Saturday, November 23, 2002

Point. Click. Think?
As Students Rely on the Internet for Research, Teachers Try to Warn of the Web's Snares

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 16, 2002; Page C01

It is 2 a.m. and Daniel Davis, a University of Maryland freshman, has not even started his English paper on biological warfare, due that day.

No problem. He'll just do what he has done before a dozen times or more. He sits down at his computer in his dorm room, signs on to Yahoo's search engine and begins his quest. Six hours and several bags of chips later, the paper pops out of his printer, complete.

He doesn't consider visiting the campus library or opening a book. Why should he? "You can find whole pages of stuff you need to know on the Web, fast," he says.

So Davis is a procrastinator. So what? Professors are used to that. But six hours? That's a whole new kind of extreme.

Welcome to the world of Net thinking, a form of reasoning that characterizes many students who are growing up with the Internet as their primary, and in some cases, sole source of research. Ask teachers and they'll tell you: Among all the influences that shape young thinking skills, computer technology is the biggest one.

"Students' first recourse for any kind of information is the Web. It's absolutely automatic," says Kenneth Kotovsky, a psychology professor at Carnegie-Mellon University who has examined the study habits of young people.

Good? Bad? Who knows? The first popular Internet browser, Netscape, came out only about a decade ago. What we do know after millennia of training minds in scholarly disciplines is that something has changed and it's not apt to change back.

On the good side, Net thinkers are said to generate work quickly and make connections easily. "They are more in control of facts than we were 40 years ago," says Bernard Cooperman, a history professor at the University of Maryland.

But they also value information-gathering over deliberation, breadth over depth, and other people's arguments over their own.

This has educators worried.

"Seven years ago, I was writing about the promise of digital resources," says Jamie McKenzie, a former school superintendent and library director who now publishes an e-zine on educational technology. "I have to say I've been disappointed. The quality of information [on the Internet] is below what you find in print, and the Internet has fostered a thinner, less substantial thinking."

The problem is no longer plagiarism of huge downloaded blocks of text -- software can detect that now, when a teacher enters a few lines of a paper. The concern is the Internet itself.

Marylaine Block, a librarian and Internet trainer in Iowa, is blunt: "The Internet makes it ungodly easy now for people who wish to be lazy."

In the Shallows

Jeffrey Meikle, chairman of the American studies department at the University of Texas, sees the new world every time he walks into the main library on the Austin campus. There, where the card catalogue used to be, sit banks of computer terminals.

"My students are as intelligent and hardworking as ever," he says, "but they wouldn't go to the library if there weren't all those terminals."

All Web resources are not equal, of course.

What aficionados call "the deep Web," including subscription services such as Nexis and JSTOR, enables students to find information that is accurate, thorough and wide-ranging.

"I think the Internet encourages intellectual thinking," says Nora Flynn, a junior at Maryland. "You can go to so many sources, find things you never heard of. It forces me to think globally."

But many students don't have access to these costly, sophisticated resources or don't know how to use them. This leaves them relying on the free Web, a dangerous place to be without a guide.

Anyone can post anything on the free Web, and anyone frequently does. A student who typed "Thomas Jefferson" into the Google search engine would get 1.29 million hits; rap star Eminem would bring up 1.37 million. Narrowing one's search to certain words may not help. The gamelike quality of screen and mouse encourages students to sample these sources rather than select an appropriate text and read deeply into it or follow an argument to its conclusion. The result is what Cooperman, who teaches both Davis and Flynn at Maryland, calls "cocktail-party knowledge."

He's the model of a man of books: short-sleeve shirts, glasses, slight stoop, a pensive air. "The Web is designed for the masses," he says. "It never presents students with classically constructed arguments, just facts and pictures." Many students today will advance an argument, he continues, then find themselves unable to make it convincingly. "Is that a function of the Web, or being inundated with information, or the way we're educating them in general?"

