Intellectual Undernourishment?

Research Light From: The Times 14/01/08

Google is “white bread for the mind”, and the internet is producing a generation of students who survive on a diet of unreliable information, a professor of media studies will claim this week.

She believes that easy access to information has dulled students’ sense of curiosity and is stifling debate. She claims that many undergraduates arrive at university unable to discriminate between anecdotal and unsubstantiated material posted on the internet.

“I call this type of education ‘the University of Google’.

“Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments.

I first read this article in the Times last week on an early morning journey to Portsmouth of all places. I’ve done a shocking amount of travelling this month with more still to come, worryingly. But I digress. Since then, I’ve read a whole host of articles concerning the growing problem that schools, colleges and universities are facing in respect of plagiarism and the ‘coursework industry’ (the multitude of websites who charge pupils for downloading completed essays etc.) The university which I attended as an undergraduate adopted a particularly hard-line stance on plagiarism and virtually from day 1, we were drilled in what did and did not constitute plagiarism and how to ensure we avoided it. From what I’ve heard on the grapevine, this is not true of all law faculties.

But as many of the articles point out, ignorance and lack of pupils’ understanding re. citing the work of others is most probably to blame. While there will always be a minority of cheats, scoundrels and lazy-ar*es, the vast majority of pupils/students plagiarise through lack of knowledge – nothing else.

As regards the internet and the easy access to information it affords, I couldn’t disagree more with the argument that it is ‘dulling students’ sense of curiosity’. In fact, from my experience, the opposite holds true. I’m much more inclined to investigate a topic that before I would have shied away from because library based research techniques would have taken too long. The benefits of being able to look up an answer quickly, on the fly as it were, are huge. The fact that extra care need be taken with some sources is neither here nor there, quite frankly.

Granted, too many students may rely too heavily on Google search results, Wikipedia and dubious, unsubstantiated sources. But guidance and education on sifting the wheat from the chaff is the answer – not returning to wholesale library sources exclusively. Frankly, the world has changed and used correctly the internet has revolutionised research, making it faster, easier, richer and more current. The small trade off in reliability when used carelessly is nothing compared to the advantages it offers.

White bread for the mind?! Humph! It’s more like a healthy wholemeal to go.

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