The internet is an amazing medium for significantly improving the standard of living for large numbers of people globally. Access to a wealth of information is easy, which leads to better and enhanced personal development. However, for many other people, the internet is seen as a threat. For example, there are strong, popular opinions that children should be better protected from inappropriate YouTube movies containing sex, violence, and vulgar language through the implementation of age classifications.
Harmful content is not the biggest problem
The idea of protecting children from seeing harmful online content is obviously widely accepted as a good thing. However, it is almost impossible to classify all the content on YouTube so that it is only available to appropriate age levels, especially if this has to be done retroactively. Also, unfortunately, there is an even larger challenge than the protection from harmful online content (read: Google and YouTube). The enormous potential of the internet for educational purposes is under great pressure because finding relevant information is currently close to impossible for many students.
You can’t just say “Google it” anymore
Nearly every student in the UK from primary through to further/higher education uses Google to find information for their academic assignments. This is not surprising, as Google offers access to every piece of available online content on every topic you can think of. If you know which website you want to visit, or if you want to purchase something online, then Google is an excellent place to start your online query. However, this is not the case when students are looking for information for educational purposes.
What is the problem?
The sheer volume of results Google provides is overwhelming. It is difficult for students to decide which of the results gives relevant information for their query and judging the reliability of information is just too difficult. The temptation to visit commercial content and websites containing fake news can also be difficult to resist.
However, an even bigger problem is that the majority of the online content is written at a much higher reading level than most students can actually understand.
So, there are more challenges for using the internet for educational purposes than just simply exposing children to harmful and inappropriate content. More worryingly, the current version of the internet is unreadable, unreliable and irrelevant for educational purposes.
Lack of skills for finding information online
Part of the reason why children prefer to use Google for search queries is that they actually lack the skills to successfully search for information online. Their current behavior is mostly based on routine and effectiveness instead of comprehension and information literacy skills. We easily assume that children are “digital natives” or even “experts” regarding digital media as they’ve never known a world without computers, video games, and the internet and started using these technologies from an early age. This leads to the perception that they should, therefore, know everything about such tools. However, when it comes to their searches for (educational) information, this is a very inaccurate conclusion to make. Even though children can be digital wonders, they do not naturally have the necessary skills to handle online information.
How can you find relevant educational content on the internet
The internet provides a lot of good information for educational purposes. For instance, the numerous YouTube channels run by teachers providing explanations for curriculum-related subjects. Just as you could classify these YouTube videos or channels as ‘suitable’ for children and young people, you could do the same for the ‘educational’ internet used within classrooms. Filtering out unsuitable content (also known as blacklisting) is only the beginning. We should do more to help students, by making a preselection of the many trustworthy, informative websites and YouTube channels that are relevant at the different reading levels of students (whitelisting). This provides certainty that students can find relevant and reliable information for their schoolwork, at their own reading level, which is exactly what we try to achieve in our development of The Web for Classrooms.
This approach brings out the positive strength of the internet for education, instead of it being a threat to students and contributes to an inclusive community with equal chances for everyone. Isn’t that what we all want from a modern education system?
By Hanna Jochmann