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Does Google Make Us Stupid? Attention, Thoughtfulness and Literacy in the Networked Age

Kevin Donovan

Two years ago, Nick Carr made the controversial assertion that Google is making us stupid in a magazine article; now, he has extended the argument in his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Mr. Carr presents considerable evidence that the networked, interactive nature of digital technologies scatters our attention and limits our ability to think deeply. Even more, he points to emerging evidence that access to computers leads to poor educational attainment. Concerned about the decline of books, he writes,

“We need to be concerned about the digital divide, to be sure. But perhaps we should also be thinking about the Gutenberg divide.”

Nearly all of the debate around Mr. Carr’s provocative and thoughtful book is focused on areas that are traditionally well-saturated with media, both physical and, increasingly, digital. What, though, of the developing world where printed material is traditionally not as widely disseminated and where basic literacy is sometimes lower?  As low-cost digital devices proliferate throughout poor regions, is it a reason to worry or a cause for celebration? Simply put, is a mobile phone in the hands of an impoverished student better or worse than no book at all?

For this month’s Educational Technology Debate, we have four experts on media and education providing their views on this question:

  • Nicholas Carr, the author responsible for the newfound attention to the cognitive effects of the Internet and ICTs, will provide the opening piece, summarizing his position that networked technologies are detrimental to educational efforts by inducing distraction and limiting deep thinking.
  • Marion Walton, a senior lecturer in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town, will broaden the discussion by summarizing her research and views on how new technologies can be promote both formal and informal literacies in resource-constrained environments.
  • Inés Dussel, is the Educational Director of Sangari Argentina, and is a researcher at the Latin American School for the Social Sciences (FLACSO/Argentina).
  • Finally, Steve Vosloo, of the Shuttleworth Foundation, will provide an explanation of his ongoing project to promote literacy via a novel written for teenagers and available on their mobile phone.

Please join us over the coming month in what promises to be a lively and enlightening debate about one of the more important issues facing educators around the world.

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16 Responses to “Does Google Make Us Stupid? Attention, Thoughtfulness and Literacy in the Networked Age”

  1. My compliments to EDT for starting the debate around '"The Shallows" with for the ICT community controversial viewpoints. It can be very meaningful (to quote Wayan W:) "for us to all work together to promote holistic ICT implementations in education".

    Putting the 'Frameworks-debate' in a wider perspective and anticipating the new 'Shallows-debate', the latest blogpost on " http://visualteach.blogspot.com " highlights ICT evaluations and ICT re-structuring programs. Find important news, feeding the debate, coming from rich countries who emphasise on digital learning. Visit: http://visualteach.blogspot.com.

    Best – Jan K

  2. Happening in a few moments is a good-looking event about mobile media and the effects on attention:
    http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/luncheon/2010

  3. I'm excited about this conversation to see if there are any measurable attention impacts in no-to-low media markets. Will Africans leapfrog from books to tweets? Or will there be a transition time through magazine articles, blog posts, then to shorter mediums? Youth seem to be jumping right to Facebook (a form of microblogging), but this can be grossly skewed as there are no "page views" reported when a book is opened or a page turned.

  4. Cavin Mugarura

    Carr brings a twist to the story, however this debate is probably 20 or so years old. In high school calculators are introduced in later years, based on the principle that they will make students less astute in solving arithmetic problems. I am cautious to agree or disagree because this is a complex field and intellect is not holistic since it varies from one individual to another based on several factors. The closest example, i can relate to is open source software versus commercial which operates on the principle of the cathedral and the bazaar (fronted by Eric Raymond). If i was to agree with this argument, then the proliferation and wide usage of open source software would have killed creativity in the software industry. The evidence seems to suggest something different. Programmers have modified and recreated software tools that have given the commercial alternatives a run for their money. Linux overtook its rivals on the server, Apache has more than 80% market share for web servers. Linux has over 15 distros (versions). All these success stories can be partially attributed to the proliferation of search engines, crowd sourcing and collaborative ICTs. In the New York times, an article was posted highlighting how spell checkers are responsible for bad english. The use of tweeter and sms, has also been blamed. These technologies, are here to stay, do they have negative consequences, yes they do, do they have positives, i think everyone agrees, however to blame them entirely is not different from throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  5. robvanson

