholas Carr, but rather to argue that expanding knowledge is on the whole good.

  5. Niamh Says:

    As a librarian (well, student librarian), thank you Iain! It’s incredible how many people think that librarians just stamp books and collect fines and that libraries are just about hard copy. The internet allows for access to incredible quantities of information, but we do definitely have a role in helping students to separate the wheat from the chaff online, just as our predecessors helped them do that from the print versions. No major change in skillset there, except expanding online search skills, which we’ve done already…

  6. Vincent Says:

    Given you used the word Educator I take it you are on about 2nd level. Where surely what you want to pass on is the ability to structure an argument. That the ‘fact’ is a tad moody is in that area of a Schools Debate where the Statistical study from the University of the Yukon (Dawson) proves any damn thing you want.
    You should have asked for the kids name, he has the makings.

  7. kevin denny Says:

    Ferdinand,while the risks of students & others accessing dodgy sources were always there I think it is much worse now. Anyone can have a web site or a blog. But not everyone can get a book or article published & into a university library. And I don’t remember us reading the Daily Mirror for our essays on the French Revolution.
    So librarians acted as important gamekeepers. I have worked with our library for years coordinating our acquisition of economics material to make sure no nonsense gets through. Lack of money makes the job easier these days.
    So there is a lot more information out there & its a lot more easily available. These are fantastic developments. But there are pitfalls that require a response from academics. We have to make clear to students what sources can and cannot be used, we have to be vigilant about plagiarism in a way that we didn’t before. Let a hundred flowers blossom! Just take care of the weeds.

  8. Priya Says:

    @universitydiary I did not stumble upon this blog. The Irish Times directed me to it. So good sources of information more often than not get the attention they deserve. A lot of very pertinent and sensible things have already been said about your post. My tiny contribution is this:

    As a largely free source of information, irrespective of the standard, the Internet is often the ‘teacher’, the ‘library’, and the ‘newspaper’. For the less privileged, it may well be their ticket to an education.

    Students with visions that only go as far as their test scores may copy and copy badly – the rest will hone their sense of discernment and learn to choose wisely. Long live the Internet!

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