Today I as I was driving into school I glanced over to the passenger seat and noticed that my daughter Sophie was finishing up her biology homework. Whenever she didn’t know an answer, she just looked it up on the Internet using her phone. Boy, have times changed.
In the early 1980’s when I was in high school, the only homework helpers inside my house were family members and a set of World Book Encyclopedias my mom bought for us in 1973. The Vietnam War hadn’t even ended when these books were published! Options were limited if I got stuck on my homework.
Here were my options:
- Phone a friend. This meant searching through the white pages of the phone book first if I didn’t have the number written down or memorized. If the friend’s last name was “Smith” or “Jones”, god forbid, I would have to call all 47 of them until I hit the right one. Then I would have to pray that I didn’t get the dreaded busy signal. (My kids are baffled by this sound when they hear it on the phone!)
- Drive to the library, struggle with the card catalog and Dewey decimal system and then search for the info in a book…or on the microfiche.
- Get to school early and hope someone could help me there.
- Make up a fake answer.
- Search up the answers on the Internet.
- Watch a video from Khan Academy explaining how the problem is solved or the way something works.
- Skype with one of her sisters in college for a face-to-face tutorial.
- Email her teacher. Some teachers even give out their phone numbers so students can text them with questions.
- Text a friend for assistance…or sister number two who is a math major.
As a teacher and a mother, I love that students have so many avenues of information readily available to them. I teach all of my classes in a computer lab so I work hard to make good use of the Internet and all it has to offer kids. However, there are two major drawbacks that I’ve discovered.
Number one, it is very easy to plagiarize and/or cheat. Plagiarism is a problem that I battle constantly in my classroom. It is just SO easy for students to copy and paste work from the Internet into their own documents. I frequently remind them, though, that it is just as easy for me to catch them. And I do, thank you Google. I like to tell them that in the good old days of the World Book encyclopedia, it was easier to summarize than to plagiarize. Hand copying, word for word, took too much time!
The second drawback I see to having so many sources of information available is that the amount of thinking a student has to do can be limited. This morning as I watched my daughter look up answer after answer on “awesome” sites like WikiAnswers and copy them onto her paper, I thought to myself, Is she actually learning anything? Probably not. Teachers know kids take these shortcuts so our challenge as educators is to craft as many assignments as possible that maximize higher-level thinking skills.
Learning online is fun and engaging for kids, but boy, I sure did love reading and flipping through those World Book encyclopedias when I was a kid. Perhaps I’ll bring them in for show and tell one day. I’m sure my middle school students will be delighted to hear how it was back in the Stone Age.