Is the internet changing the way we think?

Our personal toolkits:

The content of all of our toolkits was fairly similar, consisting of a mix of digital and non-digital learning tools, including both the internet and more traditional research sources. However, Mike and Sam include a lot of interpersonal learning in their toolkits, relying on friends and colleagues for a lot of information, while Mo is more self-reliant.

The most marked difference between the toolkits is in the styles used. Mike and Sam, the D&T students, with strong design backgrounds, both used very structured diagrams to lay out their information in a formal and easy to follow way, while Mo used a completely freeform, artistic style. While Mike’s diagram was a traditional spider chart, with discrete sections, Sam’s was more of a web, with many tools overlapping and looping back.

 

We discussed at length the newspaper article ‘The Internet is changing the way we think’. Thanks to the internet, and the digital age in general, new generations certainly think very differently from previous ones, and the impact the internet is having on our minds is a hot topic at the moment, as proven by the BBC’s coverage of the issue this week.

Our group’s discussion focussed largely  on the idea that people today tend to use the internet excessively for research purposes, but may not use it properly. Man has been making and using tools for thousands of years, and tools make work easier, but used incorrectly a tool can actually make more work, or be a danger. The internet is a useful and powerful tool, giving users access to unprecedented amount of information, but there is too much incorrect information on the internet to accept everything at face value. Multiple sources should always be checked, and only if several sources corroborate information should it be trusted. The user also needs to apply common sense. If information seems incorrect then it might be – we shouldn’t blindly follow technology when our own common sense and experience warn us not to. The number of people who blithely follow the directions their satnavs give them, driving off cliffs and into rivers, is shocking. Just as these drivers should have used a little common sense, so internet users need to do the same when collecting information.

Unfortunately, while adults usually know that not all information on the internet can be trusted, children today, who have grown up using the internet as their primary source of information, often do not take the time to question the information they gather and simply take it at face value. As educators, part of our job will be to teach students to question the information they find and not to rely on a single source of data, and so make the internet a much more useful tool.

Rather than being the be all and end all of research, the internet can be used effectively in conjunction with other sources, such as a person with expert knowledge – perhaps a teacher or professional with experience in the subject of interest – or a book on the subject. A single general question could be researched on the internet, which rather than providing an answer will in fact generate several more specific questions, which can then be taken to the expert, who might give rather general answers. These answers can then be pondered (utilising independent thinking) and then researched further on the internet, generating more questions, which are again taken to the expert. And so the circle continues, until the researcher decides that they have enough information and ends the loop.

We also discussed the fact that, while modern technology often replaces traditional knowledge and skills, it can also be used to teach these skills. Since matches and lighters became cheaply available most people in the developed world are never taught to make fire the way our ancestors did (and the way many indigenous tribes still do). However, thanks to modern technology like television, films and the internet, most of us have seen someone start a fire using traditional methods. If I found myself in the wilderness with no means of starting a fire, I have at least seen it done on screen, so would be able to try to recreate the skill.

 

 

The emergence of the internet has brought about a paradigm shift in the way we gather and use information, forcing us to change the way we think about information, but this isn’t the first such shift: with the invention of writing, for the first time useful information could be written down, rather than conveyed verbally, massively enhancing mankind’s ability to learn and develop new ideas. Thousands of years later the invention of the printing press gave far more people access to books (and therefore information) for the first time. Books often give only one person’s perspective, so it’s wise to consult several sources, and exactly the same is true of the internet. Access to so much information can only be a good thing. The old adage says that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but a lack of knowledge is far more dangerous, and surely the ability to easily and quickly seek out knowledge, from countless sources, is a vital and empowering tool.

 

 

Correctly used, the internet enriches and enhances knowledge just as printed books did in the middle ages.

The question to ask, though, as future educators, is how best to make sure that our students understand how to use the internet to its full potential.

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