Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Is Google Making the Next Generation Stupid?

Today's news (which I read as reported by Lance Whitney for CNET News) about Google Play for Education should be taken as a warning that it is probably time for anyone who takes education seriously to return to Nicholas Carr's provocative article for Atlantic Monthly entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" There are a variety of different ways to interpret Carr's thesis and the evidence he submits to warrant his claim. I have written about many of them since the article first appeared. The one that concerns me the most after reading Whitney's article involves Carr's claim that Google is eroding our reflective capacities.

To appreciate the extent to which Carr's claim will apply to future, rather than just present, generations, we need to consider not only what Google Play for Education offers but also what it fails to offer. The former has been fairly summarized by Whitney as follows:
Starting Wednesday, Google Play for Education will be included on the Nexus 7 through the Google in Education program. Google Play for Education offers teacher-approved apps for students, educational videos, and books for those in grades K-12. Teachers can search for approved apps based on grade level and other criteria, buy them via a purchase order, and then deploy them to their students.
The critical part of this description is that the Nexus 7 is the platform. This device is a tablet. Whatever virtues it may have as a reading device, it may be the worst possible technology to cultivate the practice of writing. I mean this in the most general sense of that task: not only assembling words into well-formed sentences but also all the different dimensions of background research (even the most modest of them) that go into figuring out what you want those sentences to say in the first place. Even at the elementary school level, this can (and, by all rights, should) involve practices such as working with multiple sources in an environment in which those sources are conveniently at hand while the writing is taking place. From this point of view, the Nexus 7 is woefully inadequate. Even when the student is reading, it is the worst possible device for allowing the consultation of other material as part of the practice of "active reading."

I would therefore modestly submit that Google Play is not "for Education" but simply for getting kids as hooked on consumerism as their parents already are, dutifully prepared to salivate over technology toys rather than acquiring a toolkit of cognitive skills that will be necessary to reflect on the prevailing problems of the world and then act on them in any meaningful way.

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