Net can trap students into forgetting how they learn

Matthew Murchie, Imperial College London

Research 'at your fingertips' should never replace libraries

Matthew Murchie, Imperial College London |

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Many of us choose to access information online, without leaving our homes, rather than using books in libraries.
Since its inception 20 years ago, the World Wide Web has revolutionised the way we communicate, work and socialise. Never before has a single invention spread across the globe with such speed and influence - transforming so many people's lives in such a profound way.

Education is one of the many fields to have been transformed by the web. Everything about how we study - for example, the way we do our research or submit homework at school - has been changed as a consequence of the internet.

Search engines help us to find a huge amount of information with ease; by accessing online newspapers we can bring ourselves up to date about current affairs without paying a cent; with video-sharing websites, we can watch tutorials and learn new skills, such as languages, sports and musical instruments.

The web has made learning so convenient and efficient that few people stop to think about the negative impact it has had on education. A new generation of young people are coming of age that have never experienced - and cannot imagine - life without the internet. Most have never gone into a library to do research; many are happier seeking advice from online forums than friends or family.

Yet other methods of research are irreplaceable, particularly later in life. Before the web, students often struggled to find information. They had to arrange interviews with experts in certain fields, search newspaper files, reference books and papers as part of their research.

Now, by simply typing keywords into Google's search engine, students miss out on these other valuable methods of research that are necessary when studying at a more advanced level. Many youngsters today consider libraries old-fashioned and their resources inferior to those on the web.

Online sites, such as Wikipedia, can equip us with a basic understanding of many topics, but books written by experts will always give more comprehensive explanations of specific subject.

Over-reliance on the web has left many young people unaccustomed to drawing independent conclusions. Answers are so easily obtained from search engines or online forums that they lose the incentive to find solutions themselves by combining knowledge from multiple sources. They also lack the confidence to speculate and experiment - vital components in the learning process.

Students must avoid becoming lazy when it comes to research and be aware that traditional methods of learning - such as reading books in libraries - will always have some advantages over the internet.