How Google Is Killing Higher Education

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by Steve Holt on October 19, 2010

Article first published as How Google Is Killing Higher Education on Technorati.

Google is killing higher education.  It’s true.  Well… hold on… wait a min…  maybe I should clarify what I mean by that.

First of all, let me say that if anyone is a Google-fan, it’s me.  I use Google services every day.  I carry a Google phone in my pocket.  I even wrote a book about how Google can make your life better.  I love the innovation and forward-thinking of their engineers and employees.  But shall I dare say it?

Has Google become so good at what it does that we have come to rely on it too much?

This is not a new question of course.  There has been much written and speculated about our reliance on Google.  There was a widely reported story on the study done by a Northwestern faculty member that was published in the International Journal of Communication in April 2010.  The study basically stated that college students today aren’t that smart when it comes to finding what they need on the internet.  As a matter of fact, as it turns out, college students today in large part blindly trust Google to provide them relevant, accurate information.  They are letting Google’s search algorithms decide what is relevant instead of using critical thinking skills and analysis to decide.

I mean, after all, if it’s listed first in the search results, it has to be good, right?  Oh brother.

Then there was a fantastic article written in Educause Review by the Co-Founder of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, entitled “Individual Knowledge In The Internet Age” (PDF).  I highlighted many passages in that article, but let me share with you a couple of quotes by Larry that I think are salient to this topic.  He makes several great arguments against the thought that we don’t need to memorize anything anymore because Google and ‘the cloud’ can provide you with any answer when you need it.  Now, this is coming from the guy who co-created probably the #1 banned website by college professors when it comes to internet research.  Yeah… you probably need to read that article.

Larry says “Googling a question will merely allow one to parrot an answer – not to understand it.”  He also says “Being able to read (or view) anything quickly on a topic can provide one with information, but actually having a knowledge of or understanding about the topic will always require critical study.  The Internet will never change that.”

You can’t argue with that.  And I also fear that today’s digital natives, who will undoubtedly become tomorrow’s leaders, movers, and shakers, will become what Mark Bauerlein fears they will become…”The Dumbest Generation“.

I love being able to use my Android phone to quickly find the answer to a million different things, simply by asking my phone.  And I have heard that exact same thing from dozens of my friends who do the same thing every day.  But does this ability to essentially have the internet in your pocket spell doom? Let me provide one final quote from Larry Sanger.

“I fear that if we take their advice, in the place of a creative society with a reasonably deep well of liberally educated critical thinkers, we will have a society of drones, encultered  by hive minds, who are able to work together online but who are largely innocent of the texts and habits of study that encourage deep and independent thought.”

Will there be any value in what higher education offers if college students can simply find any answer they need from Google?

If we can’t stop college students from trusting that Google will give them correct, relevant information, should we simply rely on Google to ‘do the right thing’?

Should blame be laid at the feet of Google for being too good at what it does?

Or should we fight this whole thing, turn our backs on Google, and demand that we stop skipping down this road like so many mice blindly following the pied piper?

It seems I have more questions than answers.  I guess I’ll just go Google it.

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