May 27, 2009

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The Read/Write Internet: Advice to students

This is a draft for an upcoming talk called “The Read/Write Internet” for high school students at Sir Wilfred Laurier Collegiate this Friday. I plan to have very few slides, and a lot more discussion than indicated here. Actually, what’s likely to happen is that I’ll show up there with the headlines on slides, and then I’ll ad lib the rest of the way. =)


What advice do people give students on how to use the Internet?

“Don’t plagiarize, especially from Wikipedia.”
“Don’t trust everything you read online.”
“Don’t waste time surfing, chatting, or playing games.”
“Don’t talk to strangers.”

You’ve probably heard all that advice before. It’s common sense, really. But it doesn’t give you an idea of what you can do with the incredibly wonderful tool that’s the Internet, so that’s what we’re going to talk about today. At the end of this session,  you’re going to be full of ideas on how you can make the most of the Internet, and you’ll be able to use those ideas both inside and outside the classroom. Whether you’re researching information for your essays or you’re figuring out what you want to do with your life, there’s a whole lot of good stuff on the World Wide Web.

So let’s take a look at the first one:

“Don’t plagiarize, especially from Wikipedia.”

When I was in second year high school, I once wrote an article for a small magazine. The editor sent it back and said it looked like I’d plagiarized it. I thought I’d done my research well, and I didn’t even copy things word for word. The editor suggested ways to cite the sources properly. I still remember how embarrassed and confused I was, and that reminds me to be extra clear about where my thoughts come!

What’s the difference between plagiarism and research? Wilson Mizner (an American playwright) once said, “If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism. If you copy from two, it’s research.” (He had an interesting life. You should look him up–on Wikipedia, of course, which is where I found that quote.)

Plagiarism is when you take someone else’s work and you pass it off as your own, even if you do it accidentally. This is particularly bad in school, because if you plagiarize, you’ll be missing the entire point of the assignment or the project. School projects aren’t for the teacher’s benefit. They’re for yours. They’re there so that you can have an opportunity to learn about different things, practice your communication skills, and learn about all sorts of other useful skills along the way (such as time management and dealing with mistakes).

Let’s say you have a friend who hasn’t worked on her project, and it’s due tomorrow. If she takes a shortcut and just copies things off the Internet, she’ll miss out on the learning experience. If a teacher catches her, it’s really embarrassing. If the teacher doesn’t catch her, she might end up with the idea that plagiarizing is okay, and then she’ll wake up thirty years later feeling like an imposter and being afraid that someone will discover she’s such a fake. Don’t go there. Life can be so much better than that.

Write things in your own words, draw on your own experiences, add your own thoughts. If you’re going to write something, you might as well write something only you can write. It might be hard in the beginning, but trust me, you’ll be much better off developing your own voice and building your own experiences. If you use material from other people, give credit where credit is due. I won’t go into all the details on how to properly cite Internet articles, but you can find out about that on your own.

So plagiarism is bad. Learning from and building on what other people have shared, however–that’s good, and that’s something you don’t learn nearly enough about in school. One of the fantastic things about Wikipedia and about the Internet in general is that you can learn about so much, and you can learn about things related to that, and things related to that, and so on. It’s incredible! Compare that with a traditional book

And you can learn from all sorts of different perspectives, too. Interested in learning about the politics in China? You can read a (probably outdated) book or encyclopedia, or check paper newspapers for stories. You can also go online to read debates and blog posts, watch videos, and explore links, and you’ll probably find quite a lot of knowledge shared by people who are actually there. If you’re interested in any topic–science, gadgets, sports, or even retro car racing games–you’ll probably find lots of people who are passionate about those topics and who share what they know on the Internet.

Don’t just settle for the summaries that you might get in an encyclopedia or in a news entry. You can get so much more than that! Look for the actual people involved, find out what their stories are, learn from their experiences, and express what you’ve learned in your own words.

There’s a lot out there to learn from, and that takes us to the next point:

“Don’t trust everything you read online.”

Lots of teachers are nervous about Wikipedia and the Internet. If you do your research using something like Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, you can be reasonably sure that some very smart people have double-checked the facts. Wikipedia, on the other hand, was built with a bunch of volunteers–some of whom might be more interested in seeing if they can get away with adding “facts” that aren’t true.

But printed books have mistakes, too. The scientific journal Nature found that Wikipedia was pretty close to Encyclopedia Britannica in terms of accuracy. And of course, things can change. When they kicked Pluto out of the planet club, I was heartbroken! People updated the Wikipedia page right away. Print books? That might take a while.