    Sorry, but this “debate” also raged in Plato’s times, read The Phaedrus (see below). Back then, the youth would be subverted to a shallow, mindless life because they never had to memorize anything. This new fad “reading and writing” would drive root memorization out of schools. People would know nothing, but just look things up. We are talking 400BC here. So, no this is not new, and no, the world will not end in stupidity because we now have all information at our fingertips. I can now regularly look up the primary sources for things that were not even available in the libraries before the Internet. And I never have to trust a journalist on his word anymore. It has been a custom for thousands of years to blame bad schooling on the children. Because children play and go for stories instead of wasting their time on root learning of unlearnable matters. But it is the teaching that is at fault. Children are not stupid, it is teaching that fails. One example: Outside of the classroom, any child can learn ANY language perfectly. However, inside the classroom the results of explicit language teaching are dismal and seem to be targeted at making them forget whatever they knew. All over the world children are learning English, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese because they go online and watch English shows, Spanish and Korean soaps, and Japanese anime. And now there comes someone telling us this is *bad*? This reminds me of that Hole in the Wall article from the Groups and Grandma discussion on ETD. Children neglecting their homework trying to understand biotechnology. Bad bad children. In short, I do not buy for a second that more information and more knowledge will make our children dumber. And shallowness is a character flaw, not a result of teaching. From The Phaedrus…
    “And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

    • Largely agree. We should not forget that the digital revolution threatens many established interests. I have come across schools banning Wikipedia because children were using it too much! “Children are becoming fat because of technology” No, children are becoming fat because they eat junk and don’t get enough exercise. That is down to their parents and teachers not technology. The biggest problem is not the way children use technology but the way teachers and parents are not adapting their attitudes and support to meet the needs of the modern world. Let’s face it, the only extended handwriting any child is likely to do is to take an exam. What is the purpose of examining? Surely not just to check they have the skills to write an exam paper.

  6. Art of noise: Mobile social media and attention by Kate Crawford, University of New South Wales How do we manage the increasing demands of network connectivity, from mobiles, email, and social media? Debates are raging about reduced attention spans and information overload – with particular focus on young people being at risk.Sharing early findings from a large, three-year study of mobile media use in Australia, this talk brought a historical context to the idea of noise, and gave a snapshot of how ‘mobile social spheres’ are developing – particularly for 18-30 year olds.Watch the VideoRead the synopsis“Crawford tells us that we’re now facing a new noise complaint complaints about the networked conversation. There’s a set of anxieties about network noise – “information overload” and “data smog” – starting to be discussed in the Australian context that Crawford is interested in unpacking.In Australia, she tells us, there are now more mobile phones than human beings. She sees a metamorphosis underway, where the phone is moving from mobile communications to mobile media. Understanding this shift involves understanding how young adults are represented in the media, and what panics occur around youth and mobiles, and moving on to understanding the lived realities and the roles mobiles have in friendships.By studying mobile use in four Australian states, looking at users in big cities and small towns, Crawford has concluded that mobiles are surprisingly emotion-rich items. She uses the term “emotional containers”, a device that serves as, in the words of one interview subject, “a network of all my friends in one.”

