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Is Google a blessing or a curse for learners?

Tara Brabazon colonised the stage at the Gartner Symposium’s Innovation ITXpo at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre on Monday with a passionate plea for us all to go on a “digital diet”.

The eccentric, flamboyant Australian academic is the Professor of Media at the University of Brighton in England, and spoke eloquently on “information obesity”, Google, and the problems of web searches in an educational environment.

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Brabazon began with a food analogy, citing a study that discovered how everybody makes more than 200 food choices per day. Apparently we eat what we see, and we spend an enormous amount of time and energy thinking about our dietary choices.

Diets like Atkins and South Beach are successful because not only do they limit calories, but they limit the number of choices one has to make about food.

This argument was then extended to digital information, comparing Google to a diet. The absolutely vast amount of information we are able to access on the internet is largely as a result of the success of Google’s search engine.

By organising, ordering and delivering our search results, it decreases the number of choices we need to make, and thus makes it easier to handle and think about. While this is obviously a key strength of Google’s Page Rank system, it is also a weakness from an educational standpoint.

Brabazon argues that the point of learning is to go further, to look deeper and to remain unsettled.

“You cannot enter words into Google that you don’t know,” she said, going on to explain that the “problem is not with the search engine but with the people doing the searching.”

If you lack the knowledge and vocabulary to refine the search you’re doing, then you will only get the most basic of results.

Google makes you lazy, it encourages sloppy thinking and it doesn’t deliver context, she says. For instance, in November of 2009 a Google search for the image of Michelle Obama would deliver a caricature that showed her face as an ape.

It caused tremendous debate, was linked to by outraged activists and scholars and discussed at length by people. But Google’s PageRank sees none of that context. It just delivers the image of Michelle Obama as a monkey. Google refused to remove it for a time, claiming they are just reflecting the real activity around net searches, but eventually yielded and removed the image.

Brabazon’s point is that we need to increase our information literacy. Just because it’s easier to read a blog, or watch a YouTube video than read an academic paper, it doesn’t mean its correct or useful. One must read defiantly, courageously, because “challenge builds learning, while conformity builds ignorance”.

Education is slow and Google is fast, so it may appear more useful than it actually is. Students need to know the difference between generalised information and specialised, refereed texts. Information management is a key skill for students to learn.

But if you are struggling to make choices between going to the library, checking your phone, using your reader, surfing the web or looking at Facebook, then an “intellectual paralysis” sets in, and the learner begins to make choices by “not making choices”. Ironically, Brabazon argues, we could gain more meaning from access to fewer media.

She went on to explain that access to information is only half the battle won. Citing the example of the “One Laptop per child” project, Brabazon explained that there is a confusion between access and learning, and that the emphasis should rather be on unsexy things like curriculum development, life-long learning and teacher training.

The keynote address ended with an invocation to integrate new media and old media into something useful she termed as “now media”. This was followed by an explanation of how the developing world should use the developed world as a testing ground to find out which technologies really work before adopting them and using the tools in new and interesting ways.

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