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The new ‘Vast Wasteland’ E-mail
Tuesday, 26 November 2013 11:18

By John Richard Schrock

Generations ago, network producer Fred Friendly (later president of CBS) warned that television was becoming a “vast wasteland.”

Then there were only three major network channels

Now there are hundreds of television cable channels. And millions of Americans go online weekly to share their own amateur productions.

When veteran reporter Morley Safer received the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award in 2009, he took direct aim at online media: “The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard. Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility.”

This applies to education as well. The contrast between what a student can find online, and what is in school textbooks, is dramatic. And schools are abandoning textbooks for online sources at a rapid pace. Quality is a big problem. I will give examples where I visited student teachers who used online materials.

In the first case, a middle school teacher in northeast Kansas downloaded a brief lesson on classification of animals from a web service for which the school district pays a subscription. Unfortunately, the lesson was laden with errors, confusing the Linnaean ranks (kingdom, phylum, etc.) with the names (taxa) assigned to each rank (Animalia, Chordata, etc.). I counted six factual errors in the 10-minute lesson. Later that day, I e-mailed the web-based service and they promptly replied to me that they “would look into it.” The next day, they got back, indicating that they had confirmed that these were errors. They had pulled the lesson and would release it when corrected. Good.

In the second case just a few weeks later, another student teacher at a high school in south central Kansas pulled up a lesson sponsored by a popular cable channel you would recognize. The ten-minute segment showed the natural selection of Darwin’s finch where the beak grew bigger-and-bigger to become woodpecker-like (dead wrong). This online video continued to explain the peppered moth experiment by Kettlewell and showed four pictures—one was a butterfly and three were moths, none of which was a peppered moth! The producers of this educational “lesson” had no biology knowledge. I suspect they did little more than search their video archives for any butterfly or moth picture. I e-mailed four times and got robo-replies. They never changed their wrong online lesson.

Printed textbooks are carefully reviewed by experts in the field. But the vast majority of online materials are not reviewed at all. As Safer said, the web is full of ravings by “every nut with a keyboard.”

Because print libraries have limited funds, they can’t afford to buy low quality and trivial publications. Real libraries also classify science in the 500s and 600s, and place the nonsense and occult in the 100s. Online materials are neither rated for accuracy nor classified into science or fake.

Some time ago, the journal Pediatrics summarized a study where doctors used common search engines to research the term “childhood diarrhea.” Almost 80 percent of the websites were wrong! Some provided recommendations that would have been fatal to infants if followed. Researchers separated the university websites from the others, and “dot.edu” websites were just as likely to be wrong as “dot.com” or “dot.org.” I have had my student teachers repeat similar checks and this situation has gotten worse, not better.

Simply, there is no magic method to detect accurate from bogus information on the web. If there was, we would all be using it.

That is what is so worrisome about the recent shift away from reviewed textbooks to using online materials. Even websites that provide teacher-prepared lessons are error-laden. A very few websites that channel through science organization “portals” offer anything near the quality of textbooks.

Fred Friendly died in 1998. Low quality television thrives. But cyberspace has provided an even greater “vast wasteland” he did not anticipate. And across Kansas, school administrators are competing to throw textbooks in the trash can and make this wasteland available to students in handheld devices.

John Richard Schrock is a Professor of Biology and Director of Biology Education.

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