Why take history classes when you can Google anything?

14 07 2011

My dean, a guy who I usually love to death, said something at the online education summit I went to a while back that really got on my nerves. He told a story about a student who asked him, “Why do I have to drive in all the way from La Junta just to watch a video?” To the Dean, this is an excellent reason to implement online education immediately. To me, this is a good reason to ask, “Why is someone showing videos for an entire class period?”

Yes, there are good reasons to do such a thing. I’m doing it a couple of times to break up the two-and-a-half-hour per day summer survey course I’m teaching at the moment, but now I’m wondering if I took the wrong approach entirely when I tried to think of the best retort to the Dean’s argument.

Here’s my new one: Since when do students get to decide when they do and don’t have to go to class? After all, if we let them watch videos at home, why can’t they just stay home in La Junta and Google everything they’d learn in history class? Why not just reda a lot of books and skip college entirely? This post on Nick Carr’s Rough Type was my inspiration for this epiphany:

The study, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” was conducted by three psychologists: Betsy Sparrow, of Columbia University; Jenny Liu, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Daniel Wegner, of Harvard. They conducted a series of four experiments aimed at answering this question: Does our awareness of our ability to use Google to quickly find any fact or other bit of information influence the way our brains form memories? The answer, they discovered, is yes: “when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” The findings suggest, the researchers write, “that processes of human memory are adapting to the advent of new computing and communication technology.”

To me, this is just added justification for my decision to chuck my survey textbook. After all, you can look up just about any historical fact you want on Google and get a pretty decent description of what you’re inquiring about if you’re at all discriminating about picking the web pages where you get your information. It would be cliché for me to note here that history is about more than facts as a retort to argument, so I won’t pursue that angle. Indeed, I still teach a lot of specific facts in my survey course, but to me other aspects of our discipline are much more important.

My method has always been to pick out a few facts that I think are particularly important so as to narrow the known universe of specific facts that they have to know – between four and eight or so from each lecture. Then I’ll quiz them on those terms five times during the semester, and cover the whole semester’s terms as part of the final. To me, this easily beats picking something off page 243 of an 800 page textbook and expecting them to be able to spit it back to me. I have no doubt that my students prefer it this way too.

My responsibility when teaching history this way is to pick the best facts I can. Notice how I didn’t say “most important,” I mean the best facts I can. The terms I pick are all designed to be indicative of larger trends, so hopefully they’re easier to remember. As Carr explains:

If a fact stored externally were the same as a memory of that fact stored in our mind, then the loss of internal memory wouldn’t much matter. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge. The associations, moreover, continue to change with time, as we learn more and experience more. As Emerson understood, the essence of personal memory is not the discrete facts or experiences we store in our mind but “the cohesion” which ties all those facts and experiences together.

Students have to go to lecture so that I can explain to them what those associations are, or better yet, they can make more personal associations entirely on their own. I dare you to find an evil robot professor who can do that well, let alone any piece of pedagogical software.

It’s certainly not going to happen if all you do is show movies.



6 responses

14 07 2011

The study resonates with me. Not only in terms of Google’ability, but also with open book exams. If I know I will be able to look up this fact or that in an exam, I am less likely to remember it. If I know I’m going to have to apply or analyse a fact in an open book exam, I will remember the context, but perhaps still not the fact itself.

14 07 2011
Middle Seaman

It is not clear whether Carr is qualified to make statement of the sort of “When we form, or “consolidate,” a personal memory, we also form associations between that memory and other memories that are unique to ourselves and also indispensable to the development of deep, conceptual knowledge.” Unless, of course, he found that on Google.

When I teach a course similar to a survey, I assume that students will forget most of the details. What will be left are core ideas. I will do my best to convey principles and core ideas. In addition I will try to find trends and frameworks, but those may not be there in technical areas.

All my exams are take home, i.e. open books, use of tools is encouraged including Google. Ignoring advances in technology and science seem to me pointless.

15 07 2011
Dan Allosso

I don’t think the availability of online sources reduces us to a set of walking “bookmarks.” Online sources are ephemeral. You learn that the first time you lose access to something you really wanted to cite, because they took down that page. More important, knowledge of whatever type is such a pale, powerless thing when compared with experience, that I just can’t get excited about the issue. People should get up from their desk chairs once in a while and do something!

You write about picking the right facts to teach, and I agree. The other thing that occurred to me, after the thought about the bards (this is an excerpt from a longer post, here: http://www.history-punk.com/blog/blog.html), was about narrative. We use story elements, themes, narrative arcs, and causal threads to organize a lot of this information. A history that avoids causality, as James Loewen says most high school textbooks do, is a meaningless jumble of facts. Whether we like it or not, we’re back in the dangerous world, I think, of myth-making.

17 07 2011
Showing up | Music for Deckchairs

[…] version of it is more conveniently available online? (Fellow worrier, More or Less Bunk, has taken this up too, or at least a version of it, when he addresses the question of why students should drive all […]

9 09 2011
The point of assigning research papers isn’t really the research. « More or Less Bunk

[…] argument reminds me of the “Why take history classes when you can Google anything?” argument I covered over the summer. The answer to both questions, of course, is that […]

9 10 2013
Stephen G

Put more simply, Google is for facts, history is for understanding them.

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