Hit or Miss: The Problems with Citing ONLY Online Sources

Today in my Teaching Reading class, we had to get into groups to talk about the new Colorado Common Core Standards. My initial small group was supposed to discuss Standard 2 (Reading for All Purposes) for the middle school/junior high grades, and then the big group was the three small groups who had been discussing the middle grade expectations for Standards 1, 2, and 4. One of my peers brought up a point that I didn’t particularly agree with. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

As part of Standard 4 (Research and Reasoning), beginning in the sixth grade students are required to use a “variety of sources” when doing research projects, “variety” meaning “both print-based and online-based texts.” We’re all familiar with this idea, yeah? The fact that we are supposed to be using print sources along with any online sources has been around for my entire education, because some people didn’t want to go to the library to look up a book. Anyway, her point was that she doesn’t agree with this. Her response was, and I quote, “Why not?” Why not let kids use the technology they have at their fingertips to easily and readily access information? Why not make them go look, or at least double-check, in a book?

Another student’s response to this was that recently she was given a project where she could only use print-based sources. Even though the textbook is available online, her professor wanted the students to physically go to the library and check it out, and her exasperated response was, “I don’t know how to find anything in the library.” Personally I don’t either, but the point is moot.

Then I spoke up (which is pretty hit-or-miss with me). I disagreed. I think that knowing how to navigate a library and how to look up items in a dictionary or an encyclopedia are good life skills to have. It may be hard to believe, but even in our technology-crazed society there are still people without access to high-speed internet or even a computer whenever they need it. I have a laptop, you know, but I don’t carry it around with me all the time. I do carry my phone, but I don’t have internet access on it (or anything fun, really, because it’s not a smart phone), so I can’t just Google something every time I have a question when I’m not at my house. My sister’s best friend has a computer at her house, sure, but the thing is probably fifteen years old, takes ten minutes to turn on and log in, and then has to update constantly. It’s slow and unreliable, and that’s just turning the stupid thing on. Heaven forbid you actually needed to use it for something, like typing up an essay or Googling what “meritorious” means.

Like this. If you're under 13, you probably don't even know what that big thing on the left is.

Like this. If you’re under 13, you probably don’t even know what that big thing on the left is.

Point is, using a book is a good life skill. I’m not saying books should be the be all and end all (Shakespeare quote!), obviously – I spent at least an hour reading random Wikipedia articles, beginning with on the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which was completely irrelevant to anything I was supposed to be doing – but I personally think kids should know how to use them.

The downside to this, of course, as someone in our discussion pointed out, is how do we as teachers justify teaching students how to use print sources when they can, often just as easily, find it online? Now that I’ve had a little time to think about it, here’s what I’ve come up with.

Firstly, and perhaps rather lamely, this is a skill that they will need for the rest of their education. It feels like a weak reason because yeah, it’s pretty weak, but it’s still perfectly valid. Like my classmate with her project, there are going to be teachers who are so anti-technology they want you to lose yourself amidst dusty bookshelves and dustier books with onion-skin pages so thin just breathing too heavily might tear them (not saying her professor is, but I’m sure such people exist). Even if you’re not totally forbidden from using the internet, you’ll probably still be required to have at least one book on your list of sources. I’d like to think there isn’t an element of “Well, I had to learn it so now you do too,” but I don’t know. I’m obviously biased.

The other major reasons have to do with the books themselves, and the two things a book can almost always promise that the internet never ever will: depth and veracity. The great thing about the internet is that you can find out lots of little bits of information, or one very general idea, very quickly and you mostly understand it and could recite it back later if someone asked. But there isn’t a whole lot of depth on the internet, not unless you’re willing to devote more than the half hour max you normally devote to research sessions to scouring dozens of websites and reading tiny print on a bright screen. The other problem with the internet, present in this scenario, inherent and inseparable from the whole institution since it was established in the 90s, is accuracy and veracity. Obviously Wikipedia is the perfect example for this. How many years did teachers warn us all away from EVER using Wikipedia because most of what’s on there is a lie? Okay, they still don’t like us using Wikipedia, although I’m pretty sure it’s more accurate than it used to be.

There’s the key phrase, of course: “more accurate than it used to be.” This implies that there are still elements of untruth and bias lurking within the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of pages that comprise Wikipedia.org. And there are. I love Wikipedia – it’s just so gosh-darn convenient – but I know that’s written by random people all over the world, probably more than a few who think they know a lot about whatever subject they’re writing about but don’t. I’ve gone to Wikipedia articles before and found them to be lacking, like when I read the plot summaries for movies or books or whatever, or sometimes flat-out wrong. I can’t even imagine what the “global warming” page must say; it’s probably super-biased one way or another.

And therein lies the problem. You can’t really trust anything you read about on the internet. It’s like that State Farm commercial, with the guy and the girl and her “French model” date, who is this big, bearded dude with a fanny pack and mispronounces Bonjour. 

Yeah, 'cause this guy looks like a real winner.

Yeah, ’cause this guy looks like a real winner.

She’s wrong, of course (not just about her date); you can most definitely put things on the internet that are not true. How many times have celebrities been reported dead when they’re so very obviously alive? Answer: a lot. Or did you hear about that Wikipedia article some British guy published, about a famous composer who died when really he just made the guy up? It doesn’t even matter, because Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to Wikipedia hoaxes. Or that new show on MTV, Catfish, which is about a guy who helps people meet the people they’ve been talking to online and 90% of the time it’s been a lie (from names to pictures to gender)? Yeah. So much for truth online.

Another thing I found kind of in my favor popped up in my email today. See, Google alerts sends me daily emails about nerdy, fangirlish things like Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes, and this video came up in the one about Holmes (sorry, don’t remember how to insert the actual video into the post).

According to the video (transcript; I didn’t watch the thing), “people who used Google and who thought that they would be able to access information on a computer later on didn’t remember it as well as the people who didn’t think they would have access to it.” Konnikova goes on to say how you might not remember the fact but you’ll remember where you stored it, but I like the point about memory. You know, memorizing facts is good. Certain facts. I’m probably never going to need to know ever again that The Ecclesiastical History of the English People was written in 731 CE, but because I have a good memory, I can access prior knowledge about things like the Bernard Bouriscot scandal I read about once and connect that with the fact that that scandal was the inspiration for the play M. Butterfly.  Or how the line of succession works in British Royalty, and that Prince Charles will be king before William and Kate (I thought everyone knew that), so I can be confused about how the line of succession worked in Denmark according to Shakespeare. Or that the US entered WWII in 1941 (I really thought everyone knew that).

So I advocate for books. More books! Books are great; I love books. Kids should read more of them. And that’s about it. I had a lot of feelings on the subject and what better place to express them than on the blog I primarily use/d for education-related stuff anyway? Now I will go read Hamlet and Utopia, whatever that is, and press my hand to the tiny tiny print on the rice-paper-thin pages Norton anthologies love and ask myself, very tongue-in-cheek, “Can’t you just feel the magic?” Can’t you?




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