Learning in the age of the internet

Forget daddy knows best. If mummy doesn’t know the answer: “Ask Google!” Here we examine some of the common fears around kids’ internet usage, show how to separate fact from fearful fantasy, and provide some handy advice for handling kids’ media usage.

fear 1: by looking things up on the internet all the time, my child will not learn to remember important facts, and her learning will suffer.

There are no two ways about it: the internet and search engines are changing the way we think. Search engines such as Google and Yahoo have made vast amounts of information accessible with a click of a finger, and the internet has become an external memory source that we can access at any time. A study published in Science in 2011 described four experiments that examined how people encode and store information in relation to the internet. In one of these experiments, one group of subjects was made to believe that the facts they were typing were being saved, while another group was told that they weren’t being saved. When the groups were later tested for their memory of these facts, it was not surprising that the group that thought the document was being saved remembered far fewer statements than the other group.

In the second experiment in which the participants were made to save the typed statements, they seemed to remember where trivia statements were saved better than what the trivia statements themselves were in many cases. The researchers saw this as indications that, in the age of powerful search engines, knowing where information is stored is more important than actually remembering the information itself.

While this is just one series of experiments by one group of researchers, it goes to show that the way we remember information is indeed impacted by our access to the internet. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Having a system of storing information outside one’s brain isn’t a new idea – think about telephone directories in every home and filing cabinets in offices.

Take the practical approach then, and remind yourself that unless it is vital that your child remembers information by heart (for example, for a closed book test), a little help from the internet may not be a bad thing. After all, given how ubiquitous internet access has become in the last decade with the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and other portable devices, it’s not unreasonable to think that being able to source, select and process information appropriately would be a more important skill than remembering this information in one’s head.

fear 2: kids growing up with the internet are thinking differently, and with the instant gratification of the internet, probably not deeply enough. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

American journalist, Nicholas Carr, wrote in the Atlantic Monthly: “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr alludes to the fact that it is in fact possible to have internet-based reading interfere with our ability to delve deeply into a topic in the way we use to in the old days. (But as he later points out, people have resisted every form of technological advancement since the beginning of time.)

But what does all this mean for parents? Do everything you can to get your child hooked on reading at a young age. By reading, I mean reading the old fashioned way – staring at a book while stuck in a bach on a rainy day, with no internet access within cycling range. Teach them to enjoy picturing the story and descriptions in their head without the aid of videos and countless hyperlinks, and give them a chance to really get into it by removing internet access at home for long stretches.

fear 3: in researching only online, my child may not get the most accurate or even the most appropriate information.

There was a time when literacy referred to the ability to read and write, and numeracy referred to the fundamental ability not to get cheated on the bar tab, amongst other places. Not too many years ago, we first heard the term media literacy, which often boiled down to the ability to discern fact from fiction, and truth in advertising. A recent addition to the list is the idea of digital literacy: the ability to effectively and critically navigate, evaluate and perhaps even create information using a range of digital technologies. This is particularly important today, because the internet has led to a proliferation of sources claiming to be authoritative; with some sincere in their claims, while others are funded by organisations with specific agendas.

The thing about digital literacy is that parents have to start teaching it much like teaching your child to read. But what would you teach? Alongside clues on spotting paedophiles and avoiding cyber bullying, start talking about the simple stuff about what makes information reliable. We all know that just because something appears on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s true, but kids may need to learn that. As kids get older, teach them to ask themselves: Who’s hosting this blog or writing this article? Is it on the official pages of a respected university, or the site of a less-mainstream, fringe group? Does the page cite articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, or unsubstantiated opinions of individuals? How can you tell the difference? Teach them that while opinions matter, they are not the same as scientifically-derived facts.

Teach them to use different words and extract key terms from other writings so they can target their research, and read the related information to verify the accuracy of what they’re reading. They should be able to cross-reference their findings, and look at indicators of the accuracy, credibility, currency and objectivity of the articles they read. Even though Wikipedia is a useful tool, it’s not completely error-free. Since it requires all statements to have references, it’s important to check those out when using its articles for serious research.

A good way to influence your child’s learning and understanding is to get involved in the web-surfing experience alongside your children.


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