Teaching in the Time of Google (CHE)

APRIL 24, 2016

When the world’s collective knowledge is at our fingertips, what becomes of college?

Imagine a society where smartphones are miniaturized and hooked directly into a person’s brain. With a single mental command, those who have this technology — let’s call it neuromedia — can access information on any subject. Want to know the capital of Bulgaria or the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? It’s right there. Users of neuromedia can take pictures with a literal blink of the eye, do complex calculations instantly, and find at once the contact information for anyone they’ve ever met. No need to remember the name of the person you were introduced to last night at the dinner party — a subcellular computing device does it for you.

For the people of this society, it is as if the world is in their heads. It is a connected world, one where knowledge can be shared immediately with everyone in a very intimate way. From the inside, tapping into the collective wisdom of the ages is as simple as tapping into one’s own memory. Knowledge is not only easy; everyone knows so much more.

So why should anyone go to college?

This is no idle question. The migration of technology into our bodies — the cyborging of the human — is no longer just fantasy. And as technology moves ever inward, the Internet of Things is well on its way to becoming the Internet of Us. The possibilities are hardly lost on the lords of Silicon Valley: “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information,” Google co-founder Larry Page is quoted as saying in Steven Levy’s 2011 book, In the Plex. “Eventually you’ll have an implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”

This scenario raises all sorts of disquieting questions, especially for those of us in the knowledge business. Some of those questions are familiar to anyone who has struggled to craft a policy for the use of personal technology in the classroom. But these practical questions only mask the more fundamental issue: What’s the role of a liberal-arts education in a society that can call up a world of knowledge with a handheld device — or, one day, with a simple stream of neurons?

The answer depends on what kind of knowledge we value, and what kind we want our students to acquire.

[full article here]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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