The horrors of easy access to information

Nearly 45 years ago I submitted a school project at the end of the term. I thought I had done a pretty good job. On the whole the teacher marking it agreed, but he added the following qualification. ‘I really didn’t like your use of Encyclopaedia Britannica as source for some of your facts.’ I thought I had better see him and find out what was wrong. Had my use of the encyclopaedia corrupted the analysis in any way? Were the facts taken from it incorrect? No, none of that. He just didn’t like Encyclopaedia Britannica, largely because, as he put it, ‘using it is just too easy.’

Before you rush to judgment, remember I was 13 years old and not exactly producing an article for a refereed journal. So, as he told me he had deducted nearly 10 per cent from my marks for this use of sources, I felt I had suffered something of an injustice; not least because I had assembled other sources as well.

Fast forward to 2012, and for Encyclopaedia Britannica substitute Wikipedia; in fact, add the whole internet. There is now part of a whole generation of ageing  academics who on the whole seem to think that, with the internet, research has become too easy for students; or maybe, they have so much easy access to information that they are ‘distracted’ by it and do inadequate work as a result. That, as it happens, is what a survey of teachers conducted by the Pew Research Center found in the United States. I suspect the results would be similar over here.

Of course easy access to information is not always a straightforward benefit. But it is still a benefit. I am not a supporter of the view that information is too precious to be made openly available to the uninitiated, or that it should only be used with the accompanying analysis of someone older and wiser. Indeed, when the printing press first became popular very similar arguments were made then. The task for teachers is not to persuade themselves that all this information and data ‘distracts’ students, but to ensure that students are trained and guided in its use. But we should avoid giving the impression that knowledge is too valuable to be openly shared. That is not what the academy is about.

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10 Comments on “The horrors of easy access to information”

  1. Vince Says:

    That teacher of yourn was a bit of a hardarse for what earthly good could come from denying EB as a source.
    I will say this about the learning resource on the internet. Well one source anyway.
    Lately I took a course delivered by a US university via the Coursera platform. It was actually dangerous for it took no account of any number of things all which hinged around the total denial that we weren’t within a campus where all the needed info was available for the looking.
    You could not believe my disappointment for I actually believed we had something that was attempting to deliver worthwhile. But crass, ignorant, savage would not be over egging. All delivered with a faux friendliness.
    In case you think I’m exaggerating and that I’ve forgotten what I was shown at NUI,G. When I tell you that the core course book was a privately published affair, and that within the mainland US would have taken three weeks to a month for delivery. This for a ten week course where no ancillary works would do beyond a very thin general sense.
    All in all, anyone coming to this course without a good grip on what should occur would come away convinced they were fools. So there are very real dangers out on the WWW and this especially so on sites where carelessness on what should be a good platform isn’t thought through for the new delivery medium. God bless the external system for the academy in the current form, it is designed to bring people on. As to unweighted data inserted into essays that is a ‘get over it’ issue. One that can only hold for general study anyway. Since a narrow field on Linear-B, all in that field will know each other.
    Dixville Notch, a gorgeous name, worthy of a short story at least. As with Taklamakan, they are words that resonate without knowing one thing about the places. Ghostly, romantic and a tad savage, ready made for the kindly ones.

  2. no-name Says:

    Some have concerns about the generalized notion of peer review witnessed on the internet. In many cases, there is none. In some, the peer editors include anyone who has the willingness to spend the time to do so, evidently independently of competence. In both of those sorts of cases, independently of the underlying content, the results are ephemeral.

    The article or host can disappear overnight. When an article cites a passage in an edition of a work peer reviewed in the traditional way, as conducted by scholars with verifiable qualifications, then if that passage disappears in subsequent editions of the cited work but not the citing essay, the source mentioned in the citing essay can still be traced through library holdings that retain the older works. How is such genetic criticism handled on current bibliographic citation styles pointing to sources for wikied works? There may be, depending on the wiki, edition tracking, and the citation may be, in some limited fashion, sensitive to that. However, it becomes intractable to consider a work with such an approach to citation, for example, in terms of whether its use of passages of the cited works is in a manner appropriate to the original context.

