Intelligence in a Sea of Data: Teaching and Learning in the Google Generation

This is a 2700-word paper for ETEC 533, a course in my Master of Educational Technology program at UBC.


But when just about anything anyone wants to know is a simple search away, what, specifically, constitutes education in the age of Google? And, is it enough to know about, without knowing how, or why?

This paper is inspired by Nicholas Carr’s widely read Is Google Making Us Stupid? That being the case, of course, I have absolutely no expectation that any of you will actually read the entire thing.

But you may wish to skim …

Intelligence in a Sea of Data:
Teaching and Learning in the Google Generation

The science classroom is intentionally a place where learning occurs … where students are intended to come to know certain things about the nature of the world we live in. But what exactly does that mean? Merriam-Webster tells us that the word science comes, via various detours through linguistic byways, from the Latin present participle of scire: to know. While the etymology of a word does not determine contemporary connotation or denotation, it is the case that science is a (and probably the) dominant Western means of knowing, understanding, and therefore learning about the world today. But when just about anything anyone wants to know is a simple search away, what, specifically, constitutes education in the age of Google? And, is it enough to know about, without knowing how, or why?

A veteran science teacher that I interviewed broached this topic when I interviewed him recently. During our discussion of educational technology, I asked him if there are any ways that technology hinders learning. His answer is both insightful and revealing, for multiple reasons:

At times it may end up giving people a real quick fix to a problem and they may not be actually forced to think it through. Since Google, students need an answer quickly, so they don’t know how to use a glossary or index. They want something right away, and to look back to a previous paragraph is too much effort.

He’s actually saying two things here. First, that students in some cases are seeking quick answers that others have created – received wisdom, so to speak – so they don’t have to undergo the intolerable mental stress of building interlocking edifices of conjectures that lead to principles. And second, he’s saying that not only have students in some cases lost their desire to undertake the heavy intellectual lifting that is part of the traditional learning process … they’ve also even lost the ability to personally seek for answers. After all, why read or even scan an old-fashioned dead tree tome when a multicolored electronic butler will do it for you?

That’s a serious challenge to an education system. Regardless of whether teachers are using digital or analog tools, if students don’t want to figure out the answer and also won’t strain themselves to find it personally, teaching anything beyond search and retrieval skills starts to sound like a significantly difficult uphill battle.

This veteran teacher’s statement sounds eerily similar to comments reported by technology writer and author Nicholas Carr, who wrote the widely-discussed article Is Google Making Us Stupid in mid-2008. In it, Carr cites pathologist and educator Bruce Friedman, who recently confessed that he has now “almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print. ” Carr himself has the same issue … he feels he is losing the ability to focus, to concentrate … “now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.” Is our ability to learn being negatively affected by our media technologies?

It’s not just popular authors, either. Deep learning, the kind of learning that uncovers associations, connects theoretical frameworks, and gets behind the what to the why, may be at risk. Educational researchers have noted the tendency of science instruction to be more learning about than learning … more getting the answer than deriving it (Bencze and Bowen, 2009). Bencze and Bowen have shown that this may be partly due to the fact that knowledge that is easier to teach than knowledge how (2009). And this study focused on the science teachers … never mind the students.

What’s happening here? Is it just the older generation complaining that things aren’t the way they used to be, and the hard work they did in their day has been lost in the new era of the slacker student? Or, is there a fundamental shift occurring in the kinds of intelligence that our education – note I did not say school – privileges?

Marshal McLuhan, of course, taught us that technology, or media, don’t just allow communication and conversation … they play favorites. Media are not neutral; they are more suited to certain communications, certain expressions of intelligence, certain types of learning, than others. In the famous phrase, “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1959). As David Olsen writes, ongoing shifts in primary media over the past centuries have fueled “conceptual shifts” which have created “altered conceptions of mind and reality” (1988).

The logical question is: what do different primary media technologies privilege? Looking back and seeing the great shifts over centuries and even millennia from oral to literate to digital media, what are these altered conceptions? Clearly hyperlinked and searchable digital media technologies de-emphasize memory and privilege search and synthesis. Their easy accessibility may also reduce the primacy of formal education and boost the importance of informal learning. Some think so, and argue that this is a positive transformative change. Fischer and Konomi talk about technology and media helping us to “transcend boundaries in thinking, working, learning” by harnessing “distributed intelligence” (2007). In “Learning in the Age of Networked Intelligence,” Tuomi postulates that blogs are more important than formal certificates, and immersive social games will become the textbook (2007). Others speculate whether libraries remain relevant in an era when video and audio production is in the ascendancy and people are less and less likely to read (Jeske, 2008). Wouldn’t we be better off simply focusing on new technologies, new media, and providing information in ever-more convenient and digestable packaging?

Those who don’t favor such progressive rhetoric, of course, can take comfort in the fact that for all of the societal change we’ve undergone in the last 50 years, and all the technology that has invaded the home and the enterprise in the last 20, few things seem to have disrupted the 18th century factory model of education, at least in most North American and European schools (Albirini, 2007). As Kritt and Winegar put it, it seems that “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (2007). Even with huge sums being spent on wiring schools, bringing in laptops, adding LCD projectors to classrooms, and installing smartboards … there have not really been significant gains in educational achievement, some argue, or even real change in the way education takes place. John Bailey, the Director of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, put it this way: “[T]here still is very little scientifically based research to gauge the effectiveness of technology” (Murray, 2002). Is that true, or are the more pollyana-ish – and more recent – predictions correct?

