Use whatever device you’re reading this on and browse to Google’s home page. Type anything you like into the search box and click “I’m Feeling Lucky.” Surprised at the results? Unless you’ve been far away for the last decade, you know that anyone with access to the internet can “learn” just about anything they want to know. Who was in that horror movie last summer? How old is the president of Canada? Where can I find a picture of a cat in a tuxedo? If you carry a smartphone, you have access to just about every imaginable fact conceived of by the human race, all in a matter of seconds.
But now try using Google for something more complex, something that requires more than just a one-word search for a specific fact. Type something into the search box that you cannot strictly memorize, like “how to fly fish” or “how to make a soufflé.” My search for “how do I make a soufflé” returned 8.69 million hits (and, by the time you read this, that number will likely be larger). It seems there is probably enough information about how to make a soufflé for me to, well, go and make a soufflé.
Will my soufflé be perfect the first time? I found plenty of recipes and thousands of pictures of great soufflé, so mine should look like one of those, shouldn’t it? Why bother to go to the doctor for that elbow that happens to be bent forty degrees in the wrong direction after falling off of a ladder? “Elbow fracture” returned just south of four million hits. Isn’t that more than enough information to fix it up myself?
I think you’ll agree that it’s ludicrous to believe that a single web search can transform you into a master chef or substitute for a doctor’s care. Obviously, there are certain things with which Google cannot help you. Sure, it may help identify an elbow fracture, and maybe even offer details on the surgery to repair it, but no one would ever try to perform the surgery unless that person was a surgeon (well, we should hope not). Imagine how your triple bypass might go if the doctor had to Google the procedure and consult her smartphone after each step. What if something unexpected happened, something not in the procedure? Clearly, a person properly trained in performing surgery – trained to solve surgery-related problems, that is – is much better prepared in such a scenario.
However, we cannot ignore the allure of the internet. It’s there, it’s always going to be there, and no one – no one – is going to go to the library and dig through the stacks to find out how to make a soufflé when they can just Google it. The same goes for students: “Why should I get up, walk across the room, pick up that textbook, dig through the index, and then flip to the page with the chart when I can just pull out my smartphone and figure out how many milliliters are in a liter in two seconds?” This, I think you’ll agree, is a powerful argument, and regardless of how much of a purist you happen to be, students are never going to agree that looking something like that up in a textbook is a worthy skill-building exercise.
Nicholas Carr, in his very compelling book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, builds a case about the changing nature of the human brain with respect to its ability to stay focused on tasks that require concentration. He argues that the proliferation of quick access information on the internet is largely responsible, that technological changes in our lives have side-effects that markedly affect our deep-brain thinking operations. He describes knowledge as taking two forms – deep domain expertise versus knowing where to find relevant information. From my Google example, the elbow fracture requires deep domain knowledge to correct; on the other hand, finding the name of the celebrity in that bad science fiction movie from last summer simply requires knowing where to look. In this case, Google would get you there in a few clicks, but if you remembered that IMDB.com is just the place for this sort of information, you could likely get to the answer even faster.
When I taught chemistry, my strongest belief was that my core charge was not, in fact, to teach chemistry content; rather, I believed (and still do) that my primary responsibility was to teach students to think creatively with the goal of solving problems; that is, to use inquiry and higher-order thinking to construct meaning. I strove to ensure that my students could use information – in the case of my class, mostly chemistry information – to think critically and analyze a problem, dissect the requirements of the problem, and apply what they knew to develop a solution. Chemistry was simply a context for learning, just as it might be English or marketing or algebra in other classes.
The key phrase in the previous paragraph is “apply what they knew.” Traditionally, the assumption is that students have a certain collection of facts in their brains, and that they are limited in the scope of the solutions they can generate based on those facts. If I were to ask a student the question, “What do you know about chemistry?” that student would in all likelihood try to recall facts about chemistry and spout them out. But when I consider what a student “knows” about chemistry, I want to consider not just the facts in their heads, but their ability to know how to use easy-to-access external resources to find what they need in any particular situation. The internet is the easiest-to-access resource that we – that students – have available, and it’s breadth of information must be treated as an extension of our knowledge.
