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Education in the information age: is technology making us stupid?

The pub argument is dead. Google killed it with a little help from your smartphone. Instead of long fought debates about who’s right and who’s wrong, an answer is nearly always within easy reach. With…

If information is everywhere, then how can we learn? Technology image from www.shutterstock.com

The pub argument is dead. Google killed it with a little help from your smartphone. Instead of long fought debates about who’s right and who’s wrong, an answer is nearly always within easy reach.

With so-called intelligent personal assistants becoming more sophisticated, it won’t be long before we have the same kind of access to information as the characters from Star Trek: “Siri, at maximum warp how long will it take to reach the bar?”

The question is, does this make us knowledgeable experts or is the easy access to information making us stupid?

Searching for answers

A recent study suggests that our modern lifestyles are making us “less intelligent” than our ancestors, at least at a genetic level. This research echoes concerns Einstein had when he supposedly said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

The immediate availability of information has created a particular conundrum in our modern society. When it takes a mere few seconds to find information about almost any topic, the value of knowledge and expertise is being devalued as information becomes cheaper and more accessible. This is despite the fact that information, knowledge and expertise are fundamentally different entities.

Einstein’s words about technology and intelligence ring true today. Einstein image from www.shutterstock.com

For example, suppose you have spent 15 years successfully studying advanced rocket science at a reputable institution; that should qualify you as an expert. But I’m sure I could find someone prepared to argue with you about the finer points of Saturn V design based on something they read in passing on Wikipedia. Does that make them an expert? Surely not.

Our relationship with and understanding of knowledge and expertise has struggled to keep pace with the rapid democratisation of information. Symptoms of this lag can be seen all around us, particularly in our education systems.

Critical thoughts

Traditionally, education has been defined by the passing of knowledge from a content expert to a novice learner. The methods of instruction have changed marginally, particularly with the invention of the printing press and a more “industrialised” approach to schooling. But this mechanism of education has remained much the same.

Arguments about the inadequacy of traditional models of education in the information age abound, particularly in higher education. Despite the slow adaptation of education to the information age, the rise of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC and the apparent imminent death of the lecture are just two examples of the changing educational landscape being brought about by our shifting relationship with information and capability for learning with technology.

At the same time, technological doomsayers - such as British neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield - argue that video games and other innovations of the information age are having a detrimental effect on our brains. Although there is little conclusive evidence to support some of the more outrageous claims being made, there is at least a distinct possibility that while information is everywhere, knowledge is declining and technology is to blame.

Baroness Susan Greenfield at the National Press Club in Canberra in 2010. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

So perhaps what is more important is not whether technology is making us stupid but if educational systems need to shift from teaching us what to think, to showing us how to think.

This is not a new idea - famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead was making this argument decades before the invention of Google. But it is taking time for this new reality to filter through to educational policy and to the classroom.

Easy learning

There are no doubt many reasons why this new paradigm of knowledge is yet to fundamentally change our education systems. Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s work offers one way of understanding why it is so difficult to shift our way of thinking and reduce our reliance on Google: developing expertise is hard work.

Kahneman’s research on dual process theory suggests we mostly rely on what he calls “system one” thinking. That is thinking that is fast, efficient, mostly automated, and very good at detecting patterns, relying on short cuts or heuristics wherever possible. “System two”, on the other hand, requires slow, deliberate thought and is much more taxing of cognitive resources. System two is where the heavy lifting is done.

Although this higher cognitive ability is unique to humans, we generally rely on system one if we can.

In terms of what this means for education, psychologist Robert Bjork and his team at UCLA have been investigating what they call “desirable difficulties”. A desirable difficulty is a feature of a learning situation that is deliberately made more challenging to enhance learning.

Bjork’s research demonstrates that making learning challenging in very specific ways can improve the ways we later use knowledge gained.

Technology has not only made access to information easier, it has arguably made learning easier by making it less challenging and letting us get away with using system one more often. The answers to many questions are only as far away as the nearest search engine or app, so we can avoid any need for the type of analytical thinking required to solve the problem ourselves.

Technologies are generally designed to be pleasing, marketable and to make learning easier; they are not often designed to deliberately vex us in ways that improve knowledge retention.

Similarly, the quality of learning in higher education in particular is often measured in terms of student satisfaction, not how much students have actually learnt. Making learning deliberately challenging for students is not good for ensuring high levels of satisfaction on the My University website.

Mind field

Technology alone is not making us stupid. We are getting out of having to think too much thanks to a complex set of factors, including the increased availability of information and education systems that have yet to adapt to the new information-rich world we live in.

All is not lost, however. What both Kahneman and Bjork’s research reveal is that carefully controlled psychological experiments can improve our understanding of how knowledge and expertise develop in the information age. And their findings can give us clues as to what to do about it.

