The glorious era of old print media dominance is over, and the era of cyberspace has taken over. The proliferation of Information Technology has given rise to the newest bloodless revolution in mankind in the field of knowledge and information dissemination, the Internet. The Internet is a network that provides quick and effortless access to the largest global information database available, the World Wide Web. When tapped correctly, the internet has the potential to become one of the most valuable and stimulating educational tools available to the multitudes, and its recognized merits as such are one too few. I therefore do not agree with the statement that the Internet is overrated or its merits, chief of which are the unparalled efficacy of its research and news capabilities, are celebrated without reason.
Information of practically everything in existence can be found and retrieved on the internet at the touch of a button, providing for knowledge to literally be at our fingertips. There is a wealth of valuable research information available online which most internet users have free access to, allowing the net to act as a cheap and easy to use information source for the masses. While the library once opened the doors to knowledge and information, its necessity now has been eliminated almost in its entirety by the advent of fast speed Internet transmission of information, paving the way for academic institutions such as universities, governmental bodies and established organizations like Time Magazine and the Gates Foundation to create web portals and store and share information online. High-powered search engines like Google now have the capacity to search millions of pages of text in such websites in a fraction of a second, thereby speeding up the often grueling research process students and researchers edure greatly. The recent introduction of online print and other visual media libraries is in fact a testament to the pulling power and attractiveness of using the internet, and it has further reduced the need for physical travel to traditional libraries, all the while needlessly worrying about the availability of crucial books or the opening hours, especially when racing to finish up research work.
Net conferencing or web video conferencing is one way the Internet can be used for two or more-way dialogues between university professors and students who reside on the other side of the world for information exchange through question and answer sessions, effectively disregarding the constraint of physical location that would otherwise inpede education. The Internet thus imparts knowledge indirectly by acting as a portal where intellectual minds can convene and debate on issues pertaining to their respective fields. Such information transfer has undergone technological advances to the extent that virtual schools have been set up on the web offering students online degree courses, and an increasing number of well-established universities are jumping on the bandwagon, replacing distance learning by mail with internet education. The University of London is a prime example of a university that offers the option of pursuing online Bachelors and Masters Degree courses to international students from the comfort of their own homes.
Online education is also a concept that is currently used by many schools in Singapore, where a week or two of formal classroom education is replaced by online education, called e-learning, and the importance of students utilizing the internet for online education purposes and becoming net-savvy is stressed by the schools as well as the Education Ministry. Due to the successive mass implementation of this project, Singapore is the first country in the South-East Asian region to have plugged all its junior colleges and tertiary institutions to the internet. Online education is also used by non-governmental, private, tuition centers where a student communicates with his tutors and takes lessons online, a convenient way for busy students to reduce transport time to centers, yet still enroll for tuition lessons.
The internet also doubles as a source of news articles and websites that gives minute by minute updates on current affairs in the local/global arena. This causes people wired to the internet to receive immediate updates about the latest happenings hot off the press and hence, always be ‘in the know’ instead of waiting for the next days newspaper or the television/radio news updates that are only aired at fixed timings. It is thus no wonder that online news sites such as CNN and BBC are slowly siphoning off subscribers from the old news medium of print journalism. According to the United States Audit Bureau of Circulation, there was a 2.6% drop in the circulation of nearly 800 newspapers over a six-month period last year. 1.2 million Subscribers at that time abandoned their papers. The decline in this circulation has prompted old news media empires to turn to the Internet to set up news websites with paid subscriptions for fear of losing their existing readers. The Straits Times in Singapore is an example of a newspaper that has created a website that can only be accessed through paid online subscriptions, but promises to provide live updates real-time, an effort that can be seen as moving on together with the advance in technology as well as cashing in on the Internet phenomenon. The availability of up-to-date news articles on global issues also encourages the education on political affairs among the populace by providing them an insight into governmental actions and events.
Though the virtues of the Internet as mentioned above are aplenty, every great invention has its drawbacks, and hence, some of its merits have an unfortunate probability of turning against themselves when not properly utilized. Top on the list of drawbacks is the dissemination of poor and inaccurate information, a terrible danger to the foolhardy. When books were the norm, information that was researched on was found by looking at bibliographies and indexes and cross-referencing these to the matter in hand. Although we might never have been certain if the information presented in the books was correct, we would be able to rely on author’s reputations, book reviews or recommendations from teachers and friends. Now however, the problem that has surfaced with the Internet is that almost everyone capable of typing is able to publish something somewhere on the web, and as such we are facing the growing predicament of information overload – How can we be certain what we are reading is correct?
Wikipedia.com is a microcosm of this phenomenon of unverified information overload that has penetrated the internet community. Wikipedia.com contains the largest collection of “encyclopedia” articles in the world, which are also, however, written completely by volunteers. Anyone can edit the articles and any individual who has even a remote interest in a topic can write a new one. It now boasts more than a staggering 810 000 articles in English, as well as hundreds of thousands more in dozens of other languages. Readers are subjected to millions of times more information than any of them have the capacity to read in their lifetimes, a large proportion of which may not be fully factual or unbiased since the moderators themselves are not regulated and might not be certified experts on the various issues.
Books, on the other hand, are trusted far better to be accurate but at the time of printing only, offer a more concise information base to look up queries, and are needed for in-depth analysis of the subject which the Internet might not give. Even though online books are sold and available online, they may not be reliable as a technological malfunction could corrupt or delete it and the information may be lost. Material available on the Internet is also nowhere near as thorough and as well-organized as a good reference library. There are also further limits of technology as a teaching tool in education. Students often face difficulties in looking at information from the Internet with a critical eye. We tend not to be skeptical and instead take every piece of information at face value. Though there is a wealth of valuable research information available, it is often difficult and time-consuming to find information on lesser known or lesser publicized topics since research engines are by protocol programmed to sieve out information on topics which have a high representation in the web.