Despite having several thoughtful blog entries “in the works,” I thought I’d make my first post about something perhaps slightly amusing and somewhat observational. We live in an age well past the dawn of the internet. Indeed, I would not call it the age of information, but rather, the age of data. Social media, bulk email, Youtube, cell phones, smart phones, Twitter, the blog-o-sphere, and everything else — we are highly connected to media. I was struck recently when a group of undergraduates was somewhat shocked that I knew some basic theorems of mathematics off the top of my head. And while that was surprising to them, they were thoroughly confounded when I identified an arachnid as something other than a spider — not only that it was possible to identify such things by their physiology, but that one could do so without aids or notes (some were also unaware that such creatures exist at all). Indeed, my observations and conclusions were checked on Wikipedia as soon as they got to a computer.
I don’t know if there are technical definitions of the terms data and information (and whether those definitions vary in whatever fields they find use), but to me, they have sharply different connotations. I believe the superhighway of the Internet, and all of its major repositories of (mostly) text-based media, are not conductors of information, but rather, of data – data of varying types, formats, detail, and reliability. And for that reason, significant research is being done to distill and interpret large sets of data, in myriad formats and structures and scenarios (which is not the topic of this blog post).
What I wanted to discuss is how “looking it up” has become such a pervasive technique for the acquisition of information, and why — with so much data around — it is important to know precisely what this process really means. In the end, I think there is an important distinction between looking up information and hearing it from an authority (in a lecture, discussion, conversation, correspondence, or however else). In person or by some personal medium of communication, knowledge and insight can be expressed and even transferred. The ideas are filtered and interpreted carefully, especially in a dialogue or discussion, and the information is contextualized and is explained with greater depth and breadth than a Google search or a Wikipedia article might provide.
Indeed, I believe various tools like Google, Wikipedia, or Wolfram Alpha (for those of us who are mathematically inclined) have all changed the nature of our interactions (be we students, teachers, or those outside of the university setting) with information and data. Painful anecdotes circulate about students who complain that no sources exist for their term paper because Google can’t find any, or who complain that a math problem cannot be solved because Wolfram Alpha can’t solve it. If only research were so easy!
That misunderstanding, which may be a more subconscious sort of convolution of bad habits and lack of information about better practices, really limits students. And these same misconceptions bleed over into the younger generation in academics and the workforce — and even into older generations as well. Bad habits are hard to break, but surely, they are somewhat easy to adopt. What used to be somewhat novel has become the go-to method for trying to find information, but is it the best first-line for that process? If not, when are alternatives more appropriate?
The reason it is so easy to adopt this model — that all information and knowledge can be obtained by reasonable computer search, and thus does not need to be known or understood beforehand — is that for trivial or logistical information, it has become increasingly valid. Indeed, I am blessed with a relatively uncommon name, and the number one Google search terms going to my website are things like “Kellen Myers Rutgers office hours” or “Kellen TA Math” or the like. Students who need logistical information about my office hours, course policies, etc. can find my website and find all that information there. But if they need help with the course, they should not Google “Kellen Myers calculus homework answers.” I doubt this would be useful, and at the very least, I don’t recommend looking up homework answers online to any students.
Once, in particular, I was sorely disappointed to find students asking (many of them repeatedly) when office hours were. Finally, when one student asked by email for the second time (having forgotten my previous response?), I responded that this information can be found by a Google search or by visiting my website — the student was very displeased, and even accused me of disrespect and dereliction of my duty as a TA for not answering the question directly. This stance, in addition to being somewhat hyperbolic, is an unfortunate passing over of the resources and information at hand. Students can often find a wealth of information about their courses’ logistical information, about their instructors’ availability, library hours, school policies, etc. etc. There is a huge amount of information out there! Here, by the way, is an important note for those who provide this information — doing it correctly, effectively, and clearly is an important part of the administrative side of instruction. Five minutes putting together a clear, concise webpage for a course may save hours of emails, confusion, etc.
