Monday, March 27, 2006

Are search engines making students dumber or just making op-ed columnists write dumber columns?

Edward Tenner's NYT Op-Ed — "Searching for Dummies" — was enough to make me want to throw a copy of Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for You" at him. Johnson may overstate his case a bit, but he's much more on target than Tenner, whose lead itself states, "Talk of decline was old news in academia even in 1898, when traditionalists blasted Harvard for ending its Greek entrance requirement." Indeed. Innovations always threaten the end of the world as we know it. It used to be calculators. Computers. Word processing software. Now it's search engines making students dumber.

A distinguishing feature of writing like this is always the truly lame anecdote that seems to clinch the case, but really does nothing of the sort.
Many students seem to lack the skills to structure their searches so they can find useful information quickly. In 2002, graduate students at Tel Aviv University were asked to find on the Web, with no time limit, a picture of the Mona Lisa; the complete text of either "Robinson Crusoe" or "David Copperfield"; and a recipe for apple pie accompanied by a photograph. Only 15 percent succeeded at all three assignments.
Really? With no time limit only 15% succeeded? This seems to say far more about the researchers and the axe they were grinding than it does about the students. Or an anecdote whose contours have been rounded and polished by too many retellings, like a good fish story.

No comments: