You are what you read

By Matthew Cowan, LSU

Never before have we had greater access to information.  Information produced in the last 30 years is said to be greater than the amount produced in the previous 5,000. Knowledge creation was once the guarded preserve of scholars at universities and almost exclusively published in peer-reviewed journals reached only by a narrow audience. The internet, however, has turned this on its head and we can now gain access to information both locally and globally as it emerges with much greater ease. Google and Wikipedia are often the first places turned to in order to find something out.

For better or for worse, internet technology has given birth to a generation of knowledge creators. It’s been suggested recently that we’ve evolved into farmers and cultivators of information from the hunters and gatherers of information of the past.  Facebookers, Tweeters and bloggers have popped up keeping abreast of things by engaging in meaningful online public debate. These forms of social media trump traditional academic journals for their accessibility and their digestibility. Journal articles are notoriously loaded with ambiguous jargon written by authors who are said to maintain a ‘bunker mentality’ disconnected from reality. Peer reviewed journal articles remain respected, but the sheer fact that anyone can have a hand in shaping the nature and content of a discussion online makes for a more inclusive debate. Its immediacy too is tantalising.

If current debate on freeing up access to journals is anything to go by, publishers are beginning to lose grip on the ability to fence knowledge in. They are in danger of becoming disrespected. On the contrary, social media draws users in allowing issues to be scrutinised to lengths only limited by how far one is prepared to go. Members of the public can engage in issues that concern them or that just simply tick them off, and have an audience. Not all activity need be academic either. ‘Angry nerds’ and ‘guerrilla bloggers’ are an example of this as they have taken up the cause of defending science online in concert with scientists. This can resonate.

Using the analogy of information as food, we all know that growing minds and bodies need a healthy diet. But with greater access to information, our students may not necessarily be consuming the right stuff. Unlike foodstuffs, information doesn’t come with labelling breaking down its nutritional value. Rather, our students are required to make up their own minds as to what to consume and how it should be taken.

In Australia at the moment there is great concern over mining magnate Gina Rinehart’s increased stake in Fairfax Media, one of Australia’s largest diversified media companies incorporating newspapers, magazines, radio and digital media. She has a desire to be involved in editorial decisions too. There’s the belief that her interests do not necessarily reflect those of the nation and with this development Australia may well be heading down a path where no competition and no diversity in print media will make it harder for people to make up their own minds on matters.

Naturally, this is where the internet will most likely fill the vacuum created by an imminent devaluation of any of Australia’s trusted and respected print media publications. We can be confident of the diversity of options across the internet, but can the same be said of the quality given the distinct lack of editorial processes that quality newspaper articles are characteristically subjected to?

And this has direct relevance to our context here in Vietnam. We’re always concerned about the quality of our students’ sources and the quality of their interpretations of them as well, particularly given the learning environment we’re in. In the absence of print and online media anywhere near on par with international publications, our students in Vietnam are already at a disadvantage well before they enrol here because they haven’t had the chance to engage in public debate on matters that concern them and their country most. When finally at university, things are exacerbated by the complicated and daunting task of searching through library databases housing obscurely titled articles with ambiguous abstracts. There’s no wonder that our students baulk at the thought of undertaking rigorous research and that academics might be tempted into ‘dumbing down’ assignments.

Language skills aside, our students need explicit instruction on how to think critically and how to make informed decisions for themselves in order to meet the standards that are expected in academic contexts. This takes time but that’s why we’re here.

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