Is the Internet Making Us Stupid? The Amazing potential of the Internet.

12 Jul in Education, learning, Technology

The New York Times published two articles about the negative trend of test scores associated with wide spread Internet access. The first article has the detailed information. Essentially the studies looked at either areas where the Internet spread and compared test scores, or in the first case looking at a voucher program for low income families to purchase computers. In all of the cases cited test scores dropped, though in some cases only modestly. There may be a number of factors to consider here. First in the Romanian case this is looking at low income situations only. Second in the case of North Carolina what specifically was the decrease and how widespread was the decrease? Are we talking about a less then 5% drop in test scores or higher? Are we talking about barely more than half of students or over 80% dropped their scores? And the final study was from Texas where they note that test scores were improved in some situations while declining in other areas (so not all negative).

It seems that the one unifying point through all of this is that the Internet can be a colossal waste of time. I certainly agree there. We've all done it. We go on the Internet to check Facebook real fast and 2 hours later finally shut the laptop lid. And who hasn't noticed, before they started filtering, that one person who posted 50 consecutive farmville updates that spanned at least 5 hours. The one thing the Internet is bad at is moderation. There is no limit and no one on the Internet is going to tell you to stop. Whether it is comments or new posts or going through old ones the Internet is limitless. And truly if that were all there was to the Internet (FB and Farmville) then it would be a colossal waste of time. Fortunately there is more to the Internet.

The second article was an op-ed piece by David Brooks. He notes a study that shows that giving students books increases scores, while noting at least the Duke study, mentioned above, to show that the Internet seems to have a negative impact on scores. First this doesn't surprise me. I actually like books and don't see paper books nor the form of a book disappearing ever. Books have survived centuries and I believe they have a vital place to remain for a long time to come. Their physicality may change with the technological revolution, but the form will remain for a long time to come. A personal note I prefer paper books to digital least at the moment. Books also hold a great wealth of culture, history, and knowledge of centuries gone by as well as the present. So David Brooks does well to be happy about books doing so well. I think where he misses the mark is in being so disparaging towards the Internet.

These two studies feed into the debate that is now surrounding Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows.” Carr argues that the Internet is leading to a short-attention-span culture. He cites a pile of research showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people’s abilities to engage in deep thought or serious contemplation.

Carr’s argument has been challenged. His critics point to evidence that suggests that playing computer games and performing Internet searches actually improves a person’s ability to process information and focus attention. The Internet, they say, is a boon to schooling, not a threat.

First that is not the only thing his critics argue. I haven't read "The Shallows", but from what I can tell it is based upon extrapolation on studies like these. It assumes more than it it cites in research. He extrapolates way more than can currently or should currently be done from the research that he cites. To date I haven't read any research that can actually find that link "showing that the multidistraction, hyperlink world degrades people's abilities." Citing Carr's book doesn't make it so. Sure we've all looked at the Internet this way. It is extremely easy to jump a bunch of links and 2 hours later find yourself somewhere completely different and off course and wonder how you got there. We at times do come to Internet and find ourselves distracted by all the links and maybe even a little ADHD, but there really isn't any evidence to date that suggests we are becoming more distracted or more ADD because of the Internet. I don't buy it.

A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation...These different cultures foster different types of learning...But the literary world is still better at helping you become cultivated, mastering significant things of lasting import.

He is right here. The two cultures are wildly different. But both have their place and again I'm not sure that he can extrapolate out of the studies he cites into this. A person who reads may think of themselves this way. But likewise I grew up in this very culture of the Internet. What it taught me was that I could overcome anything. For me the Internet was very much the tool that unlocked my future and I was able to use it to my advantage. I used the very antithesis of Brooks's book culture to my advantage. What Brooks misses is that while the Internet may not be what books are there is still wisdom to be learned and accomplishments to be made. They may not be the same, but one is not inferior to the other. The Internet helped break down the ivory towers of knowledge and make things accessible to anyone anywhere for any reason. There is no gatekeeper or toll to pay. Knowledge is power and I could find it on the Internet. Brooks is confusing meaningless Twitter babble with the real learning potential of computers and the Internet. There most certainly are things of lasting import to be found and learned on the Internet. Books don't hold the market on learning. Perhaps they once did, but that is changing rapidly.

