Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Information Highway: Country Roads, Take Me Home

For a short time I moved to Texas in the late 1980s. It was after the crash of the oil boom that preceded it. I lived in a suburban townhouse plan that had an exit of I-30 specifically built for the suburban sprawl right before the economic downturn; thus, the exit became specific to a few plans and a four-lane highway that went about four blocks in each direction before the black and white fence and sign reading "End of Expressway."

I am reminded of that roadway as I contemplate the information highway. As a teacher I often jump on the Internet to gain or refresh about topics in the curriculum. (What did teachers do before the Internet?) We can find websites, webquests, and lesson plans at our fingertips. Yet I was reminded such how fast and short those journeys can be when, after reviewing a few websites on a poet's work that I was reviewing for class, I consulted the hard copy leatherbound set of Encycolpaedia Britannica in my home library.
Was I reading about the same poet? Britannica led me into three and a half pages of fine print that gave so much breadth and depth on the subject that it almost seemed like a different biography altogether. I laughed. How many times during student research projects had I led my class to the literary criticism shelves of the nonfiction section and feigned amazement: "Lo! What have we here? Books, whole chapters--indeed whole books--on books!" (Seldom is my enthusiasm shared by my students--ah, but sometimes those "country roads of knowledge" are found serviceable by the earnest learner.)
As I pored over the Britannica entry and added to my lecture notes I enjoyed the scenery of one of those country roads, catching so much more than the information highway typically affords.
This month Microsoft curtails its Encarta program, stating:
People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.
Is this a surrender to Wikipedia? I wonder . . . and worry.

Perhaps Encarta is off-mission for Microsoft in the long-term and I shouldn't fret. Still to loose an accessible, popular, and reliable reference tool is sad. Do we need to fear Britannica will follow suit, giving way to Wikipedia? Don't take this the wrong way: I myself love Wikipedia for a fast drive across contemporary knowledge and items not worth a encyclopedia's consideration, but when I want to get to know a subject in some depth I turn to a more established road. Wikipedia might get me there, but it's rather like asking a passerby for directions. In reaching my destination, if I don't suffer wrong turns, I still might not realize where I am along the way.
Image credit: Remix of Microsoft Encarta trademark and "Around the Bend." By Erica Marshall. 11 July 2008. Flickr.

1 comment:

Cat said...

I am hopeful that we'll still appreciate and use the longer, more authoritative and complete resources, even though sometimes the "quick fix" is all we need. In my own experience, at least, there is room for both to co-exist. For me, it's like restaurants - I won't give up my quick delivery pizza forever, but that doesn't keep me from going out to my favorite family-owned restaurants on occasion.