Monday, April 5, 2010

Learning with Google and Wikipedia

A recent discussion I had on how Wikipedia and Google effect learning focused mostly on how the veracity of content of these sources. While the discussion was very good, I was disappointed that one point, that may have been alluded to once or twice, wasn't discussed more.

Using Wikipedia and Google allow you to see a plethora of information in mere seconds. As a former physics nerd, there was no reason for me to remember the gravitational acceleration (9.8m/s^2) or Schrodinger's equation (since forgotten) since it was available in seconds if I was sitting at a computer (which I often was).

Now, I do have a particularly poor memory for facts. I have forgotten friends' names before, even the one I knew since Pre-K. I do believe that I am more suited to learning how solve problems, either statistically or otherwise. Memorizing facts, equations, and so forth seems like a misuse of time since they can be easily researched on the Internet. It makes more sense to me to focus my time on methods development and the use of the plethora of knowledge that people already wrote down...

...which actually leads me to the crux of my discussion. With a profusion of knowledge out on the web, accessible in seconds, how will academia react to the time-honored tradition of cramming knowledge into every nook and cranny of students' brains? I have yet to see how instructing students how to gain the necessary skills to find and process knowledge as an end-user is a bad thing. Of course, considerable time must be spent to ensure the veracity of the information gathered, and I am certainly not proposing that we either discourage or downplay students' memorizing key pieces of information. However, the sheer memorization of facts is only a tool to process the information, and if we can focus on teaching students to process rather than memorize, we will be building up a much more rational student body.

A caveat to this my opinions is that my experience is severely restricted to analytical fields (physics and statistics). I am very curious to hear how other fields use the internet as a resource in their work. Please feel free to comment!


  1. Well, for bench bio it doesn't really work this way. We memorize the concept of how something works but also all the molecule or cell names and connections. Without all the molecule and cell names and how they connect readily available you really cannot input new data or come up with new experiments or even communicate successfully with others because what people say will be gibberish if you don't have things memorized. Of course sometimes you forget stuff or need a refresher or to introduce yourself to something outside your field and then the web is great but the need for memorization of a certain amount is just absolutely necessary for thought and communication in biology.

  2. Dan Willingham in his 2009 bestseller WHY DON'T STUDENTS LIKE SCHOOL? takes this point on directly. From a cognitive scientist's perspective, he notes that foundational knowledge is critical, and that one cannot learn immediately how to act like a scientist without first having the foundational knowledge drilled into deeper knowledge.

  3. I certainly understand that a certain level of knowledge needs to be learned/memorized. This is especially relevant if one is going for an advanced degree. But if I was teaching intro physics, I would certainly be much more satisfied knowing that my students would know how to use the gravitational constant than my students memorizing it. cmkoeb, if you had to sacrifice some of the knowledge of names or specific connections, but you could understand concepts to a higher degree, would you do it?