There is a strange notion making the rounds of social media in various forms, used to argue against traditional learning and assessment standards. This reoccurring theme suggests the ubiquitous ability to leverage Google search, Wikipedia, or other online resources to find answers obviates the need to learn anything for yourself. I.e., if we need to know something, we can just look it up in real-time and don’t need to waste time learning this information before we need it. This theme has come up in discussions of our educational system curriculum, the supposed uselessness of standardized testing, and even in employee assessment criteria.
The Internet was never intended to be a replacement for independent knowledge.
Perhaps this is a special case of the Dunning-Kruger effect (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003; Kruger & Dunning, 1999), but there are at least two clear reasons why access to knowledge is not equivalent to actually knowing it. The first is a complete disconnect from the way human beings develop skill and competency. The second is the assumption real-time knowledge, although ubiquitous, is accurate and will always be available.
Having Facts is Not “Knowing”
The most incongruous part of this idea is the assumption that knowledge is the result of just having a bunch of facts. Thus, if you can just look up the facts, you have knowledge. Unfortunately, unlike in the Matrix, human beings cannot simply download competence and expertise.
Learning something, and becoming good at it, is a process of building mental models on top of the foundation of rote facts
The study of experts and expert knowledge has well established the difference between experts and novices is not in what they know (the facts), but in how they apply those facts. It is based on how each fact fits with other facts or other pieces of knowledge. Expertise is the result of a process of integrating facts, context, and experience together and defining more refined and efficient mental models (Ericsson, 2006). Learning something, and becoming good at it, is a process of building mental models on top of the foundation of rote facts. This cannot be done without internalizing those facts.
In addition, returning to Dunning-Kruger, without building competence, individuals are incapable of discerning the veracity of individual facts. Our ability to understand whether information is accurate, or of any substance, results from being able to rectify new information with our existing mental models and knowledge. Those with less competence are the most unable to evaluate this information making them the most susceptible to not only accepting incorrect information as fact, but also of developing mental models incorrectly reflecting reality.
Limits of Ubiquitous Knowledge Access
Although those of use living in developed economies take ubiquitous access to knowledge for granted, this is not the case for all human beings, nor is it guaranteed to always exist. It is estimated only about 50% of the world’s population is connected to the Internet, over two-thirds of which are in developed economies. Even these figures bear further investigation, as those in developing countries with Internet access are far more likely to be connected by slower, less reliable means keeping their access from being truly ubiquitous. Furthermore, while China contributes significantly to the world’s total Internet users, the Chinese government does not allow full, unrestricted access to the knowledge available via the Internet. This leaves the number of people with true, ubiquitous access well below 50% of the population.
Even for those of us fortunate enough to have nearly ubiquitous access to an unrestricted Internet of knowledge, access is fragile. Power outages as a result of simple failure, natural events, or even direct malice, can immediately render information inaccessible. Emergency situations where survival might rely on knowledge also often exist outside the bounds of this seemingly ubiquitous access. Without a charge, or cellular connection, many find themselves ill-equipped to manage.
Dumbing Down our Society
The idea that access to knowledge is the same as having knowledge portends a loss of intellectual capital. Whereas societies in the past have maintained control by limiting access to information, we are creating a future where control is maintained by delegitimizing and devaluing the accumulation of knowledge through full access to information. We are positioning society to fail in the future because they will have not only become dependent on being spoon-fed information instead of actual learning, but will have also lost the ability to differentiate fact from fiction.
Not only is the idea that access to knowledge equates to having knowledge founded on shaky foundations lacking any kind of empirical basis, it undermines the actual development of knowledge
Although it would be nice to assume this is a dystopian view of the future, we are already seeing the effects of this process. As social media becomes increasingly the way our society views the world around us, we can already see how ubiquitous access to information is affecting our perceptions of the world around us. Without the ability to think critically, something only developed through the accumulation of knowledge and experience, in evaluating the real-time information we receive, our society is being manipulated into perspectives not of our own choosing, but the choosing of others. We are losing the ability to process the information we receive and find ourselves increasingly caught in echo-chambers only presenting information supporting potentially incorrect world-views.
The Internet was never intended to be a replacement for independent knowledge. It was developed to expand our ability to access information in the pursuit of developing knowledge and capability. Not only is the idea that access to knowledge equates to having knowledge founded on shaky foundations lacking any kind of empirical basis, it undermines the actual development of knowledge.
Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83–87. http://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01235
Ericsson, K. A. (2006). An introduction to Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance: Its development, organization, and content. In The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert …. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It : How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated. Journal of Personnality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681