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Promoting Information Processing and Ethical Use of Information for Online Learning

By Dorothy Mikuska / March 2011

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Promoting Information Processing and Ethical Use of Information for Online Learning

March 17, 2011

E-learning is understood to mean electronic learning, but it should also be interpreted as excellent learning. The Internet has given students opportunities to perform better academically, to access information from sources and experts worldwide, and to make learning flexible and convenient.

However one can easily lose the priceless opportunity to learn if you do not employ effective strategies to understand and ethically use the plethora of information available online.

As much as computers can enhance online learning, they are often used as tools to elude learning. Improved online search functionality and find features make it easy to become a passive learner by scrolling through pages of online documents, skimming only for main ideas or occurrences of a keyword; without ever reading, analyzing, evaluating, or synthesizing information. Speed and multi-tasking can replace focused quality learning. Passive learners are not inherently lazy, but the convenience of File>Save has even the most scholarly amongst us taking shortcuts. Case in point, my friends, who are working on doctoral theses, have collections of folders saved to their desktops, in which they have collected online articles. Eventually they will skim through these documents to find nuggets of valuable information to include in their drafts—potentially as unintentionally copy and pasted passages.

Highlighting passages of a text as a form of note taking likewise eludes the higher-order thinking skills necessary for in-depth learning—even when the learner thinks he or she is engaged. All too easily, unprocessed information used in an oral presentation or a written report is copied without proper attribution or documentation, rendering the work plagiarized. Until the new information is processed and retained, learners are only pretending to do their job.

Authentic learning occurs when the brain is engaged in interpreting new information in terms of old; organizing the information by creating scaffolds of knowledge based on keywords; accessing that information; and using the information (for example, putting in their own words and voices when writing a research paper).

Learning is social and interpersonal, discussion and collaboration are essential to enhance this constructive process.

The role of online teachers goes beyond providing content; they must help their students develop these learning strategies, engage in frequent formative evaluation, and create a forum for collaborative interaction. Breaking old habits is difficult, but online learning can be improved by adapting traditional learning techniques.

Databases for Note Taking

Similar in function to 3 x 5 note cards of the past, students can create a database for collecting information from multiple online sources. To encourage engaged learning, the database must include textboxes, which support the following tasks:

  1. copy/paste or drag/drop the original passage
  2. paraphrase or summarize the quotation in the student's own words, sentence structure, and voice to promote understanding of the passage as well as to prevent plagiarism (when used in a draft, this textbox should be contiguous to the quotation for effective comparison and self-monitoring)
  3. identify the unique idea of the note, thus reflecting on and further translating the information into the student's understanding
  4. assign keywords to the note, connecting ideas between notes
  5. enter a citation
Not only does taking notes in this way eliminate the possibility of unintentional plagiarism; but students focus on specific passages and details rather than scrolling through Web pages for disconnected main ideas and missing details. For example, while reading about spiders, I learned that the female Australian crab spider nurtures her young by feeding them insects she catches until winter when no more insects are available. Then, she offers her young her last supper�herself [ Flannery ]. Even I, a die-hard arachnophobe, am hooked. Details rather than lists of highlighted main ideas, which lack connectivity, can spur students to become engaged in what they are reading. Active readers will become motivated to learn more, take pride in their own work, and perform better.

Organization Skills

Even if students have extensive notes in their own words, their thinking and thus their work are often organized around individual sources rather than around the main ideas of their multiple sources. Collecting information in itself is not learning, but connecting information is. Learners need to recognize patterns and build scaffolds of knowledge. Those who lack confidence in understanding the organization of their material often fall back on copying information, promising themselves to paraphrase the passage later, out of any context.

Identifying each note with at least one keyword will help recognize these patterns during the note taking process. These keywords or a combination of keywords will also assist in organizing the notes for an outline when sorting them in the database.

Visual organization (either digital tools or old-fashioned doodling) can also help writers construct meaning from their notes, especially if employed during the note taking process. Making sense of 100 note cards in order to write a draft can be daunting; but with a list of main ideas or a visual organizer, which envisions the framework of an outline, a draft is within reach. With online graphic organizers, individual researchers or a collaborative team can construct ideas visually. Students visit paper mill websites when they feel defeated by either too little or too much information that they cannot shape into their own understanding.

Accurate Documentation

Because we teach students to scrutinize the sources they use to learn from the best and most appropriate experts, we always hope that documenting their sources becomes second nature, but too often it is not. Many believe that free and accessible information found on the Internet is fair game for the taking without documentation. Unlike searching for a book in a library, physically handling it, and easily finding an authentic and vetted publication information (author, publisher, location and date), research published online bypasses this process taking students right to the text without their thinking about the source except as a hit from a Google search.

Moreover, formatting documentation is tedious and enigmatic to students. Many will excitedly share compelling research they uncovered, like the dining habits of Australian crab spiders. How many will feel excited about a bibliography entry for an online newspaper article done in correct MLA format?

Many online services will easily create bibliography and citation entries in the correct format. Once the proper citation is generated it can be entered into the database for each note and easily transferred into the draft. Because the user must enter bibliographic information, online learners experience some connection to the source.

Formative Evaluation

A major goal of the education process is to instill in learners an ability to monitor their own progress, and it is the responsibility of the teacher to make sure that happens. Too often research projects are assigned and collected at the end of the course with little interaction between the teacher and the learner. The joy of working on an online research project is the chance to collaborate with an expert, the teacher. To encourage this conversation, teachers should periodically examine their students' databases and provide feedback not just in the form of a formative evaluation, but as an opening for discussing the topic and the process

Online learning institutions employ various software packages to deliver both curriculum and communication systems. Student databases as well as feedback and conversations can be exchanged using these systems. Email can also be a convenient vehicle for sharing the database and generating conversations about progress. These formats for discussion can easily incorporate multiple researchers and multiple teachers, expanding the learners' authentic audience.

Internet Detection Services

Many institutions have employed Internet detection services to prevent plagiarism. These services compare student work with the contents of their databases and previously submitted papers. This comparison is always done after the paper is written and submitted, though sometimes during the drafting process so students can test their own work against the detection services' databases before they are caught plagiarizing. By tinkering with the wording of questionable passages rather than learning to write in their own voice, what students learn is not to get caught plagiarizing. Furthermore, these services do not detect the difference between intentional cheating and simple documentation errors. The final report ends all discussion of the work; the teacher and student both lose the opportunity to discuss either evidence of plagiarism or evidence of excellent paraphrasing.

Using a database for note taking and collaborating with students during the research process precludes the need for Internet detection services. While these services assume that students cheat and require careful policing, database note-taking assumes that students can learn to write with integrity and teachers do monitor their progress.

These are exciting times for educators and learners because so many possibilities for education are now available to a greater number of students worldwide. However, they need to become technology learners, not merely technology users. The "e" in e-learning must signify more than electronic; online learning can be exciting, extended, enthusiastic, engaged, and thus excellent.

About the Author

Dorothy Mikuska taught high school English for 37 years during which time she was a department chair and integrated technology into the English curriculum. After retiring from Glenbard South High School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, she created PaperToolsPro research management software, to provide students with an online tool to write research papers without plagiarism. She is the owner of ePen&Inc.


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