The ability to effectively use that access and that knowledge to solve problems creatively and think critically is a skill that that is vital to the education of our students. As teachers, we are trapped between evolutionary epochs, straddling a chasm between the old and the new, a divide between the generation of book learners and rote memorizers and the generation of instant access and limitless information. Our real challenge is to teach students how to use the resources available to teach themselves and to never be limited to only what they can recall.
Integrating technology, then, centers on a single idea: the vast data repository that is the internet must permeate every aspect of a student’s education. There are many tools that carry the label “technology” – tablets, applications, computers, interactive whiteboards – but those devices are simply tools for bolstering the efficacy of the internet as an educational resource. This idea is elegant in its simplicity. The internet delivers a barely organized pool of disconnected facts – facts that need not be memorized because of the ease of accessing them – and frees up cognitive processing power for students to focus on learning the core skills necessary to analyze and solve problems effectively.
It is easy to argue that the internet is making us “dumber” – there is more than enough literature attesting to that opinion – but the bottom line is that the connectedness of young people and the cornucopia of the internet are here to stay. Asking students to take pen and paper tests about what they happen to be able to remember without the access to information they have become so accustomed to in every other aspect of their lives is to deny the evolution our students are undergoing. Doing so is as futile as it would have been to try to prevent primitive apes from evolving into humans; eventually, the nature of the situation will prevail.
Mr. Carr says that deep domain expertise is a skill separate from knowing where to find relevant information. I believe that while this was true for my generation – the generation of students that lived through the birth of the internet – I believe that it is no longer true for our current students. I believe that the internet and all of the technologies which rely on connectedness have created a new norm, one in which expertise cannot be achieved without knowing where to find relevant information that isn’t immediately recallable. I believe that the experts of the future will become experts specifically because of their ability to know where to find new information and how to assimilate it seamlessly into an existing complex repertoire of facts and critical analysis skills.
If you performed the search challenge at the beginning of this chapter on a mobile device (or, for that matter, if that’s how you’re reading this), then you’ve only helped to reinforce my point. The state of technology has evolved to a point where we can no longer ignore its influence on the learning process. This isn’t a particularly profound statement, of course. For some time, the various institutions that influence curriculum and standards have been nudging their believers towards a more tech-oriented school environment; the Common Core State Standards and the emerging PARCC assessment are just two of many efforts that include a substantial technology component in their implementation. I believe that it makes intuitive sense to most educators (and the politicians that influence education) that the integration of technology into school curricula is a natural result of its proliferation. The real reason for this need, though, has been obscured by the novelty of the new technologies themselves.
Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, said as much very succinctly: “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn’t create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen….” (2008, p. 105). Educators and students have been wrapped up in the “cool” of technology and the “oohs” and “ahs” of the potential applications to learning – and rightly so, as the internet promises to bring unprecedented opportunities to the classroom, even if the nature of those promises isn’t entirely clear. But the novelty of the internet is vanishing, and the power and convenience of so much information at their fingertips is becoming invisible. Few people have stopped to think about how technology tools and ubiquitous internet access actually interface with the learning process and how we can capitalize on that process.
The bottom line – students are going to stay connected to the internet. Curriculum, pedagogy/andragogy, and assessment have to adapt to this fact. However, simply being connected doesn’t make a person smart, and having access to unlimited facts doesn’t mean that person can solve real-world problems. Making students memorize facts is useless if they have instant access to them, and permitting instant access to the internet doesn’t undermine the real goal of teaching creative problem solving. Students need to know how to safely and properly leverage their access to so much information so that they can apply it the problems confronting them in the challenging modern workplace.
Don’t try to disconnect your students from the web – that won’t work, and it will just create a degree of animosity. Instead, embrace their culture and teach them how to use the internet. You’ll earn their social acceptance and deliver real skills at the same time. And if you’re worried about internet access and your assessments, consider this – if a student can use web searches to “cheat” and pass your exam, that exam probably wasn’t very well designed to begin with. If students are to really learn problem solving, assessment must elevate their thinking. Facts mined from the internet just won’t be enough.