There's a bit of buzz in the online world at the moment around a recent essay posted by Jaron Lanier on edge.org which he gave the rather inflammatory title of "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism". His essay covers a rather eclectic range of topics including Wikipedia, Boing Boing, American Idol, Digg, Reddit, Flickr, Google and totalitarian governments. Edge has also collected some interesting responses from a range of writers.
Anybody who has any interest in the development of online culture should read all of this material and you certainly shouldn't join the chorus that is apparently trying to shout Lanier down before you read it all. (Here's a tip kids: reading something you disagree with can actually strengthen your thinking. Assuming you are capable of rational thinking, regular doses of contrary viewpoints are good for consolidating arguments in favour of your viewpoint.) This isn't a small undertaking – when I copied it all to a text file to read offline it came to around 40 pages.
This isn't what I'm writing about today although it was the key inspiration for tacking a topic I'd been thinking about for a while. Every now and then some commentator in mainstream media complains about how increased access to information is actually making people dumber. The general idea is that because things are easier to look up, nobody actually bothers to learn anything.
Google was the prime target for years and still is. More recently, it been joined by Wikipedia and with the rise of "memediggers", Digg, Reddit and the rest are coming in for their share of the blame. And of course there's all those damn bloggers as well. Apparently, if people use a tool badly it's the tool's fault. This is like seeing a badly made house and saying it's the hammer's fault. (Even if the problem with the house is that there's lots of hammer shaped holes in the wall – that might actually be the hammer's fault but it's more likely that a perfectly good hammer was used badly)
This "problem" is described as particularly troubling in schools because kids don't learn anything. Writing essays has apparently become limited to looking things up online then copying and pasting chunks of text. Despite the fact that it's blindingly obvious that saying more information makes you dumber is unmitigated bullshit, I'm going to indulge this line of reasoning for a while, assume it has some validity and provide a failsafe, 100% guaranteed way to make these resources work productively in the classroom every single time.
Let's start with Google. I have heard and read pundits saying that looking things up on Google isn't research, nobody looks past the first page of results and it's too self-referencing; namely, you get a good Google ranking by having lots of inbound links and the better your Google ranking the more likely you are to get more inbound links. This is complete bollocks, I get some weird-ass search terms leading to my blog and when I plug those terms into search engines, often I don't show up on the first ten pages of results. So somebody's looking through a hell of a lot of search engine pages. But I said I'd argue as if these concerns were valid so here goes:
Set some simple rules. Every source has to be referenced and if an essay only includes sources found on the first page of Google results it automatically fails. Tell students you will do searches on blocks of text in their essays, and if they have copied content without providing references they will fail. Tell them they have to do more than find information, they have to say why they included it. What is it about that information that they liked and/or believed? And make sure there is more than one source for every assertion they make. If you want to get really tough, tell them for every point of view they agree with they have to cite at least one conflicting point of view they disagree with. Then they have to explain that, given they had two contrary points of view, why do they support the one they do?
Wikipedia should have similar rules to make it a more useful tool. Many of the criticisms of Wikipedia are similar to those levelled at Google but it has some of its own, so here goes with the rules. Wikipedia cannot be the only source for the essay/study. Find other sources that support or contradict the information in Wikipedia. Again, state why you support one point of view over the other. Add a unique rule for Wikipedia: you can't use Wikipedia as a reference without also reading and referencing the talk pages for the articles you use. Identify what are the controversial and/or frequently changed sections of the Wikipedia entry. Which point of view do you agree with? Why?
Digg is often criticised for having too narrow a focus. If you as a teacher agree with this point of view then use this as a learning tool. Ask students to find reference to a major event on Digg then look at other sources (e.g. major news sites) and compare the results. What were the differences in the results? Which was "better"? Why? What did you learn from a news site (or government site, or university site, or whatever) that you couldn't find on Digg? What did you discover on Digg that you didn't find through other sources? What did you learn from the different results?
Reddit tends to cover a broader range of topics than Digg but the above observations still hold true. For an added layer of detail, try comparing the differences in Digg and Reddit. Reddit has + and – voting while Digg has only + voting. How do student think this will affect what links rise to the top? In what situations would this be good and when could it be bad? Why can selections made by many people be better than selections made by one person (e.g. a newspaper editor)? When would a newspaper editor be better at selecting content than a memedigger? How could memediggers influence news coverage?
In short, any of these (or similar) tools have almost endless possibilities for students. The catch is that is requires fairly significant engagement from teachers. The good news is that the vast majority of teachers I have known welcome opportunities like this. The bad news is that the mainstream media like reporting bad news so we're far more likely to hear more stories about the internet dumbing people down and sexual predators on MySpace.
Oh, and as for bloggers: best to ignore them. They talk nothing but crap.