Online Sources in the Classroom

[A response to this post by James F. McGrath]

In 1995 I started my first personal webpage, which I used to publish information on ancient history. It was the beginning of the website that is now called Livius.org. One of the first pieces was a translation of the Behistun Inscription, which was almost immediately copied on the website of a major American university. Because I realized that my website was apparently useful, I decided to improve my articles by adding references to good books.

Somewhere in 1997 (if I recall correctly), I received an e-mail with a letter by four American universities, requesting me to stop adding these references, because my pages were copied by students and presented as assignments. Always wanting to help scholars, I obliged. This means that although I do my best to summarize the communis opinio, or to offer the best interpretation of a given text or event, no user can check the quality of my webpages.

Now the main point of science and scholarship is that the information is not just someone’s opinion, but that it is based on (a) established facts and (b) a well-understood explanatory model (hermeneutics, positivism, comparativism, narrativism, physics of society). And the main point of a popularizing website on ancient history is not that it presents the facts, but that it explains to the people that they must always check the facts and understand the explanatory model. By obliging to the universities’ request, and leaving out what was vital, I essentially killed my own website.

My website is, for me, some kind of open nerve. By trying to help the universities, I missed a chance to make something really useful. When the Dutch classicists and ancient historians offered me an award, I had very, very mixed feelings. Of course a compliment is nice, but people who offer a scholarly award to a website that does not meet the basic requirements, prove that they do not understand what explaining history to a larger audience is all about. That rather diminished the value of the compliment, and I was happier when the Dutch classicists and historians invited me to a meeting to explain a couple of things.

If students cannot check the information – if they cannot know how the facts have been established and which explanatory model is used – students must avoid a website. That’s the first basic lesson. This means that in the present situation, students must just avoid the internet and check their library. Books are a far better source of reliable information.

But there is a more important thing. There used to be a time, not so long ago, that the universities “sent out” information, which society “received”. This is the “sender-receiver model”. The internet now  offers society a possibility to talk back: the “debate model”. Look at the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars. Communication of scientific and scholarly information has become a debate, and occasionally a shouting match.

In the perfect situation, a bona fide scholar and an activist will both refer to their sources, and can establish what is correct – or comes closest to being correct. Unfortunately, there is no level playing field. After all, bona fide scholarly articles are to be found on pay sites, so in an online debate, the bona fide scholar cannot refer to them.

An example can be found in my own country, where we used to have a minister of Education, Culture, and Science named Maria van der Hoeven, who is on record with some favorable remarks about Intelligent Design. We learned that the woman responsible for our higher education did not understand what the “incompleteness of a theory” meant. There were many publications by professional biologists and other scientists, and there were evangelical Christians who defended the minister. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if I now want to find information about this, I can easily find the Christian information, while the other publications are all behind pay walls. You get the impression that she is the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists. Their voices have been silenced. The second basic lesson about online information is that as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good. And to some fields of research, the damage is already done.

To sum up: at this moment there is no good reason why students should use the internet. Let’s face it: the internet has failed.

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11 Responses to Online Sources in the Classroom

  1. cheeseeating says:

    Hi,

    I think you are rather too hard on wikipedia – it has lots of pitfalls but overall I think its model is working. From my experience editing, there is a very large number of users who do care about integrity and proper sourcing, even when political controversies are at stake. Crudely speaking, if a subject is popular, it will sooner or later (and usually sooner) get a proper scholarly write-up; if it’s a more abstruse one, it will wait more. Of course, there are cock-ups sometimes, but on the whole I’d definitely chalk the wikipedia as a GOOD THING.

    This comes from one who very much appreciates your websites and admires your work, to be perfectly clear.

    F.G.

  2. You are right; Wiki was the example I chose because everyone knows it.

  3. Jona,

    Would you consider your site a success if you had not acceded to the request of the US Universities, and instead continued to include links to sources?

    It would seem the universities were unhappy because you were doing the research they thought their students should be doing.

    However …

    Is that not what every author does?

    When I read Goldsworthy, for example, he includes end notes that contain asides, digressions and sources. Are the universities suggesting, by extension, that we should avoid Goldsworthy and only do research in primary sources?

    Perhaps that might work of PhD candidates, but for the rest of us, doing original research in Japanese of Latin or Sanskrit is beyond us. (Or me at any rate.)

    While I do have an extensive personal library, and access to several very good public libraries, it is still the case that the cat is out of the bag when it comes to academia and the internet.

    The internet is here to stay and more schools than ever are moving their students onto it. Indeed, the school my grandson attends is this year requiring all 6th, 7th, and 8th Graders to have iPads for use in class.

    Now, the upside of this move will be eliminating the need to carry home a literal ton of books every night. The down side is … yet to be seen precisely.

