Michael Patrick Lynch:  Teaching in the Time of Google!

Dear Commons Community,

Michael Patrick Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, had an essay earlier this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, examining what it means to teach when mobile apps and search engines such as Google provide so much information at our fingertips.  He discusses “Google-knowing” as readily having accurate and warranted information from a reliable source. His gives this example:  “If we are looking for a restaurant, and the directions we get online turn out to be accurate and from a reliable source, then we “know.”

Lynch goes on to describe two main features of Google-knowing.

“First, Google-knowing is cognitively integrated — meaning our use of it is so ingrained in our lives that we don’t even notice how seamless our acquisition of information in this way really is. We rely on it every day, all day long. We routinely allow it to trump other sources. It is our default. In a way, it is like sense perception: Where we used to say seeing is believing, now we think Googling is believing.

Second, Google-knowing is also outsourced. It is not just in our heads. When we Google-know, we are really knowing via testimony: Ultimately we are relying on the say-so, the design work, and the sheer cumulative weight of others’ preferences. We are outsourcing, and as a result, interconnected by the strings of 1s and 0s that make up the code of the digital atmosphere. That is the truest sense in which knowledge is more networked now, and why it is not an exaggeration to say, as the economist Jeremy Rifkin does, that the Internet “dissolves boundaries, making authorship a collaborative, open-ended process over time.” It is also why our online life is more affected by the opinions and biases of others than we often appreciate, as even the most casual web search illustrates (search for: “Climate change … ” for example, and Google will helpfully suggest “is a hoax”).

It is this combination that makes Google-knowing distinctive: at once seamlessly integrated into individual experience but outsourced and guided by the preferences of others. It is both in and out of our heads. That is what makes it so useful, and also so problematic. The Internet is at one and the same time the most glorious fact-checker and the most effective bias-affirmer ever invented. Google-knowing allows us to share in and with the world. And sharing, as Mom always said, is good — except when it isn’t. It depends on what we share (whether it is good information) and whom we share it with (do we stay in our own circle, or do we try to expand our information horizon beyond our personal prejudices?). As any teacher knows, these are the sorts of problems that overreliance on Google-knowing can cause.”

Lynch concludes and advises that

“The epistemic overconfidence that Google-knowing encourages is one reason teaching critical, reflective thinking matters more than ever. In a world where the sharing of information has never been easier, it is not enough to luck into information from good sources; we need to know how to tell which sources are reliable, how to recognize evidence, and how to employ that evidence when challenged.

But while critical thinking is important, it isn’t the end of higher education itself. It is a means to that end, which is a different kind of knowledge — what philosophers have sometimes called understanding.

Understanding incorporates the other ways of knowing, but goes farther. It is what people do when they are not only responsive to the evidence, but also have insight into how that evidence hangs together. Understanding is what we have when we know not only the “what” but the “why.” Understanding is what the scientist is after when trying to find out why Ebola outbreaks happen (not just predict how the disease spreads). It is what you are looking for when trying to grasp why the Battle of Vicksburg was a turning point in the Civil War (as opposed to simply knowing that it was).”

Indeed, teaching has to foster critical thinking, reflection, and understanding.  It has to be about the how and the why and not just the who, what, and when!



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