Of course, applying the controlled laboratory conditions to the classroom is difficult. It’s hard to know what exactly is effective and what influence particular technologies are having on learning outside the lab.

In 1899, William James said, “Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application, by using its originality.”

If we are to ensure that we are using technology in the most effective ways to educate the next generation, we need to apply the science of learning to the classroom, just as James was arguing over a century ago. This process will undoubtedly require many “inventive minds” to help translate the science into practice.

Ultimately, the future of technology-enabled learning and education is in a synthesis of the science of learning and the art of teaching. Developing expertise in expertise will help us figure out how we can educate future generations of students to become wise and knowledgeable in a world where information is cheap and easy.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Comment removed by moderator.

  2. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    Every generation appears to value its own ways of knowing and relating above those of the generations above and below.

    Writing ruined memory. The radio ruined sing-song and conversation. Television ruined imagination. Email killed the telephone...and so on.

    Philosopher Edward Spence says:
    - To get from information to knowledge, you need to acquire the information
    - To get from knowledge to wisdom, you need to apply the knowledge (and be held accountable for the consequences).

    It doesn't really matter what the media storing the information are, we still need a cognitive process to absorb, integrate and apply it.

    Memory is imperfect, other storage and retrieval systems are better. But we don't have a machine whose judgment is wiser than the human mind yet.

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    1. Judith Olney

      Ms

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Good points Sue, I would also add, that even though we have access to a huge amount of information through technology, we actually need a greater ability to critically analyse and discern good factual information from the non-factual rubbish and pseudo science that abounds today. The internet has made it very easy for non experts, and downright nutbags to be able to put up information that is false, with the appearance of credibility. Human induced climate change deniers are a prime example of this…

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    1. Brad Adams

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Harrigan

      I think the key part of your comment is "To the extent that IQ tests measure intelligence." Better at performing on tests perhaps?

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  3. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Nonsense, we were stupid long before the internet turned up.

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  4. Jonathan Marshall

    Founder

    Now running an Ed Tech company and for the past 10 years advocating a shift away from rote learning it was a shock to find how important rote learning is to developing critical thinking capabilities.

    Perhaps one of the best books on how we learn from a cognitive scientists perspective (only $10 on Amazon).

    The jist of the authors premise is our working memory is limited so the more facts we can access subconsciously (a library of data built over time) the more mental effort can be used for critical thinking and manipulating those facts. I am now a convert to the concept that we do need to start with some rote learning to build up that database.

    http://www.amazon.com/Why-Dont-Students-Like-School/dp/047059196X

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  5. Steven Liaros

    Town planner at PolisPlan - town planning and eco-village consultants

    "Developing expertise in expertise will help us figure out how we can educate future generations of students to become wise and knowledgeable in a world where information is cheap and easy."

    The underlying message in this article appears to me to be that the purpose of learning is to gain expertise. 'Expertise' is fundamentally different from (perhaps diametrically opposed to) wisdom.

    Our current education systems focus on expertise and specialisation because this maximises productivity. By…

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  6. Robyn McNamara

    logged in via Facebook

    Information is a commodity now, at least in the affluent Western world, and it's a low-margin commodity at that. If education providers continue to perceive and market themselves as sources of information, they will go the way of buggy whip manufacturers.

    But education (at least at tertiary level) is not a simple matter of information transfer, and expertise is not a simple matter of access to memorized information. When we teach our students, what we're really trying to do is to inculcate skill. The difference is crucial when it comes to pedagogy, because skill acquisition requires reflective and evaluated practice.

    My advice to university lecturers both traditional and online is to think less about what you're going to tell your students and more about what they're going to do, because the learning's more in the doing than the listening.

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    1. Jonathan Marshall

      Founder

      In reply to Robyn McNamara

      Agreed and this is how we would all like it to be but attend any undergraduate degree lecture with 300 or maybe even 500 students and it is a rather tall order to determine what each is going to do.

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  7. Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Emanuel Souvairan

    logged in via Twitter

    I can tell you one thing. I am definitely less intelligent after reading this drivel...

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  9. Clara Ng

    Pre-service teacher

    I am a Gen Y and I admit that today's technology has made me less intelligent and increases my chances of being an all-rounded lazy person who does things via the "shortcut". While technology has made things faster and easier, there are also many things which can bring the reverse. Too many people (especially my generation) are too reliant on technology, and when technology does fail, they are not able to do many things without it! It's not just making people incapable of doing things, but with the…

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  10. Andrew Chuter

    Mr

    I'm not sure Einstein made the quote you're attributing: "I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."

    I received it about a month ago in a spam email with pictures of people using smartphones while oblivious to each other.

    I've googled around for an authoritative source to confirm it to no avail.

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