The other day, my 13-year old was writing an essay for school and told me that "we really need an encyclopedia on our computer." I chuckled and then did a double-take. He was, in fact, serious. I took his temperature, asked if he'd received any head injuries in school that day, and then asked him if he knew what year it was. Remarkably, he knew that it was 2009 and apparently, aside from forgetting about the existence of the World Wide Web, was otherwise fine.
As it turns out, Encarta was installed on the computers at his school. It wasn't anything we'd paid for recently (certainly not in my tenure as Technology Director), but it was lingering around and was a perfectly useful tool for quick facts in class or as a starting point for research projects. It was, like the dead-tree encyclopedias that came before it and Wikipedia that came after, a handy reference and the lazy kid's guide to writing a research report.
As most of you have probably heard already, Encarta is done for this year. Microsoft summed it up quite nicely on their Encarta FAQs:
On October 31, 2009, MSN® Encarta® Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. Additionally, Microsoft will cease to sell Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009.
Going on to explain why they were discontinuing the product, the release noted
Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past.
Ya think? I'm not saying Encarta was a bad product. On the contrary, it did a fine job of making encyclopedic articles searchable and accessible on a computer. However, I'm thrilled to see it go because of what it represents. Kids will just go to Wikipedia or the first three hits on Google, now, right? While that remains too true, what it really represents is the absolute challenge to educators to teach kids real Web-based research skills.
Leave the encyclopedias behind and dig. Be utterly critical of the vast amounts of information available online and use Google and its ilk for the brutally powerful knowledge sources they are. Read, understand, and synthesize. Once again, these are the 21st Century Skills that we need to be hammering in to our kids. The encyclopedia is dead. Long live critical thinking.