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Are today's students too hooked up on shortcuts to internet knowledge that they no longer read original materials?

Updated Thursday, 10th July 2014
The Internet is transforming our lives and not always for the better, writes Dick Skellington.

Cartoon of a hand holding a pen crushing a computer mouse while the computer looks sad and a smiling book looks on

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine, a very eminent journalist, told me that according to Wikipedia, he died last year. He read his entry and was rather bemused to find several inaccuracies and questioned whether if they could get it wrong for him, how right were the entries for other people and the vast range of ideas and topics embraced by a phenomena which many of us access from time to time as a short-cut to knowledge.

But what about its role in education, especially higher education: have Wikipedia and other digital sources such as SparkNotes transformed the way students study, and by implication, students with The Open University?

It seems, if Professor Orlando Figes is right, that increasingly students might leave the university of the future without the benefits of deep engagement with important books and sources, and with an error strewn understanding of their subject area. Original works may not be accessed at all as students seek more convenient second-hand interpretations, and rely on extracts, and analyses provided by someone else.

Figes, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, claims that more and more students complete their degrees without reading any book from cover to cover. Instead today's students are using facilities like Wikipedia, and secondary sources in digital libraries, or book extracts prepared by lecturers.

The Web is an incredible resource for today's students but used as the dominant learning resources, it exposes the student to the risk of plagiarism, and limits their knowledge horizons, especially if the material accessed is prone to inaccuracy and error. If Figues is right, why might this be happening, apart from the growing pains of all of us adapting to the new digital age.

He wrote in the Times Educational Supplement: 'we don't have time to read whole books. There are quicker ways to get the information needed for an essay, and other things to do at university'. He also cited social networking as one of the most significant modern barriers to learning.

Figes' argued that his students learned how to study using other sources while preparing for their school examinations, and have simply continued the practice at University. Today's students are encouraged to scan texts to pass tests and no longer 'read in ways that advance understanding and knowledge'.

He interviewed students and found that many of them did not see the point of wasting time with books. He also found that students had a reduced attention span from over use of the internet, especially playing computer games.

He warned that online guides hold 'real dangers' for students. A quick check of one area of his expertise, the Russian Revolution, using digital sources, showed 'alarming number of mistakes, misapprehensions and misleading statements that would never have appeared in a textbook written by an expert in the field'.

Figes hopes that historians, and other academics, agree to put their original material on the internet so that students can access it direct and stimulate engagement. In some ways the Open University is already doing this and has been doing it for years, but here too, the University has had to develop a plagiarism policy to try and deter students from simply cutting and lasting other people's work.

Worryingly for universities in the future it is not just students that may be affected by the spread of the internet. Its impact might be more wide ranging on higher education. Students who go on to become academics may write badly, because their incompetence was already beyond remedy when they reached university, or perhaps because lecturers have no time, or stomach, to teach good English.

Food for thought.

Further resources

Orlando Figes website

How to avoid plagiarism

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
Want to know more about studying social sciences at The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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