The Internet & Education: Learning Link by Link

You read a lot about how much today’s high school and college students use the internet for studying and doing their homework. You read enthusiastic contributions about how much information the internet makes available to them as compared to a single, ratty textbook, and about the pitfalls of letting unsuspecting kids cherry-pick from a glut of websites – where oftentimes it’s impossible to verify the authenticity and accuracy of information. All of us have heard of the tug-of-war haunting certain wikipedia articles where people try to inject their personal bias or belief, only to be outdone by their opponents…

I have no idea how internet learning will play out in the long run. But I’m getting a taste of what studying with the help of the internet is like, and I think it’s terrific. I mentioned recently that I’m studying for the ASBOG exam (Association of State Boards of Geology) to get my P.G. – Professional Geoscientist license. I probably should have done so ages ago. I might’ve remembered a few more things from college. But you know how it goes.

So I ordered a study guide and am going through it chapter by chapter. I’m finding that there is a lot of material that I need to brush up on, and eventhough I still have a shelf full of books from college, books on just about every subject, I find myself referring to the internet all the time. First of all, it’s quicker to type ‘google.com’ and then the search terms you want to know than paging through any paper index. Can’t remember the formula for Erythrite ? Google will tell you that it’s a hydrated cobalt arsenate, and the first link will tell you it’s Co3(AsO4)2-8(H2O). Wanna remind yourself of the differences between porphyry coppers and Climax-type Mo deposits… go here. Can’t beat that. This type of search works really well for specific, established, undisputed information. In fact, it works so well that – if it weren’t for copyrights – you could put together a complete textbook by culling pages from the web in no time.

I’m thinking that if you have a foundation of knowledge, the internet is a great tool to build on that. Looking up facts is quick. Getting a wide range of definitions or perspectives like you would from reading 12 instead of 1 textbook is great when you’re interested in nuance or expections to the rule once you are familiar with the rules. Clearly the internet is more uptodate than any textbook publisher. Look at all the scientific journals that have gone online rather than waste time with paper copies. But clearly googling for answers to a few questions in geology 101 can’t replace reading the chapters in your textbook. Surfing the web is shrinking our attention span to bonsai size. You want facts, you want them fast. You click on the page and scan for names or numbers without reading the whole page. If the page takes too long to load or has too much text and too little pictures, you go back to google and try the next one. You spend more time trying to save time than it would take to read the stuff in the book. I think that a loss of any serious attention span and a scanning-style mode of learning is more deleterious to the student than the occasional website that deliberately provides incorrect, biased, or distorted information.

It’s often remarked upon that whereas people who authored articles for a paper encyclopedia were recognized experts or authorities, those preparing webpages are not. That may be true. But I haven’t noticed that the information I find on most websites, say for my geology questions, is less clear, accurate or helpful than in a standard textbook. I would, however, worry that looking at only one webpage as compared to a chapter in a book will, in most cases, leave you with a much briefer introduction or explanation to the subject, as most webpages have a tendency to be rather succinct.

Personally, as I am reading, recapping, and remembering, I’m really enjoying myself. Knowing how I might be able to use the internet today as compared to 1992-1998, almost makes me want to go back to school… 🙂

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