Is Google ‘white bread for young minds’?

The Times Online has a short piece about the dangers of Google dominance for education, called White bread for young minds. It quotes a professor, Tara Brabazon, concerned about the trends:

Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments.

It seems unfair to blame Google for this. But in reading the article and some background on Brabazon, it doesn’t seem she blames Google either. It’s the author of the Times article who focuses the blame on Google.

In truth school textbooks are notoriously poor sources of information on history – as are television and films, mediums children spend as may hours getting educated by as their classrooms. Really what it seems she wants, is to teach children how to interpret all kinds of media. According to the article:

Her own students are banned from using Wikipedia or Google as research tools in their first year of study, but instead are provided with 200 extracts from peer-reviewed printed texts at the beginning of the year, supplemented by printed extracts from eight to nine texts for individual pieces of work.

I get the ban – but the article frames this wrong. The ban is to help people to understand what’s being banned, not to ban it forever. As best I can tell Brabazon is trying to teach a kind of
media literacy for research. The highlight of the article for me is this quote:

We need to teach our students the interpretative skills first before we teach them the technological skills. Students must be trained to be dynamic and critical thinkers rather than drifting to the first site returned through Google

And no technology can do our critical thinking for us – we have to depend on our brains for that one. However, there have been advocates of mandatory media literacy education for a long time. The core theme being to teach children how to compare sources, deconstruct advertising, and be savvy about what they read & see, instead of wasting time training students in rote research methods devoid of critical thinking.

Given the context, I’d hoped Tara Brabazon, the professor quoted in the article, had a blog, perhaps to respond to the thin, biased tone of the article. But her site lists only her books and CV.

She writes quite well and I’m intrigued enough by her smart, funny articles like Socrates in earpods: the i-podification of education to read more of her work.

Her most recent book is called the University of Google, which from the description advocates the teaching of research, but I couldn’t find a table of contents or even a review of the book. The best sumation of Tara’s own thinking on the issue was from these notes on a lecture she gave about the book.

10 Responses to “Is Google ‘white bread for young minds’?”

  1. Jeroen

    Apparently the Times Online also offers easy answers to difficult questions, which is rather sad.

  2. Scott

    Yes – Irony is lost on the Times. It appears someone could write an article called “Is the Times Online the whitebread of journalism?”. But it’s an old story – newspaper are businesses, not public servants. The ratio of deep journalism to fluff may have changed, but we’ve always had both.

  3. Melissa

    My beef would be that Google (rather online search) should be a feast of delicacies rather than the meat & potatoes it serves up. I remember information seeking in the old days when you could put really naughty terms into a search engine and get quite explicit results. In a day when the content was dominated by naked bodies, god and academic text… not to say they were the good old days, however, it seems to me know it is hard to penetrate a search result beneath big business. (on going porn puns not intended…. )
    Google is a commercial solution to search and a market dominator. As a commercial solution they have sought to protect the algorithm (and their market position) and have created a field of specialist knowledge along with it. Far from democratic, search results are elite. Sure we all have the ability to use our time and head room to acquire this knowledge, but we’re all still up against those who are paid specialist salaries to spend 40 – 60 hours of their time fighting the battle. This is in my opinion where the white bread comes in. Media literacy is an incredibly important research skill (life skill) as it always was – before the web, as it will be after the web. In an ideal world Google would be a great tool that revealed how many points of view there are out there, how rich perspectives and opinions and how diverse facts can be. I’d say the Times has a full time SEO Guru & imparts the dominant view of the day to school students by turning up in top ten results on all kinds of topics.

  4. chuck

    I am a researcher at heart and think:
    – Google/Wikipedia are great.
    – most/many school books are biased, incomplete, or boring.

    Google/Wikipedia are good because you can cross-reference and see two or more sides to a story and find studies done by folks to support/knock-down those sides.

    Most text books I’ve seen dont have that balance. I feel the internet age is letting us younguns find the truths of history/science/etc. beyond the current politically correct views are. Now the politically correct views may be correct, but now we can cross-reference and see many sides.


  5. Kailash

    Nice post.

    I should point out that the problem of recognising what’s good and what’s not is an old one. As a person who used to make a living doing research (in the pre-google era) – I recall spending countless frustrating hours reading worthless research papers. The difference now is that I don’t have to go the library; the papers are accessible from my desktop. However, the process of sorting the grain from the chaff is the same now as it was then – read from diverse sources and, above all, think for yourself. Easy access to search engines makes it harder, but doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility.




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