Tuesday, March 17, 2009

White Bread for Young Minds

Google is "white bread for the mind", and the internet is producing a generation of students who survive on a diet of unreliable information, a professor of media studies claimed

In her inaugural lecture at the University of Brighton, Tara Brabazon will urge teachers at all levels of the education system to equip students with the skills they need to interpret and sift through information gleaned from the internet.

She believes that easy access to information has dulled students' sense of curiosity and is stifling debate. She claims that many undergraduates arrive at university unable to discriminate between anecdotal and unsubstantiated material posted on the internet.

"I call this type of education 'the University of Google'.

"Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments."

"Google is filling, but it does not necessarily offer nutritional content," she said.

Professor Brabazon, who has been teaching in universities for 18 years, said that the heavy reliance on the internet in universities had the effect of "flattening expertise" because every piece of information was given the same credibility by users.

Professor Brabazon's concerns echo the author Andrew Keen's criticisms of online amateurism. In his book The Cult of the Amateur, Keen says: "To-day's media is shattering the world into a billion personalised truths, each seemingly equally valid and worthwhile."

Professor Brabazon said: "I've taught all through the digitisation of education. It's fascinating to see how students have changed. We can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read."

"Students live in an age of information, but what they lack is correct information. They turn to Wikipedia unquestioningly for information. Why wouldn't they - it's there," she said.

Professor Brabazon does not blame schools for students' cut-and-paste attitude to study. Nor is she critical of students individually.

With libraries in decline, diminishing stocks of books and fewer librarians, media platforms such as Google made perfect sense. The trick was to learn how to use them properly.

"We need to teach our students the interpretative skills first before we teach them the technological skills. Students must be trained to be dynamic and critical thinkers rather than drifting to the first site returned through Google," she said.

Her own students are banned from using Wikipedia or Google as research tools in their first year of study, but instead are provided with 200 extracts from peer-reviewed printed texts at the beginning of the year, supplemented by printed extracts from eight to nine texts for individual pieces of work.

"I want students to experience the pages and the print as much as the digitisation and the pixels - both are fine but I want students to have both – not one or the other, not a cheap solution," she said.

The have been concerns about students plagiarising from the internet and the growth of a new online "coursework industry", in which web-sites produce tailor-made essays, some selling for up to £1,000 each.

Wikipedia, containing millions of articles contributed by users was founded in 2001. It has been criticised for being riddled with inaccuracies and nonsense. Even one of its own founders, Larry Sanger, described it as "broken beyond repair" before leaving the site last year.

Google is the dominant search engine on the internet. It uses a formula designed to place the most relevant content at the top of its listings. But a multimillion-pound industry has grown up around manipulating Google rankings through a process called "search engine optimisation".

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