Web-based information spans the spectrum from junk to sterling

18 November 2011 , Educational Issues

We often hear the adage that our world is very different from that of our parents’, and that today’s generation thinks and behaves very differently from yesterday’s. Isn’t that always true of any period? Yes, but I recently read an article where an expert was estimating that 65 per cent of today’s youth, after they graduate, will be holding jobs that have not yet been invented.

There is no question that the digital revolution (the internet, web 2.0, web 3.0…) will have played a central role in that transformation, and if our students are to lead positive and satisfying lives, we had better understand how they think and adapt the educational system and curriculum to today’s (digital) lifestyles and methods.

Smartphones, computers, and digital networks (wi-fi, intranets, etc.) have invaded our lives, and most importantly those of our children. Students have gotten addicted to their digital devices, unable to keep away from their “connections” more than an hour, sometimes much less. Last November, an article in the New York Times told of a 14-year old girl who sends and receives 900 messages a day.

In terms of education effects, this constant interactivity and instant gratification (“I click and something happens”) has led to dwindling attention spans; most children are now constantly prone to distraction and time waste, much more than TV did to our generation.

Researchers in child psychology tell us that youngsters’ brains are being wired differently — and permanently — as they get so used to constant interactivity, multitasking, continuous networking and immediate reaction. More than 50 per cent of students these days do homework while on some digital media. With these fundamental transformations, parents, schools, and social institutions are trying to cope and to react. There is no going back to the “old” (20th century) lifestyles. We must look for ways to make positive use of these digital revolutions, not to deny them or to block them — and this includes the educational arena.


From an optimistic perspective, experts say that children are developing remarkable cognitive skills from the digital world.

First, they no longer use their own memories, believing that everything is “out there” (in cyberspace) and can be accessed instantly; why then reserve any brain space for it? Absolutely!

Secondly, everything in their worldview is open-access and free to share; copyright is a dubious concept for them. Correct? Absolutely not! This needs our clarification/education. What one creates is one’s own property, and not everything can just be grabbed.

Thirdly, all information is digital and online. Right? Not quite! We need to educate our students that first, web-based information spans a vast spectrum of value, from junk to sterling, and libraries, with their well developed tools, are the real repositories of knowledge. There is a huge difference between information and knowledge. Wikipedia is useful but should never be our sole source of content. Unfortunately, educators everywhere are seeing students just go to Wikipedia and copy-paste from it, and most students rarely go beyond the first 10 links given by Google for a given search.

This is very unfortunate, because students can really learn to use the “wiki” method (collaboratively producing and improving on some work) more actively, instead of the passive copying down of already posted information on a Wikipedia page. They can learn to use chat platforms for debating an issue, learning from each other, and coming up with new ideas and avenues of research. They can learn to use blogs as drafts of essays through which they receive feedback from peers instead of merely reporting on their personal lives.

We educators must remember that one of the main objectives of education is to make students learn how to learn, individually and collectively, to develop their own minds and spirits and to become better members of society. And the digital world has the potential to help achieve that.

Several years ago, I proposed to my university administrators a fully online version of the astronomy course that I had been teaching the “usual” classroom way. In the proposed format, students would not see me in person; all interaction would take place online. The administrators logically asked: why? If the students are here on campus, why don’t you want to meet them? My answer was: I want them to learn how to later, after graduation, take a course from a faraway institution, and the e-learning paradigm will be a great opportunity for them if they have experienced it before. There was some concern about examinations, and in the end we settled on a format where all the learning was conducted online and the tests were taken in class.

I believe that educators and policymakers need to take full account of the digital revolution that is currently transforming our world. We need to find ways to use it positively. We need to prepare our children for a different and fast-changing world.