Entering the Web

If students cannot come up with their own ideas, cut-and-paste technology allows them to lift someone else's sentences or phrases with ease.

Jeana Davis, a ninth-grade teacher in Arlington, says students frequently don't see anything wrong with this. "They'll say, 'I changed the words around.' And I'll say, 'But it's not your original thought.' "

Superficial searching habits can have tragic consequences, illustrated last year at Johns Hopkins University. A physician-researcher performed a test of lung function on a healthy 24-year-old woman, administering a large dose of a particular chemical. The woman then died of lung and kidney failure. The doctor had searched online for information about the drug but had failed to turn up any literature warning of its dangers -- information that medical librarians later did find online after the woman died.

Students can avoid such mistakes by asking for help from those trained to give it, but some young inquirers say they've done that and are merely waved over to the digital section of a library. Librarian Marylaine Block concedes that can happen, particularly since staff positions at many libraries have been cut.

Bonnie Kunzel, teen specialist at the Princeton Public Library, says students "will walk into our library and spend 30 minutes on the Internet trying to find out how a cobbler worked in Colonial America. I'll walk over and ask, 'Want to try a book now?' "

When students do come across something of interest, they may not be able to detect the author's bias because Web prose, unlike the writing in serious books and journals, often appears with only the slimmest of attribution, if any. This can introduce a certain naivete into their writing.

The Net has a kind of magical quality that leads younger students to say to librarians such as Block, "It has to be true. If it weren't true, they wouldn't let it be there." Says Block, "I have to tell them there is no 'they.' "

History teacher Davis, at Washington-Lee High School, recalls sitting down at the computer with a student who was researching Christopher Columbus's effect on the Americas. The student had found a convincing essay by an author taking Columbus to task for his treatment of Native Americans.

"Then we found another essay contradicting that," Davis says. "I asked the student, 'Who is right?' He couldn't tell, and neither could I."

Teachers like Davis spend class time teaching their Net thinkers how to read and think more critically. "I tell them, 'Don't take any Web site for granted. Who was the author? What authority does he or she have? Does the author have an agenda?' "

Maryland's Cooperman engaged a group of summer school students in a similar discussion earlier this month. The course was titled "History of the Jews I" and covered the period from the Bible through the Middle Ages.

Find a scholarly article on an issue in Jewish history, he told the students, suggesting that the best way to do that would be to visit the campus library and "touch books."

After receiving teacher approval of their articles, Cooperman's students summarized and evaluated the articles' arguments and then used the Web to find further sources. Cooperman told them to evaluate the usefulness of the Web sources compared with the scholarly material.

Their Web work turned up contradictions, errors and extraneous material. Nora Flynn, exploring the female Talmudic scholar Beruriah, noted in class that the scholarly article talked about Beruriah as a late invention, a composite of several women scholars. Web sources that she found through the popular search engine Google referred to Beruriah as one woman, she said.

Student Lauren Steely said the Internet sites he looked at presented lots of facts but got the dates wrong. Amy Newman, researching anti-Semitism in Europe at the time of the Black Death, brought up more than 2,000 sites on Google, "but the first 30 were useless. Just poems and songs. Then there was one story that looked like a kindergartner had written it."

"Or maybe it was a basketball player from Duke," Cooperman quipped, drawing a laugh from everybody who roots against Maryland's arch-rival.

Daniel Davis noted that several popular search engines place at the top of their lists the sources that have paid them the most money. This would be like a library prominently displaying only those books whose publishers paid for the privilege, and Davis knows it. But it doesn't stop him from using those search engines.

It only makes him, and young people like him, skeptical about information sources wherever they're found, including books.

"College students are quite aware that they can't trust what they read," says Meikle at Texas. "They're drawn to sites that are ironic or sarcastic, poking fun at perceived truths."

Not that long ago, Meikle continues, a person who wrote a book was assumed to be an authority. "Now, when anybody can have a Web site on any topic, then everybody is an expert, which means nobody is."

