Is the Internet making us stupid?

From the The Brunswick News

The ages of pupils in Elisabeth Ruff's second grade classes have not changed in the past 15 to 20 years - most are still 7 years old - but the way they learn has.

These days, when the Oglethorpe Point Elementary School teacher fields a question from a child she is not sure how to answer, the response from her class is much different than it used to be.

"Inevitably, one or two students will tell me I should Google the answer," Ruff said. "That never used to happen."

The call from students to turn to the Internet for information is an indicator to Ruff of a fundamental change in how children think, learn and process information.

No longer can she ask her class to turn to a page in a book and begin teaching.

"It is no longer just a chalkboard, chalk and some books," Ruff said. "They are used to video games and iPods. They are used to being entertained."

Her classroom at the St. Simons Island school is equipped with desktop computers, laptop computers and a touch-screen projector board, all of which are used every day in an effort to keep her pupils engaged in learning.

The shift from traditional methods of teaching has come to dominate public education the past decade, as the Internet has given teachers and students immediate access to more information than the human brain can hold.

Estimates show that there could be as many as 600 million websites in existence, featuring more than 40 billion single web pages. With search engines like Google, which can access information on those pages in an instant, some researchers and sociologists worry that modern learners are no longer grasping the true depth of information necessary to understand the concepts required for innovation and meaningful experimentation. They, instead, are more adept at finding short snippets of information and moving on to another topic.

One of those people is Nicholas Carr, who was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction with his book, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." The book is essentially an extension of a 2008 article Carr wrote for The Atlantic magazine entitled, "Is Google Making us Stupid?"

In the article, Carr argued that the vast amount information available on the Internet is creating people who are knowledgeable about many things, but true experts in nothing.

He calls it cognitive overload. The human brain has low capacity for short-term working memory, Carr argues, so as Internet surfing jumps from place to place, information that has been glossed over, but may be important, is pushed out to make room for more, newer information.

The lack of deep knowledge will eventually lead to a world of people who feel a false sense of intelligence.

"As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence," Carr wrote.

Jennifer Gray, professor of English and director of the College of Coastal Georgia writing center, agrees with Carr, but says there is something missing from his argument -- the digital natives.

Digital natives, or people who have only known a world inundated by the Internet, are now flooding colleges and the work force, bringing with them a new perspective shaped by the instant access to information.

It is the job of teachers, such as herself, to ensure pancake-thin knowledge is coupled with deeper, more focused learning.

"The point is to understand how to properly use (the Internet)," Gray said. "That means, as a teacher, I have to develop their ability to do it."

In her experience, students have not changed much in the past 17 years since Gray started teaching. Then, just as now, students immediately look to what other people have written and researched to form their opinions and arguments for writing assignments. Today, rather than going to a library to search books, students look to search engines like Google.

Teachers must hone the ability of students to find credible Internet sources and pull out the pertinent information from them, Gray said.

That may be more difficult than it seems. Studies of eye movement show that Internet readers tend to read in an F-shaped pattern, absorbing much of the information at the top of an article, but much less at the bottom. Ads posted around the articles are also a distraction, often causing the reader to click on a link and leave the page before finishing. Gray, through a survey of her own students, found this to be true.

One student in particular provided a telling response about how the Internet has changed his reading habits.

In his comments, the student, identified as Dean, writes that as a child he was able to sit down and read through a short story or book without taking a break. Now, though, he has trouble reading for 20 minutes without breaks.

"I think that this is the result of my use of technology, specifically the Internet," Dean wrote.

In the beginning of the student's comments, Gray pointed out that Dean composed longer, more complex sentences when discussing how he used to read. He also injected himself in the passage actively by making himself the subject of the sentence when writing about reading books. That shifted to a more passive voice by making himself the object of the sentences when writing about reading on the Internet and using technology.

"He had control in the past, but now he is nameless and an object," Gray said.

Her colleague, Robert Bleil, a professor of English, cautions not to assume the pancake effect of knowledge is only seen in younger people.

Multitasking is a buzzword often heard in the working world by people considered digital immigrants, those who were around before the advent of the Internet, Bleil said. The practice keeps readers from getting in-depth information, he said.

"At the end of the day, multitasking is not doing several things at once," Bleil said. "It is, instead, like your brain is switching channels." The channel switching leads to the pancake effect in older generations because studies show the brain takes about 20 minutes to refocus after the switch, Bleil said.

Understanding the effects of constant multitasking on both younger and older persons will go along way in ensuring Google does not make them stupid by losing the ability to think critically, Bleil said.

He agrees with Gray that teachers are now tasked with more than simply teaching a subject. They now have to teach students how to properly use the immensely powerful tool of the Internet.

"The question is not whether the Internet is good or bad, it is how do we use it?" Bleil said. "It is really important students be aware of this, because they are living in it."

Which is why educators like second-grade teacher Ruff are now tasked by the state Department of Education to teach not just Internet safety, but also Internet literacy.

She sat at a table this week at Oglethorpe Point surrounded by her second-graders on laptop computers, each studying a different aspect of bridge construction.

"Is everything we read on the Internet true?" Ruff asked.

"No," her pupils answered.

"We want to be careful what sources we use so we make sure we are getting good information," Ruff said.

The lesson is one Gray and Bleil hope is happening everywhere, so the next generation of leaders do not all end up being pancake people.

Release Date: 11/26/2012
Source: The Brunswick News