Friend or Foe: Is The Internet an Effective Tool for Education?

Much has been made of the deleterious effects of the internet on young minds. Some battle its use vociferously, evidently believing that access to the online world can produce warped views of the world and even damage cognitive development in children. The truth, of course, is much more nuanced than anything so straightforward. 

In the end, the internet is simply a utility allowing people across the globe to acquire information, support communication, hone skills, and access entertainment. It is neither good nor bad in any moral sense. For educators, then, the pertinent question is this: is it effective for education? 

We know that it’s already being used in schools throughout the world. For example, a 2016 Statista study of US classrooms found that 67% of the teachers surveyed used online educational videos during the week, with 65% using educational apps or software. What we’re trying to determine is not whether it’s used but whether it should be used. 

In this post, we’re going to consider this matter, running through some pros and cons of using the internet as an educational tool and attempting to reach an overall conclusion about whether this linchpin of the modern world is a blessing or a blight for schools. 

Con: it’s a relentless source of distractions 

Even the most disciplined students get distracted, and the internet certainly doesn’t help with that. Consider the accessibility of video and audio media: most households have connections good enough to stream HD video and no financial reason not to. Kids can stay online all the time, keeping them tempted with YouTube and Twitch when they have homework to do. 

Is there anything educators you can do about this? Sure. They can cap school connections for particular sites, or block sites altogether at a network level. You may have heard of the proliferation of VPN services that can help students bypass network restrictions (pushing schools to react), but you can turn that on its head by requiring the use of a school VPN and placing each student behind a custom firewall (if there’s no budget for it, this can be done for free). This is also excellent for anonymity, something students deserve to have protected. 

Pro: it allows students to get help when needed 

The idea of a student casually asking their teacher for assistance has become normal in the time of emailing. When someone doesn’t need to approach you during school hours just to ask you a question, they’re far more likely to go through with it. 

Add in the presence of countless student support groups, forums, and revision resources, and you have a tool capable of ensuring that students don’t need to simply accept their confusion on certain topics. They can easily and freely reach out and get the help they need from well-meaning people (be they professionals or other students). 

Con: it fuels cheating and misinformation 

Websites that assist with education fraud are sadly all too common, typically offering services for essay-writing or even helping students cheat on their tests. Countermeasures are being employed throughout the educational world (systems that can detect plagiarism, for instance), but that doesn’t stop desperate students from making bad decisions. 

It bears noting, though, that there has always been cheating and plagiarism in schools, colleges and universities throughout the world, and the internet has only made it more obvious and easy to find. The onus should be on the educators to show their students why cheating isn’t worth it and help them to move towards their own legitimate achievements. 

Pro: it lets young people pursue their interests 

Educators can only do (and provide) so much. Even the most well-rounded and capable teacher won’t have the expertise to guide their students in all areas - so what happens when those students develop interests that aren’t covered by their studies? In pre-internet times, they’d need to source relevant literature (usually expensive) and try to find those with similar interests. 

Now, though, they can just go online and find everything they need (much of it free or at least fairly cheap). This is remarkably useful, empowering, and great for mental health, and it’s just as great for teachers who can now curate relevant resources for their students when needed. And since studies have found that electronic learning is more effective in various ways (most notably, perhaps, topping the 8-10% retention rate of in-person learning with an impressive 25-60%). 

Con: the online world can be upsetting 

While I did just note that using the internet as a research tool is great for mental health, that isn’t to say that exposure to the internet in general is comparably healthy - in fact, the opposite may be the case. A 2019 study from UNICEF found that a third of the young people surveyed across 30 countries had fallen victim to online bullying. 

Given the prominence and capricious sentiment of social media (along with the inability to fully control what a student finds online), it’s entirely reasonable to be concerned about the long-term impact of learning on the internet as an educational tool. 

Conclusion: it’s all about how you use it 

Wrapping up, then, it’s clear that there are upsides and downsides to using the internet for education. There’s cause for concern in how it distracts us all and spreads cheating services, but likely more cause for celebration in how it equips us with resources and brings us together.  

We’ve ultimately looked at more cons than pros, but that shouldn’t detract from what the internet can achieve: instead, it should serve as a sobering reminder of how it can make things worse if used improperly. The answer, then, is that the internet can be an effective tool for education: it just needs to be used with great care, vision, and responsibility. 

If you are a parent you may worry about what your children get up to on the internet when you're not keeping a watchful eye on them. Here are 5 ways you can help to keep your children safe online

Comments are closed