Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Why Search Engines Can’t Replace Teachers (yet?)

My programming students are working on some projects these days. I have them working of teams of two to four. As they work I am listening to their conversations and occasionally stepping in to help with a problem they can’t figure out on their own. Yes they can and do use the Internet. And they are learning a lot that way. But sometimes searching the Internet doesn’t work.

Why doesn’t the Internet search work? A couple of reasons account for most of the problem. The primary reason is that students often don’t know who to ask the right questions. They often lack the vocabulary for asking a search engine for what they want. Other times they are asking for the wrong thing because they just don’t know enough to know what it is they need. Honestly, a lot of high school students are just bad as using search engines in general which is a whole other problem.

Another issue is that they don’t understand the solutions the search returns. Sometimes this is because the person who wrote what they found assumes knowledge that the student hasn’t acquired yet. Sometimes this is vocabulary and sometimes this included advanced concepts. Not all students are ready for the way a professional would do it but need something, maybe less powerful, that will just get the job done simply.

Sometimes the students are in too much of a hurry. Students today wanted to insert a line feed in a string and kept entering “/n” when what was needed was “\n” not realizing that not all “slash” marks are the same. Noticing little details like that sometimes escapes even the best of us but is a particular problem for beginners. Teachers are good at helping find these nits that can otherwise cause a lot of wasted time.

As a teacher I often need to ask “what problem are you trying to solve?” Starting from what the student thinks is the solution often wastes more time than first trying to understand the problem. Search engines don’t have that sort of dialogue with searchers. Maybe they will at some point but they are not there yet.

I also need to help them understand the answers they find. Or perhaps I should say help them apply solutions to problems similar to theirs to their actual problem. Helping them move from general to specific (or specific to specific but slightly different)  solutions is an area where teachers add value that search engines are not yet ready to do.

There is a difference between knowing something (a fact, a concept, a programming syntax) and being able to apply it in a specific situation to solve a specific problem. Teachers can help a lot here. And yes I know that there are self taught “wizards” in many fields. Even before the Internet there were autodidacts who taught themselves from books. The Internet lets people teach themselves a lot. But that sort of learning is not for everyone. In fact I doubt it works for more than a relatively small number of people. Teachers are education for the rest of us.

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