If anybody understands the perils of the Internet as an educational tool, it’s college faculty members. In a 2011 Pew survey of more than a thousand presidents of colleges and universities spanning the spectrum of higher education, the respondents were asked about, among other things, the Internet and academic integrity. A clear majority, 55%, reported that plagiarism had increased over the course of the previous decade. Even more troubling is the fact that 89% of those surveyed blamed the Internet for this trend.
Without question, numerous difficulties have arisen from the reality that students from middle school through university levels compose papers and other assignments on their computers and often use information just a few clicks away on the Internet to complete their work. While the Internet is an incredible educational tool at all levels, students need to be cautious when using information taken from the Internet in their papers.
Plagiarism and Academic Integrity
As noted above, perhaps the most obvious trouble the Internet can get students into involves academic integrity. Obviously, the Internet makes plagiarism quicker, easier, and perhaps more appealing to dishonest students.
But, according to an in-depth article on the subject in the New York Times, many well-meaning and otherwise honest students are finding themselves in hot water because they sincerely don’t understand how to use or credit online sources. When research is pulled from physical books and journals, citation is a standardized and straightforward process. But the lines are blurred to many students when it comes to information they find on the Internet.
Out of an abundance of caution, students shout always cite sources they use even if they aren’t lifting text directly from someone else’s work. To be even more cautious, students should as often as possible cite from primary documents only and not from difficult-to-credit secondary sources on the Internet. As a matter of fact, many college professors strongly urge against using even non-Internet secondary sources like encyclopedias in their papers, and, according to an Inside Higher Ed article, online encyclopedias and the problems they present have led many schools to ban using them altogether.
The Wikipedia Problem
But plagiarism and citation problems aren’t the only things students should worry about when it comes to using the Internet as an academic tool. There appears to be a tendency of students to view sites like Wikipedia as indisputably authoritative, but even the site’s founder argues against directly citing from it and admits that, like all encyclopedias, it is not a definitive resource and can contain errors.
While many students find Wikipedia to be an invaluable Internet tool for finding useful information for their papers — and it indeed is an excellent research tool — its articles, after all, aren’t written or edited by experts. Much false information can find its way into Wikipedia either unintentionally, maliciously, or due to bias.
However, various studies have indicated that Wikipedia is no more inaccurate than traditional resources. It’s also worth noting that Wikipedia articles can be edited and corrected quickly if errors are found, whereas this isn’t possible with most traditional resources.
Students would be well advised to read primary sources (articles from newspapers, journals, etc.) cited within Wikipedia articles and use and cite those as opposed to using content from Wikipedia or other similar sites directly in their papers.
Accuracy and Trustworthiness of Internet Sources
As discussed above in the case of Wikipedia, the Internet in general can be a place full of misinformation and bias, and there is little that can be done to prevent this. To find accurate and useful information, students need to be taught how to evaluate the quality and credibility of sources, including the Internet as a whole and its component websites.
While traditional information sources can also be filled with bias and inaccuracies, at least anything published traditionally has gone through some level of a vetting process. Personal blogs, social media pages, and random links students click on after haphazardly typing a phrase into Google may not be at all accurate or trustworthy.
The best rule of thumb for students is to use the Internet as a tool to search through information, but the basis of their work should be based on and cite works that could or do exist offline.