It’s the age of “click and find.” But there is no replacement for the human brain as a learning tool.
The Internet has revolutionised many aspects of our lives, changing them in ways which would have been impossible to imagine a few decades ago. Education, like all other fields, is not immune to the influence of the Internet. The Internet is a “disruptive” technology we are exposed to in our daily lives.
The question is: Is the influence of the Internet such as to make our system of education redundant? The answer, according to some people is a “big yes.”
To quote the famous author and journalist Thomas L. Friedman, “Increasingly the world does not care what you know. Everything is on Google. The world only cares, and will only pay for, what you can do with what you know. And therefore it will not pay for a C+ in chemistry, just because your state college considers that a passing grade and was willing to give you a diploma that says so. We’re moving to a more competency-based world.”
“Everything is on Google.” Such statements seem to devalue the knowledge stored in the human brain. Does the availability of information at the click of a button reduce the importance of a knowledgeable human being? After all, even in the pre-internet age, knowledge was widely available, though not in such a convenient form.
In the pre-Google era, encyclopaedias were repositories of knowledge on a wide range of topics. But it was never suggested that once knowledge is written down in books, it was useless to acquire that knowledge.
The present day pundits are missing an important point. It is not enough to have access to information. Information has to be assimilated and digested by a person before it can be put to use. It takes years of study before one can truly understand a subject. Merely because someone can access information at the click of a button does not make him an expert in that subject. One has to go through the hard grind of working out known or solved problems before one can tackle the unsolved ones.
Even revolutionary changes in scientific theory turn out to be based on knowledge which was available at that time. For example, Albert Einstein discovered his famous Theory of Relativity when he tried (and failed) to reconcile Maxwell’s equations of Electrodynamics with Galilean Relativity.
It is seen that in many cases, “new” knowledge is created by extending or making connections between the existing branches of knowledge. Such connections become obvious only after the student toils through the various lanes and by-lanes (and blind alleys) of science. There are no shortcuts to success in science.
Even if a student or a teacher merely knows the fundamentals of a subject as enunciated in standard textbooks and is not able to apply it in the sense of creating something useful to society, his knowledge is not useless. He may inspire many others to make path-breaking discoveries by his flawless and inspiring teaching of the subject. A teacher who is thorough with a subject would be able to advise students about the authenticity of the material which is available on the net.
Many faces of knowledge
While innovators, inventors and creators of new knowledge are important to society, we need not run down others. Finally, there are many fields and spheres of activity which should have become defunct with the advent of the Internet, but they are carrying on, today. Quiz shows are popular on TV and contestants win prize money in crores for information which is readily available at the click of a button.
We did not stop children from doing arithmetic by hand, even though electronic calculators were available decades ago. Why? Necessity is the mother of invention. The need to do tedious multiplications or division, forced people to invent schemes for calculating in an efficient manner, and this in turn, was used extensively in Number Theory.
Similarly, the need to store enormous amounts of information in our brain will ultimately lead us to analyse and synthesise that information. This in turn will enable us to find out similarities and connections between diverse facts and fields.
While computers and the Internet are definitely invaluable tools for our education, there is no replacement for the human brain.
The author is with the Department of Physics, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. firstname.lastname@example.org