To read Nick Carr you would think that the concept of plagiarism began with the internet. He sounds genuinely surprised that students would cut and paste from the internet, as if this had never happened before the internet existed. Yet I can clearly remember copying information from books and encyclopedias long before people had even heard of the web.
Back then we weren’t constantly threatened with legal action if we copied a page from a book. But we also know enough to add a footnote or a bibliography entry for proper attribution.
Nick points out that it isn’t about "cut and paste", but about "understanding". Though I would content that students understand no less now than they did then. They merely take the most expedient route to get their assignments completed. He quotes Mark Cuban:
"In the past, you had to memorize knowledge because there was a cost to finding it. Now, what can’t you find in 30 seconds or less? We live an open-book-test life that requires a completely different skill set."
We now have ready access to more information than we have ever had before. Yet we still feel it necessary for students to simply accumulate facts. The example he quotes of a paper on Jesse Owens for a 5th grade class is a typical assignment. Once kids would have gone to the library and read a couple of books, quoting relevant information; now they do the same thing via the internet. Do we really expect the student to come away with substantial knowledge and understanding of Jesse Owens? Do we expect that understanding to be greater possibly because the student copied the information by hand? And of what value is information about Jesse Owens 20 years later?
Isn’t it the goal of the educational system to teach students to be lifelong learners, rather than to be accumulators of information? When I need to know something today, it is the expediency of finding that information when I need it that is important. I may not remember it later, but I can get it again easily enough.
It isn’t even the understanding of a particular fact that is important, but the ability to aggregate information and make sense of it, when you need to. That’s the skill we need, and the skill we should be teaching.
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