In an age of memory sticks, precious little knowledge adheres

In applauding students for their IT dexterity, do we encourage the mere collection of facts and intellectual inertia? asks Bob Simpson

May 22, 2008

Like the anonymous lecturer in the issue of Times Higher Education ("The kids aren't all write: functionally illiterate and frankly not bothered", 21 February), I am also concerned about levels of literacy among students. However, while I too would be inclined to join the line of finger-pointing that starts with A-level teaching as the culprit and then passes blame on down to primary schools and ultimately to the home environment, we should perhaps pause for reflection. Might there not be ways in which we are complicit in the production of the "frankly not bothered" undergraduate?

Consider the following encounter: a student handed in a word-processed essay to me. It was a formative or practice essay. Nonetheless, the spelling, punctuation and grammar were seriously flawed. I took the matter up with the student, who looked a little surprised at my concerns. The response went something like this: there hadn't been time to do a spellcheck but with the press of a button the essay could have been significantly improved, so why did I have such a problem with its presentation? Or, consider this episode: at a small group tutorial, I ask who has done the reading. One student waves a sheaf of papers: "I managed to get the photocopy but I haven't had time to read it." At some point the photocopy would be read, but clearly not in time for this tutorial. For the time being, demonstration of physical possession of information was a reasonable proxy for actually having processed it so that we could engage in a meaningful discussion.

These examples are symptomatic of a worrying shift in the way students think about knowledge acquisition, and I am not sure that we are doing enough to counter it. At the root of my concern is the extent to which universities encourage, and students wholeheartedly embrace, information technologies and the virtualisation of nearly everything.

In my view, we are giving students a very confused message. We desperately want them to do "deep learning" - that is, to embrace the experience of university learning in ways that are engaged, careful, insight creating and not merely instrumental but ultimately life changing. We want them to gain knowledge. Yet we bemoan the fact that students too often puddle about on the surface: they don't treasure the pearls we place before them; they don't think analytically; they don't read and they can't spell or manage the basics of grammar. In other words, they settle for information. I wouldn't go so far as to blame ICT for all our woes, but our emphasis on its use in teaching does have pretty profound consequences for the student learning experience. We point enthusiastically to our latest ICT capacities but rarely consider what we might be losing or suppressing.

For most of human history, hunter-gatherers have carried almost everything they need to know in their heads. They are extraordinarily self-sufficient when it comes to knowledge about their world and how to survive therein. By contrast, the kinds of social and cultural complexity with which we are familiar involve technologies that have enabled us to store more and more information outside our heads. Writing, books, art, recorded sound and photography all enable us to externalise memory. ICT is the most powerful means to externalise memory yet developed. Most students now routinely carry around a mind-boggling amount of information on their laptops and memory sticks. Presentations and podcasts available online help those who just couldn't get to that 9am lecture. In short, we are creating experts in retrieval, collection and filing who can live happily in the knowledge that facts, information and techniques that once would have required a rather more challenging existential engagement can sit on a server or hard disk to be accessed at any time.

So, what's my concern? We applaud students' abilities to manage the externalisation of memory and will often do so in the name of generic and transferable skills. However, in getting them to rely so much on prosthetic memory and replacing much of the work and sociality of learning with entirely different kinds of activity, are we not also running the risk of reinforcing a kind of intellectual inertia? Are we not encouraging a climate in which information, ownership and control is repeatedly mistaken for action and engagement? Instead of creating conditions in which time is factored in to acquiring knowledge that is appropriately "deep", are we not prone to sending students skittering off across vast, flat plains of information? Might the curiously ambivalent state of unconsummated intentionality be a reasonable response for students faced with the latest ICT developments? If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", we would do well to think carefully about how we go about building into our learning and teaching strategies strong reminders that the internalisation of memory is a capacity that we neglect at our peril and one that we may have to protect and preserve.

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