The last copies of the Britannica Encyclopaedia roll off the presses as a giant metaphor which shows educators how much the world has really changed. Have you asked yourself some vital questions about the skills your students need to operate in that environment? The image below came to me via the contact form on the site and it caught my eye and got me thinking so I thought I’d share it with you.

As you will no doubt have read, after 244 years of printing the Encyclopaedia Britannica has stopped its presses. Old news? I guess it is but, as an English teacher and lover of books, it kind of makes you think.

It’s clear that book publishers are moving towards the more cost-effective e-book. That’s also nothing new. Have Britannica realised why Wikipedia is so successful? Have they fully understood that, despite now offering their text on-line (and in a multi model form) it is the collaboration that makes Wikipedia what it is? I wonder.

I know that it is important to teach our students how to recognise a text which may not have been validated; Wikipedia is after all written by the masses. These masses , as it shows in this info graphic, are moderated by “wikipedians” within hours giving its content, in some sense, assured accuracy. I also know that when I teach students how to recognise genuine information it’s usually the big, dusty and barely thumbed encyclopaedias I ask them to explore  alongside the fake website I had published last week. They are usually excited by those books and just how heavy, with information they are.  That is until they realise there aren’ t many pictures 😉  I wonder how this will change in the future?

Perhaps the skills required to search the index or contents will disappear? Why would we need to do that when we can add a search term to the search field. I don’t even bother to skim read the pages any more for the information I’m looking for. Instead I just Ctrl+F and let the browser do the skimming for me!

That’s not to say that these skimming and scanning, deciphering and information selection skills are defunct My god no! I would argue that they are more important than ever.  I use to teach a lesson, borrowed from a colleauge of mine, in which I would give my students a TV schedule and a very quick time limit in which to find TV shows for a made up person with particular interests – it was my way of testing their ability to sift through what, at the time, felt like lots of information, at speed.   That activity seems ridiculous now when I sit and consider how much our students are asked to read and process everyday.

The way we all search for answers has changed so dramatically from my own childhood years. If I had a question to answer I only had my family and friends to ask, alternatively, I could head to the library – but only if my parents were heading that way and could take me there.  What do the kids of today do when they have a question? They Google it, the look at Wikipedia and Yahoo Answers and they search through the responses of millions of ‘ everyday people’ from around the world. If that doesn’t work they might video themselves trying to achieve what ever it is and ask the world for advice.

Just think of the kids who post YouTube videos on-line to get an answer to their questions. in 2010 YouTube had over 2 billion views. That’s some audience. This young  fella has had over 20 thousand responses to his question. When I was his age that would have terrified me! I definitely didn’t have the skills to sift through that massive amount of information and decide which of it was valid. Apparently that doesn’t phase him!

The information on Wikipedia alone is massive! This graphic suggests that there are enough articles to fill 952 volumes of an Encyclopaedia Britannica. There’s no way I could afford a set that big (or the bookshelf that would be strong enough to house it).

That visual metaphor of life before the internet – the potential 952 books really drives home how much things have changed. Look how much information is out there now. Free, searchable and ready to go. It’s reassuring to see a decrease in the numbers of teachers who allow students to research with this tool as well as a decrease in the number of paper plagiarised using it. I guess we’re getting wiser too – phew!

What makes me a little sad is the decrease in numbers of people to the library and the amount of books that they house. As you might have guessed, I’m a massive fan of technology and e books but I still love to turn and actual paper page. I wonder if I’m going to have to get over that?

We certainly need to do more to widen students’ research opportunities if 56% of them stop once they have the content from Wikipedia. What a shame! There’s so much information out there on-line! So much to be curated, shared and learnt from. Perhaps they do need more 21st Century Skimming and Scanning skills?  Maybe they’re warn out after having looked at what they see on Wikipedia.. .maybe they’re just being a tiny bit lazy?

What techniques do you use to encourage them to use more than just the fabulously famous wiki? Take a  look and see what jumps out at you!




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