    • robvanson

      What do children spend most time doing? Chatting and playing. What do children and young adults use computers for? Chatting and gaming. What do all people like to do? They like to chat. What is new? Nothing. The lure of being in constant contact with your friends, where ever they are is indeed a strong one. But this is not noise. Other people is what makes life worth living. Especially for young people. And they do not have problems with any “information overload”. We, the old people are the ones who have problems. We are like the medieval peasants who enter the bustling city and get disoriented by all the people around. Are there problems? Obviously. A school needs to get the children to pay attention. That is easier if you can put them in solitary confinement with sensory deprivation. However, that pedagogical option is long gone. So we need to see how we can make the children make pay attention. First of all, we must reassess what they have to learn. Root learning, hand writing, and solving difficult calculations by hand will NOT help these children cope with their future working place and life. Most problems seem to originate from attempts to prepare the children for the 1960′s working environment. What they need is preparation for the 2020′s working environment. A biased example. We know that in the 2020′s, language skills will be at a premium. In 2025, the BRIC countries will be economically important. Being able to speak their language will get you a better start in life. English alone will not get you very far. We can bicker about Russia (which depends too much on fossil fuels), but knowing Chinese, Hindi, or Portuguese/Spanish will be able to raise your job prospects all over the world. To do business in China currently requires that you learn Mandarin. Your prospects in Brazil and Russia increase if you speak their language. India is special, because they tend to speak quite an acceptable English. But if English is not your first language anyway, Hindi might not be a bad language to get acquainted with. How does modern education reacts to these challenges? NOT AT ALL. In general, over the world, second language teaching in high schools can be considered a complete and utter failing. In most countries, children leave high school with some rudimentary reading ability in some minor languages. They will have a somewhat higher level of command in some major languages (e.g., English or Spanish), if they are lucky. But not from school, but from watching television and surfing the Internet. The same story can be told about mathematics. In many countries, school mathematics can be seen as a way to ensure children will stay away from it for the rest of their lives. And for all the root learning etc done in school, students leave high school barely above innumeracy. I have heard about students entering CS who do not know logarithms or who cannot compute with fractions. And that is on an abstract level (calculations can be done on a calculator). If there is anything “shallow” it is the political discussion of what children really need to learn in high school education. The children see that a lot of what is taught in high school will be utterly irrelevant when they leave. Naturally, they extrapolate and claim everything will be irrelevant (as they have always done). And they act accordingly: they work for the grades and ignore the rest. To end this rant in a positive note. When the school of my kids offered an optional introductory course in Mandarin Chinese, the interest of the students was overwhelming. Much more students (most of them, actually) tried to register for this course than could be enrolled. What do you mean by “shallow”?
      Offer something relevant, or convince them that it will be relevant, and the children will come. Rob

      • Clayton R. Wright

        Rob Vanson, perhaps the key theme of your Educational Technology Debates comments (August 6, 2010) is to make learning relevant. Students are likely to become disengaged because they are bored and cannot see the relevance of what is being taught to their current and future lives. However, one must also be aware that learners and their families may experience financial difficulties and think that dropping out of school is best as learners may need to contribute to family finances. Other students may have limited parental support and guidance, and some learners could be associated with peers who have behavioural problems. There are many reasons for disengagement, but I feel that the lack of relevance (and fun) during a learner’s formal educational journey is a major contributor to disengagement.A long time ago, I coached track and field in a Canadian high school. Several of the athletes showed little interest in school, but they loved performing on the athletic field. As I taught a variety of subjects, I was able to build on their interests and passions. In biology, I discussed how muscles of the body worked to enable someone to jump over a high bar; in chemistry, how the body metabolizes nutrients to provide runners with energy during medium and long-distance runs; and in mathematics, how athletic statistics are compiled and analyzed. As a result, the athletes who had previously shown little interest in regular school subjects excelled in their studies. In all probability, most instructors and parents who inspire their students or children do something similar.In order to make education relevant, perhaps one needs to ascertain the attributes and interests of the learners and be given the flexibility to adapt courses accordingly. The latter situation is not always possible, especially in developing countries where it is extremely likely that the curriculum is highly structured and rote learning may be an acceptable form of instruction. The implementation of educational technology does not directly affect these factors. However, as many of us are aware, if instructors are given the latitude to adjust the curriculum so it focuses on outcomes rather than content and teachers are able to employ more interactive and engaging instruction/learning methods, educational technology (specifically computers, mobile phones, and the internet) can be used to:provide flexibility in adapting activities that take into account individual needs and interests,increase access to information beyond the learners’ immediate environment,provide direct instruction,enable learners to apply their knowledge and skills,enable learners to practice what they have learned,assess student learning,monitor student progress, andenhance the learning environment..Continued…

