The Internet: Burden or Blessing?

Postman (1992) suggested that technology is both a burden and a blessing. The Internet is a prime example of a technology that has benefits and drawbacks. While the Internet has vast amounts of information on any given topic, access is not universal or equitable, and its contents can be overwhelming to the uninformed user.

Information Overload

Today’s students have been labeled digital natives (Prensky, 2001), and Oblinger & Oblinger (2005) noted that those born after 1980 have attributes including increased digital aptitude and better multi-tasking abilities (as cited in Corrin, Lockyer & Bennett, 2010) which are the result of using computers, video games and the Internet for their entire lives (Prensky, 2001). Does this mean that digital natives are savvy at navigating the Internet?

The authors of a study on student technology use concluded that there was a “disparity between actual level[s] of technology ability and use” (Corrin, Lockyer & Bennett, 2010, p. 397). In another study, Paryek, Sachs and Schossböck (2011) noted that study participants had difficulty finding information on the Internet, and concluded that “measures to enhance the Internet competence of teenagers are crucial” (p. 170). Two researchers have even gone so far as to refer to this situation as a second digital divide that “includes differences in skills to use the Internet” (van Deursen & van Dijk, 2011, p. 908).

With approximately one trillion web pages (Farhan, D’Agostino & Worthington, 2012), an Internet user must discern what information is credible and what is not. Where does a user obtain the skills to differentiate between sites containing accurate information versus someone’s blog? The situation is akin to the suggestion by Thamus that a new invention, in this case the Internet, would create readers who “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction” (as cited in Postman, 1992, p. 16). Students are usually somewhat successful in locating information on a particular topic, but many are not sure what to do with it or how to organize it, which can sometimes lead to plagiarism.

Some students are guilty of copying and pasting information directly from a website, adding some of their own words and submitting it as their own work. Plagiarism, however, is not a new problem. Ong (1982) noted that “with writing, resentment at plagiarism begins to develop” (p. 129) and the poet Martial, 38-41CE to 104 CE (Martial, 2003) used the Latin word plagiarius to describe an individual “who appropriates another’s writing” (Ong, 1982, p. 129). Perhaps the problem, as identified in a study by Power (2009), is that students “lack the ability to tell the difference between quoting, citing and paraphrasing” (p. 650) especially when dealing with the vast amount of electronic information available on the Internet. If this finding is indicative of all students, then educators must find new ways to ensure that all students receive “proper instruction” on how to gather and summarize resources obtained from the Internet (Postman, 1992, p. 16).

In his book, Postman (1992) postulated that “schools teach their children to operate computerized systems instead of teaching things that are more valuable” (p. 11). However, the Ontario curriculum advocates a more balanced approach than Postman suggested. For example, the Business Studies curriculum for senior high school students stipulates that “students develop critical thinking skills, and strategies required to conduct research and inquiry and communicate findings accurately, ethically and effectively” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2006, p. 4). Proper use of the Internet requires students to apply their analytical skills in locating appropriate and relevant information.

Digital Divide

Postman (1992) asserted that “the benefits and deficits of a new technology are not distributed equally” (p. 9) and this reference can be applied to Internet access. Despite the fact that the number of Internet users in developing countries doubled between 2007 and 2011, only one-quarter of the developing world was online at the end of 2011 (International Telecommunication Union, 2012). In addition, 70% of households in the developed world had Internet access versus only 20% in the developing world (International Telecommunication Union, 2012).

This digital divide is also evident in Canada as the availability of quick and reliable Internet access is often dependent on whether you live in an urban or rural area. Marlow and McNish (2010) suggested that broadband access would result in an economic growth rate of 1.2% for every 10% increase in broadband availability. A research director at Harvard quipped that broadband is “essential infrastructure for competitive nations” and suggested that communities without such access would be at a competitive disadvantage (Marlow & McTish, 2010, para. 12). Evidently, the benefits of high-speed Internet access are being enjoyed by Canada’s urban population, while its rural residents struggle with slow and often unreliable access; a perfect illustration of Postman’s prediction about the inequitable distribution of a new technology’s benefits and drawbacks.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that Postman could have imagined the proliferation and worldwide acceptance of the Internet back in 1992, but his predictions about the unequal distribution of the advantages and disadvantages of this technology were accurate and are occurring within Canadian borders. In addition, the massive amount of information available on the Internet places an additional burden on educators to ensure that students are adequately equipped to navigate the complex world of the Internet. Hopefully educators can rise to the challenge.

References

Corrin, L., Lockyer, L., & Bennett, S. (2010). Technology diversity: An investigation of students’ technology use in everyday life and academic study. Learning Media and Technology, 35(4), 387-401. doi:10.1080/17439884.2010.531024

Farhan, H., D’Agostino, D., & Worthington, H. (2012, September 5). Web index 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2012 from http://thewebindex.org/2012/09/2012-Web-Index-Key-Findings.pdf

International Telecommunication Union. (2012, June). Key statistical highlights: ITU data release June 2012. Retrieved September 17, 2012 from http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/material/pdf/2011%20Statistical%20highlights_June_2012.pdf

Marlow, I. & McNish, J. (2010). Canada’s digital divide. Retrieved September 17, 2012 from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadas-digital-divide/article4313761/?page=1

Martial. (2003). Martial select epigrams. L. Watson & P. Watson (Ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and literacy. London: Routledge.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2006). The Ontario curriculum grades 11 & 12 (revised): Business studies. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/secondary/business1112currb.pdf

Paryek, P., Sachs, M., & Schossböck, J. (2011). Digital divide among youth: Socio-cultural factors and implications. Interactive Technology and Smart Education, 8(3), 161-171. doi:10.1108/17415651111165393

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Power, L. (2009). University students’ perceptions of plagiarism. The Journal of Higher Education, 80(6), 643-662. doi:10.1353/jhe.0.0073

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part I. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. doi:10.1108/10748120110424816

van Deursen, A. & van Dijk, J. (2011). Internet skills and the digital divide. New Media Society, 13(6), 893-911. doi:10.1177/1461444810386774

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