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Do Students Need More Digital Denial?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

For almost any type of research, the Web is a tremendous resource. The evolution of search engine technology has vastly improved our ability to find and retrieve specific information. Today, the standard approach to locating almost any piece of data is to Google it. In fact, Google and other search engines have become so speedy and efficient that, for many, traditional organization approaches are becoming obsolete. For instance, why organize electronic documents, emails, and the like into folders, when they can be easily and quickly found with a search.

Now, I love the Web and, just like almost everyone else, use search engines for information retrieval from it regularly. This is a modern convenience that I truly appreciate. I did, however, grow up before the global Internet. When I was given an assignment in school, as a kid, I did not have a computer, let alone web-based tools like Google at my disposal. If I had to write a report, say, on a historical figure, I could not use an Internet search to locate the information I needed. The students of today, may be quite puzzled about how, in such a long ago age, one might even complete such a routine assignment. They may not appreciate, like I did, the set of World Book encyclopedias that my family proudly owned.

I recently came across an article by Mark Bauerlein, of Emory University. in the Winter, 2009 edition of the Association of Computing Machinery's (ACM's) netWorker magazine entitled "Learn Without The Web." Bauerlein explains how he gave his class an assignment to submit an obituary of a major American author, along with a paragraph summary of the piece. All of his students easily completed the task. When they returned to the next class, however, they were told to repeat the assignment with out any use of the Web. While the first assignment was quite easy for them, they had no idea where to start with the follow-on one.

Bauerlein's intended point to his students was that the research experience is as important as the sought after information itself. For instance, one might go about the task by getting the date of the author's death from an encyclopedia or biography. With a librarian's assistance, they could then find microfilm of newspapers from around that date. In browsing through the microfilm, they would be exposed to headlines and stories that would give them a great deal of context to what else might have have been happening around the date of the obituary. The inefficiency of the information retrieval process, in some ways, actually improves the learning process.

Apparently, most of the students put through this experience do not agree with Bauerlein, however. All of the contextual information that they run across doing it the old way could have been uncovered via search as well. Unfortunately, that is not the way it typically happens. As far back as 2006, AOL reported that 42% of Google searches resulted in a click on the top search result with percentages decreasing quickly with the search result rank. Search engines have become very capable at returning the specific information its users request and its user are not typically clicking beyond the most closely tailored result.

Bauerlein believes that today's students should experience more digital denial and, with it, more knowledge-building. The "No Pain, No Gain" premise also applies to things like homework as well.


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