Friday, July 09, 2010

The Internet: Educational Aid or Hindrance?

By John Glaser

The Chronicle has an interview with Nick Carr, author of Is Google Making Us Stupid and The Shallows. Nick Carr is of the general opinion that the internet information age is an impediment to some kind of higher, more effective learning and its affecting "the wiring" of our brains for the worse.

Summing up his new book, Carr says:
When you look across all of the evidence, there's very strong suggestions that the way we take in information online or through digital media impedes understanding, comprehension, and learning. Mainly because all of those things combine to create a very distracted, very interrupted environment.
Being a child of the internet age myself, this seems obviously wrong on its face given my own experience. The internet is where I find most of the books I read (and I read a lot!). Topics range from politics, to economics, to philosophy, to culture, to history, to classic American fiction. I was a Political Science major, and I'm a news junky. Without the internet, I'd be aware of a only a tiny fraction of what is going on in the country and around the world. Aside from the various mainstream news publications I read, I keep up with dozens of blogs by journalists, university professors, policy analysts, economists, activists, NGOs, think tanks, etc. From there, I run into, and often read in their entirety, government reports, economics papers, human rights reports, various PDFs on anything from constitutional law to international relations. I watch videos too. Lectures by professors from some of the most prestigious universities, documentaries on serious societal issues, political and intellectual debates, etc. I could go on, but you get the point.

But maybe I'm an outlier. Maybe I'm the strange one in this new era of the internet revolution. So lets go beyond my personal anecdotal counter-point. What about broader trends?

It's a pretty well known fact that people are getting progressively smarter. See this article on James Flynn, of the famous "Flynn effect":
James Flynn is not the sort of man to go quietly into retirement. A professor emeritus at the University of Otago in New Zealand, he still teaches and researches energetically at 73. He speaks on finance and tax for the left-of-centre Alliance Party. He has a book in preparation that will be his own last word on the relation between race and IQ. In autumn he was touring the world talking about "What is Intelligence", a book published in October, in which he sets out his explanation for a mysterious phenomenon that bears his name: the rise in IQ from generation to generation. Your IQ is likely to be higher than those of your parents, and your children's IQs is likely to be higher than yours.

"Our advantage over our ancestors is relatively uniform at all ages from the cradle to the grave," says Flynn. Nobody knows if the gains will persist, but "there is no doubt that they dominated the 20th century and that their existence and size were quite unexpected."
Or what does neuroscientist Mike Merzenich have to say about human intelligence and the internet more specifically? CNET
Has intelligence changed at all in the era of the Internet?
Merzenich: Over the past 20 years or so, beginning before the Internet really took hold, the standard measure of "intelligence" (cognitive ability) has risen significantly (well more than 10 points). No one really knows what to pin this on, but it is a well-documented fact.

Are we getting smarter--or more lazily reliant on computers, and therefore, dumber?
Merzenich: Our brains are different from those of all humans before us. Our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability. Massive changes are associated with our modern cultural specializations.

The Internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of "practice" events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure--but so, too, by reading, by television, by video games, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary "tools," etc.

...Developing the skills and abilities that crucially support our refined cognitive abilities, and filling our brain dictionaries and constructing this myriad of probabilistic associations in (various) categories, are products of massive brain change. We are greatly facilitated in increasing this stored repertoire and in being guided in constructing our associative references by books, the media and in a particularly powerful and efficient way, by the Internet.

You cannot make associations about things that you have not recorded. In this respect, the Internet is one of a series of aids developed over the last millennium or so that has increased the operational capacities of the average world citizen.

In my use of the Internet or any other reference source, I do not turn my brain off. I'm gathering information and associating it in my very own computer, right along with my desktop computer and the Internet. If anything, these aids are helping my brain gather more information to get more answers right, and to see more possible associations than would otherwise be the case.
Carr goes on to question the efficacy of online learning, among other things. In the interest of brevity, I'll withold further analysis of Carr's arguments in the interview, and suggest that you read them, and then read some of my posts on technology and learning, and then maybe do some more of your own research and see what conclusions you make.

A nice tool to use for this investigation, by the way...might be the internet.

Also see here and here for some more viewpoints.

No comments: