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John Fahy is the Professor of Marketing in the University of Limerick and Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Adelaide. He is an award winning author and speaker on marketing issues around the world.

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Is the Internet a Good Teacher?

With the arrival of September in the northern hemisphere comes the return of a new academic year in schools and universities. When the initial phase of excitement and fun of catching up with old friends passes, the serious business of study, assignments and test preparation quickly takes over. And for most students now, this means turning to their laptops, tablets and phones as they scan the Web for information, content and answers. But how good is the Internet as a learning tool?



Not so good it would increasingly appear. A growing array of experimental studies have tested whether information gleaned online leads to better or worse comprehension and retention compared with information obtained through the linear fashion of textbooks and lectures. In these studies, two sets of volunteers are exposed to the same content – one group to material presented in webpage format with hyperlinks and multimedia while the other group gets the content in book page fashion. The two groups are tested afterwards on the content with the latter consistently outperforming the ‘internet’ group. In a similar further study, one group of volunteers watched a presentation played through a web browser that including only a series of text pages while another watched the same material but with an embedded audio-visual presentation of related material. In a subsequent ten-question test, the former group again significantly out-performed those that viewed the more media-rich presentation. Finally, of particular interest to educators is a study by Hembrooke & Gay that examined the impact of allowing your audience to use technology while participating in class, something that is becoming commonplace. Again those students who were allowed to surf the Web during class performed significantly worse in post-class tests than those that were not.


It is not just students but professionals of all sorts, including managers, that are using the internet to help them with their work. But why is it such a poor teacher? The problem is that surfing the Web requires us to constantly make fast and immediate decisions regarding which links to follow, which pages to stay with and so on. This, according to neuro-scientists, increases our cognitive load and simultaneously inhibits the transfer of information to our long-term memory. Your brain, as it were, cannot do two things at once. So whether it is making good business decisions or getting good grades, ration your dependence on the Web!

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    The two categories are examined afterwards on the material with the latter continually outperforming the ‘internet’ team.

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