Google: Searching for Educational Reform

by Catherine Mears

“It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken — it’s not broken, it’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated.” — Dr. Sugata Mitra. “The Child-driven Education”

The purpose of education is to prepare students for what they will experience. Since the world is constantly evolving, doesn’t this mean our education system should also constantly change? And yet, as Mitra says, our education system is outdated. This is due to the drastic transformations society has encountered as a result of the digital age. When the Internet first spread to US households in 1994, only 12% of families had home access (“14 Years of Web Statistics”). After ten years of growth, in 2004, ComScore Media Metrix reported that nearly 80% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 had Internet access (ComScore as cited in Proserpio and Gioia 70). Also in 2004, Google’s index of web pages reached 8 billion (“Our History in Depth”). This is no coincidence; as the Internet expands its web of users, Google becomes increasingly widespread. And this expansion is ongoing; on an average day in 2011, over 4 billion Google searches were made (“Google Annual Search Statistics”). Google is a universally relied on facet of our modern lives.

In response to this boom of Google use, Dr. Gary Small, a professor at UCLA, conducted a study to determine the effect Google Searching has on our brains. Interestingly, he discovered that for Internet-savvy participants, the process of Google Searching was more mentally stimulating than the act of reading (125). Clearly, our brains are evolving to meet this new age, but so far our education system is not. How can we say that students today learn the same way that our grandparents did if their brains function differently? Thus, it is crucial that, as Google has become part of our culture, and one that actively affects our minds, we must adapt our educational system to harness its potential. Contrary to popular opinion, research reveals that Google, when used correctly, can not only be practical, but even beneficial to student learning.

As an integral part of our daily lives, Google is certainly changing the way we think. Any information that we seek can be found within seconds through the use of Google Search. While this has provided us with a wealth of information, many people are concerned that it is decreasing our knowledge and affecting our memory. As Nicholas Carr wrote in his article, “Is Google Making us Stupid,” “In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation … the human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive” (73). Carr worries that our dependency on Google is replacing our ability to think. This effect was validated in a study by Professors Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and David Wegner, which found that when participants expected to have later access to information, they were less likely to remember it. Another test revealed that after answering difficult trivia questions, participants were thinking about computers, revealed by their slower times on Stroop tests, a reaction test requiring the participant to identify the colors of certain words, in this case words relating to technology. Sparrow and colleagues accounted for these slower times by concluding that these participants were preoccupied with an urge to look up this information online. At the first encounter with intellectual challenges, the participants wanted to look to Google for affirmation. From this research, one could assume that today’s generation is less inclined to memorize information because we understand that it will always be accessible to us through the Internet (776-777).

Although our dependence on technology for information may seem like a daunting reality, many people declare it has a positive effect on our minds. In his review of Sparrow’s research, a writer for the Wilson Quarterly argues that this development of “transactive memory” is an evolution of human nature (“Married to Google”). According to him, sharing information between sources is something humans have done for centuries. Furthermore, Roddy Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis suggests that our information-rich environment could even account for the Flynn Effect, “the gradual increase in IQ scores observed over the past century” (cited in Bohannon 277). Google has the potential to free our minds from memorization and to introduce us to a new world abundant with information.

Why, then, are we still concerned that Google is destroying our minds? Dr. Christine Greenhow and colleagues suggest that the problem is that “teachers have not yet shifted their teaching to respond to the new ways students communicate and use the Web” (247). The use of Google has become an integral part of society and thus all aspects of education. To fully meet the needs of today’s Internet-savvy students, teachers now need to adapt their teaching techniques. Many educators are calling for teaching reform to involve technology in the classroom. In their Article, “Teaching and Learning in Digital Environments,” Hill and Hannafin highlight the need for “resource-based learning environments” in which we incorporate technology as well as other tools unique to the new generation of learners (38). To help teachers, journals publish articles such as “Learning, Teaching and Scholarship in a Digital Age” that offer advice on how to adapt lesson plans to involve the Internet (Greenhow et al. 246). In their review, Greenhow et al. suggest that using Google applications, such as Google Docs or Google Plus in class is advantageous because it will “provide immediate publishing capabilities so real-time results can be shared” (254). These resources would introduce students to a world of new possibilities through a means with which they are already familiar.

Additionally, Google itself offers a great deal of educational resources. Their project “Search Education” offers lesson plans and in-class exercises for teachers to use when teaching their students to research online (Lawrence). They also offer the “Google a Day Challenge” which asks users to answer a difficult challenge by using multiple facets of Google. Through this program, users can hone their searching abilities while learning new, interesting facts. Even beyond searching online, Google has developed resources to help teachers use technology in their classrooms to teach a variety of subjects. The website “Google in Education” provides educators with filtered searches to find lesson plans and educational videos and has information on how to use Google Apps in classrooms to further teaching. Resources to help teachers incorporate Google into their lessons are readily available; they just need to be implemented.

Some educators are making use of these resources and are discovering exciting results. In an English Primary School, Professor Sugata Mitra gave students GCSE questions, which, by working in groups of four with a computer, they were asked to solve. Most groups did so successfully by using resources such as Google and Wikipedia (Mitra, “The child-driven education”). He then tested them two months later individually and without the help of a computer and they displayed almost perfect recall. Some students even increased their knowledge. Clearly, through their use of Google, these children were able to learn far beyond their curriculum and managed to maintain this knowledge.

With the onset of the digital generation, students have begun to comprehend their world in more technologically dependent way. To ensure the positive effect of this change, the ways in which we educate them must change as well. The current status quo within America’s education system is outdated and disregards the important differences that distinguish these new students from those who came before them. Educators must understand the vital differences Google has created in our students’ mindsets and acknowledge the bountiful advantages it has created. Utilizing technological services such as Google in the classroom will not be to the detriment of the students’ education. Rather, it will help to enrich their understanding, broaden their thinking and create a life-long sense of curiosity.

 

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