This is a critical question with varying answers. But what is clear – in my opinion – is that teaching and learning in a networked 21st century is a different proposition than teaching and learning in a paper 18th century … just as that was different than teaching and learning in an oral 5th century BC. Whether the nature of intelligence, or what it means to be an educated individual, has changed – that’s a different question.

I have a lot of sympathy for these points of view, since I have been using and creating technology for many years. At a young age I was fascinated by technology – in elementary school we had a Mac or two adorning the back wall of each classroom. They came with a simple programming language named, appropriately enough, Basic, and we played with it, learning how to display lines on the screen, print out nasty things about the teacher, and generally have fun while learning. But that was pre-internet, pre-Google, and even pre-CD-ROM encyclopedia. “Networking” meant saving a document on a disk and walking it down the hall to another computer. Answers were available on this computer only if you chose to spend the effort necessary to find them yourself.

In my interview with a veteran science teacher, he referred to the need for students to also have the ability to work it out for themselves. “We’re all tempted to take the path of least resistance,” he said, but we need to be able to use all kinds of resources, including print, and be able to work from first principles to more complex knowledge. He saw the need for so-called “21st century” skills, including synthesis of many different resources to create something new, or at least a new perspective, but worried that “many don’t do this.”

In the already-mentioned article “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Carr travels back in time a few thousand years to Plato’s Phaedrus. Socrates is lamenting the then-young science of writing, which he felt would be detrimental to the exercise of memory. Even worse, people could read the wisdom of others as codified in a written manuscript, parrot it to others, and then “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” Quel dommage! Very obviously, as another ancient writer wearily noted, there is nothing new under the sun: we have been complaining about how easy the younger generation has it for millennia.

But the point is worth considering. Whether in Science or English class, what good is it to educate, to teach, and to train, if students will simply search for someone else’s answer? Is this the sort of intelligence that is privileged by technology … whether the means of transmission is an animal-skin manuscript or a networked relational database?

A caution here would be to distinguish between what technology enables and what it privileges. Certainly, digital technology enables re-use of existing knowledge. But is that all? The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is fairly sure they know what skills technology enables, privileges, and, indeed, demands from today’s learners.

The Partnership, of course, is an American coalition of businesspeople, politicians, and educators who together have formed a framework laying out the skills they see students needing in the future. Critical skills they identify include synthesis skills: skills to find information, manipulate it, assess it, and create new information based on it. The Partnership is very open about their purpose: building “effective citizens, workers and leaders. ” And the reason for their existence is no secret either: current educational models and practice are not meeting the need. As their mission states:

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces (Partnership, 2009).

While there’s some reason to be skeptical of coalitions such as the Partnership, and to carefully consider not only their composition but also motivation, there is no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Many researchers and practitioners agree, some going so far as to say that the old “3Rs” are not as relevant today as the new “3Rs:” rigor, relevance, and real world skills (McCoog, 2008). Alexander travels a similar path and discusses “emerging multiliteracies” in a connected, web2.0 world (2009).

The reality is, in my opinion, that the historically recent flood of data that inundates learners today is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the media and technologies that we’ve had in the past. There is a validity to the need for new skills and abilities that will equip students for coping with an overload of information … and building strategies for sorting, evaluating, and using information.

The veteran teacher I interviewed recognized that as well. Technology has a plenty of worthwhile educational value in addition to its dangers. He particularly cited computerized lab simulations, which enable students to run in virtual reality what they could never do in reality – such as change the mass of planets and see how their orbits are affected. Particularly, he appreciated the fact that simulations can be run and re-run with different starting presets. These are fun, quick, and visual, he said, and that not only appeals to a certain type of student, it also makes “real” (in spite of the virtuality) what can be complex, abstract ideas. This, he said, accelerates learning. I agree. Shift is necessary in the way we teach, to some extent in what we teach, and also in how we assess knowledge.

And yet, caution is in order. Nicholas Carr quotes Tufts University developmental psychologist and author Maryanne Wolf, “We are not only what we read. We are how we read” (Carr, 2008). Her point, I think, is broader than reading. It’s a similar point – perhaps even the same, restated – as McLuhan’s medium is the message. Using the digital oracle qua oracle will make us stupid – potentially causing us to resemble Orwell’s remnants of the leisure class in The Time Traveller, the Eloi, who have relied so much on others to work and think for them that they have lost the ability themselves, and degenerated into a colorful, simplistic, almost non-sapient species.

We need to realize that instant search and retrieval is not intelligence; it is fuel for intelligence. That fuel can be utilized and harnessed with 21st century skills … but not at the cost of some very basic 20th century skills. For example, acquiring higher-level math skills without knowing, instantly and almost subconsciously, the basic math facts, is very difficult (Lee, Stansbery, Kubina, Wannarka, 2005). The challenge is that mental energy and limited short-term memory slots are expended on the basic math facts and are unavailable for the higher-order operations: it’s simply too CPU-intensive. There are corollaries, I think, in many disciplines, especially the sciences. Data can’t be efficiently used to construct higher order knowledge when none of it is readily, instantly available in the learner’s own brain.

So here’s the sythesis: we need 21st Century Skills … without losing some of the 20th century smarts. Without the “21st Century” skills, we will not be able to cope with the never-ending datastream. Without the 20th century smarts, we will not be able to do more than parrot, and sometimes rearrange, ideas that others thought before us.

This will help us learn in science, math, and all subject classes … and it will enable whatever it is that we call “intelligence.” Even in the age of Google.


1. Interview with veteran teacher conducted January 27, 2009, by John Koetsier.
2. Retrieved February 4, 2009 from
3. Retrieved February 9 2009 from
4. Retrieved February 13, 2009 from


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