Blog Post

Should the Internet change the current educational paradigm?

It would have taken nothing less than magic to accomplish what we take for granted today. Decades ago, simultaneously transmitting a piece of text (such as this post) to millions of people across the globe would have taken too many pieces of paper and shipping vessels, never mind the ‘simultaneous’ part. Doing this today however, requires but a simple click of the ‘post’ button. Within 40 years since the birth of the Internet, its exponential growth has made an undeniable positive impact on information dissemination.

Internet use in the current generation has increased in tandem with the amount of information on it, therefore also skyrocketing, leading to debates about its consequences. To generations who grew up without this technology, the increased use of the internet, whether measured in time spent on it or frequency of use, appears alarmingly high and possibly dangerous for our minds and the way we learn. Nicholas Carr worries that being online is making us stupid, distracting our minds from absorbing and processing information, preventing us from achieving the ultimate goal in today’s education paradigm: remembering information for future retrieval and application. This claim is supported by research by Sparrow, Liu and Wegner (2011) who found that our cognitive resources are being directed to better store access routes to information, rather than the actual piece of information itself. The internet allows us to essentially outsource our memory to external stores outside our brain.

Does outsourcing memory outside the brain necessarily mean the same as outsourcing memory outside the mind too though? Not always, according to Chalmers and Clark (1998). In their paper, they advocate for active externalism, a position that views the mind as a cognitive system that is not simply and almost arbitrarily confined within the skull, but as an assemblage of constantly changing parts that extends to include the environment, the constituents of which are defined by their roles in the cognitive process, also known as the parity principle. If information existing in an object outside the skull plays the same role and would be considered cognitive were it coming from the brain, then it should count as being part of cognition. While the brain is always a part of this assemblage, it does not mean that other objects such as pencil, paper, brain implants, and even the Internet cannot also be part of the assemblage, each with its own time trade offs. [1]

Following this line of thought, it is possible to see the internet as a part of our mind that happens to exist outside our brain. The implications of this could mean that the current system of education and testing is quite literally demanding that students remove part of their mind before taking exams. By disallowing connection to the internet or indeed any other information storage material when doing tests, students must waste possibly limited brain space storing what could be stored elsewhere, instead of focusing on developing higher level skills which cannot be outsourced to machines such as decision making, problem-solving, creativity and interpretation.

There is evidence from Gary Small (2009) that adults reading the same articles in print or online formats experience different patterns of brain activation only if they had previous experience using the internet. When these adults performed an internet search task, brain regions associated with decision-making and complex reasoning showed twice as much activation as those without previous internet experience. Considering the research by Sparrow, Liu and Wegner, this could mean that experienced internet users who have less need to memorize information have converted freed up cognitive resources to decision-making and complex reasoning. However, this is conjecture and needs further clarification in future studies, since although participants in Small’s research were told that they would be tested on information learned from reading the articles, this was not actually done and scores were not collected.

Thus, the current educational paradigm may be inadequate in addressing the current needs of our information rich society. Conceived in a period where finding information could take up to days in a library searching for the right book, memorizing things could represent significant time gains. However, in the current digital age, information search times are rapidly decreasingly, making the internet increasingly attractive as an external store. Proponents of the extended mind hypothesis would not even consider it an external store, but as a critical part of our cognition that is discriminated against simply because it is not in the skull. Perhaps it is time to lessen the emphasis on instilling knowledge of facts into students and direct efforts into passing on thinking skills such as ways to manipulate, combine, examine, apply and create new information.




[1] There is unfortunately insufficient space to present a properly convincing argument for the extended mind hypothesis, so I will assume it holds to take a look at the implications of it on pedagogy. Here is a well explained argument for anyone interested



1 comment

First, I enjoyed this article, particularly since I already believe the paradigm shift HAS happened and our cognitive resources are just now beginning to process this shift.

Why do I believe this paradigm shift has occurred?

I believe the digital natives of today are hard-wired differently. They go to the net like we digital immigrants go to either long term memory or a book. They readily embrace the notion that the net is simply an extension of themselves. Watch an 18-24 year old: Their phones are always within reach. They can carry on a task and still communicate thru text messaging with friends and families. They have warped the day. They have fragmented the music industry and the television industry so that neither will ever look the same.  Why should education be the next institution to dramatically shift?

Education is ripe for the shift to happen. It has been rotting from inside for decades because institutions develop the need to simply perpetuate themselves, regardless of their noble or practical founding. Education has failed to reflect on itself and adapt in a meaningful manner. With all the wonders of the net available to them, students still read old books.

Not only has education rotted from within, it is being pummeled by state legislators. Whether the legislators are talking accountability or balancing their budgets, increasingly public schools are bruised and battered by the winds of political change and the system is no longer capable of guiding itself thru these howling winds.

I don't know what the new paradigm will be. I do know that increasingly parents will have vouchers (in North Carolina, this could be within the next 4 years) to assist with "free" education. I know that increasingly parents are home schooling their own and the children of others. No longer the realm of survivalists or fundamentalists, home schooling is expanding at unbelievable rates. And even though the students themselves are changing, faculty either ignore or seem oblivious to these changes.

Thanks so much for this article and the resources you have shared.