I've come to the realization that technology has radically revolutionized learning in ways that haven't yet occurred to me.

For example, last night I was reading a pre-school book on animals of the Rainforest to my son. With each picture of an animal, he'd ask me what sound it made. This was easy for some of the animals, but when I got to a toucan, I was stumped.

So, I picked up my phone, brought up Youtube, and did a quick search for Toucans singing. I found a video of a toucan in a zoo making a mating call, and played it for my son.

This was such a hit, that for each animal we looked at, my son requested a video so we could watch them.

I felt like this was a wonderful tool for teaching, and wished that I had had such information readily at my fingertips as a kid.

At the same time, however, I started to wonder if there is any downside to this.

I remember with some amusement when Wikipedia went "dark" in protest of the proposed SOPA law that Twitter was inundated with angry posts from teens and school children who were "unable to do their homework" because Wikipedia was down.

This wasn't completely humorous, though, as it did highlight for me that there are risks of becoming dependent upon the Internet for finding information.

I'm guilty of it myself; I frequently look up anything that I don't know well enough, and find most answers to my questions through a quick Google search.

As I teach my son, how do I take advantage of the extra depth of information available, without teaching him that knowing isn't as important as being able to search the Internet effectively?

  • 3
    I bet parents thought the same thing when calculators became everyday devices. ;)
    – DA01
    Dec 7 '12 at 18:59
  • 1
    @DA01 I felt like James Bond when I brought my Casio calculator wrist-watch into math class!
    – user420
    Dec 7 '12 at 19:01
  • There are many studies showing that brain wiring is changed by internet usage. One famously found that it makes you remember more often where to find info (google) and less often what info. Whether this is desirable or not, it's highly debatable.
    – Sam
    Dec 8 '12 at 15:10
  • @sammy: from this article: The truth is that everything you do changes your brain. Everything. Every little thought or experience plays a role in the constant wiring and rewiring of your neural networks. So there is no escape. Yes, the internet is rewiring your brain. But so is watching television. And having a cup of tea. Or not having a cup of tea. Or thinking about the washing on Tuesdays. Your life, however you live it, leaves traces in the brain.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jan 18 '13 at 13:48

Finding information easily is the good thing (if the information is reliable). Conditioning yourself to "find and forget, find and forget" is the bad thing.

Two reasons: First, if you always google with an empty mind, how do you notice if the web page is lying to you? We usually notice if some information on the page is in conflict with what we already know... but to do this, we have to remember what we learned previously. Second, to understand some complex things you have to understand the simple things first. If you keep forgetting each of those simple things in the moment you close the wikipedia page, you will never be ready to understand the complex thing. Yes, you can read the wikipedia page for the complex thing too, but it will be full of words you don't know and reasonings you don't understand. (Just open some wikipedia page about quantum physics or advanced maths to see how helpless a person can be without the necessary education even if the information is easily available.)

The antidote to the "find and forget, find and forget" is remembering. Don't learn too many new things at the same time. Then go away from the internet and talk about the things that you found there. Take a walk around the house and ask your son: "Do you remember the sound of toucan?" Memory improves by trying to recall and by repeating.

If you find that he does not remember many of the things you found (and perhaps neither do you), then you have spent too much time googling. It gave you an illusion of knowledge, maybe it was very pleasant (nothing wrong with that per se), but it did not give you knowledge. It was a visual equivalent of eating a cake while thinking it was a fruit.

In other words, use internet as a textbook, not as a cheat sheet. (Or if you need to use it as a cheat sheet now, be aware of that, and use it as a textbook later.)


I think we are actually already somewhat more dependent as we adapt with the times. For example, my parents made sure we had an encyclopedia set growing up. I will not likely go to the expense because between library access and all the info online it hardly seems worth it. At the same time, kids need to be taught how to look at a variety of sources to confirm their research as well as to root out possible bias. I know you know how to do that and as you work with your little one to find information you will model it for your child as well. This Answer has a great list of talking points to use as I guide, although its wholesale assessment of both Wikipedia and Google I don't completely agree with. First of all, while I don't think either is going to go away, it is probably more sensible to discuss weeding out bias in more general terms. Who is getting paid to say what? How does the author know what he or she knows? Is there anything else to corroborate the information? . . .

Unfortunately, many kids (at least in the US) aren't getting that education and therefore wind up relying on one or two favorite sites or resources so heavily they don't know how to get information in other ways. This is happening largely because library science and school librarians have been cut with budget difficulties (this is where research skills used to be taught - at least in US schools and when things get cut, the responsibilities are often not explicitly moved to another's shoulders clearly). Where there used to be a school librarian at each school there might now be a few in a district that rotate between schools in the district. Some teachers address these research skills, but there isn't currently a good way to make sure all children are getting the exposure that is needed. Another example of a subject over which parents are forced to be far more involved with their child's education than parents often realize.

