Online Content as “Continuous Conversations”

We must always grapple with the issue of how to make education meaningful, purposeful, and significant for every student. No matter the millennia, I believe humans will always be prone to dazzling distractions and self-serving entertainment or knowledge. Time has shown us that technology affords us new, exciting learning experiences, but that does not mean the learning will stick: Baron shares his memory of education programs on the radio in class, “though I don’t remember any of the programs we heard.” Yes, we have a new technology, computers, to help and hurt learning in the classroom, but it is not as if history has not seen this before.

Carr contends that today’s technology, or “Google” as a general catch-all, is making humans stupid. While I agree that we have many more diverse concerns in the classroom (How do we get students to read and appreciate a novel when they can find a dozen suitable summaries online? How can we capture students’ focus in the classroom on a single topic when that is not what the internet provides or demands of them at any other time?) I have to argue that our students are learning to efficiently find what they need at any time. It is not such a bad thing if our students do not remember everything they read. Indeed, have students ever? There is more of an emphasis now not on “knowing things” but on “knowing how to find things”.  The fact is, Carr is swayed more by personal anecdotes and the possibility of future long-term studies on brain function, than he is by any actual facts (though we can argue yet again: what are facts anymore in today’s society?)

Claburn has produced an article, both in name and in content, that provides a diametrically opposing view to Carr. “Is Google Making Us Smarter” suggests that “searching the Internet may help improve brain function.” I have to admit, it sounds as though Carr and Claburn are actually arguing similar things, but wording them in different ways to prove their points. Carr might well say that brain function is changing for the worse, as we quickly glaze over content and barely focus or remember any one thing; Claburn, however, says that brain function is improved through perusing the internet, finding that it actually “engage[s] a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading.“ In Claburn’s article, he is able to “converse” with Carr in a way, presenting his findings, agreeing with Carr on certain points, and highlighting that “Carr’s concern about the impact of the Internet on the way we think isn’t misplaced.” If Carr wanted to, he could continue the conversation in yet another article, most likely posted online, reaching a large audience, among which would probably be a curious Claburn.

In Baron’s book, A Better Pencil, he took great care to teach us about Plato’s first misgivings about text, that a text, once inscribed, would be “orphaned by its author once it’s on the page” and that a text “cannot defend itself against a misreading.” How would readers know if they were right? Well, Plato, perhaps the conversation was never meant to be contained between two people. Interactions, conversations, and texts have evolved to be much more than that. Perhaps it is alright if the conversation continues and is passed on to others. Carr’s conversation, after all, incited a conversation by Claburn, which incited a conversation at the University of Illinois, which incited this conversation by me (the author) to you (the reader). As a student, I don’t feel any worse off reading others’ thoughts and forming my own, and to be honest, I never would have had this conversation or access to this content without the internet.

How does this opposing conversation relate to today’s ever-accessible technology and its place in our classrooms? I think we need to be transparent with our students: technology can and will lead you astray at times; you will be able to find any and all information, but what you choose to do with it is up to you. We must teach our students to be responsible when searching and using the internet. We must teach our students how to identify accuracy of information, but now, more than ever, I think our focus needs to shift to identifying bias. We must teach our students to evaluate a text to see if reading through the whole thing will even be worth their time because, my apologies, Carr, but I do not believe that spending hours reading through entire articles will provide any more lasting memories for our students than will browsing, taking notes on important points, and moving on to continue the browsing-reading process.

How must we adjust as a society and as educators? We must not only accept that there is an over-abundance of information, but we should also expect to be distrustful of online texts at first, and after evaluating, these texts can earn our trust. (You’re right on that account, Plato.) How are we to “evaluate” a text per se? That’s where the true struggle is: online texts are changing all the time. Where there used to be an epic battle against Wikipedia, with educators at the forefront, we are now realizing that it’s not such a bad place to get the general, simple summary of something, as long as facts are checked and double-checked. Where looking at the website address and seeing .org, .edu, or .gov used to be completely credible, we now have to ask what the purpose of each specific site is and who is funding it.

What will I be teaching my students?

Dear Students,

The internet can be a helpful, magical place, or it can be a hurtful, tragical place, if you let it. The internet, and all technologies including printed material for that matter, allow us to transport ourselves to other eras and to other places. Technology allows us to have conversations with others around the world and in other times. No, the original poster may not be able to reply to you, but that knowledge is passed on, so that YOU can learn and continue the conversation. There are no “right” answers to every question anymore. There are certainly still wrong answers though (2+2 will not equal 5, no matter how credible a source appears). However, the emphasis now is on making up your own mind after considering multiple sources, being able to provide support for your argument, and allowing technology and its ample resources to support your needs for whatever you’re doing: an English project, a college research paper, a grant application for your career.

You can navigate the Internet, Students. Just be smart about it.

Love, Your Teacher

Dear Teachers,

We must teach our students not just to think for themselves, but to ask questions of the world they live in and how they are to responsibly interact with and positively impact it.

Love, A Fellow Teacher

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