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Internet Research: Both Boon and Bust

So, I assigned a project to all my students, which I've been busily scoring over the last week as I try to compute their marking period grades. The assignment was for Lord of the Flies, and there were four different options: (1) Write a 13th chapter for the book (there are currently only 12, but the book ends with--I think--plenty of unresolved issues); (2) Draw a graphic novel of the book; (3) Analyze William Golding's use of Biblical allusions in the book; or (4) Compare the "adventures" of the protagonists (who are stranded on a deserted island, for the uninitiated) to a real-life stranded group, such as the Donner Party. In terms of the research necessitated, options 3 and 4 were probably the most challenging, which was why I was unsurprised when they also yielded some plagiarism--papers printed directly off of websites like this one, or plot summaries of the book copied and pasted from Wikipedia (complete with hyperlinks.)

I understand how this happens--that kids get freaked out, either because they left the assignment for the night before, or aren't sure how to even attempt it--and thus, copying something from the internet in the hope that I won't notice it sounds totally unlike anything they've ever written suddenly seems like a good idea. With the 10th graders, I try not to be too harsh about it (in 12th grade AP classes, it's another story); I give the kids who do this zeroes, but then I try to also sit down and talk to them about why they felt the need to copy an entire entry from Wikipedia, why they can never do that again, and how in the future we can avoid getting into a situation wherein that seems like the only recourse on the night before the due date.

What bothers me in a more abstract sense is the way in which the Internet has re-routed the process of research and, to a broader extent, intellectual inquiry. I think sometimes about the way in which I used to write research papers when I was little. I'd think of a topic: say, baseball. Then, I'd have to come up with a series of questions, which would in some way frame my research. Maybe I'd ask myself, "What is the history of baseball?" Or, "What are the rules of baseball?" Or, "Have there ever been women in baseball (other than in the film 'A League of Their Own' with Tom Hanks)?" Asking myself these questions--in essence, going through a process of inquiry--would inform my research, helping me to plan and organize the type of information I hoped to acquire before I even set foot in the library.

With kids today--and this is true across all socio-economic groups--the research on my hypothetical baseball paper looks like this: Turn on the computer, go to Google (or some similar search engine), type in the word "baseball," and hit enter. The process of inquiry is essentially cut out. And in my mind, the fact that they're not learning to ask the types of questions that push a researcher to hypothesize, look for connections, and think outside the box is a potential intellectual loss. When we don't give any thought to what information we're looking for, we have no incentive to look further than what's immediately provided.

One of the history teachers with whom I work suggested that he might give a paper to the kids wherein they were only allowed to use books from the library--no Internet allowed. I can't help but think this is a good idea, despite the fact that giving such an assignment will necessitate endless (exhausting) handholding of 140 students before the project is even turned in.

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