The “Real World” and the Internet

From the Pew Research Center on August 17, 2008:
Key News Audiences
The findings by the Pew study include this finding of an interesting type of behavior by Internet users:

A slim majority of Americans (51%) now say they check in on the news from time to time during the day, rather than get the news at regular times. This marks the first time since the question was first asked in 2002 that most Americans consider themselves “news grazers.”

It also looks like the Internet may be having an impact on whether people want news in the first place:

The 2008 election campaign has sparked unprecedented interest within the electorate. Throughout the spring, surveys by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press have found that roughly one-third of Americans have been following news about the primary campaign very closely — a level of interest not usually reached until the peak of election season.

Within this context, large numbers of Americans are not only going online to learn about the campaigns, but are also taking an active role in promoting online conversations about politics as well as spreading news and information about their candidate of choice or the race in general.

is the increased interest in politics spurring the increase in online engagement or is the increased online engagement spurring an increased interest in politics?

I would guess both. The Internet makes a mass of information available as well as a variety of ways to look at it, be it through aggregators, blogs, social media sites or traditional news sites. Internet users get a positive reinforcement when they find ‘interesting’ things, and they come back for more. They get in the habit of grazing several sources to find the “news.”

In theory, people are returning to the Internet as a source of news because they find it more up-to-date, they like how it is explorable, that it has greater depth and breadth, or some combination of features that they find useful and engaging. Overall, it looks like online news does a better job at the news.

On August 18, 2008, a stock analyst notes (with thanks to Epicenter for the link) some of “the Web’s numerous advantages” as follows:

Online news is updated as it happens. Most Internet content is provided for free. Content can be dynamic and interactive.

I think there is a moment of revelation that can happen for an Internet user, something along the lines of ‘wow, this is so easy and cool.’ As Epicenter points out, there is the “blatantly obvious interactivity and speed” of the Internet that makes it such an increasingly popular source of news.

The Pew study notes that online news sources do not currently have the same level of “believability” as traditional media sources:

Believability ratings for national news organizations remain very low. If anything, believability ratings for major online news outlets — including news aggregators such as Google News and AOL News — are lower than for major print, cable and broadcast outlets

I think that this will change as traditional media sources migrate online.  This advantage in “believability” should help traditional media outlets establish a credible and successful presence online.

I also think that similar to how there is a structure from ’school’ that helps accomplish the goals of teaching, there is a structure from journalism that helps accomplish the goals of producing accurate and reliable “news,” which is considered such an elusive thing on the Internet. There are rules of school and rules about the news that have been tested over decades if not centuries. It is the foundation of how we interpret information and determine its value.

Schools and journalists set the tone, set the standards and create authority for their work with how the information is presented. I think it is nearly instinctual to respond to these methods, like a part of our culture to recognize these methods as delivering reliable information.

As noted by Epicenter on August 18, 2008:

Local newspapers and magazines may be struggling to compete in the online marketplace, but they have an established, high level of trust to jump off from, according to a study released today.

Released by the Online Publishers Association (OPA), the study of 2,069 local online content consumers found that web users trust advertising that comes from local media sites — most especially from local newspapers.

This makes sense considering there are few competitors in the local news business. Local papers have been the only or one of the few local news sources in town. Until competitors start credibly reporting local news, the local newspaper is the central source of news for the community.

That is a big head start for local newspapers. In theory, they should always have traffic, because they are a community center of sorts. Local papers are a known member of the community before the existence of the Internet, so it makes sense that they would maintain and even increase their relevance as the Internet develops and more people go online for news.

Schools have a similar head start with cultural credibility, and it seems important for both schools and news organizations to recognize the advantages that they have in the online world. It doesn’t seem to be a credibility that will endure if it is not maintained and expanded online.

Beyond the central role schools and newspapers have in the community, and beyond the cultural credibility that exists due the accepted methods of determining reliable information, there is something fundamental about theories of adult learning that suggest that the Internet is a compelling source of information because it has many of the features considered effective for the facilitation of adult learning.

This wiki is produced by the Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology at the University of Georgia, and it outlines principles from adult learning theories, such as:

The five assumptions underlying andragogy describe the adult learner as someone who:

  • Has an independent self-concept and who can direct his or her own learning
  • Has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that is a rich resource for learning
  • Has learning needs closely related to changing social roles
  • Is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge
  • Is motivated to learn by internal rather than external factors (Merriam, 2001, p.5)

The Internet is an inherently self-directed experience, and the user chooses where they click and how far they explore a topic. The user can use search engines, blogs and a variety of social media tools, including wikis, to find a broad array of information and perspectives on a topic. The Internet has so much variety, a user can use their own experiences to filter and judge the content, as well as explore changes in social roles from the safety of their computer. In addition, the Internet’s instant delivery of information facilitates an immediate application of knowledge. The Internet rewards the motivation to learn by providing immediately useful knowledge, and by its nature permits internal factors to guide the search for information.

There is a point where some adult learning theories seem grounded in an outdated understanding of education. Theories developed before the rise of the Internet seem to assume that the learner has extremely limited access to information. There seems to be an assumption operating in the background that learners know how to judge the reliability and credibility of information, which would makes sense because the original narrow channels of information were vetted by standards established by the institutions producing them. Now that information is widely available, learners do not have the luxury of narrow channels that used to do this assessment for them.

Learning has become a more complicated process with the rise of the Internet and in this context, critical thinking skills appear to have skyrocketed in importance. Students have always needed to be taught how to effectively evaluate information, but it seems possible that the urgency was blunted when information sources were limited to vetted channels.

However, the narrow channels of information previously available through a school or a newspaper form the foundation for how today’s adults perceive the reliability of information. Schools and newspapers are starting points embedded in the experience of learners that will continue to serve as ports in the storm of online information. It seems important that both schools and newspapers recognize that they no longer have the monopoly on knowledge that they have historically enjoyed, and recognize that this new competition means there are changes that need to be made to insure their survival as institutions.

I will return to these topics later to continue thinking these issues through. For now, I conclude by noting this horrific finding from the Pew Research Center study that opens this post:

In spite of the increasing variety of ways to get the news, the proportion of young people getting no news on a typical day has increased substantially over the past decade. About a third of those younger than 25 (34%) say they get no news on a typical day, up from 25% in 1998.

It is true that I have little memory of current events and news filtering into my classrooms until I got to law school. But I am outraged by this finding. “A typical day” for most young people involves going to school. Yet schools appear to be failing to an overwhelming degree to make the ‘real world’ and ‘news’ a part of the school environment.

In general, there is a fair amount of hand-wringing about the younger generation and how as a whole younger people seem so disconnected and self-centered. Fortunately, the Internet promises to free the upcoming generation from the selfish culture imposed by our schools. It is true that I currently know very little about pedagogy and have a developing idea that the Internet is helping children transform into ‘adult’ learners as understood by adult learning theories. It may be helpful to start thinking about “Internet Learning Theories” to fully embrace the impact that the Internet can, does and will have on all learners.

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