Technology eases research for school, but does learning suffer?

  • By Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press
  • Monday, December 28, 2009 12:01am
  • Life

NEW YORK — Here’s yet another sign that today’s kids have it way too easy: They no longer have to learn the format for creating bibliographies for their term papers.

They just log on to, fill in the blanks (title, author, publisher, etc.), and voila — instant bibliography, in alphabetical order. If you have the ISBN number, just type that in, and the program will even fill in all the blanks for you.

And that’s just one example of how modern technology and the Internet have made my kid’s academic life so much easier than mine was. When I was in high school, and even in college, getting all those term papers finished in the weeks before Christmas was horrible.

Typewriters were awful, too. You’d get correction fluid to fix all the mistakes you’d made, but it was either too runny or too thick. You’d blow on it till it dried, but the inked-in corrections always looked terrible.

Today kids just spell-check everything before printing out, and if they still can’t get it right, then I say they don’t deserve an A.

I can’t say that Wikipedia has replaced encyclopedias, since some teachers don’t permit it as a source, but certainly if you need to know what the Monroe Doctrine is, or the year of the Boston Tea Party, Google will provide the answer faster than a book. Not that the Internet can replace books for research altogether, but for fact-checks, it’s awfully efficient.

Another crutch for the young 21st-century scholar is the ability to search for tiny details in a digitized text and get instantaneous results. Why bother taking notes, highlighting or using Post-Its to keep track of a character or motif? If the book or document you’re writing about can be accessed in a digital format, all the references can be located electronically.

Let’s say a kid was supposed to read “The Catcher in the Rye.” And undoubtedly, he did read it —or most of it — but maybe he didn’t take notes, or maybe he just wasn’t paying close attention. And now all of a sudden the teacher is demanding an essay on Holden Caulfield’s famous red hunting hat.

What, you don’t know the meaning of that hat? That’s an important symbol! You better Google that!

You’ll also need to read some of the passages where the hat is mentioned. But you don’t have to thumb through every page in the actual book, skimming for the word “hat.” Just go to, find the book, click on the “Look Inside” offer, and type “hat” into the “Search Inside This Book” box.

References containing the word “hat” line up on the lefthand side of the screen. If you want to see them in context, just click “Next Result” on the righthand side, and you’ll see the whole page.

Obviously, this won’t work for every book. Many texts, especially newer books, cannot be accessed online. But a lot of the texts that high school students use — Shakespeare, the Iliad, classic poems, noteworthy speeches — are available in their entirety, if not in Amazon, then in Google Books or some other database.

As someone who grew up without all these electronic shortcuts, I have mixed feelings about them. It’s not just that I think my children should suffer the way I did — though certainly that’s part of it. I never miss a chance to start a conversation with the words, “When I was a kid …” just to drive them crazy.

But I honestly think they’re missing out if they never have to physically skim through a book looking for a quote or reference. So many times I’ve gone looking for some little phrase in a text and ended up reconnecting with the story all over again. I might start rereading a favorite chapter or critical passage, or even get distracted from my original search because I stumbled on some new theme or point I hadn’t considered before. And for me, that’s half the fun. I don’t think kids growing up today are missing anything by using instead of memorizing the format for a bibliography, but it would be too bad if digitized texts meant they’d never get lost in a book again.

Still, for high-school research purposes, it’s clear that the Internet has largely replaced a physical library. So imagine how thrilled I was the other day when my son told me he’d gone to our neighborhood library to pick something up for a social studies paper that’s due before Christmas break.

I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me when the item turned out to be a movie.

Beth Harpaz is the author of several books, including “13 Is the New 18.”

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