A Generation Lost in Space

Hot from my feedreader, this: the internet makes students stupid.

Although campus computing is often touted as aiding education, many professors say the Internet has actually hampered students’ academic performance. When asked whether the Internet has changed the quality of student work, 42 percent of professors in a recent survey said they had seen a decline, while only 22 percent said they had seen improvement.

Normally when I read about research I’m open to the idea that its conclusions might be true. I start from a positive place with an article, shall we say. But not this time. This may be a study of some kind, but it’s not measuring student output since the internet appeared. It’s measuring faculty’s perceptions of the quality of student work since they started listening to ipods and posting to livejournal. Don’t people always pine for the old days?

“The thing that I hear from faculty colleagues is that there’s plagiarism and cheating going on over the Internet and that there’s a worsening in the quality of students’ writing,” he said. “I hear complaints more often than I hear any kind of positive comments about how the Internet has affected students’ work.”

What’s missing from this study are things like measurables: have grades gone down since the internet appeared? Have fewer students been graduating? Are there fewer graduate students? Has there been a marked decrease in the level of published works by faculty members who spent time on the internet prior to finishing their phds? None of these sorts of markers were examined. All we have here is some nostalgia by some fairly aged faculty members (given that the internet has been in active and wide use for the last 10 years). But the key reason why I’m not all that convinced by this article is it’s secondary findings: while students are stupider because of the internet, faculty report that they are actually better because of it. They are in better contact with their students and their teaching has improved, faculty say.

Most of the professors surveyed, 83 percent, said they spent less time in the library now than they did before they had Internet access. But professors said that online journals, e-mail lists, and other Internet tools had become critical for keeping up with news and research in their disciplines.

Whether this is a change that makes their connection to their own disciplines better, or that makes their own research easier if not better than it was prior to the internet, doesn’t appear to have factored into this survey. The hint in it is that it might, though. Here we have faculty connecting with each other, keyword searching journals, keeping up with the professional literature from their desks or from home. Faculty claim to be in better contact with their (increasingly stupid) students, and also with their colleagues around the world. It would seem to follow that their research might have also improved. They are coming into the library less, but they are using library resources possibly even more than they used to.

I’m just not ready to trust contradictory hearsay research like this yet. This sounds more like nostalgia than hard evidence.

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