1464 words free essay on learning in the Internet Age



In the last several years, many observers of education and learning have been stunned by the abundance of information online, the ever-faster fundability of answers, and the productivity of online 'crowds', which have created information resources like Wikipedia and YouTube. There are three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet. First is the idea that the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary. Second is the celebration of the virtues of collaborative learning as superior to outmoded individual learning.

And third is the insistence that lengthy, complex books, which constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual, are inferior to knowledge co-constructed by members of a group. Though seemingly disparate, these three strands of thought are interrelated. Each tends to substitute the Internet for individual learning and knowledge.

The Internet is now the fountain of knowledge and that students need not memorize particular facts such as historical dates. It is enough that they know about the Battle of Plessey without having to memories that it was in 1757. They can look that up and position it in history with a click on Google. This view is common enough among the Wikipedia users who sometimes declare that since the free online encyclopedia is so huge and easy to use, they feel less pressure to commit 'trivia' to memory.

Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet.

Which simultaneously furnishes panoply of unrelated information whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, or millions of other sources of distraction? The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a Person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.

The point is merely that we can now learn less than we have learned in the past, again because the Internet is such a ready mental prosthesis. But to claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of the nature of knowledge. Finding out a fact about a topic is very different indeed from knowing about and understanding the topic.

Reading a few sentences in Wikipedia about some theories on the causes of the Economic Meltdown does not mean that one thereby knows or understands this topic. Being able to read anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study. The Internet will never change that.

Moreover, if you read an answer to a question, you usually need fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer. For example, if you have never memorized any dates, then when you discover from Wikipedia that the Battle of Plessey took place in 1757, this fact will mean absolutely nothing to you. Indeed, you need knowledge in order to know what questions to ask.

The point of a good education is not merely to amass a lot of facts, but to develop judgment or understanding of questions that require a nuanced grasp of the various facts and thereby develop the ability to think about and use those facts. If you do not have copious essential facts at the ready, then you will not be able to make wise judgments that depend on your understanding of those facts, regardless of how fast you can look them up. If public intellectuals can say that the Internet makes learning or memorizing facts unnecessary because facts can always be looked up, then we have come to a very low point in our intellectual culture. In fact, the ability to learn new things is more important than ever in a world where you have to process new information at lightning speed.

Reading, writing, mathematics, and basic science have hardly changed in the last one hundred years. Even accepting that some of our understanding, especially in more advanced education, has been replaced (as in nuclear physics and geography) or refined (as in biology and history), the vast body of essential facts that underline any sophisticated understanding of the way the world works does not change rapidly. Hence, unless one learns the basics in those fields, Goggling a question will merely allow one to parrot an answer not to understand it.

However, there are some new specialized fields such as knowledge management, computer programming, and social media in which there are relatively few basics that everyone is taught, but in most fields, there is certainly a body of core knowledge. To possess a substantial understanding of a field requires not just memorizing the facts and figures that are used by everyone in the field but also practicing, using, and internalizing those basics.

In the new age of Internet, searching is only one way in which the Internet is being made to substitute for the difficult work of developing individual minds. Another way is to suggest, often vaguely, that collaborative work via the Internet makes more traditional modes of study old-fashioned and also unnecessary. The first attack is on the content of learning; the second is on the method.

Online collaborative learning can be an excellent method of exchanging written ideas and obtaining free public reviews of students' work, on wikis. But there is no reason to think that adopting online conversation will necessarily reproduce, in students, either the motivation to pursue interests or the resulting increase in knowledge.

The Internet in general is the greatest educational tool that has been devised since the invention of the printing press. On Internet, you can even listen to another person reading it to you, but you must mentally process it yourself. No one else, certainly no group, can do your reading for you, no matter how helpful they may be in discussing it or summarizing it. Similarly, you may post your essays online in public blogs and benefit from comments others offer, but you will not become well educated unless you engage in the essentially solitary act of writing, no matter how much others may assist you with drafts and no matter how much you may help others with collaboratively written papers.

Similarly, you may get tremendous help solving problems in your math and science classes by working in groups, online or off, but ultimately the knowledge and skills developed are your own. After you have engaged in a study session with others, you had better make sure you can do the problems by yourself. If you cannot, you probably do not understand the material.

We are undergoing a transformation in which it seems that blog and Twitter posts, Wikipedia and YouTube contributions, which arguably weaken our attention capabilities, are becoming dominant in our culture and that more challenging, pre-Internet modes of expression, like books, are going by the wayside. The notion is that knowledge-as-co-created by students is superior to knowledge-as-passed-along-by-teachers-and- books, regardless of quality. Perhaps the accuracy of the information co-created by students does not matter, because as shared information it enjoys a social validity that dusty old volumes and teachers speaking from authority cannot.

Considering the amount of play that collaborative learning and Web 2.0 educational methods have received recently, the merits of online communities have not at all been universally agreed-upon. Wikipedia, YouTube, Face book, and Twitter all have harsh critics. The sheer amount of information and activity in our always-on culture is fracturing our attention and hence our ability to process information.

If the educational proposals and predictions of the Internet boosters are taken seriously, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought. We will be bound by the prejudices of our 'digital tribe', ripe for manipulation by whoever has the firmest grip on our dialogue. Though we find evidence all around us that is pointing at our society moving headlong in that direction, it would be a profound mistake to think that the tools of the Internet can replace the effortful, careful development of the individual mind.