Deadhead virus stalks students

January 9, 1998

The virulent organism Surfobacter necrocognos is a threat to human knowledge. It attacks habitual Internet users, destroying the mind's ability to decide what information it needs to support the acquisition of knowledge. Victims lose the ability to move purposefully in a chosen direction, exhibiting random sideways movements and uncontrollable twitches.

Advanced cases are incapacitated by a massive accumulation of intellectual waste material.

Universities are an ideal breeding ground for Surfobacter, and the organism's ability to destroy learning skills is particularly ominous for students.

In this story the only imaginative touch is the medical metaphor. The rest is serious.

The Web is not a teaching tool. It can be a very valuable learning support tool, but we do need to look at how the Web helps or hinders the development of the knowledge and skills required for courses and for lifelong learning.

For example, business and information technology students in higher education are likely to be learning how to find ways to resolve complex business problems and for this they should have acquired a range of learning skills in secondary education.

They should be able to take a problem environment, understand why and how the problems arise, and formulate a number of possible solutions; then determine what facts and other information are needed and gather them in as efficient a manner as possible; finally summarise, analyse or distil information and discriminate between different sources and their offerings.

Surfobacter strikes when people use the Web actively to seek information about a subject or range of subjects. What you find on the Web is a load of sound bites and other summaries. It is not a glass textbook. You go there to find condensations and distillations, and to be amazed by multimedia presentation gimmicks. You do not condense or summarise (it is done for you). You do not discriminate: you wade through all the irrelevant stuff in order to isolate the few gems that you need. While searching, you do not maintain a route map (which would let you recover if you were sidetracked and got lost). Eventually, you lose the ability to examine a large chunk of information, summarise it and then pick out what you need.

A resistant individual would have a number of defence mechanisms. These include the ability to formulate a clear statement of what knowledge is sought and what information is required to support this; the single-mindedness to pursue a tunnel-vision search for supporting information and reject any pointers to irrelevant information; having gathered a range of information, to be able to evaluate, summarise and discriminate between differing opinions and supporting facts - to be able to find information efficiently and use it efficaciously.

Education does not seem to have bred this kind of resistant host. And the Web is a dangerous place for the unprotected.

Search engines are becoming daily more sophisticated but it will be some time before they have sufficient artificial intelligence to filter out the irrelevant information on which Surfobacter thrives.

So how can we help students to acquire the knowledge and skills to do it properly? In the old days the student was set "boring" and "pointless" tasks such as: compare and contrast the characters of the Archbishop of York and John of Gaunt; write an essay on "string"; produce a one-page precis of this three-page article. The vehicle for the problem may have been irrelevant, but the learning skills acquired were not: they forced students to summarise and develop critical faculties.

While I am not recommending Shakespeare as a panacea, we must recognise that we have a duty, either at school or early on in the university course, to ensure that students know why they should use the Web and how to use it properly. Otherwise, unless a self-immunising host mutation arises, Surfobacter attack will become pandemic and we will end up with a student population who can surf skilfully while learning nothing.

Martin Gandoff (martin. gandoff@tvu.ac.uk) is a senior lecturer in business systems at Thames Valley University.

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