      • Clayton R. Wright

        Continued…Perhaps if instructors in developing countries had been exposed to the above uses of educational technology, their teaching would be more engaging, relevant, and effective. One of the key reasons why the technology may not be used is that even when it is available, it may not be familiar to the instructors, particularly to those who did not grow up with e-mail, social websites, digital games, and videoconferencing. Thus, technology may be perceived by some as threatening.Those who firmly believe in making learning relevant usually employ various forms of:authentic learning,case-based education,experiential education,hands-on learning,problem-based learning, andproject-based learning..These methods empower learners to collaborate and innovate. Learners are able to apply their knowledge, skills, and experiences to current and future situations.If one lives in a country with an advanced economy, one may facilitate relevant learning by asking students to:reach out to the world for answers (although students may need to be encouraged not to rely solely on Wikipedia or the first 10 resources listed during a Google search);produce a portfolio, print-based or online, to display how their knowledge and skills have been used;conduct virtual field trips to places they are unable to travel to or locations that may be hazardous;produce audio and video clips demonstrating what they can do;write a blog to express ideas and display their creativity;establish a wiki to nurture collaboration; andcreate open educational resources that can be used by students and/or instructors..In countries with less advanced economies in which the availability of technology may be limited, different approaches may be necessary. The approaches (which could also be used in developed countries) may include:creating and telling stories;participating in role plays;partaking in peer teaching and learning;participating in internships and mentorships;connecting to the community to discuss health education issues, such as proper nutrition and dealing with HIV and AIDs (I recently used this approach while working with the UNICEF Office in Nepal to make learning about the avian flu more relevant to the students and ultimately relevant to the community.); and,implementing garden-based learning..The latter approach has been found by Taylor (2003) and others to be extremely effective in engaging learners in countries such as Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka. Depending on the location of the students, one could include agricultural, forestry, or fishery studies into the curriculum as these can be directly linked to the students’ environment and these studies have immediate relevance to the learners. In most locations, garden-based learning can be implemented as students can establish a school or community garden. Schools and their communities are interlinked for social, political, and economic reasons, but these connections are strengthen when learners use the community as a laboratory and involve members of the community in developing and maintaining a garden.Perhaps the keys to ensuring that education is relevant are addressing the needs and interest of the learners and contextualizing the learning by linking learning to the home and community. By solving problems in the community, discussing the social, financial, and political ramifications of the solutions, then linking various aspects of the solutions back to the school or college curriculum, we can engage learners and help them to develop confidence in solving problems. Despite any shortcomings educational technologies may have, they can be used effectively to link learners and instructors to the community and to facilitate solutions to the challenges faced by learners, instructors, and the community. One needs to focus on addressing needs and solving problems rather than focus on the technology.ReferenceTaylor, P. (2003). Making learning relevant: Principles and evidence from recent experiences. In D. Atchoarena and L. Gasperini (Eds.), Education for Rural Development: Towards New Policy Responses (pp. 175-208). Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Paris, France: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

