I Google everything. It’s actually a bit of a problem. My friends have started to notice and call me out on it. You probably have a friend like me too, or maybe you are that person. You’re sitting around with your friends, and the conversation sparks a question in your mind. It could be a question that someone asked, or maybe it was just a word that reminded you of an idea or question in your head. You immediately reach for your phone. Ten seconds later, Wikipedia, IMDB, or even just the google script that magically puts the answer to your question in a little box at the top of the search results, has satiated your need to know. I’ve never counted, but it would not shock me if I repeated this same pattern about a hundred times a day. Just a quick browse through my search history in the last couple days has pulled up gems like:

Socially, I think my Google obsession may pose some problems. As my friends point out, always having the answer breaks down conversations, and prevents richer organic discussion that may arise from trying to put our heads together and come up with an answer as a group. I completely agree and do make an effort to have conversations when with friends and exhaust our collective brainpower before turning to the internet for answers. That being said, there are times when a quick google search can truly deepen a conversation and engage a group in a more meaningful exchange of ideas by moving the conversation along.

Cognitively, I could only wonder what all that Googling was doing to my brain. So naturally, I Googled it. Sparrow, Liu and Wegner did a study back in 2011 on the effects Google was having on our memories. They asserted that Google was becoming a part of people’s transactive memory. Even before the internet, researchers described transactive or group memory, which is the total of all memories or facts we have stored in our own brains, and the memories or facts we can access because we know and have access to someone with that information. The study looked at the difference between people’s ability to recall facts, and their ability to recall where they could find those facts and found out that we don’t put as much effort into remembering if we know we can access the information again when we need it. Turns out the internet is becoming a member of our transactive memory network, and it knows everything. The tradeoff of not necessarily remembering everything we look up on the internet is that we are able to remember how to find almost anything we need to know there.

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The PBS Idea Channel makes a wonderful analogy between information and LEGO. It suggests that knowledge is the connections we make between facts or ideas. These facts and ideas are like individual pieces of LEGO, and knowledge is a 5000+piece model of the Taj Mahal with thousands of connections. The internet is essentially every single LEGO block in the whole world, but we still need to put those pieces together to make knowledge. To continue the analogy, a library also contains many millions of LEGO blocks, but the paradigm shift is that while its hard to find the instructions to put the library LEGO together, Google is getting better and better at delivering the instructions for putting those blocks together for us, because of the proximity of all the facts and ideas. Of course, this in itself is concerning, as it forces us to question the biases that are present when we allow Google to construct our knowledge for us.

As I reflect on my own behaviour, and how it translates to the next generation and the students that we teach, it is obvious that the way they research and seek out knowledge is not only different from when I was a student, but will likely be different again before they have graduated high school. What does it mean to say that our students have all the information in the world at their fingertips? It means we need to continue to shift the focus from delivering facts and ideas to critically assessing and engaging with the knowledge that is already there in their transactive memory. It is not about how our students access the information, as it is getting easier and easier to access. Instead, it is about how our students make connections between that information, assess its biases, and construct their own knowledge from the infinite LEGO blocks that the internet provides.

So let’s see how Google handles the question “How do I teach my students to be critical users of knowledge?