Agony aunt

October 5, 2001

Q. What do students do on the web? And if it is what I think it is, should I stop it - or join in?

A. Like any learning environment, the worldwide web offers a feast of enriching educational opportunities to the consumer. Sex, drugs and rock and roll are of course available, but so is a wealth of information on a massive variety of learned topics - health, politics, economics and science.

Yet given the multi-million-pound investment into providing web access for students, I think your question on use is valid.

To find out anecdotally how students use the web, just pop into any internet cafe or university computer lab. Some will be doing academic research, but many will be playing games, chatting in chat rooms, downloading music files, trawling for information about illicit substances and scouring sex-related sites. Some will even be using the web to cheat.

So is such activity a bad thing? A useful question to ask yourself is - what counts for learning?

Students playing games might well be improving their mouse and keyboard skills, some downloading music files might be studying media and music-related subjects. Some chatting in chat rooms might be undertaking a discourse analysis.

The dilemma is just like student surfing library shelves and finding all sort of interesting books that are not directly related to the assignment they are working on, but might be very valuable to their learning.

So the bigger question is can we or should we be patrolling the minds of our students? Trying to stop such web wandering is like trying to act like King Canute and students will generally find a way to overcome such restrictions - unless, of course, we stopped providing access in the first place.

Join in or not, the choice is yours, so long as you recognise your own responsibilities for any consequences, favourable or unfavourable.

Mike Cook
Associate dean
St Bartholomew School of Nursing and Midwifery
City University

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