Learning's a superhighway, but you have to get the facts right;Commentary;Opinion;FE Focus

16th January 1998 at 00:00
The HNC communication class I took last term taught me two things. One, the Internet is not going to go away, even if you do try to ignore it. And two, the Net is often misunderstood, even by computer students.

Working hard at being a traditionalist, my lip would curl when I heard students use the words "Internet" and "research" interchangeably. As an antidote, I would tout more traditional, tangible and trustworthy forms of communication: "Turn to the back pages of any good textbook and you will see something called the bibliography," I would admonish before launching into my scholarly party piece. "The word is derived from bibliographia, meaning bookwriting. The bibliography is a list of all the books which the author has consulted and is the result of careful research. It is verifiable and sources can be traced."

"Ho-hum," chorused this particularly hardened bunch of HNC computing students, then produced reams of garish and lurid background information for their reports, gleaned from the Internet.

Mild indignation on my part was followed by protestations on theirs. "But computers would still be in the dark ages if it wisnae for this software company," Charlie, a determined defender of the information superhighway, insisted -jabbing a ferociously confident finger at his report. "But that is based on marketing hype. It's not factual, it's a fabrication from the adman," I spluttered.

Charlie sounded triumphant. "The software's good, but. That's a fact." And so we both continued to miss the point - he that his information on the software company he was researching was biased, self-generated, marketing hype from the company's website; and I that burying my head in books was limiting my vision.

Eventually, I conceded. The lesson had been hard. I had to capitulate. Computers were in, and books - at least for some in this class - could be burnt.

The fact that anyone with a computer, telephone line, modem and the relevant software can publish on the Internet is both wonderful and anarchic. It is estimated that upwards of 30 million people worldwide can access the Internet: a cacophony of virtual chatter masquerading as "information". Mediation, I realised, was no longer safely under my, or anyone else's, control. A suitably ugly word to describe this modern revolution is "disintermediation" - the process whereby publishing is taken out of the hands of publishers and where possession of a printing press means nothing. This new phenomenon had certainly made a nonsense of my book-touting, old-fashioned ways.

We all know that effective teaching and learning can only take place when accurate information is available. Unfortunately, the Internet does not always provide that even although it is perceived as a vast virtual library. Libraries are revered as storehouses of important and legitimate information. Although information on the Internet is generated by all and sundry, it is still sold to the unsuspecting as a worldwide library ticket. "Don't buy a set of encyclopaedias - buy a computer with a modem and subscribe to an Internet service provider. Have the world's libraries at your fingertips," say the marketing gurus.

Certainly, there is creditable information available. Enormous banks of it are being put online by universities, schools and other organisations. The Internet can be a useful research tool. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that there are individuals who believe that taking any information off the Internet equals taking information from textbooks.

Several small-scale surveys and lots of discussion later and the HNC students had a more balanced view of their virtual world. They began to ask questions. How accurate and verifiable was the information they had accessed? When would the information be primary and when would it be secondary? Did it contain any real depth of knowledge or was the information merely scraping the surface? Were they being distracted from the facts by overblown claims mixed with enthusiastic product marketing? By whom, exactly, were they being addressed? A professor or someone who called himself a professor?

Questions arose about how global chat shops could be controlled. Should UseNet groups be censored? Should there be control of bulletin boards, chat rooms and online discussions? The gross social irresponsibility of those who published everything from pornography to recipes for explosives was discussed. The Internet Watch Foundation was discovered.

Founded by Peter Dawe, previously chairman of Pipex, Britain's largest Internet service provider, the foundation encourages self-regulation by inviting the online community to report any website carrying information that is illegal. Would people do this? Charlie thought so. I wasn't so sure. What I was sure of was that computers still couldn't do marking and that I had learnt a tremendous amount - and not a book in sight.

Eleanor Thomson is a lecturer in English, communication and media studies at Motherwell College.

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