How internet search can inhibit learning
Hope your July is unfolding gracefully and you’ve been pondering the tax that smartphones incur on attention. This week wraps up our series on (the risks of) digital tech…
Big idea 🍉
We live in an incredibly fast moving world—one overflowing with information in which we feel a constant pressure to stay afloat. However, our brains can only learn so much at a time—we have limited attentional capacity and we forget much of what we encounter.
Given the ingenuity of our species, it is unsurprising that we have been relentless in our development of tools to help us manage this tension—from the humble ‘calendar’ which allows us to outsource our memory of events, to the more recent ‘internet search’ which promises an abundance of information at our fingertips.
However, the use of such tools for ‘extending our minds’ or ‘distributing our cognition’ have side-effects which are important for schools to be aware of.
On such issue is ‘digital amnesia’ (also known as ‘the Google effect’), which refers to our tendency to forget information that we believe can be easily found using external sources (such as search engines or AI). Worse still, not only do we tend to remember less when we ‘look it up’, but we remain oblivious of this cost to our learning 😬
In short, we’ve got digital amnesia and we don’t even know it.
Digital amnesia is hyper-relevant for education because we need knowledge in our brains to think with. Whilst it might make sense to outsource our work events to an online calendar, it isn’t so smart to outsource our knowledge of historical dates to the internet. If information doesn’t reside in our brains, it can’t be used in powerful ways—to spot connections, to think critically, to learn new stuff.
As much as we might try, the internet can’t think for us. And it’s never been more critical that we (and our students) are aware of this deep limitation.
What are the implications for schools? 3 things:
Where possible, it’s probably best that we ‘just teach it’ rather than getting our students to ‘just Google it’.
Where students are using internet search for stuff that is useful for them to know, we should take extra steps to help them retain that knowledge.
If we care about building student metacognition, we must help them become aware of all this too.
It’s important to note that although this effect has been replicated, the world of digital tools is itself a fast moving one, and so we will no doubt develop a more nuanced picture of things over the coming years.
Challenge → How much do your students lean on ‘Google’ as a learning tool? Might you do anything differently in your teaching going forward?
Little links 🥕
On topic → Check out this seminal paper on ‘the Google effect’, this more recent set of experiments on the influence of internet search on learning, and this study comparing the efficacy of ‘answer first vs Google first’ for building retention.
On trend → This week, we have a new meta-analysis on the (generally positive) effects of text generation on learning, and a study exploring the relationship between adolescent attainment and wellbeing (HT Sean Harris).
Bonus → Here’s a video of me interviewing Neil Almond on the current state of play of AI in education.
See ya later (just like your memory post-search).
PS. I’m chuffed to share that, following last week’s poll (results below), Evidence Snacks will be sticking with a weekly cadence going forward 🥳