The internet has, unquestionably, transformed the world. It has revolutionised the way we work, the way we interact and, perhaps most importantly, how we access information.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 90 per cent of adults in the UK are regular internet users, and the figure for those aged 16 to 34 is 99 per cent, thanks in large part to the rise of smartphones.
The ability to access the internet at almost any time or place has many implications for education, both positive and negative. On the one hand, students can get hold of course information, research materials and their peers and teachers at the click of a button.
These curated online learning experiences are undoubtedly beneficial for students’ development but, as reported by Lord Knight, these positive effects are not equally available to all.
While the overwhelming majority of young people in the UK do have the technical means to access the internet, they are often left to their own devices in searching for websites and educational material. The sheer scale of information available online can pose three major issues, which need to be addressed if young people are to make the most of internet access.
The challenge of readability
Much of the content available online is simply inaccessible to the majority of the UK population. A report by Wizenoze shows that 80 per cent of online content is written in a way that most of us cannot read.
This readability gap is most pronounced for schoolchildren, who find the results of general web searches simply too hard to comprehend.
Take the example of tropical rainforests, a common topic in both primary and secondary schools. A search engine will typically take you to the Wikipedia page; this has a Wizenoze Readability Index score of level 5, which means that only 20 per cent of readers in the UK can understand it fully.
This readability gap (found in many common websites) means that younger students may copy information that they don’t understand. Alternatively, they may simply leave that website and favour video sources instead.
The proliferation of video resources online, whilst often interesting and informative, can also increase the literacy problem by pushing students away from text-based resources.
The challenge of reliability
Over the past 10 years, the internet has democratised knowledge at an unprecedented pace on a global scale. At the time of writing, there are almost 2 billion websites, up from around 1 billion in 2015.
The ability for anyone to set up and share information via their own site means that the access to information is growing at an exponential rate.
For many students, the vast amount of information available makes it difficult to distinguish between what is accurate and credible and what is unreliable. A classic example is the Pacific Northwest tree octopus.
A simple internet search will take you to a website that is dedicated to the conservation of this “endangered species”, complete with sightings, photographs and literary references. This is, of course, a hoax – developed especially for the purpose of showing how important information literacy education is – but one that could easily fool school-aged children.
Anyone can have a voice online now, but this, unfortunately, gives people the opportunity to present opinion as fact. Teaching students to critically evaluate whether information is real or fake is another key challenge for educators today.
The challenge of relevance
The volume of information online makes it difficult for students to pick out the most relevant sources.
A simple search for “octopus” returns more than 170 million results in less than a second, including information on an energy company, a supposedly psychic octopus called Paul who predicted World Cup results and a series of videos demonstrating the animals' intelligence.
These searches may be interesting, but they could distract and confuse young users searching for more basic information. Teaching students to use specific terms, quotation marks and the minus sign in searches to help narrow results is an important first step in the elimination of irrelevant information online.
A wiser way of using the internet
It is vital that we consider the readability of websites, and either offer reading lists or use a product such as the Web for Classrooms, which curates online content that is filtered by reading level, relevance and reliability.
The Web for Classrooms will be integrated into Prowise's free educational software, Presenter, from early 2019. If our students are to benefit from all the internet has to offer, we need to be mindful of the "three Rs" mentioned above.
We need to teach students how to spot fake websites, to avoid using personal blogs as reliable sources, and to search smarter. If we don’t, we risk giving young people access to a world of information, but no way to navigate it.
To learn more about getting the best from the internet in your classroom, and to discover resources to support your classroom use of the internet, visit our Wiser Internet for Education campaign hub.
Nic Ford is academic deputy head at Bolton School (Boys’ Division)