Rather than fighting the inevitable, I plan on going with it. My plan is just to be aware of what my child is researching and how she is going about doing that research to the best of my ability. As she grows, she will get age-appropriate feedback about her research style in order to increase awareness of holes in her research. There are even (ironically) online lesson plans to help teachers and parents in covering these skills with their students and children. Here is just one example.

My daughter is just beginning to realize she can look stuff up online herself and so I have now instilled a rule that if she is online, it is with the knowledge of an adult and an adult has to be in the room and able to see what she is doing. The adult (her dad, myself, or a few other key family members she spends time with) monitors the search process quite closely at this point to help avoid accidentally landing on an "inappropriate" site, to guide her in terms of safety concerns and to ask leading questions to help in modeling determining the value of the information posed on whatever site she finds. One of our computers is in the kitchen so she can be online while I cook and such and the other is in the bedroom we use as a "classroom" for school. The laptop is always used with permission only.

I am also a huge fan of our public library system in the US. I suggest developing a personal relationship with your local librarian. This will not combat reliance on the internet, but enhance and broaden research skills because it will broaden exposure to different types of information sources. Learning through variety means kids encounter the same information different ways - making it more likely they will remember the information and helping to corroborate valid information. Our librarian knows both myself and Alice by name because we are there so often. She frequently aids Alice in finding good books for her about subjects she either wants to learn more about or needs to learn more about for school. As Alice gets older, the library will also become a great space for help with online research (as a way to go somewhere away from the house some of the time) and she will be able to access aid from the librarian there as well as aid from myself (in addition to any teachers appropriate to the subject). Your little guy is probably getting to the right age to participate in library "story time" although depending on work schedules it may be difficult for you to attend. Either way, I suggest making a weekly or at least bi-monthly trip to your library as a way to make sure you are accessing a variety of sources for information. They have video, audio, digital books that can be downloaded for loan AND traditional books and magazines not to mention the unbeatable human resource your librarian is likely to be.

  • Relying on books and libraries is not better than relying on internet. What is important is knowing the right way to learn and think, and not just searching and/or reciting information from books/internet. The skill to learn and think can be taught with both internet and books, just internet, or just books. Libraries of the future will probably be more like community centres rather than just repositories of books, and that I believe is a very good direction.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jan 17 '13 at 7:26
  • @LieRyan I didn't say it was. I said, spending time at the library adds variety. Libarires are already more than book repositories - internet access and online subscriptions to edited encyclopedia and other similar online resources that require subscriptions at libraries. You'll also note I mention the "unbeatable human resource" in the librarian. She/he can be a wonderful guide online and in finding books and other resources, but to take full advantage, a kid has to have a relationship with the library and an understanding of it and the people within it and that means time spent. Jan 17 '13 at 14:34

First of all +1 to the local library (while it still exists). Our town library is the cats meow: Huge CD collection, DVDs for $1/week, well organized kids section with regular events, graphic novels and edgy marvel comics to keep the teens interested, free internet access for those in need, and of course books, books, and more books. We used make a family event out of this and literally drag a laundry basket full of stuff out of there every week.

Kids MUST learn how to use the internet and online tools effectively simply because the workplace demands it today. I do a lot of science and math stuff at work and I can't remember the last time I opened a reference book. It's much quicker and more efficient to find this online.

Schools and even colleges have a mixed track record at teaching this. Many of the older teachers have no clue how to do it themselves. Some college professors try to monopolize and restrict class knowledge to their own book so they can squeeze another $150,- per year out of each student. However other professors are great and have well organized class notes for everyone to access online.

Ideally kids start early with building their own "portals". That's simply a list of "good and useful" web sites that have a high likelihood of having good information. Over time it grows and can be big asset when they it college.

Here some talking points to go through with your kids:

  1. Just because it's on the internet doesn't mean it's true. You need to understand why people post this information
  2. Wikipedia is good: people post mainly because they want to share knowledge (and feel good about it) and there is a lot of peer review going on to check it. No one gets paid.
  3. Google is so-so. The "why" is complicated. Google gets paid by companies that want their links high on the list. That's typically not objective information. However google needs to display useful and accurate information to stay attractive to the user. So there is both good & bad info you can get from Google. You need to stay alert and check it.
  4. Most web sites that have an ".edu" URL are reputable and good. Reputable colleges can't afford to publish information that's blatantly wrong. Some college sites are a great repositories for knowledge (example http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/hframe.html). Find them and put them in your portal.
  • I wouldn't qualify Wikipedia as completely good for kids. View entries such as "autofellatio" sometime, or the novel "Hogg", and branch out from there, and let me know whether you think it's wholesome overall. The problem with Wikipedia is that its members refuse to provide a properly filtered version. The "simple" version is still not safe, nor the Google-powered front end for it (I don't remember the name at present). There does seem to be a safe version, which I have not yet downloaded: soschildrensvillages.org.uk/about-our-charity/archive/2008/10/…
    – Iucounu
    Jan 2 '13 at 16:22
  • Google is not so-so because they get paid (which is not quite true, paid search results are always clearly marked as advertisement, and nobody can alter the organic search result by paying Google). Instead, Google is so-so for research because it is not filtered for truth; instead it is more of a reflection of what people are writing and what is popular instead of what is true. As long as you keep in mind the strength and limitations of each tools, Google can be an invaluable resource for research. A much better tool for research though, would be Google Scholar and Google Books.
    – Lie Ryan
    Jan 17 '13 at 7:58