Cooperman says this is not necessarily a good thing for students. They "assume everyone is a liar." Shallow thinking is one result, he says. Another is the unwillingness among some students to take a strong position themselves lest they be battered by classmates for their ideas.

Students who are not urged to "touch books" often don't realize how much information is not on the Internet. According to Block, only about 15 percent of all information -- books, periodicals, government documents -- is found there. The full texts of articles from most academic journals, for example, are not online nor are most current books. Because of copyright laws, a lot of information may never make it to the Net, Block says, which is why she and other librarians worry about lawmakers who slash library budgets or propose eliminating libraries altogether, saying, "Why do we need them? Everything's on the Internet."

And so the problem feeds on itself, encouraged by legislators.

Net Gains

Even the most vocal Net critics say it has aided learning in some ways. Students no longer have to wrestle with microfilm machines or wait at the circulation desk for books placed on reserve. Instead, they wander through the information landscape. Jamie McKenzie calls them "free-range students." Philosopher John Dewey, the proponent of student-driven education, would be proud.

Allison Druin, an education professor who runs the human-computer interaction lab at Maryland, says even younger children can create something new on their own Web sites. In her laboratory, children ages 7 to 11 work with professors designing software that kids their age can use when querying the Internet.

"The Internet is a tool, but it's also something they can make an addition to," says Druin. "That's pretty powerful stuff for a kid."

"I see kids much more able to construct on their own," she continues. "They used to look at us and ask, 'What's our next step?' Now we say, 'Here's the goal, here are our resources, here's our timeline,' and they take off.'"

Meikle, at the University of Texas, observes the same phenomenon. His best undergraduates come up with new takes on old subjects as quickly as graduate students did years ago, he says. "I don't think you can come up with something original unless you have an array of things to look at, and the Internet certainly gives you that," he says. "It isn't collaging, it's building something new."

Book Learnin'

One would like to think that this self-confidence and creativity will produce adult citizens eager to participate in society and tackle its problems.

When Jeana Davis at Washington-Lee makes an assignment, she directs students to Web sites they might not know about but that she has already approved. If students want to use another site, they must win Davis's approval.

She requires students to use at least three books on any assignment, not including encyclopedias. She checks their work during each project, looking for originality and depth.

Cooperman at Maryland suggests books, first, to any student who asks him for help. He also offers extra credit to students who do research in the library, according to Daniel Davis, who likes getting bonus points for doing what students took for granted only a decade ago.

"Sitting in the library is a lot better than sitting on the Internet," he says, even though he's not exactly a frequent visitor to the main campus library. "If you go into the library, you have to take apart a topic and you become sort of an expert. Sitting on the Internet you don't actually learn anything."

The place he does visit, as a music major, is the performing arts library. "I can sit for hours there looking at books and things, with no particular goal in mind."

That's post-Net thinking, says McKenzie, a realization that digital is not enough, that grazing is good, but great ideas require deep reading, incubation and contemplation. He believes today's students are headed in that direction if grown-ups take seriously their assigning, as well as advising, role.

"For decades we've been doing topical research," he complains. "Schools say, 'Go find out all about Molly Pitcher.' That's an invitation to scoop it up, to write stuff they already know. We should be encouraging kids to research the difficult truth. Let's tell them a woman has been diagnosed with breast cancer and has five doctors recommending different treatments. What would they do?"

But do school systems really want students using the same tools to question current proprieties and conventional wisdom? Teach kids to be critical thinkers and they'll be sending it right back at the teacher in the classroom.

There is much to worry about.

Up to a point. Libraries have a longstanding appeal that goes beyond the antique, baby's-breath smell of books and the sense of exploration, spelunking through the stacks. Few students can get through college untouched by this experience, whether they know it or not.

"There's something in a library that makes you feel like an intellectual," said Amy Newman. "You can wear glasses, look like Dr. Cooperman. When you read, the books have such nice writing."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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