I’m gonna go ahead and age myself here. When I was a freshman in college we had dial-up internet in the dorms. I had a big, white Compaq desktop computer and a turquoise cordless phone. By the time I graduated, most of the dorms had installed high-speed internet. The kind that comes through a cord…not through the air. By then a few of my friends had cell phones. The large, blocky, candy-bar style phones that people held up to their ears and talked into. They made calls. Only calls. No one texted.
I say this not to harken back to the “good ‘ole days” and ramble on about kids these days and their addictions to their new-fangled devices. I say this because I am one of those kids. I look back even ten years ago and I don’t quite understand how things were done. How did people find out how late a restaurant was open? How did they get directions? How did they make plans? I know we did all these things, but I just can’t quite remember how we did them.
The same goes for all the activities surrounding student-hood. Last time I was in school you went to class on the first day, got a syllabus with the list of books you needed to buy, and then you went to the book store and bought those books. They were the same price at all the stores and you left somewhere between kind of broke and totally broke.
A couple of semesters ago I purchased the (cheaper, but for all other purposes identical) international version of my required textbook from some Pacific island nation. The book arrived at my apartment two days later. I believe I found it on eBay. But I could have found it on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, or any of the myriad other textbook websites out there that allow you to purchase new or used textbooks, or rent them, or even buy the electronic version to download to your computer. Or, as many students do, I could venture out into the world of illegal downloads and pirate my textbooks for free. Again, at the risk of aging myself, I still like a big stack ‘o bound paper, so I usually buy or rent actual books.
Beyond the logistics of buying textbooks, however, the internet has completely changed the way we learn. The endless resources available online to help confused students become un-confused is absolutely priceless. Just the idea of being an engineering student before the dawn of the internet nearly makes me break out in a cold sweat.
My philosophy is that giving students homework problems without also giving them at the very least the numerical answer, and ideally, the full solution, to review once they’ve finished, is counterproductive. I understand why professors do this. I know I’m in the minority of students who would use those resources for learning rather than cheating, but spending hours doing problems the wrong way, with no way to know you’re doing them wrong, is at best a waste of time and at worst damaging to your education.
So I thank the internet for allowing me to scour every corner of the world for homework solutions posted by professors for their students at this college or that. So that instead of putting my head down on my unfinished homework and crying, I can jump on my computer and find the missing link that allows me to complete the problem and feel like I’ve actually learned something.
Ditto for YouTube, Khan Academy, Wolfram Alpha and all the other crazy online tools one finds digging through Google in the quest to understand something she just doesn’t quite understand. I’ve even texted photos of handwritten homework problems back and forth with classmates so we can help each other. Ten years ago that would have looked like magic. It is magic. We are so lucky to be able to do these things.
I truly don’t know what students did before this stuff was available. Maybe the students who actually succeeded were just ridiculously smart and everyone else failed and changed majors. I don’t know. Just like finding directions by getting out a paper map or figuring out how late a restaurant is open by opening a paper phone book and dialing a phone, I’m sure students in the days before the internet had their ways of figuring things out and making it work, but like everything else before the internet, it’s hard to imagine how it was done.
The question of whether the internet is making us smarter or stupider is a question for another post, or rather, a question for another blog. I think the there are incredible opportunities and also incredible dangers springing from our ever-more digital lives. I know that the internet gives students ample opportunity to cheat and cut corners. But I also know that if you’re a student who is motivated, interested and really wants to learn everything and learn it well, the internet is gold mine of tips, tricks, clear and elegant explanations, and chances to learn not just what’s on next week’s test, but to get sucked into link after link and end up in places you never knew existed, learning things you never knew you wanted to learn.