Children on computers - Yaron Kaminsky - October 2011
Information, which used to be in short supply, has become accessible and available to everyone, and for the most part it is given freely. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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The digital era has made access to information incomparably easy. What in past generations you had to sweat blood in order to obtain, you can acquire today with a mouse-click: articles (and the summaries of them ), books (and the summaries of them ), lectures (and the summaries of them and then the summary of the summaries of them ).

The education system is so impressed by the access to information that it has made it an aim to educate children to what it calls "literacy" - basic control of computer technologies as a tool for finding information. However, on the way to this goal it has shot itself in the foot - and the students in the head.

A relative who is studying in high school has told me she is now working on the local equivalent of Advanced Placement grades for the matriculation exam in the social sciences. In this context she has to write a final paper in sociology on a topic of her choice, say "The considerations in choosing friends among adolescents" or "Prejudices toward new immigrants." The paper is to consist of theoretical background followed by the presentation of a small-scale research study based on questionnaires or a brief survey. The supervisor of the work is the teacher herself and after the work is ready and has been submitted, an examiner will come on behalf of the Education Ministry to examine the paper and the student orally.

In the instructions the teacher gave the class she said: "When writing the part about the theoretical background, you should surf the Internet and look for articles about your topic. Don't try to change words or sentences," she explained. "Write what the source of the text is and copy it. Just as it is."

The students were astonished. "Is there no scope for creativity, for our opinions and style? After all, this is our work," they said.

The teacher didn't bat an eyelid: "If you want to get a grade of 100, that's what you have to do."

In recent years, when I have graded works by students at various institutions of higher learning, I have encountered again and again papers that have been copied word for word from texts that appear on the Internet. These could be academic texts, texts from blogs, texts from online responses to newspaper articles (I am not exaggerating - I have encountered a paper like that ) - it makes no difference. If it appears on the Internet, it can be copied and if it can be copied, it can be pasted and if these are the instructions high-school students are getting when preparing for their matriculation exams, how can university lecturers complain?

At the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century information, which used to be in short supply, has become accessible and available to everyone, and for the most part it is given freely. There is no doubt that graduates of the education system should be equipped with the tools that will help them navigate the information, locate the relevant information and separate the wheat from the chaff. However, there is no connection between this and intellectual dishonesty, between this and the active encouragement of an absence of creative thinking and imagination, or between this and a public call to copy entire texts written by other people as the high road leading to a grade of 100 on the matriculation exam.

The sociology assignment was supposed to develop independent thinking, curiosity, research experience, analysis and the drawing of conclusions by writing a lengthy paper in which use is made of a number of varied sources. All that remains of this splendid list is this: Surf the Internet, find a suitable article and copy it. All shame has disappeared; only disgrace remains.

 

Dr. Dror is the head of the Digital Studies track at the College of Management's School of Communications.