Monday 9 February 2015

Why use a book when you can use the web?

Last month, I talked to the school librarians of Hampshire at their annual conference in Winchester.  One of the things they had especially asked me to talk about was why children should use books for research rather than the web. As more teachers expect children to do their homework from online sources, it is harder for libraries to make the benefits of books clear. It was good to be asked that, as it's something that's central to a lot of what I do. It's a question I'd not tried to answer before for other people - I just had a vague sense that there were very good reasons. Working out what they are was a really useful exercise.

There are some obvious reasons, such as the availability of books to be read even by students who don't have broadband at home. It's easy to think everyone can be online all the time, but in 2013, only 42% of UK households had broadband, and 17% had no internet at all.

But there are better reasons to make books available to young people in school libraries, and to encourage their use.

You need to know what you want to know
It's easy to find out something (a specific fact, such as the dates of the Civil War or how to make risotto), but quite hard to find out about something. Suppose a young person wanted to find out about dinosaurs. Search for 'dinosaur' on Google and you get 78.8 million hits. Hardly anyone will look beyond the first page.

The web is not written for young people
The first hit is wikipedia (of course), 17,000 words starting, "Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade Dinosauria. They first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic (about 201 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago), when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of most dinosaur groups at the close of the Mesozoic Era. Not child-friendly.

How about the Natural History Museum? It has good info but is not organised in a way that makes it easy for a young student to find what they want. Behind the first, child-friendly, page it goes to a database of dinosaurs that can be sorted in  different ways. The information is presented in a dry and relatively unengaging way and if you don't know what you are looking for, it's hard to find what you need.

We could go on.

But let's try something different. Search Amazon (just to look, not to buy anything!) for children's books about dinosaurs and the first hit is  National Geographic's First Book of Dinosaurs. Here's the contents page. Which would you rather look at if you were, say, 9? This or the NHM database?

The web has no gatekeepers or guidance
The information in a book is generally accurate and unbiased. If a book is about an issue of fact, the facts are on the whole correct. If it is about an issue of opinion, all sides of an argument are presented, equipping the reader to make up his or her mind in an informed way.

My book on evolution came out last year, so I looked to see what a young reader might find online about evolution.This was the fifth hit - looks quite accessble. But all is not as it seems:

“Dinosaurs could not have gone extinct millions of years ago because Earth isn’t that old!”

“Dinosaurs, reptiles that are very different from birds, did not change into birds. God specially created birds on Day Five and dinosaurs on Day Six!”

A child growing up in a Creationist environment (family/school/USA) might encounter this view, but a child in a school library should be safe from minority views being peddled as undisputed fact. That's what homes are for.

Not all facts are true (see above)
Some websites look authoritative but have an agenda (not just the Creationist agenda). If you were researching sugar, you might think looks like a good start. It is, of course, a sort of sugar-marketing board and would give a vulnerable young reader a completely distorted view of the value of sugar in the diet. And some 'facts' are just wrong, such as this one, widely cited: “According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003.” It's true that Eric Schmidt said it, but that's all. Go back to the sources, and the real fact is that as much information was published, recorded or shared every two days in 2010 as in all of 2002. (And most of it was probably videos of kittens and pictures of people doing something stupid - not useful information.)

The web is a false form of laziness
It might look as though it's easier for a child to look online than find a book in the library. But it's laziness that backfires.
The web is full of accurate, fascinating information. It's also full of inaccurate, dull garbage. The web is not bad - but using it properly takes time and skill. A book written specifically for children could be based entirely on online research - but the author will have done the hard things:
  • finding the right information
  • checking the information
  • selecting the relevant and interesting information
  • presenting the information in an accessible, appropriate way for young readers.
If a young reader goes straight to Google, they have to do all this - and usually they don't, of course. They copy and paste the first thing they come across and learn nothing. Learning to use the web is a vital skill, but learning subject content should not be jeopardised by expecting children to depend on their nascent web skills.

I ended my talk with this chart. I could just have given you the chart and shut up, I suppose. This is why kids learn more from a well-chosen book than a Google search:

Using the web, the pupil has to do all the work - find the information, select it, find a route through it, work out what the words (usually intended for adults) mean, and decide whether the facts are correct. In a book, the author has done all that. The pupil can get on with learning about the subject. They can develop those other vital skills while researching less important content.

Evolution, TickTock (Hachette), September 2014: 9781783251346


Becca McCallum said...

