Google is not God, but the omnipresent search engine commands an unworldly level of trust from its followers. Consider a 2007 study by researchers at Cornell University and College of Charleston, aptly titled, “In Google We Trust.” Students asked to research a topic on Google heavily favored search results with high rankings, regardless of quality or relevance. Even after researchers artificially scrambled the rankings, students still clicked on links that appeared higher up on the page. The students’ eye movements were also tracked, revealing a Sisyphean battle between sight and mind:
When looked at in combination, the behavioral data (clicked choices) and the ocular data indicate that while there might be some implicit awareness of the conflict between the displayed position and their own evaluation of the abstracts, it is either not enough, or not strong enough, to override the effects of displayed position.
The medium is clearly too powerful. Once Google has spoken, it feels unwise to question its authority.
But can we really blame the students? According to technology writer Clive Thompson, in a November 2011 Wired article, educational institutions have failed to teach students how to use search engines effectively:
If they’re naive at Googling, it’s because the ability to judge information is almost never taught in school. Under 2001′s No Child Left Behind Act, elementary and high schools focus on prepping their pupils for reading and math exams. And by the time kids get to college, professors assume they already have this skill.
He goes on to say that internet search engines present a “golden opportunity to train kids in critical thinking.” In order to sort through hundreds of search results, students must evaluate information, consider credibility, and ask crucial questions about context and meaning. According to Thompson, these kinds of critical thinking skills are being ignored in favor of preparation for standardized tests.
Thompson’s explanation makes sense, but the blame doesn’t rest solely with NCLB. We also have a philosophy problem, or, more pointedly, a philosophy shortage. Historian Arnold Toynbee observed that most people choose one of two ideological positions when presented with large-scale social upheaval: futurism or archaism. That is, we either trust wholly in the power of progress, envisioning an imminent utopia, or, we idealize the past and pine for simpler times. These polarities should look familiar. Everyone knows a Luddite who frowns upon technological advances, complains about social media and text messaging, and insists that literacy is on the decline. Likewise, we are overrun with technological utopians who envision a peaceful future enhanced by artificial intelligence and medical wizardry.
The same dualism applies to technology and the world of education. The internet is either a threat to traditional learning methods, or it is the great, democratic vehicle for universal education. Don’t believe me? Try bringing up Wikipedia at a faculty meeting. You’ll likely hear wholesale condemnation. However, students will tell you they live and die by the world’s largest, living encyclopedia. It’s not uncommon to hear Wikipedia described as the most complete expression of Enlightenment aims. Apparently, Wikipedia is either a scourge or a savior.
Toynbee believed that having to choose between archaism and futurism was a false dilemma, and that the true potential for transformation could be found not in some illusory past or future, but by embracing the complexity of the present, warts and all. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan echoes Toynbee, and argues that only the artist is capable of rejecting the false dilemma of archaism and futurism and seeing reality as it is:
But to point back to the day of the horse or to look forward to the coming of antigravitational vehicles is not an adequate response to the challenge of the motorcar. Yet these two uniform ways of backward and forward looking are habitual ways of avoiding the discontinuities of present experience with their demand for sensitive inspection and appraisal. Only the dedicated artist seems to have the power for encountering the present actuality.
What would it look like if educators and students avoided the obvious positions of archaism and futurism, and instead embraced present realities? And why, if McLuhan is correct, does it take an artist to accomplish such a feat?
The true artist, McLuhan claimed, rightly understood the technique of suspended judgment, or the ability to watch the full range of possibilities emerge in the mind before acting. These possibilities include the negative and the positive; the moral, the immoral, and the amoral; and the depressing, the sublime, and the absurd. Then, once everything under the sun (and moon) is present and accounted for, the artist obtains a complete vision of the irreducible complexity of the present moment. Art reflects reality, but only after reality and its shadow are coaxed from their hiding place.
Let us not, then, be quick to judge Google as either angel or devil, neither should educators reach for their default positions on the use the Internet for academic work, at least without first considering the range of challenges we face as the internet and electronic media continue to impact every facet of our lives. It does no good to minimize the damage, yet it serves us poorly to ignore the opportunities these media afford. A third position, neither Luddite nor Utopian, must be adopted.
Another way to say “suspended judgment” is “critical thinking,” a phrase so often found on syllabuses and course objectives that we’ve become immune to its powerful effects. We have, largely, forgotten to apply critical thinking to technology, and, worse yet, forgotten to apply critical thinking to our own views of technology. We are too dazzled, too dazed, or too defeated. It is time, however, and time long overdue, for all of us to wake up. The internet is here, that is clear, and we must get used to it.
