Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Internet As An Educational Tool: Accessibility Of Information On An Ever Growing Worldwide Web

    If sifting through numerous sites on the web has taught me anything, it's that dissemination of information is still very chaotic. You get a sense of that on social media and news outlets. But I'm reflecting on education. Take the example of computing and developer support. I previously assumed that information sources and forums such as Git Hub, MSDN, Stack Overflow and many more would bring a semblance of direction in exploring uncharted topics in computing and programming. I might have been a bit too hopeful. I often find myself unable to find information that should be relatively easy to obtain, and sometimes even information that I know exists on the web. The most recurring issue, however, is of information that falls short of my needs. While some of this can be chalked down to the imperfections of search engines (which are nonetheless immeasurably helpful), there is a more obvious reason: data on the web is the input of people. Information gets left out, mixed up, generalized to a fault, or specified to a limited cause. The problem that is then presented to you, the consumer of such information, is to unravel it. This in itself is a good thing, as there is no better way to gain mastery of it. But when pieces are left out, you can hardly piece together a coherent picture, much less a full one. Weigh in the proneness to error in unregulated (or badly regulated) sources and you have a picture which may not even be correct.  If you want to avoid this, you are then forced to limit your search to sites of established credibility or collaborative user input. The luxury of time needed to consume and vet information from all sources has long been noted- a single Google search returns millions of results, a small fraction of which is relevant to the purpose of the search.

    So what happens when you do find relevant information to your cause? One possibility is that you have exactly what you need. Another is that you get something that you can adapt to your need, based on your previous knowledge on the subject matter, based on common sense, or based on the directions of a contributor. A third possibility is that you find information that you cannot act on- information that is beyond your comprehension, or not applicable to your instance. For much of my use of the internet, I haven't had to entertain this third possibility; but as I have delved into topics of increasing complexity, it's become an all too common theme in both my research project and my education. Why?

   I have two reasons, the first being that some information on the internet comes without structure. In the different fields, there exists support in navigating processes. Such support is robust only at basic levels. Anything beyond that comes in bits and pieces. Let me introduce an example I have encountered in the research project I am currently undertaking: dupFinder is not well documented, perhaps because mostly experienced users of code analysis software have need for it, so it takes certain knowledge for granted, and the instructions for it's use that are available on the web are all duplicates of the original- scant, vague, and containing no reference to information that could be helpful in working up to the level of demystifying it. MSDN on the other hand, is well documented, because it is intended to be a reference point for developers of varying experience. But once you begin to leave the realms of programming that do not directly involve languages and their syntax, the extent of it's support is overreached, and the chaos of information takes over. The fall off in documented support as I progress from basic programming to more complex programming is quite sudden. The other reason is that there aren't as many people operating at the higher levels of complexity, and even fewer of that section contributing to these sources.
    As the internet grows, it's been heralded as the educational tool of the future, but if these conditions remain, and with more people turning to the internet to facilitate this process, won't it be as problematic as ever at the advanced levels? Or would the information supply at advanced levels boost? We can't leave this one to chance- we've got to start thinking critically about how we organize the data we add to the web.

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