To learn these sorts of things, you have to defer to greater minds than your own. You have to take the time to immerse yourself in a great writer’s world. You have to respect the authority of the teacher.

Right now, the literary world is better at encouraging this kind of identity. The Internet culture may produce better conversationalists, but the literary culture still produces better students.

I don't disagree here. Again I believe books hold great value. Mounds and mounds of culture, and knowledge are captured within the halls of libraries. Books are essential. And they will continue to be so. I work for O'Reilly Media. We are an interesting company, because while our main customer comes right out of that Internet culture that Brooks bemoans they come to us to purchase books about technologies they want to learn about so they can go right back out into the Internet culture. This proves Brooks's statement to an extent. At some point even the Internet crowd must "respect the authority" and find a book to learn. But O'Reilly also shows that it doesn't have to be the physical book and that there is amazing potential in a new type of "Augmented" book that could really help learning.

Perhaps that will change. Already, more “old-fashioned” outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.

And this is where I think he gets it wrong. First when he mentions "old-fashioned." This is where you realize that Brooks is simply talking about making the Internet more like books. In his mind we've reached the panacea of a vehicle for learning and that is in the book form. I really hope that isn't all there is left. You see beyond the distraction of the Internet and within all of those hyperlinks is an augmented learning environment. Back to O'Reilly. They currently offer books for purchase digitally that allow you free upgrades to future editions. One severe limitation to books is they are impossible to update and extremely slow to do so. No one wants to purchase a book only to purchase the same one with a few updates 1 year later. Books are horrible at keeping current, not only with the latest trends, but just with the latest scientific information or latest historical discovery. While the library may be full of wonderful culture and knowledge there is plenty of misinformation or out of date information found within those books as well. As a college student I hated this. Do I really need the second edition? The Internet is updated in real time.

The second limitation to books is that you are limited to what is in that book. O'Reilly is working on books that provide links. Obviously this book will be in digital form, but imagine a book that provides links to samples or links to Wiki where information is constantly being added and updated and where real people can answer your questions. "How does this work?" "Well let me tell you..." These links are to content that is updated in real time. No worries that your book may be copyrighted 3 years ago the link was updated last night. In a world where information is changing and updating constantly that is an essential difference between books and the Internet. secondly the links could provide additional content or content from outside resources. Again I mentioned that I love books. I really do, but I am currently reading a technical book on music cognition. Here the author cites publications with regularity. Of course he cites all the information I need. I can easily go down the library look everything up and probably even get the full study on library loan and dig my way through everything, but imagine if he could also provide a hyperlink. With one click I could find myself at the study ready to review or if not at the study at a place where I could purchase the study. Another issue I am running into is that he cites references to music samples. I read the book on my subway ride to work so I find myself constantly wondering what the music sample actually sounds like. When I get to work or home I often forget to look up the music. However, imagine if he could provide a link to the music sample and with one click I'm listening away on head phones while traveling to work.

All of this is possible, and all of it is what makes the Internet, and new digital media, wonderful and distinct from books, but it is also what makes it distracting and overwhelming. Two people can have access to the same book or same Internet and come away with different experiences. Is one superior to the other? No I believe they both have their place. Again I don't see books, both physical books and the book form, disappearing at all. But I also don't disparage the Internet. A lot of people become overwhelmed with what the Internet can do, and a lot of people, including myself, waste a lot of time on the Internet. But there is a lot of potential on the Internet and a lot of potential to learn on the Internet. What people do with the Internet doesn't diminish what can be done on the Internet. If I had to bet I'd bet on the Internet. Right now the future is wide open and we are in the first baby steps of opening the doors to a greater learning reality through the Internet. The examples above only show how books can be augmented into something better, but the Internet opens doors that were simply impossible before in books. Lets not confuse what some people do or don't do with the Internet and assume that it is inferior or has nothing to offer. The future is open for the Internet, and the book is not closed for "old fashioned" media yet.


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