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Wikimanic or curious?

August 24, 2012

We’ve all been struck with the urge to answer burning questions like, “how many spots are there on a leopard?” or “Does George Washington have living descendants?” Wikipedia, while it may not have the sparkling reputation of the Encylopedia Britannica, is the favorite starting point for solving such mysteries.

Recently, “Peanuts” reprinted a 1965 comic strip that shows Snoopy riding a wave and thinking “Cowabunga!”  I first heard that word long ago as a summer camp cheer  and I wondered how it had originated. Online I quickly found a wealth of text and video on the subject, discovering that “Kowabonga” was first heard in 1949 on the Howdy Doody TV show; Chief Thunderthud said it when he was upset or excited. It quickly became part of baby boom generation surfer jargon and later was picked up by Snoopy, Cookie Monster, Bart Simpson, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I know I am not the only person who enjoys going online to find answers to obscure questions, so I wondered if there was a name for this obsession. I found “wikiphile” and “wikiholic”, but neither of them is quite right. Perhaps one of you out there has a better alternative.

This mania for Internet answer-searching often comes up during discussions on the wisdom of allowing laptops in the classroom. Is it helpful or distracting when students are able to instantly find facts during class? My guess is that there would be times when it would be very useful, but that the practice could easily divert a class onto unproductive tangents.

Another potential danger that has been mentioned is that some students have begun to think this activity amounts to serious research. Don’t get me wrong; there are certainly serious research efforts that involve mining data on the Internet. They usually start with a complex design process, involve sophisticated special-purpose software, and require a great deal of time. In contrast, the ability to rapidly dig up factoids – however handy it may be – is a short-term, narrowly focused skill.

I’m curious – what do you think about Internet fact-searching and its role in teaching and learning? Where have you seen it produce positive results and when has it been a problem for you?

[Photo "Cowabunga" by arbyreed on Flickr]

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