I don't see a problem, because knowledge is not the same as information. If a piece of information is sought in a web or other electronic search, it can be likened to looking things up in books, except for some major differences, including but not limited to:

  1. All accesses occur much more quickly.

  2. The correct information is easier to find quickly via index searches, both because of the speed of access and because the searches can be "smart".

  3. The information itself is vastly easier to cross-link, just as it is easier to follow such links.

Now, let's consider why a child (or anyone) would look something up in a web resource. Either it is in support of in-depth learning, e.g. an information tidbit is needed to support writing a school report or some other project, to understand a difficult passage in a text, etc.; or it is sought for basic curiosity, perhaps to understand a news item or a discussion board post.

I don't see the harm in those aspects. Speed of information access helps to offset the vast and increasing amounts of information today. Electronic tools can ease learning just as well as they can ease satisfaction of curiosity; but even for the latter, I see some potential learning benefits (e.g. certain news items become better understood, and discussions on messaging boards can become more informed over time).

ETA: If you are concerned about a child finding the answers to problems she is supposed to work herself, I suppose that is a potential issue. I wouldn't call that using the Internet as an aid, but rather as a cheating tool. Anti-cheating measures can include the use of plagiarism checkers and disallowing unrestricted access to sites where students may ask for homework help. Luckily, the answers to most math questions are not posted online, though the answers to some old chestnuts may be. Monitoring and restricting online access has to be part of the solution.

The mere fact of some reliance on a useful tool does not necessarily make it harmful either. In your Wikipedia example, the children might have grown to find Wikipedia so useful as a place for beginning research that they were at a loss in its absence, perhaps because they were unaware of other online resources that could help fill the void. For people who grew up doing homework research nearly exclusively in books, it may seem lazy to instantly conclude one is unable to to do research without electronic tools, but we also don't know the whole story in each case. In any event I don't think that's necessarily laziness talking, but rather ignorance of other research tools or methods. I can tell you that my seven-year-old child wouldn't be able to get to our town library without my help, and a request to do so based on an online outage might find me griping on Twitter (it's a good 15 minutes away, plus wait time while the child browses).

Will computer use impact the amount, or at least ratio, of memorized information? Possibly, but there is more information to deal with today than a hundred years ago; life is more complex, and the information load necessary to become tops in any field is greater too. Information is not knowledge either, and there's no indication that with proper learning supports, the electronic age in and of itself is impeding learning. Too much screen time with non-educational subjects may do that, but not simply easing access to information.

In my opinion, the main problem with internet access for children, aside from online safety, is that a lot of content is entertainment with little to no educational value, and that goes even for sites which are aimed squarely at education. My older chlid's school uses a certain e-learning tool called CompassLearning Odyssey, paying for subscriptions to it, and in my opinion that is a good example of a low-quality product: too many cartoons, too much stimulation. The same child also conned me into allowing extended play on a website called "PopTropica", on the basis that it was educational, but I thought differently after actually reviewing it. I'm leery of such things the way I avoid electronic toys for infants which reward each interaction with sounds and flashing lights: I'm afraid that my children will become conditioned to need such stimulation in order to stay focused, and I don't like anything which tends to dilute valid informational content.

On the other hand, I have found plenty of online resources that are wonderful. BBC's "Dance Mat Typing" is actually the best typing software I've found for kids, having bought several others. Khan Academy videos are fun for my kids and they do learn from them, instead of just looking information up. And when it comes to lookups, my older son uses dictionary.com all the time-- and I can't see the harm in him looking up words online versus in a paper dictionary; it just saves time and allows quick browsing to related terms, which can only help to stimulate interest in words and a broader vocabulary.

Parents will of course draw lines in different places as to what educational content is valuable and what isn't. I would just make sure that you strictly control access to online sites, including the use of "net nanny" type of software for safety reasons as well as to make sure you vet each new site for appropriateness. And take time to really find out about each site your children want to use, as well as finding new ones for them; read reviews, and actually use the sites yourself. Don't assume that just because a teacher or school recommends a site, it is valuable.


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