Exploring how teachers and students use content from the internet in class

Let’s say you didn’t understand a concept from one of your classes: where do you go to find the answer? Over the past decade, online searching has become more and more convenient; a Google search only takes a split second to load, while you might need to flip through a textbook for several minutes before finding the same information.

However, browsing the internet for answers also comes with downsides. For instance, the internet contains many forms of distractions, like discord notifications or new emails that pop up every other minute. One study conducted by the Journal of Food Science Education explains that distracted learning, which occurs when something like a notification obstructs the attempt to focus and achieve a certain goal, has a negative effect on comprehension. Senior Pallavi Chekka constantly faces the issue of facing distractions when browsing the internet. 

“Sometimes, my YouTube Recommended will be stuff like music or other types of content that I’d watch for entertainment,” Chekka said. “And I would get totally sidetracked by that.”

Nevertheless, there are ways to reduce the number of distractions when trying to focus. The Journal of Food Science Education study suggests approaches like increasing “cognitive control abilities” through physical activity, managing distractions by establishing distraction-free environments and strengthening the goals themselves.

That being said, the internet can also have positive impacts on learning if used properly. According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2001, 78% of children from ages 12-17 believed that the internet helps them with schoolwork, and a more recent 2014 survey conducted by Pew Research Center reported that 87% of adults say that the internet helps them learn new concepts.

Many teachers at MVHS provide a mixture of textbook reading and video lectures for students to learn from. For example, physics teacher Jim Birdsong sees many advantages with using videos to supplement learning, one of which is their ability to make the process of learning at home more interactive. For context, physics classes at MVHS use a “flipped learning” approach, which essentially entails having students learn material outside of the classroom to reserve time in class to focus on problem-solving or answering questions; Birdsong believes that watching videos at home is more effective than class lectures. 

“Rather than spending time in class, just writing down stuff and not really using it, you could switch the information delivery to home,” Birdsong said. “There’s so many physics videos out there that they can get the lectures pretty much just as good as they would get in person.” 

Birdsong also highlights the fact that videos can easily be rewound , whereas in class, students would have to interrupt the lecture and ask the teacher to repeat something. Learning from textbooks serves as the traditional way of gaining knowledge, but because of the prevalence of high-quality videos on platforms like YouTube, it is logical to wonder if these videos can replace the role of textbooks in learning. Birdsong says that the use of textbooks compared to videos will differ from person-to-person, which is why he gives students the freedom to choose whichever one works better for them. 

Indeed, students have their own individual preferences when it comes to learning. Senior Ved Pradhan, a current AP Physics C TA and a past-AP Physics C student, explains that he would only watch YouTube videos if the teacher specifically recommends them. For example, in AP Physics C, he used the videos that the teacher provided. However, he generally does not watch videos if the teacher does not assign any. For instance, in AP Chemistry this year, he doesn’t use videos and instead relies on the textbook and his notes.

Chekka, who is currently enrolled in AP Physics C, explains that she watches videos because she enjoys watching people solve certain problems step-by-step in action. However, she believes that textbooks and videos play slightly different roles in learning. 

“I think that textbooks are useful because they have formal definitions and oftentimes graphs and stuff. Especially if you’re studying a hard science, or a very conceptual subject, textbooks are super useful,” Chekka said. “I think videos serve a different purpose in the sense that they’re more dynamic, and they’re better for example-based learning.” 

Similarly, Pradhan does not see videos replacing textbooks anytime soon. 

“For example, in AP Chemistry we have new textbooks,” said Pradhan. “I believe they didn’t have textbooks last year. So we’re using a brand new textbook and reading textbooks after a long time, so that transition to textbook just shows that textbooks aren’t going away.”

However, besides videos, the internet has also brought a new form of textbooks: e-books. One article reporting on a study from the University of Maryland revealed that although students feel like they learn more online, in reality, they remember less compared to the information gained from reading hardcopies. One possible reason mentioned in the article is that people tend to skim text instead of spending the time to fully comprehend the material with a screen. Pradhan says that he hasn’t personally noticed a difference between learning from e-books compared to regular books, but he still enjoys reading a physical textbook and taking notes because they have a more “hands-on” aspect.

Chekka also mentions that she prefers hardcopy textbooks to better underline important details or take notes. Physics classes at MVHS use OpenStax, a site that contains a multitude of free online textbooks, although they originally were using a normal textbook. Like Pradhan, Birdsong also hasn’t noticed a difference in comprehension after the switch. However, he notes that students didn’t really read the normal textbook in the first place, so he is open to switching if “it ends up being accepted and pushed for.”

In addition to facing distractions, relying on the internet for learning does have another disadvantage, namely uncertainty around the credibility of sources. Even though the internet plays an important role in keeping people up-to-date with events happening around the world, technologies, especially social media, also regularly contain false or misleading content. A 2003 Forbes survey reported that 52.8% of internet users believe that the information is reliable. 

Chekka recounts experiences in which she encountered responses with the correct answer but the wrong work, especially on open-source websites like Quizlet. Additionally, she also explains a case in which the wealth of information online might not always serve as something positive. “I remember once that I went online and searched something up for Precalc-honors, and this method to solve it came up, but it wasn’t the one we learned in class,” said Chekka. “So stuff like that can also be misleading.”

In contrast, Birdsong believes that for the most part, the videos he encounters when searching for videos to recommend are reliable because the sources that he uses have been “vetted by experience.” Similarly, Pradhan explains that he usually doesn’t encounter much misinformation on the internet because he limits himself to credible sources of information. Despite taking information from reliable sources, Birdsong does admit that he occasionally encounters information that’s not perfectly correct. 

“Any sort of misconception that we encounter we can fix in class, ” Birdsong said. “There’s still sort of inconsistencies with some of the ways that ideas are presented: the book will have one method, and then the guy in the video will have a different method, and then [Mr. Lordan and I] will even have a third method.” 

However, he sees a benefit in having multiple perspectives, saying that students can learn to identify whichever method makes the most sense to them. Preferences among students when it comes to learning methods vary greatly, and finding the ideal method for yourself requires experimentation. In other words, textbooks and videos both contain valuable information, but they often present the information in different ways that work better for some but not others. When using the internet to search for videos, though, it’s also important to keep in mind the risks that come with it, so taking steps to minimize the number of distractions or confirm the reliability of a source can go a long way.

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