Web threatens learning ethos

June 22, 2007

US expert condemns the ‘Google grab-bag’ of modern students’ study methods. Chloe Stothart reports

Are you a Googlista or an avid Wikipedian?

Then you may be surprised to find that your favourite resources could be helping to create a gen­eration of “intellectual sluggards”, according to a former president of the American Library Association. Michael Gorman, who was once in charge of libraries at several US universities and is former head of the Office of Bibliographic Standards in the British Library, said too many students believed research was “hit-and-miss consultations of the Google grab-bag”. 

Academics who endorsed the use of the collectively authored online encyclopaedia Wikipedia in coursework were “the intel­lectual equivalent of a dietitian who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything,” he said.

Writing on the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog, he said there was a danger that young people would stop using texts found in libraries or on the subscription-only websites that search engines such as Google tend not to retrieve.

He said: “There is a present danger that we are ‘educating’ a generation of intellectual sluggards incapable of moving beyond the internet and of interacting with — and learning from — the myriad texts created by human minds over the millennia and perhaps found only in those distant archives and dusty file cabinets full of treasures unknown.” Mr Gorman said that internet-based learning and a growing culture of teachers and students learning together threatened traditional academic­ ­authority.

He reserved particular criticism for the encyclopaedia Wikipedia, to which anyone can contribute regardless of credentials, as a manifestation of the “flight from expertise”.

He also decried plagiarism, which he linked to a wider disrespect for intellectual property in the digital age, including illegal copying of music files.

If society “maintained a respect for the creations of individual minds” then there would be less plagiarism, even though digital resources can make it easier to cheat.

His views received a mixture of support and criticism both on the Britannica blog and from ­academics.

Jenny Fry, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, said academics were using Google and some were citing Wikipedia in their work.

“You cannot say children are intellectually lazy because they are using the internet when academics are using search engines in their research,” she said. “The difference is that they have more experience of being critical about what is retrieved and whether it is authoritative. Children need to be told how to use the internet in a critical and appropriate way.”

Will Murray, director of the Joint Informations Systems Committee’s Plagiarism Advisory Service, said: “At one time all the information was peer-reviewed journals — so quality was guaranteed, whereas now students need the skills to say whether sources are authoritative. It is not necessarily laziness, just a need for new skills.”

Nicola Pratt, lecturer in comparative politics and international relations at the University of East Anglia, is assessing her masters students in Middle Eastern politics on editing and writing pieces on the subject for Wikipedia.

She said: “In order to achieve good marks, students found that editing existing articles forced them to read academic books and journal articles extensively and to be more analytical. Moreover, none of my students found this an easy or quick exercise.

“Rather than digital resources encouraging students towards intellectual laziness, they present new possibilities for encouraging good scholarship.”

Ben Fairweather, research fellow in the centre for computing and social responsibility at De Montfort University, said students had always been able to be lazy if they wished, but the internet had helped to take the “drudgery out of producing good work” for good students and academics. He also added: “As an editor of an academic journal, I have not seen any evidence that academics are getting sloppy or using these sources excessively.”

Andrew Keen, an author on the problems posed by the web who responded to Mr Gorman’s blog post, said the idea espoused by resources such as Wikipedia that all contributions were of equal value represented a “very profound challenge” to the position of academic expertise and authority.

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