Friday, August 15, 2008

The Internet, Memory, and Pedagogy

Evan Ratliff at Salon's Machinist blog asks if the Internet is making us lose our memory. Building off of Nicholas Carr's provocative Atlantic article entitled Is Google Making us Stupid and the discussions that have resulted and here, Ratliff wonders what happens to our brains when we never develop the need to remember certain items, like remembering phone numbers, an task that online personal databases has rendered obsolete.

My interest is in whether memorization is a skill we should be teaching our undergraduates. If facts are readily available, should our student assessment consist of testing the retention skills of our students? Should our role be to help students develop the memorization skills they might not have learned beforehand?

Anthropologist Michael Wesch has an interesting take on this question. In this wonderful lecture from the University of Manitoba, Wesch makes the claim that most university classrooms are designed with the assumption that knowledge is limited and the expert at the front of the room is its main disseminator. The result is that the professor is competing directly with the web as a disseminator of knowledge. Speaking for myself, that's a battle I can't win. I agree with Wesch that our job is not solely to disseminate information, but to help students use the tools of knowledge aggregation to address problems. In Wesch lecture, he talks about how he poses a "grand narrative" question at the start of his course and the students structure the types of materials they need to address the question they are addressing.

The problem is that many of us in academia treat the web as the enemy. I've had countless conversations about the evils of Wikipedia. Much of this is a natural reaction on the part of "experts" whose authority is being challenged by "the crowd." Unfortunately for us, the information produced by "the crowd" is more accessible, and therefore potentially more influential than that produced within the ivory tower. Since the majority of our students will not live in the ivory tower, I'd rather they learn to marshal "the crowd" rather than ignore it.

1 comment:

Jonathan Pfeiffer said...

I have done everything I can to avoid coursework whose purpose is memorization. I decided that I would learn methodologies while I still can, ie, when I am still paying money to spend time with faculty who know how to turn information into knowledge (in the humanities) and how to generate new facts (in the social sciences). This is especially true for disciplines in which I only had time for a single course.

Faculty can teach students what kinds of facts are worth knowing. When we go to Wikipedia for information, what kinds of facts should we look for? Are there caveats inherent in this particular political polling method, or that particular climatological record? That's where credentialed experts can help tremendously.