But information like times, dates, locations, birth-dates, and so forth, seem to be easily accessible and, if the context is understood, a precise online search would yield this sort of information easily. There is no problem discerning from a search what data are valid and which can be trusted to give the correct, valid, desired piece of information. For example, if I needed to know offhand what year the Magna Carta was issued, without the Internet I could (very cautiously) ballpark it as 1100-1400, but a Google search brings it up immediately (the first hit being Wikipedia, which has the information right there in the first paragraph). But knowing the context helps, as a similar search attempting to find the year Marie Antoinette gave her famous “Let them eat cake.” speech brings up several news stories about Mitt Romney, various complicated historical accounts of how she never actually said such a thing, and much more data (related and unrelated) than I would have liked. More knowledge and context might help me sift through that information, but here Google does seem to fail to deliver precisely the datum I was expecting to find.
In the long run, this issue has an impact on how we teach students to find information, be it informally (that is, day-to-day stuff) or in some formal setting (e.g. term paper). This generation of undergraduates has, after all, never used an actual card catalog. Everything is an electronic search, but knowing how to search effectively and what to expect from various search tools is important, and this might be something students (and scholars, and others) lack. We may not have knowledge of the tools at hand, nor of the results one can obtain when using such tools (or how to use such results responsibly).
Indeed, upper level math courses in particular become a bit tough when planning homework. Is this problem solved online somewhere? Will my students find it through Google? It’s a pretty good argument against posting solutions when often, standard or important exercises would be rendered ineffective by having solutions available prematurely. Perhaps this is another piece of good practice for instructors, in both keeping solution sets off the internet and learning to adapt when such information becomes ubiquitous. It may be challenging, finding ways of still giving effective problem sets without running afoul of these online solutions, but I would say it is usually possible.
The question becomes more complex when computers can solve problems too. In algebra and calculus, students can make use of Wolfram Alpha to solve problems (now with steps provided explicitly, which makes cheating-detection quite difficult). And this isn’t confined to homework or take-home assignments. Indeed, I have heard of students whose phones have been confiscated during exams, with the Wolfram Alpha App wide open with a solution to an exam question on the display. But is Wolfram Alpha the enemy? Let’s hope not — it’s an enemy we can’t fight! It won’t go away, and surely no one can believe such a service could be blocked, censored, or limited in some way.
Like Google or Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha and any other such site will be there to provide students with access to various data, and how students use that data is something to which we must respond well, but also for which we can prepare. (And here, perhaps, I disagree with Wolfram’s description of its product as a “knowledge engine. I would consider it a data engine, and that usually it could be considered reliable enough to provide information, but not knowledge. To me, knowledge of a calculus problem is the ability to understand the methodology of the solution and solve it without an outside aid of that sort. I realize all three of these terms I have used without definition, and I am not brave enough to venture some postulated set of definitions for the terms despite using them freely.)
But, if students are taught how to effectively utilize searching resources, including things like library catalogs and journal resources, they will have access to a better base of data. If we prepare them to filter and interpret that data, we can mediate the problems created by the influx of data that might overwhelm someone searching on the Web. And if we prepare resources (mainly, websites) that provide important and essential information through search engines effectively, students will find the right information right away, using the resources that they have come to primarily rely on for acquiring data. And for times when this is not the right way to find data, we can help students learn to use other resources — which may, in this generation, be new to them (up until college, Google and Wikipedia may have sufficed entirely). Eventually, we can hope they will not be reliant on these resources for all data, as research, writing, learning, and other experiences should impart knowledge and information. And we ourselves, as faculty, graduate students, undergraduate students, or anyone else, can learn to better use these resources. Search engines and other online data/information resources can supplement instruction and research, and are incredible tools for data acquisition, but knowing when and how to use them is crucial — not only to prevent misuse or over-reliance on these resources, but to also make use of them as important and increasingly abundant tools for gathering and refining information.