This Is Your Brain Online

By July 27, 2011New Media

“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.”  So says a panel of psychologists headed by Dr. Betsy Sparrow in a paper published in Science a little over a week ago.  Opinion-makers have long speculated over how the internet has altered the way our minds interact with information, especially as popular reference sites like Wikipedia, as well as the mobile technology by which we access them, have become fixtures in every-day life.  As it turns out, there is evidence that we are less likely to remember something if we’re confident we can simply Google it later.Sparrow’s team ran two experiments to determine the extent of this cognitive change.  The first experiment wanted to test the human mind’s willingness to forgo remembering something that we assume is readily accessible online.  To test this, volunteers used a computer with an internet connection to look up answers to yes-or-no trivia questions, such as “Is an ostrich’s eye bigger than its brain?”  The researchers told them they would be quizzed on their answers, but here is the twist: one group of participants knew they wouldn’t have access to their answers during the quiz, while the other group assumed they could use the notes they had made.  Those who believed they could access the answers on their computers performed more poorly than those who had been told they wouldn’t have the computer available to them, suggesting that we are less likely to internalize certain information if we count on the internet rather than our own memory as a storehouse for the solution.

The second experiment is perhaps even more telling.  Researchers posed more trivia questions to participants, such as “Does any country have a flag with only one color?” and then showed participants where they could find the answers on a computer.  The researchers administered another quiz: more often than not, the test subjects proved better at remembering where they could find the answer on the computer than the answer itself.

These results raise all kinds of questions about the Internet’s role in our lives, but they especially introduce some concerns into how it ought to fit into academia.   Here at DePaul, and especially at the UCWbL, much of our learning and staff development involves using online programs such as Desire2Learn, a learning management system, and Digication, an e-portfolio platform.  It would be interesting, and, it seems to me, pretty important, to look into how the use of these programs both within and outside of the classroom bears upon learning.  Sparrow and Co. have opened up an entirely new field of research for pedagogy enthusiasts, especially those interested in how increasing use of online technology influences learning.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mia Amélie says:

    Awesome sources, Mark! What were they saying again?

    No, but really, what an interesting post. I wonder how this applies to our emphasis on finding the answers with writers and using online resources (like Purdue’s OWL) to do so? These studies might think that’s a not-so-wesome way of going about it. At the same time, I have a feeling that when people know where they can access certain resources, they’re also more inclined to use those resources, come in frequent contact with the answers they seek, and, eventually, actually soak in the learning goodness.