Last weekend the entire Chicagoland area was covered, and I mean covered, with torrential-style rain.  Ducks were swimming down the streets.

While this wassuper-adorable of them, other, less cute consequences of the rain included the flooding of my library’s consortium office.  This meant that, among other problems, some of our computer functions were down.  For some reason, this included the internet in the youth services department.

A few patrons throughout the day had problems due to this lack of connectivity, but for the most part, things went smoothly until about 4:00.  I was busy helping a girl looking for books about ghosts, when a boy, about 8 years old, came up to the desk.  Since I was obviously busy, he went to the other person on desk.  This was sort of a mistake on his part, as she’s kind of mean.

He asked her, somewhat politely, “what’s wrong with the internet,” ro which she oh-so-sweetly replied, “I don’t know.”  He looked confused, but persevered. 

“I have a homework assignment and I need the internet,” he tells her.  She didn’t exactly soften up, but she managed to at least ask him what the assignment is.  “I have to find the syntonyms and antonyms of all these words,” he said, holding up a worksheet.  “Use a book,” she said and turned away to help another patron. 

Looking kind of stunned (and who wouldn’t be, after such a reception?), he walked away, presumably to talk to his baby-sitter who was helping him with homework.  I was still with my patron, or I would have immediately lent a hand, but luckily another librarian happened to be out on the floor at the time and I noticed her showing him how to use a Thesaurus a few minutes later.

 

About twenty minutes passed, and I was busily sorting through piles of storytime DVD’s when the boy’s baby-sitter came up to te desk.  She explained that he was having trouble using the Thesaurus and couldn’t find two of the words he needed.  Since it was only two words, I offered to look them up for him.  I figured I would take the opportunity to show him a few good sites for something like this.  A few minutes later, he came back up to the desk. 

“I hear you need to find two more words,” I say.  He shakes his head.  “I need to find fifteen words,” he says, holding out his worksheet. 

Ok, even if I had time to help him with that, I wasn’t going to just sit there and do his homework for him.  That pretty much fits into my definition of “cheating.”  So instead of going to the website I’d been planning to show him, I asked him if he needed help with the thesaurus.  He said he was having trouble with it, so I offered to come back and help him get started.

While I was trying to find a child-friendly thesaurus (rather than the giant Webster’s with the tiny type he’d been trying to use), I heard him complainging to his baby-sitter.  “This is so stupid, I need the internet for this, I don’t want to do it this way,” and on and on in that vein. 

At this point, I was getting a little annoyed because a) like I said, I’m not going to do his homework for him and b) that kind of attitude just makes homework worse.  But he’s not my child, student, or baby-sitting charge, so I pasted on a smile and ignored his negativity.

I sat down with my nice Scholastic picture thesaurus and opened it up.  Together, we found a few words, and I showed him how to use a few different features of the Thesaurus.  Instead of saying thank you, or engaging with the process at all, he tells me “This doesn’t work, I need the internet.”

Here’s my point in relating this little drama, something I don’t much like to do, as it seems a violation of patron privacy or something: Despite the multiple studies lately saying how the internet and Google are changing the way we think, read, and process information, I really haven’t bought too much into any of them.  I mean, yes, obviously the way we search for information on the web is different from the way we use books and other print resources.  But then, the way we search for information in an encyclopedia is different from the way we search for it in a biography, for example. 

I always saw the internet as another great tool to add to an ever-growing list of resources.  I still do.  I never believed it was making us stupid, or lazy, or changing the way our brain actually functions as a whole.  But after this incident, I’m beginning to wonder what the effect of an “internet brain” will have on the generations who learn how to use it before they understand the principles behind conducting a search, the types of things you learn when your 2nd grade teacher shows you how to look up words in a thesaurus or ideas in an encyclopia.

Is assigning students homework which utilizes the internet first and foremost teaching them to always take the easy way out when it comes to research?  Let’s face it, most of us are already lazy when it comes to searching for information: will teaching kids to go to Google before they’ve mastered the fundamental principles of “looking stuff up” keep them from being able to function in situations where the “hard way” is the only way?

Not that the easy way’s the bad way; I would personally go to an online thesaurus before I picked up Webster’s.  But situations like this make me think about that episode of South Park where the internet dies and everyone freaks out.  Sometimes I feel like we’re teaching kids to rely too heavily on the internet, and that kind of worries me.

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