A recently and widely (in my nerd circles) shared XKCD comic featured ineffective sorting techniques. The alt text (what you get when you hover over the comic) proposed an additional sort:
StackSort connects to StackOverflow, searches for 'sort a list', and downloads and runs code snippets until the list is sorted.
The success of this approach, however, does suggest interesting things about how people approach certain kinds of problem solving these days. Where “old people” like me would have bought a book to learn something new, my students are much more prone to assemble a patchwork understanding from tons of Googling. While I think this often leads to a quite fragile and incomplete understanding of the topic at hand, it is often sufficient to get them through what is assigned. In other words, they’re very skilled at answering the question that was posed, which was itself often somewhat shallow because that’s what we all have time for. So while faculty would like to think that we’re creating experts (whatever that means) in certain topics, we rarely have the time to give them assignments and tasks that require a deep level of expertise.
In the land and time of books, we might have believed that everyone read and understood the 8 assigned chapters, but the assignments almost certainly didn’t strictly require that. In fact I’m willing to bet a whole lot skimming actually went on that was not so different from the Googling that happens now. The difference is that when I skimmed a book, there was a reasonably coherent thread connecting the dots that were touched on. “Skimming” the Internet, however, is a much less coherent experience. The authors, examples, and assumptions aren’t the same from search result to search result. Worse (in computing) the versions aren’t necessarily the same, so we often end up with inconsistent and downright contradictory results! A few years ago I taught a class that used Python 3, and it turned out that almost all Googling pointed us at Python 2 examples and answers, which lead to all manner of confusion amongst my students.
So call me old-fashioned, but I still like a book, even if it’s an e-book, when I’m learning something conceptually new, as I do really appreciate a coherent voice and structure. If I need to remind myself of a library function or piece of syntax, it’s to the Googles. If I’m learning something that’s very similar to something I already know, then I’m happy with on-line docs if they’re well written. If, however, I’m expanding my horizons in more significant ways, a book is still the thing.