The real lesson here isn’t that the Internet is better than printed material, or vice versa. It’s about thinking critically about what you’re reading, no matter where you’re reading it. You probably wouldn’t want to rely on what a used-car salesman says about how good a car is, whether that’s on a website or in a newspaper article.

When you’re thinking critically, you might even find it fun to read people who are obviously biased. One of the great things about the Internet is that it’s so easy to find different perspectives on any particular issue. Read a lot and make your own decisions about what to trust.

When you’re doing all of this reading and learning, you might hear this next bit of advice from well-meaning parents:

“Don’t waste time surfing, chatting, or playing games.”

Have you ever heard that? We hear that all the time when we’re doing something other people don’t see the point of or don’t understand. The important thing here is: Know why you do things, and make sure you’re getting those benefits.

Surfing is a great way to learn a lot about things you wouldn’t have otherwise come across. It’s not fine when you’re just flipping through pages without learning. Chatting is a great way to get to know people. It’s not fine when you become really dependent on it and you feel terrible when your online friends aren’t around. Games are a great way to try new things. They’re not fine when they suck you in and you play so much that you ignore other things in your life, which can happen because companies have figured out how to make games really addictive.

Know why you do things, and make sure you’re getting those benefits.

In fact, the Internet can be a wonderful way to improve your skills and reach out to people. You can learn from all sorts of websites and all sorts of people, and–this is important–you can share things yourself.

I have to confess: when I was in university, I got Ds in my English classes. I just didn’t care about the irony in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and I got tired of writing essays that only my teacher would ever read, working on projects that went into recycling bins. (Looking back, thought, most of my work wasn’t really special.)

The thing that changed everything for me was starting a blog. I started a blog when I was in third year university, which was about seven years ago. I started by writing about my classes, sharing my notes, asking questions. And other people occasionally came across my blog, shared what they thought, and taught me new things along the way. I could write things that other people could read! I could make presentations that could teach other people something new! Wow. I thought that was pretty awesome considering that I was a university student in the Philippines, and I was reaching people all around the world. You can too, and you can do even more. You can even make movies and share them on YouTube, although you probably don’t want to do anything you’ll find embarrassing.

Anyway. Writing about what you’re learning is an excellent way to learn even more effectively, and sharing what you’re learning with other people is an excellent way to reach out and learn more. If you’re interested in this, learn about blogging, podcasting, or making videos, and then rock on.

Which leads to the last clichéd bit of advice which you’ve probably heard:

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

There are a lot of scary people in the world, and there are a lot of scary people on the Internet. It’s a crazy world out there, which is why you should be careful about the personal information you share, and if someone invites you to meet up–even if the invitation’s from someone who seems to be your age–always use your judgment. If you do decide to meet, meet in a public place, and bring someone you trust.

The second part of this is that you should also be careful about what you share about yourself. Blog posts complaining about your summer job, pictures of you at wild parties, videos of you doing that crazy dance–your future employers, clients, and significant others might come across that, you know. If you’re going to share that, make sure you check your privacy settings very carefully (sites sometimes let you restrict who can view something). Even then, those safeguards have been known to fail. The safest thing is not to do that.

There was an intern who once e-mailed his manager, saying that he couldn’t come into work. His manager found a photo on Facebook from the Halloween party the intern had attended the night before, complete with Tinkerbell costume, fairy wings and wand. Not only that, the manager forw

This is not to say that the safest thing is to just not be on the Internet at all. If you’re not on the Internet, you’re just leaving your reputation to what other people say about you, and that opens up all sorts of confusion or even cyberbullying. At other schools, there are problems with people creating pages for people they don’t like, and putting all sorts of nasty things on those pages. Not good. Be online, keep your future self in mind, and share what you do want to share.

So that’s the public service advisory part of this. What’s the flipside?

Getting to know strangers can actually be a wonderful thing. I’ve met lots of people through the Internet. Some of them turned out to be just plain weird, but that’s expected, and many people turned out to be good friends. Share what you’re interested in, keep yourself (and your future self) safe, and look for ways to create value for other people, and you should be fine.

In summary:

“Don’t plagiarize, especially from Wikipedia.”
Build on what other people have shared, give credit where credit is due, and use your own words and experiences.
“Don’t trust everything you read online.”
Read a lot and think critically.
Don’t waste time surfing, chatting, or playing games.
Know why you do things, and make sure you’re getting those benefits.
Don’t talk to strangers.”
Reach out to people, keep yourself and your future self safe, and have fun.

Next steps: Learn a lot, think a lot, share a lot, and have fun. What do you want to learn more about?