    In my humble opinion, you should in fact reverse course and go back to your original and rigorous format of including links to sources. The more good sites that are out there, backing up their claims with reliable sources, the better are the chances of the internet not becoming s wasteland of misinformation.

    Of course, many will argue that it already is a wasteland and we have already moved past the point of no return. I disagree, but turning things around will not be easy or quick. Your site can be a shining beacon of scholarly rigor in this squall of uninformed opinion masquerading as fact.

    That’s my opinion anyway.

  4. For heaven’s sake, do not give into academic orthodoxy; do continue providing valuable citations, both to primary and secondary sources. Your scrupulous citations lift your blog above the realm of mere opinio. You are providing a model for students to emulate. It’s up to them to interpret the material. Besides, if a professor doesn’t want a student to use anything on the net, he/she can lay the ground rules in advance.

    Helemaal gek! (Professors, who object to your using citations, I mean).

  5. Thanks for taking the time to reply, and to turn this into a conversation! I have posted my own reply to this post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/08/do-students-still-need-to-steer-clear-of-the-internet.html

  6. Thanks!

    I think you are basically right; I am not against the internet as such, but I am not optimistic about the present situation. Of course students can learn how to distinguish between good and bad information. Free access is a very important first aim, because it at least takes away the disadvantage that scholars now have.

    What I would appreciate, though, is if scholars all over the world came together, and created a good network of (more or less) adequate information. One big digital library, in other words, which will – the humanities being what they are – never be completely free of bias, but can generally be trusted. As it now stands, we have a lot of small-scale initiatives, which are vulnerable (like the recent blackout at Louvain), suffer from wrong editoral choice (my own website), and often confusing.

  7. I think you are basically right; I am not against the internet as such, but I am not optimistic about the present situation. James McGrath is of course right that students ought to learn how to distinguish between good and bad information. Free access is a very important first aim, because it at least takes away the disadvantage that scholars now have.

    What I would appreciate, is if scholars all over the world came together, and created a good network of (more or less) adequate information. One big digital library, in other words, which will – the humanities being what they are – never be completely free of bias, but can generally be trusted. As it now stands, we have a lot of small-scale initiatives, which are vulnerable (like the recent blackout at Louvain), suffer from wrong editoral choice (my own website), and often confusing.

  8. vamd says:

    The more content you provide, the easier should be for third parties to recognize lifted chunks, hence the ball is in the thesis reviewers court, I would think…

    Turning to the access complaint: I am not so sure whether pay-walls are either entirely superfluous or stifling. Although I cannot read most of the sources that interest me without waving some credentials around, a search engine can. It makes a world of difference. Perhaps this is simply an irrelevant benefit for anyone that does not need or enjoy sifting through more bibliography then they know what to do with… Had I disposed of a great library at will, perhaps I would have never put much thinking into what on Earth these [formerly] annoying searches can do that a decent paper index can’t [roughly: chasing arguments buried under unanticipated titles, etc. - the choice of context turned into my reader's hands to a much greater degree... my interests changed accordingly over some years].

    Of course, the sport of pedantic reading is still a somewhat cumbersome hobby outside a well-endowed university. Nice blackmail. Successful, so far.

  9. Nothing can be said to have failed until it has finished whatever it was doing. To coin a phrase, however, the Internet is “under construction.’

    And then dear Jona you undo some of your argument by making it on . . . the Internet.

    The greatest benefit of the Internet, and why I believe it will ultimately be a success, is that it does level the playing field to some extent: it is forcing open the doors of privilege, the stacks of libraries, even the museums. Institutions are tumbling all over themselves to offer more than the next. It’s competition and free market at its best. Like David Reinke said earlier in this thread, The Cat Is Out Of The Bag.

  10. vamd says:

    “Nothing can be said to have failed until it has finished whatever it was doing.”

    So it is. I believe that at least one of its great novelties is making the effects of peer to peer interaction in the creation of norms and knowledge… observable, within reason.

    [which reminds me to add a bit to my previous post: my impression of the Wiki thing is much the some as yours, Jona. It is easy to cut the thing out of search. There is an equivalent decentralized function – meaning, where sources are vetted by a machine prone to other lapses and mistakes then the human squabbles: ‘Define:[word] in Chrome. Perhaps neither is a great encyclopedia, but the race between the two is entertaining, in a philosophical sort of way…].

  11. What is the responsibility of the school and its employees in all this.Are not teachers the guides and must use oversight to see that the students are not using the easy way out?Do they give these still young and at times artless children the benefit of the doubt as to whether or not they actually do work the work.WHAT is the purpose of these higher education people?To ask a person to NOT reference thier work is their lazy way of guiding their charges?Elementary,High School,and on….is it still not teaching and guiding our our young people,our future?I may be missing the whole point of this discussion,and if so I need and WANT to be led and corrected by any and/or all.Thank you very much.Garry in Kentucky.

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