    How many links posted to blogs are tagged in such a way that one could investigate what the sources looked like even just on the day that they were cited? If students cite blogs, how will they know to provide citation details in any superior way than according to the conventions adopted on the blogs?

    The capacity for cited works to change after their citation gives the citing works less solidity than when the same happens to works that appear in their entirety in new editions that are archived. It is worth speculating on the infrequency at which it is possible to begin reading on a wikied topic on one day, examining a link from that topic on the next day, and so on, through a chain of links, for six subsequent days and establish that over the course of the week no edits have been made to the content viewed during that period. This seems to turn all scholarship into scrutinizing public opinion polls, and not just the scholarship of those disciplines which depend on them with face validity.

    If someone wants to pose a question like, “who first recognized having isolated oxygen?” would not that person be better advised to look into the work of someone who is credible as a historian of science than into the results of a popular opinion poll? If the popular opinion polls are safe sources for historians in training, are they also safe for medical doctors in training? Who has not been to a medical doctor and witnessed consultation of a book to look up prescriptions on the basis of symptoms and diagnoses? Would anyone witnessing that feel more secure if the consultation were instead to a moving-target wikied source of information? A reason that the fixed edition is superior is that the lines of accountability are clear when something goes wrong because of an editing error or other error of source, independently of any error of judgement between the edited text and the person making use of it.

  3. “I am not a supporter of the view that information is too precious to be made openly available to the uninitiated, or that it should only be used with the accompanying analysis of someone older and wiser.” I am delighted you are not a supporter of the above view Ferdinand. The above attitude is so snobbish, unjust and arrogant in my opinion. When good information is made available to Human Kind and shared, it enables a tapestry of knowledge and individual unique translation of this information to flow! How exciting is that?

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    The article linked to this post ‘Technology Changing How Students Learn, Teachers Say’ ends with some very interesting remarks: ‘Students saturated by entertainment media, … were experiencing a “supernatural” stimulation that teachers might have to keep up with or simulate. The heavy technology use, Dr. Christakis said, “makes reality by comparison uninteresting.”
    Supernatural hyperbole apart, what is made clear is the pedagogical challenge that every teacher is now facing, I would dispute that what is needed is for education to ‘simulate’ the overstimulation of the entertainment media environment, what is more appropriate instead is for educators to ‘keep up’ with a techno-cultural context where learners increasingly use the web as their first port of call for information. Credibility is not the prerogative of one single medium (print), far from it, even a scant knowledge of media history reveals that much, as the sociologist Frank Webster wrote in the Times Higher not too long ago, ‘Technology is an aid to education, but we must teach students how to evaluate and filter information… we need to combine openness and scepticism towards what is available on the internet (which is decidedly not the same as cynicism). We need to nurture in our students what Howard Rheingold calls “crap detector” tools – capabilities that help users to develop the ability to check authorities. Who owns the site? What is the affiliation of the author? Are sources cited? What qualifications does the writer have?
    So, when it comes to Wikipedia for example our approach should be not too dissimilar from the one described in this short paper by Diane Murley, where research instructors rather than trying to convince students not to use it, should teach them to use Wikipedia properly. This is a very useful read and I warmly recommend it
    Among others one might discover that A Nature study in December 2005 found that an average online Encyclopaedia Britannica article had three errors and an average Wikipedia article had four. And that unlike most other secondary resources, Wikipedia acknowledges that some articles are of better quality than others, and it provides users with information about evaluating articles. Also Wikipedia does not hold itself out as an authoritative source that should be cited. In fact, its article “Academic Use” warns students very clearly that “[i]t is generally considered a bad idea to cite an encyclopedia in academic research papers”; that “any encyclopedia is a starting point for research, not an ending
    point”; and that “all sources have to be evaluated.”