        • My appreciation, Clayton, for your practical approach to get to proper content: combining Vansons’ observation (need of relevance for pupils) with sound suggestions to get there – a small guideline with ideas to engage learners. And it struck me you compared the less affluent with the rich countries, where you gave an important role to computers. This Edutechdebate is inspired by Carrs’ observations that computer and internet tents to lead to shallowness – these conclusions result from the rich world. Now: what are effective ways to use ICT tools to improve learning in developing economies as they proof do in rich countries? That question is left out. Let me evaluate the last 30 years which shows that computers do not yet live up to their (full) potential in education (for more see: http://visualteach.blogspot.com/ ). Effects of digital tools in classrooms in rich countries as summarized recently: 22 July 2010 – UNITED KINGDOM, arguably world leader in digital teaching:  “Evidence on the positive impact of ICT on standards remains unclear”
          In ‘PS Public Service’ on 22 July 2010: “The most fundamental application of technology in schools is the way in which it enables teachers to concentrate on what they do best – teaching. Too much of the education budget in recent years has been spent on getting technology into the classroom with a view that the mere injection of technology itself will contribute to raising standards. However, it is the case that the evidence on the positive impact of ICT on standards remains unclear. The focus on the use of technology in schools, therefore, should be to support teachers’ professional needs”. 28 July 2010 – USA.  Obama’s revolutionairy low budget Reform in Education focuses on quality teachers to turn the tide. In ‘The Financial Times’ on 28 July 2010: “In the last generation, America’s “K-12” (primary and secondary) public schools system has gradually fallen behind other developed countries (during the era that digital teaching moved centre stage at the expense of trillions of US$ – jk). 
          American pupils come 31st in a worldwide ranking of proficiency in mathematics and even lower down in some of the sciences. On some measures US pupils have a lower level of literacy in English than in some northern European countries where English is the second language. Thirty years ago (before computers) the US regularly came in the top five on such measures.” Note that with the introduction of digital teaching, quality decline occurred especially on deprived schools (in USA one-third of public schools). 23 July 2010 – AUSTRALIA:  “Computers alone provide a low-level of learning” In ‘Computerworld – The Voice of Management’ on 23 July 2010: “The existing program is quite targeted around computers in schools. The coalition could very well look more broadly at supporting software and learning aids, because computers alone provide a low-level of learning.” Therefore the planned investment of $46 billion for National Broadband Network, the “Digital Education Revolution” is considered to be scraped. CONCLUSION More sophisticated pedagogical understanding of digital teaching has to be developed and applied before students of the average teacher in rich and in developing countries can benefit from this type of technology in their classroom.
          There is, however, plenty of evidence, for instance from independent OECD studies in Europe, that the use of computers in computer labs and libraries has a positive impact – contributing most to teaching and to learning. An area to prioritize in countries where budgets are low.
          It assumes leadership of a new thesis – in which access to the internet is found in computer labs – to make content relevant. Taylor Wright points the direction for many curriculums to do so. ICT in the classroom. Teachers used to ‘chalk and talk’ need robust and reliable tools which give them full control and immediate support. To achieve interactivity is important here. To improve learning achievements there is innovate ‘achievable ICT’: the ‘Nationwide Visualisation Project’, possibly the best way to modernise teaching. See: http://visualteach.blogspot.com/p/nationwide-visu

  7. Frankly speaking, I wonder where this debate is heading. Is it not meant to find the most proper ways for implementing ICT on the other side of the digital divide? Carr in his “Shallows” signals negative sides of digital learning which without hesitation are garbaged as old-fashioned and irrelevant. So far, his critical conclusions are swiftly turned around with simplified examples to show the opposite: the un-imagened possibilities of digital learning for the deprived. Should the debate not be more in-depth and question: are these ‘technological phantasies’?! Especially this debate should include 20 to 30 years of experiences in rich countries. Where digital learning environments are created it has become apparent that a ‘new digital pedagogy’ is needed – a leap forward to let it work. Important conclusions can be drawn here. The ‘shallowness’ of Carr is only one side of it. See my recent overview: http://visualteach.blogspot.com Such a discussion could and should lead to policy adjustments towards more efficient ways of ICT implementation to really foster development. Isn’t that the aim of ETD?

  8. Children learn through creative collaboration. Give them powerful generic tools do do that – mostly these are now free from the internet and accessible on hardware that is less expensive than text books. Let them use these tools to explore contexts they are interested in and guide them with the use of good written and spoken English, rational approaches to what is valid and true and quantitative techniques where these provide further understanding. That's it, simple. Snag is that the politics of the curriculum mean that the control freaks will not allow such freedom and teachers don't have the right education themselves to deliver anything much different from what they experienced. Policy adjustments will simply continue to be fiddling while Rome burns.

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