Posted by: glundeen | January 15, 2008

Lecturer bans students from using Google or Wikipedia

I love this, I must admit. Professor Tara Brabazon of the University of Brighton has banned her students from using Google or Wikipedia in her classes. I’m as big a fan of the Internet as anyone, but I think this is a brilliant move, one I’m surprised we don’t see more professors advocating.

To quote Professor Brabazon:

“The education world has pursued new technology with an almost evangelical zeal and it is time to take a step back and give proper consideration of how we use it. Too many students don’t use their own brains enough. We need to bring back the important values of research and analysis.”

Google and Wikipedia are excellent starting points, but any college student, undergraduate or graduate, who thinks that these are sufficient enough to be truly called “research” has obviously not been challenged enough. The real lesson to be had is one we all say we know but repeatedly violate, that these hugely popular and useful sites are not the center of the information universe.

 

Phil Bradley is pretty dead-set against Professor Brabazon’s move, and he might be right in pointing out that it’s a poor practice for an academic to ban anything. He completely misses the point when he claims that handing students a reading list isn’t exactly “using their own brains,” though. What’s a teacher supposed to do, just set you loose in the library? What’s the point of paying for a class if the teacher doesn’t have resources to impart?

Most of the other comments I’ve read on the controversy think it’s a bad idea, but I have to disagree. It’s not literally about Google and Wikipedia, it’s about the idea that the very nature of research has changed. I do think that what you learn at university should somehow be differentiated from what you could do at home in your underwear, and perhaps placing limitations on what students can officially use for class is a step toward strengthening the decreasing intellectual value of a college education. College has become more diluted, plain and simple. Is it a failure of the system?

Students will most certainly still use these tools, but not being able to admit it will force them to do some actual research. It’s the same conundrum the music industry faces with illegal downloads: you’re not going to stop people from using that which is readily available. You can’t stop people from using such easily accessible tools, and nor should you, but you can let them know that they only scratch the surface.

I think a great middle ground could be achieved by teaching people to use Google more effectively, to delve deeper into its capabilities rather than just typing in text. Google and Wikipedia are just tools, but people can get a whole lot more out of the experience by digging deeper.  The process is far more important than the information itself. It’s the journey, not the destination that matters.

We’ve all been engaging in a slow, consistent dumbing down as a society, and nowhere is it more evident than in universities. All the information in the universe at our fingertips isn’t going to teach you how to think. Learning is often enhanced by the limitations placed upon us, contradictory though that may sound. Google’s not guilty. Wikipedia’s not the culprit. What we have to face is the changing nature of literacy. We should be finding ways to leverage the new technology, but part of that is teaching people how to discern reliable sources from garbage.

 

The good professor has only banned Google and Wikipedia in her classes. There’s a whole wide world of the internet out there for folks to use. Hundreds of other search engines exist for student use, not to mention the numerous databases available to every university student. She didn’t ban the internet, just two of the most obvious and most-used portals. The fact that people are so ready to leap to conclusions  speaks volumes.

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Responses

  1. Thanks, but if you care to read the original again and what I said, you’ll see I haven’t missed the point at all. She says “I give them a reading list to work from and expect them to cite a good number of them in any work they produce.”

    Clearly I would expect a lecturer to provide a reading list and guidance. My point is ‘… to work from’. I ask again – how is this getting them to use their own brains. She’s spoonfeeding them. Obviously a lecturer shouldn’t be letting them loose in a library, and I never said that they should. Obviously a lecturer should also be imparting knowledge.

    However, there’s a difference between that and banning resources (and I’m *astonished* that you appear to be ambivalent on that point!), since banning things doesn’t actually help a student understand their good and bad points. Learning is more than just about reading the books placed in front of someone, it’s about weighing up good and bad resources, learning to research, working out the good from the bad. And a lecturer should be assisting in that process, not hindering it, which is what this individual is doing.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I see your point about weighing the value of all available resources.

    My seeming ambivalence on “banning resources” stems largely from the fact that, despite her best efforts and intentions, this lecturer is fighting an impossible battle, and the majority of students will use whatever resources they deem necessary or most easily available. By no means am I for banning resources, but I liked the statement she was trying to make by asking students to dig deeper that what’s most easily available to them. If would absolutely stun me if the average
    university student is not familiar with what, say, Wikipedia offers in terms of information.

    I might be a little hypocritical in my opinion, because I use Wikipedia all the time, and fundamentally I agree that we shouldn’t ban resources. I think a better solution than banning a resource is exactly what you said: weighing good and bad resources and learning to tell the difference, as assisted by an instructor.

    I think we probably agree more than we know, and I was a little foolish to say you completely missed the point. See, this is what happens when you mix blogging and wine.

  3. I was at Tara recent inaugural lecture at the University of Brighton and taped the lecture (6.5 MB WMA file). You can find the link at http://nomadx.org/content/view/1810/63/

    Regards
    Michael

  4. There is a great joke from The Office about Wikipedia, where Steve Carrell’s character says “anyone in the world can write anything they want, about any subject, so you know you are getting the best possible information.” I had a research and bibliography class once, and the professor gave us an assignment to find some sort of bad information (about literature, in some part) on a major information site. She then told us to find other, smaller sites that used that bad information – either by duplicating it, citing it, or just referencing it in the content. It was pretty interesting. Anyway, her whole point was showing us the dangers of sites like that, when it came to scholarly research, and the necessity of verifying even “verified” information, and knowing what to trust.

    Completely unrelated to this: I picked up Iron Fist on your recommendation – I was able to dig up issues 3-8 (and the newer ones are in my file waiting to be purchased) and I really enjoy it. I also read a little interview with Matt Fraction somewhere, where he uses the same word you did in describing the book – saying it was him and Brubaker trying to “out-awesome” each other. Anyway, good stuff, thanks for the tip – very few plugs people throw to me for comics pan out to be good, and I liked that this one did.


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