In yesterday’s The New York Times an editorial asked if search engines, and Google in particular, are making students stupider because they acquiesce critical thinking for clicking on search return links and then copying the information they find without providing any sort of analysis:
In December, the National Center for Education Statistics published a report on adult literacy revealing that the number of college graduates able to interpret complex texts proficiently had dropped since 1992 from 40 percent to 31 percent.
I certainly agree high school and college students have no idea how to employ effective Online Research Methods that will result in a properly cited and “thought about” term paper.
When one creates an argument for a term paper, one must not start with the returns of a search result. One starts with a larger question in search of an answer.
Then that answer must be attacked in a methodical cycle of consequences that will shape and form an argument.
Oftentimes a student will realize, but not act upon, the discovery that the verifiable facts do not support a substantial paper and that process must be terminated and another started in its place.
That re-starting and that self-rejection of a bad idea is missing from the lives of most students today as most research term papers are written the night before the paper is due. Deleting a bad idea and starting from scratch is an important lesson not only in a term paper but as a fact in the terms of living an intelligent life.
Knowing when things are not going well and another plan must be set in place is a critical analysis most students are never taught because it is easier, in the Age of Grade Inflation, to instead push them along through the system and to not prod their minds for an original or contemplative thought.
If students were taught better critical thinking skills they would not tolerate their pressed herding through the system but since the system does not teach them that skill they never learn how to manipulate their own equal thoughts into an overall unequal advantage.
Unbridled and non-critical search returns fool students into accepting — not thinking — that what they click on is real and truthful and of scholarly merit while those of us who know better understand there’s a lot of chaff returned in any search return.
Google led in ranking sites by how often they are linked to other highly ranked sites. It did so using an elaborate variation of a concept familiar in natural science, citation analysis. Instead of looking at which papers are cited most often in the most influential journals, it measures how often Web pages are linked to highly ranked
sites — ranked by links to themselves.
The problem with the way Google returns results is by popularity of the site and not by the intellectual merit contained in the site and most students miss the inherent danger in that problem: Popularity trumps rational intelligence on Google.
That’s fine as long as you know and accept that dangerous possibility of falsity in the search returns as a truth in the process of crafting the argument for your idea. Too often students believe Google is the King without clothes and instead of sewing up the holes around him, they turn a shy eye and accept the ether as a cover for reality.
Citation analysis has been attacked in library circles for inflating the ratings (and indirectly the subscription prices) of certain journals. Search engines have the opposite problem: dispersion rather than concentration of interest. Despite constant tweaking, their formulas display irrelevant or mediocre sites on a par with truly
“Citation analysis” concerns how many hardcopy journal articles are cited by a hardcopy journal article. That process can be incestuous with self-quoting and self-service in scholarship where, say, out of 11 citations an author invokes, 10 cite other self-reverential articles the author wrote — but generally hardcopy journal citations have been thought about and discussed and peer-reviewed for content and veracity
That critical thinking process is vital in curing the idea over time of what we know to be truthful and — what we know as a cadre of intellectuals — what can never be factual. That kind of self-critical community of thought is how our American university system is set to bend ideas and to test varieties of truth and understanding in shaping
the scientific and theoretical world around us.
When we rely on a search engine for peer review we are slipping down a sloppy slope of click fraud and link farms intended to skew search returns in order to earn a higher advertising fee. When intelligence is framed by revenue, the small, original, nuggets of truth we have come to love and cherish in the collegiate community crumbles before us like ash from a camp fire.
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.
Google can now help find those returns but Google’s improvement sheds no light of help on the continued loss of critical thinking in the student researcher’s mind. That failure to curiously and intellectually thrive in Online Research Methods proves a hollow point how term papers handed to professors for grading solely based on non-critical link returns must be returned to the student marked “unoriginal in argument” and “lacking in critical analysis” and “empty in the creation of new thoughts and ideas” for
We fix that problem by teaching our students to have sound training in all forms of Online Research Methods and the first step in the noble effort is to require them to always question what they read and to never believe what they think they know unless and until they can back up that belief with at least three verifiable scholarly sources beyond the immediate self.
We help them get there by diving deeply into the wounds and riddles of established scholarship and sometimes that means trading a clean copied search return for reading a messy and confounding full article to find real meaning in how words are actually put together to form a shared healing of human thought and refusing to accept an amputated idea of what Google thinks we hope to know.