    The literature about the impact of technologies on learning is growing and I hope that universities will soon realize that they cannot hold on to models of learning designed in previous centuries, and to illusory notions of monopoly of knowledge and credibility. New learning journeys need to be devised which respond to a conception of ‘knowledge’ as open and ‘shareable’, to a notion of (virtual) text as infinitely revisable, which eclipses the idea of the ‘definitive’ edition or the ‘enduring’ work. Change of this sort entails a new conception of the same idea and function of the university, one where networks and connectedness are at its core, above all though this entails a new imaginative leap.

    • no-name Says:

      A text which is infinitely revised, in its most general form, by construction, is not self-consistent. Infinite revision includes not merely inconsistency, but infinite reversal — contradiction. From a contraction, anything at all will logically follow. A network committed to self-contradiction may well function as a mutual support group, but could not function well as a source of claims which anyone outside the group might reasonably label, even temporarily, as “knowledge”.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Well, it looks like we differ in our understanding of ‘knowledge’ which, to my mind, is not a static fetish but dynamic not fearful of facing contradictions and inconsistencies, acutely aware of its ephemeral, temporary nature, as Tennyson put it ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’.

        • no-name Says:

          You write, “…. a notion of (virtual) text as infinitely revisable, which eclipses the idea of the ‘definitive’ edition or the ‘enduring’ work. Change of this sort entails a new conception of the same idea and function of the university, one where networks and connectedness are at its core, ….” and “…. ‘knowledge’ which, to my mind, is not a static fetish but dynamic not fearful of facing contradictions and inconsistencies … as Tennyson put it ‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers’.”

          The treatise you implicitly propose to send to the government (“implicitly”, in the form of comments expressed and entailed in this forum, if not also explicitly in communications more directly addressed to the government) in defense of the New University against the unified line of the Russell Group is going to consist of the position that universities (new and old) have a particular claim to producing wisdom, arguing that the core function of universities is to construct cabals of scholars (otherwise, if networks in themselves are all that matter, allo-grooming bonobo groups would be inter-substitutable and less expensive to employ; in general, scholars are merely metaphorically nit-pickers) who cannot make clear the premises on which their arguments depend (because the texts that express them are dynamic, non-finite, inconsistent and self-contradictory), marshalling as evidence (static) lines from a poet who did not complete a university degree and who was not employed as a university scholar but who nonetheless earned sufficient esteem for his intellect and sensibilities to be given a state burial?

          It is not compelling as an argument for the evidently intended purpose of preserving universities. Rather, the argument appears to wield greater force for the opposite purpose. It is convenient that you profess to relish contradictions. Nonetheless, admittedly, it would be a mistake to deny that you will be able to find others who think the argument has merit.

          • Anna Notaro Says:

            The Tennyson’s quote was not meant as academic ‘evidence’ (this is a blog and mine are not treatises but comments) if anything the fact that the poet in question was not employed as a university scholar, as you say, but earned sufficient esteem in the eyes of a nation is in line with my general argument regarding universities’ not having a monopoly on intellectual credibility, also there is nothing static about the lines of a poem, poetry is the language of *e-motions*.

  5. MunchkinMan Says:

    Ferdinand, what IS the academy about (these days)? ‘Cos it seems that the ancient preserve of knowledge (and higher learning) so long contained in noble and traditional centres (aka the academy) is under severe and persistent threat. The threat comes principally from the circumstance where the learner can now get knowledge/information (much of it very detailed and comprehensive, though not without factual error) from the WWW. Information sources can be wrong, of course. So what? Books, heck even professors, can be factually wrong and/or conceptually misguided. It all boils down to what the learner/seeker of knowledge DOES with the information, the wisdom part, the application of knowledege that is consistent with bringing benefits to society and to the world at large. It’s not really how much you know, it’s more of where can you get the information, and what you do with it. Seekers of knowldege (and who isn’t one?): look into your soul – determine HOW you can apply your knowledge to the good. If an academician, seek ways to draw out this virtue from the students (and teachers) in your academy.

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