Monday, December 3, 2012

Education in the Information Age: Is Technology Making Us Stupid?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Dr Jason Lodge, Lecturer, Griffith Institute for Higher Education at Griffith University, The Conversation:

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.

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.

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.

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