First we must orient ourselves, and do so without reflexively reaching after archaism or futurism. This will require, I believe, a conscious effort to observe both the good and the bad, so that we might glimpse directly the impact of technology on education at the present moment, and figure out how to adjust and respond, and then, like McLuhan’s artist, we can begin to create the future.
“In Google We Trust” presents us with just such a unique test case. We know that many students, indeed many non-students, reach for search engines to answer their daily questions: “Who was U.S. president when World War I started?” “Who led the National League in batting average in 1984?” “When will Season 4 of True Blood be released on Netflix?” And so on. Between Google’s search engine, Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Books, YouTube (owned by Google), Google News, and Google Scholar, any pertinent piece of information will arise at the commands of your fingertips. As conceptual poet and provocateur Kenneth Goldsmith has written, “If it doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist.”
This unprecedented access to information is an amazing opportunity for students. However, as “In Google We Trust” demonstrates, excess of information creates a problem. Students apparently do not know how to wield this new and promising power, and are prone to reaching out and grabbing the first factoid that floats into their sphere. Online searchers often take Google for granted as a benign, neutral source. Instead, we should borrow a term from literature studies and think of Google as an unreliable narrator, prone to harboring hidden agendas, contradictions, and potential brilliance deep beneath the surface. In other words, educators must put the “critical” back in critical thinking when teaching students to use the internet and should encourage them to be aware of the limitations and biases of Google. Do students know, for example, how to distinguish between paid advertisements and legitimate results? Have they considered the differences between a “.com,” a “.org,” and a “.gov?’ Are they aware that the settings on Google Scholar can be adjusted to pull search results from their school’s library database?
We’ll call this Google 101, which should be taken in conjunction with Wikipedia 101. I actually teach a version of this in my Freshman Composition courses. I start out by asking, “How many students have been told by a teacher to never use Wikipedia for a paper?” All hands go up. Then I ask, “Keep your hands up if you’ve ever used Wikipedia for a paper?” All hands stay up. My informal survey is echoed by peer-reviewed research on the use of Wikipedia, published in the journal First Monday:
Over half of the survey respondents (52 percent) were frequent Wikipedia users — even if an instructor advised against it. Students reported that they frequently, if not always, consulted Wikipedia at some point during their course–related research.
Are these students being willfully disobedient? Do they simply lack the basic capacity for critical thinking? Are they lazy? Not really. Wikipedia generally provides helpful (if, at times, flawed) overviews of an always-expanding range topics. A few different studies rank Wikipedia’s accuracy alongside “real” encyclopedias. (If you don’t believe me, read about Nature’s analysis of the reliability of Wikipedia, which is cited in Wikipedia’s entry “Reliability of Wikipedia.” (How’s that for meta-discourse?) Students are going to use Wikipedia, no matter what teachers say. Banning Wikipedia is about as effective as abstinence-only education.
Our goal should be to teach students how to use Wikipedia critically, how to explore the source material, how to ask important questions, and how to eventually move beyond mere tertiary reference sources and onto legitimate primary and secondary sources. I don’t let my students cite any encyclopedias, dictionaries, or reference sources. These sources are generally too, well…general. (I’d much rather see, for example, Ernest Hemingway’s definition of “writing” than any boring dictionary’s.) However, I tell students that Wikipedia is a great place to start if you know nothing about the topic, or if you want to discover people, events, ideas, or terms for further, in-depth study. Wikipedia is not a cancer on knowledge; it is more like a collection of stem cells: unformed and filled with potential. The information must be developed beyond its current stage.
The idea is not only to get students to be critical and skeptical of such resources, but to understand their tremendous benefits. On Twitter, for example, a few clicks and 140 characters can connect you to a scholar living 5000 miles away, a person who might be able to recommend articles, provide instant feedback, or serve as an interview subject. You also might find yourself swept along with rumors and false tweets, or confused by the terse, indecipherable nature of a conversation filled with abbreviations, acronyms, “@’s” and hashtags. You can follow a revolution unfolding in real time, or take manufactured information from a dictator’s goon posing as a freedom fighter. Likewise, Google might recommend a paid advertisement for a pop psychology book above former American Psychological Association President and Positive Psychology scholar Martin Seligman’s website.
The message to students is clear: the internet is not looking out for you, and it’s certainly not going to do the thinking for you. Educators miss the chance to teach such valuable lessons when they restrict the use of the internet for research.