Jona Lendering has written a thoughtful article here on the problem on online websites and the classroom. As the author of the respectable Livius.org site, he isn’t theorising, and his words need to be listened to.
If students cannot check the information – if they cannot know how the facts* have been established and which explanatory model is used – students must avoid a website. That’s the first basic lesson.
This means that in the present situation, students must just avoid the internet and check their library. Books are a far better source of reliable information.
Note that I would prefer to use the word “statements” here, for the website probably is not giving facts.
Now Jona is right. You can use the web to gather lists of possible sources, as a first stab (only a first stab) at a reading list. But it is entirely possible that the selection of sources presented online is itself misleading. Manipulation of the reader by omission of reliable sources and inclusion of unreliable sources is, sadly, becoming commonplace.
Nor is this all.
There used to be a time, not so long ago, that the universities “sent out” information, which society “received”. This is the “sender-receiver model”. The internet now offers society a possibility to talk back: the “debate model”.
Look at the Wikipedia, where activists can change articles to make them suit their own agendas. Or, if activists create a lot of noise, they can silence the voice of reasonable scholars.
I have experienced this myself, and I know others have had the same experience. Yet Wikipedia is the first result in most Google searches.
He then goes on to a rather political question, where Jona perhaps does not make his point as clearly as he might. But the point is a critical one. So let me paraphrase.
A government minister in his country has referred in a non-condemning way to Intelligent Design. Scientists have attacked her. Non-scientists have defended her. But anyone doing a web search will only find the non-scientific stuff. Why? Because the scientific publications are all behind paywalls! So … anyone who looks into this will only get one side; and it happens to be the non-scientist side.
And worse yet, because only one side is heard:
You get the impression that she is the victim of a smear campaign by unthinking scientists.
Silencing one side, while the other occupies 100% of the public perception is an incredibly powerful a weapon to manufacture opinion. It has been used for this purpose by the political left in our society since around 1980, as a way to advance and normalise crazy causes, with great success. It is now being used to promote freakshow causes like “gay marriage”, and opposition — and everyone was opposed to this as recently as two years ago — is hardly heard. It’s a very, very powerful way to control what people think.
So it is not a trivial matter to observe that, for practical purposes, a situation has been created where bad information is the only kind available. Not at all.
The second basic lesson about online information is that, as long as there is no free access, bad information drives out good.
And to some fields of research, the damage is already done.
I hope that this verdict is overly negative. But it is hard for those of us who remember a world before the internet to imagine how the generation thinks, that does not remember a time before Wikipedia. Perhaps Jona is right here too.
Jona sums up:
To sum up: at this moment there is no good reason why students should use the internet. Let’s face it: the internet has failed.
As a tool for classroom learning, it most certainly has, although not for popularisation.
Paywalls are one of the reasons why.
-  I have no opinion myself on Intelligent Design, since I don’t know anything about it, although I do know some of the politics around it. ↩