The internet is the most wonderful thing that has happened for college students in many decades as it allows us to have an infinite amount of information at our fingertips. Gone are the days of debate about who won the 1998 World Series (New York Yankees) or who won the Best Actress in 2005 (Hilary Swank – Million Dollar Baby). Anything we want to know is only a moment away. Seems great right?

The unfortunate side of the information age is the quality of information our students use in their research. High school and college students today are so used to using Google and Wikipedia in their personal lives that they transfer that into their studies. And while technology literacy is a wonderful attribute for them, understanding the pros and cons of the internet when writing and researching is essential to success.

In this blog piece, I’ve decided to take a look at the positive and negative aspects of the internet when it comes to certain aspects of the writing process. Hopefully, this will make students aware of some of these pitfalls before doing their next paper.

The Information Age has changed how students do research.

The Information Age has changed how students do research.

#1 – Prewriting

This is a crucial step that frequently people forget to do at all or spend adequate time with. Many feel that it is an extra step or extra work that they can skip and still provide a quality product. What I often explain to students is that without the framework of a paper, your organization is lacking. An example I give in class is: Imagine trying to build a house without a blueprint. What is most likely to happen?

Cons – Students often attempt to sit down with a blank Microsoft Word document when it comes time to write their paper. Prewriting guides the entire work, especially giving you direction when it comes time to research.   You can ask questions that you want to answer that can at least give you an idea of what you want to say by allowing you to formulate a central idea of your paper. Without prewriting, your “house” may not stand on its own.

Pros – A frequent statement that I hear when research papers are assigned is: “I have no idea what to write about”.   This is where technology comes into play. In the information age, bloggers have become the modern day public opinion meter.   Blogs are out there about any topic, therefore reading a blog piece or two may help inspire you about what topic to write about or what opinion to have. Much of writing comes from feelings and ideologies that the writer has and sometimes reading an opinion piece can help writers form their own opinion about certain topics.

#2 – Research

To me, research is the aspect of writing that has changed the most in the information age. Prior to the internet, researchers had to find books, magazine articles, or even microfilm to find information that they needed. Today, we have an infinite number of resources at our fingertips, including Google and Wikipedia. Understanding how to evaluate these resources is extremely important to success in writing.

Cons – Wikipedia – While Wikipedia is a wonderful asset to us as a society, many still do not understand the numerous problems that Wikipedia presents. The main issue is the fact that Wikipedia can be edited by anyone. If I wanted to go change an entry right now I certainly have the opportunity to do so. That said, academically Wikipedia is just too general to be useful in a college setting. It’s the same reason that researchers wouldn’t use an encyclopedia in research; it is just too broad for the type of information that we seek as researchers at a college level.

Cons – Blogs – For the individual college student, blogging is a necessity. Blogging though is another major facet of research that has watered down the quality of information that we are presented with on a daily basis. Think of it this way: Writers have to painstakingly get edited before their work is published and journalists have an editor that can dice up their stories to fit spacing guidelines or other factors in the news media. Bloggers, however, have little or no oversight and some bloggers do not take the time to fact check. Also, blogs are often meant to be persuasive in nature. Books, news stories, etc. are typically meant to be informative in nature, to present the facts to you and allow you to make your own opinions.   Blogs are typically trying to attempt to make you change your opinion on a matter, which detracts from the validity and usefulness in an academic setting.

Pros – Wikipedia – Wikipedia does offer many positive things to a researcher though. First, if you are new to a topic and have limited knowledge on a subject, Wikipedia may be a good starting point for general information, as it may point you in the right direction for future research. Also, Wikipedia has extensive references and further reading sections that can direct you to other sources that provide a wealth of quality information. So, while Wikipedia shouldn’t be cited as a source, it is a great place to start your research.

#3 – Revision and Proofreading

One of the aspects in writing that is often neglected is the step of revising and editing a paper. Technology has made us “lazy” in the sense that once we run a spelling and grammar check, we feel that this step has been completed and often may not even read back over our work

Cons – Spelling and grammar check – Microsoft Word and other word processing programs have come a long way in providing us a great deal of tools that can assist us in the revision and editing process. As I mentioned, however, many students think that this tool is a substitute for taking a little extra time to reread their work. In fact, the most common error I see as a professor is students either not using it at all or only using it and not reading through their paper prior to turning it in. And to a professor, this is quite obvious.

Pros – SmartThinking – At Central Penn College, we have series of tools that students may use to help improve their revision and editing skills. The first and most useful is SmartThinking, a tool on Blackboard that provides online tutors to help assist you in your writing. I encourage students to learn more about this wonderful tool by check out their website (http://www.smarthinking.com/explore/how-it-works/) and accessing the tool through Blackboard on the “Tools” tab.

Pros – Emailing your professor, classmates and others

Technology has made getting feedback on your work much easier than in the past. First, you should always reach out to your professor at their office hours or via email. I’m always happy to look over a paper and provide feedback to students should they email me their paper in advance of the due date. You could also email classmates and get their feedback, realizing that you may also be helping them in their studies by seeing how someone else approached the assignment.

As we are clearly in the information age, instructors have realized that this is both a blessing and a curse for students. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of technology could be the difference between success and disappointment when it comes to the writing and researching processes that all college students face. Using some of the tools I’ve suggested here could make the navigation of this information age less of a challenge and more of an adventure!

By:  Paul M. Miller

Professor, Central Penn College

LinkedIn:  www.linkedin.com/pub/paul-miller/3b/b5/495/

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