Teaching and Learning in the Age of the Internet

One of the most interesting parts of returning to school after having taught is in watching my professors. Having spent four years on their side of the desk gives me an insight I don’t think I could have achieved any other way. Teaching is not something that can be explained, and it’s not something that can be understood without actually doing it. That experience has given me a unique perspective on my classes, and I know I’m learning more from observing my professors’ teaching styles than I am learning actual content in their classes.

Which isn’t to say that I’m not learning content – I’m learning a lot of content. I don’t even want to offer any examples, because the two classes I’m taking this semester are full to the brim of information that is new to me. It’s a credit to my professors that I’m able to absorb the new information as easily as I have been. What I find the most interesting, especially as it compares to my experiences ten years ago as an undergraduate, is the manner in which content is handled in the Internet Age.

My undergraduate schooling took place between the spring of 1998 and the fall of 2003 (yup, I did it backwards – I started as a concurrent student in my last semester of high school and graduated in December). The World Wide Web was still in its relative infancy in terms of its academic application. I still did most of my research in physical books and magazines, and my essays were turned in on actual paper. There were online research options, but they were not commonplace, and many professors did not accept even the most scholarly sources.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s virtually impossible to do research without using a computer – even my neighborhood library’s “card catalog” is an interactive database, and any physical cards still around are being used as scrap paper. I’ve done most of my research for my thesis sitting at home in my PJs on my laptop (and it’s wonderful not to have to put on shoes to look things up). I can even ask for help from home – my university’s library website has a live-chat function. I have a wealth of information at the ends of my fingertips, and it’s truly an amazing feeling. Younger students who have grown up with the Internet may not understand how powerful this is, but as someone who did not have access to the Internet until adulthood (I first encountered dial-up Internet at the age of 18, during my first full semester of college; I had to have a friend come and explain to me what I was supposed to do with it – now I can’t imagine my life without it), it really is a life-changing piece of technology.

With all of this information available at a moment’s notice, it’s been interesting to me the way that formal education has begun reinventing itself to adjust to the never-ending availability of information. This is still very much a work in progress, though, and it’s been really interesting for me to watch.

For example, the first thing I’ve noticed that is changing is that many professors no longer give objective exams. That’s not to say that exams aren’t given, just that the types of exams have changed. In the pre-Internet days, when information was harder to come by, there was a strong benefit to having information memorized. Teachers stressed this concept of rote memorization, and students dutifully crammed facts into their brains as best they could. It was really important to be able to call up information on command, because physical sources like books and magazines have a nasty habit of being inaccessible when you really need them  – they can be checked out of the library, loaned to a friend, or simply have disappeared.

On the other hand, in the Internet Age, objective exams seem a little silly and redundant. When almost any piece of information is available on a moment’s notice through the Internet, does it really matter if students don’t have every tiny bit memorized? Isn’t it more important to know that the information exists, and to have some skills that will allow you to retrieve it?

Several of my professors, especially those who have taught for a number of years, still subscribe to the “rote-memorization” school of education. The focus in their classes is still on taking down lecture notes and repeating them verbatim on the objective exam. I don’t want to disparage these professors – most of them are really good teachers – but as someone who has always struggled with rote memorization, I’m constantly trying to understand what the benefit is to storing all of this in my head when I’ve got 25 gigabytes of cloud storage accessible from any computer 24/7/52. Besides, does it really make me an inferior student if I don’t memorize well, but I understand the concepts and where the information can be found? It’s been frustrating and nerve-wracking all at the same time to be in a class where rote-memorization is the name of the game; nerve-wracking because I’m worried I won’t be able to memorize it all, but frustrating because I don’t see the point to knowing this all “by heart” when it’s all in my notes.

I’m fortunate in that several other of my professors, especially those within my specific area of specialization, are very much in favor of the Internet-Age model of education. In this model, rote memorization is not a focus at all, and students are instead asked to explore concepts, think critically, and apply the facts to new situations. Since these are all areas at which I excel, Internet-Age classes are particularly interesting to me. I hesitate to say that they’re easy, because they’re not – critical thinking and application is a lot harder than rote memorization, even for someone like me who doesn’t memorize very well. An application assignment usually requires a lot more time and effort than a straight summary, but I think I also learn a lot more.

For example, I have spent a lot of my life singing in various choral groups. I don’t memorize well in most cases, but I do amazingly well with lyrics – so much so that I can usually sing along with the chorus of a new song the second time I hear it. Because I’ve been in more advanced groups, I’ve often been called upon to sing in languages other than English – in fact, one of my favorite things to do around Christmastime is to sing “Adeste Fideles” in Latin (that’s “O Come All Ye Faithful” if you don’t speak Latin or aren’t a singer). I’ve got those words down pat, but if I didn’t also know the song in English, I would have literally no idea what it means. As another example, I also enjoy Irish and Celtic music, and I enjoy learning songs in Gaelic. I can reproduce the sounds beautifully, but there’s no understanding behind them – I’m just parroting the sounds I’ve heard. In other words, I’ve memorized perfectly, but knowing the “facts” is meaningless because there’s no understanding underneath them. It’s a neat skill to have, but it’s basically useless for anything beyond repeating sounds – I couldn’t communicate with a person who spoke Latin or Gaelic. I think that most rote memorization runs the risk of devolving into this kind of parroting activity, where sounds are repeated but meaning is lost. Because of this, Internet-Age education seems to me to be vastly superior to the rote memorization it is replacing.

Okay, so all of this is fascinating, but “What’s it all about, Lizzy? You’ve got two categories, pre- and post-Internet teaching styles, and you’ve given some rudimentary characteristics and stated your preferences, and all of that is great, but what’s the point?” The point, as always, is “What can I learn from all of this, and how can I take it back into the classroom with me when I return to teaching?” What I’ve learned is that rote memorization is not really very important in a world where we all have computers in our pockets, and we can’t afford to teach as though it is. However, I do still think it’s important to expose students to facts and concepts – all the search engines in the world won’t help you answer a question you never thought of (for example, a student will never search the Internet for the capital of North Dakota if she doesn’t understand what a state capital is or why it’s important; on the other hand, memorizing the states and capitals is meaningless if the student doesn’t understand what a state capital is or why it’s important; therefore, we see that the memorization itself is useless without the underlying understanding, and having the facts in your brain doesn’t automatically impart that understanding). What all of this means is that I would never give an objective test asking students to name all the states and capitals, but I would happily give them a short-answer test asking them to explain what a state capital is and why it’s important. Therefore, I think the old saying needs to be updated: Knowledge is still power, but there is no real knowledge without understanding.

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