What’s the point of education if Google can tell us anything?

University in your pocket? successo images/www.shutterstock.com

Can’t remember the name of the two elements that scientist Marie Curie discovered? Or who won the 1945 UK general election? Or how many light years away the sun is from the earth? Ask Google.

Constant access to an abundance of online information at the click of a mouse or tap of a smartphone has radically reshaped how we socialise, inform ourselves of the world around us and organise our lives. If all facts can be summoned instantly by looking online, what’s the point of spending years learning them at school and university? In the future, it might be that once young people have mastered the basics of how to read and write, they undertake their entire education merely through accessing the internet via search engines such as Google, as and when they want to know something.

Some educational theorists have argued that you can replace teachers, classrooms, textbooks and lectures by simply leaving students to their own devices to search and collect information about a particular topic online. Such ideas have called into question the value of a traditional system of education, one in which teachers simply impart knowledge to students. Of course, others have warned against the dangers of this kind of thinking and the importance of the teacher and human contact when it comes to learning.

Such debate about the place and purpose of online searching in learning and assessments is not new. But rather than thinking of ways to prevent students from cheating or plagiarising in their assessed pieces of work, maybe our obsession with the “authenticity” of their coursework or assessment is missing another important educational point.

Digital content curators

In my recent research looking at the ways students write their assignments, I found that increasingly they may not always compose written work which is truly “authentic”, and that this may not be as important as we think. Instead, through prolific use of the internet, students engaged in a number of sophisticated practices to search, sift, critically evaluate, anthologise and re-present pre-existing content. Through a close examination of the moment-by-moment work of the way students write assignments, I came to see how all the pieces of text students produced contained elements of something else. These practices need to be better understood and then incorporated into new forms of education and assessment.

These online practices are about harnessing an abundance of information from a multitude of sources, including search engines like Google, in what I call a form of “digital content curation”. Curation in this sense is about how learners use existing content to produce new content through engaging in problem-solving and intellectual inquiry, and creating a new experience for readers.

Lessons in how to search. Students via bikeriderlondon/www.shutterstock.com

Part of this is developing a critical eye about what’s being searched for online, or “crap-detection”, whilst wading through the deluge of available information. This aspect is vital to any educationally serious notion of information curation, as learners increasingly use the web as extensions of their own memory when searching.

Students must begin by understanding that most online content is already curated by search engines like Google using their PageRank algorithm and other indicators. Curation, therefore, becomes a kind of stewardship of other people’s writing and requires entering into a conversation with the writers of those texts. It is a crucial kind of ‘digital literacy’

Curation has, through pervasive connectivity, found its way into educational contexts. There is now a need to better understand how practices of online searching and the kinds of writing emerging from curation can be incorporated into the way we assess students.

How to assess these new skills

While writing for assessment tends to focus on the production of a student’s own, “authentic” work, it could also take curation practices into account. Take, for example, a project designed as a kind of digital portfolio. This could require students to locate information on a particular question, organise existing web extracts in a digestible and story-like way, acknowledge their sources, and present an argument or thesis.

Solving problems through synthesising large amounts of information, often collaboratively, and engaging in exploratory and problem-solving pursuits (rather than just memorising facts and dates) are key skills in the 21st century, information-based economy. As the London Chamber of Commerce has highlighted, we must make sure young people and graduates enter employment with these skills.

My own research has shown that young people may already be expert curators as part of their everyday internet experience and surreptitious assignment writing strategies. Teachers and lecturers need to explore and understand these practices better, and create learning opportunities and academic assessment tasks around these somewhat “hard to assess” skills.

In an era of informational abundance, educational end-products – the exam or piece of coursework – need to become less about a single student creating an “authentic” text, and more about a certain kind of digital literacy which harnesses the wisdom of the network of information that is available at the click of a button.