*cheers loudly* Excellent post. It can be hard enough for adults to navigate the web to find useful and accurate information - we shouldn't expect children to do it and come back with meaningful work. You also make a good point about the availability (or otherwise) of internet access.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Couldn't help chuckling over this, Anne. I'm familiar with all these arguments - and so are the kids. When I do a research skills lesson with them they all know the 78 million hits thing and the arguments about Wikipedia. Well, actually, they say, "Anyone can write on Wikipedia" and I say "true, but it is checked. My problem is all those long words and ten pages when you want half a page." As for the millions of hits, I do show them that, but you can refine your search with the right keywords and I'll tell you something - when they Google ancient Egypt, which usually has about 135,000,000 hits, somehow they always end up finding what they want two or three lines from the top. Bless their technological little hearts! There's Simple English Wikipedia and the local libraries - here, at least, I know what they're doing to them in the UK - have subscriptions to Britannica, including the children's section, free to members. I work in a disadvantaged school, but quite a few kids belong to the local library. Or I'll suggest they look up "ancient Egypt for kids" which leads to plenty of education web sites. The BBC is terrific, by the way. Of course, we do have books for research and I teach them to use the index of each so they don't say, "Miss, there's nothing in here," when there is plenty. Many books don't have an index - big mistake! Sometimes I will go heavy on the 135,000,000 hits thing and say, "Look, we have a stack of books on ancient Egypt you can find right now, why bother wading through all that?"

Once, I invited two boys to look up something on the Yellow Pages, one inline, one in the phone book, and the boy with the phone book found it after 30 seconds, while the other took a lot longer. ;-)

But I love my Internet, especially because, with a budget of $3000 a year, I just can't buy as many books as I'd like, while the school pays for the Internet.

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent post, that woman! Well said, Anne.

Moira Butterfield said...

If I hear someone recommending the internet for kids over non-fiction books I ask them: "Have you ever left home in the morning with your knickers on your head?" Then I point out that they learned the best order in which to dress because someone taught them the sequence, patiently and carefully, which was lucky for them because they didn't have to flounder around on their own, perhaps or perhaps not working it out eventually for themselves. It’s a good analogy for the difference between learning a subject from a children’s non-fiction book, carefully put together in a considered and helpful order by an experienced professional, and finding out what you can by floundering around on the internet.

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danz said...

Absolutely agree. I wrote about this too, but wanted to say that there seem to be fewer non-fiction books published and certainly less shelf space for them. They seem to be harder to find in online bookstores too.

Stroppy Author said...

That's a great post, Dan, thank you for the link. Certainly fewer non-fiction books are commissioned than used to be the case. And on a lower budget and tighter schedule, so there is corner-cutting with the pictures, too, which is a great shame.

catdownunder said...

Surely we need to be teaching children "books before web" and "when you use the web evaluate the source the information is coming from". The last will be hard for younger children but teaching them about it should start then and continue through school.

C.J.Busby said...

This is absolutely spot on, and from the perspective of a parent I can say that actually, the second column of your chart should say: Parent/Pupil. The amount of time I spend trying to interpret Wikipedia for my children, find better web pages, point them to the useful stuff, is horrendous - but I can't just leave them to it when they are simply let lose on the internet with some vague injunction like 'find out what Aborigines did for fun in the old days' (real homework). And this just increases the built-in advantages kids with educated parents have.

Piers Torday said...

Well said! Not just children too. I was really struck by a recent talk from Antonia Fraser on her new book on the Great Reform Act, and how much she got from sitting in the library and leafing through old newspapers from the period. They are all searchable online, but if you just restrict yourself to digital search terms, there is so much you can miss in terms of colour, background, unspotted connections, incidental detail and so on... We've got to encourage our children, the writers and historians of the future, in the virtue of reading up to, around and beyond a subject as much as on it precisely - all of which is so much easier in paper form.

Joy Court said...

Fantastic post- exactly what school librarians try to tell teachers. But what worries me is that this obviously brilliant book has not been submitted to The School Librarian journal for review. Please moan to your publisher and get them to send it!

Barbara Band said...

Great blog and totally agree with all the points made. School librarians know all this and try, time and again, to impart these skills to students but, unfortunately, many teachers don't buy into the same agenda and just find it easier to direct students to the internet. Makes it a struggle, especially as students will often take what they see as the "easier" option. I haven't quite lost heart though as I occasionally get students who choose to use books rather than go online because "the internet's just a load of rubbish, Miss"!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Actually, Piers, our National Library web site has newspapers going back to 1803, something you couldn't do if there was no digitisation - and we don't have to go to Canberra to look at them. ;-) Not only that, but they're searchable. When I recently needed newspaper reports on a particular bushranger robbery, I went to Trove, the part of the National Library site dedicated to newspapers and magazines(including full issues of the Australian Women's Weekly going back to 1933), typed in the bushranger's name and found several articles from newspapers of the time. We used fo have microfilm of old newspapers at the State Library, but they decided users might as well go to Trove and there are library staff to help if you need it. The microfilms have been archived. I use these web sites to help the students and history students to find primary sources, which they're supposed to use. Yes, you do have to know what you're doing, but as the librarian, teaching the kids how is my job.
Libraries might have the old newspapers, but they can't let readers handle the really old ones. I must admit, I did like the microfilms, which you could browse. Sigh! Can't have everything.