What the Internet is Doing to Our Education Culture: Book Review of “The Shallows”

Following is a book review of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains”, though I suggest it’s more aptly titled, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains Culture” and I describe why in this post.

“Culture is sustained in our synapses…It’s more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.” Nicolas Carr, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” a Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction in 2011

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by Nicolas Carr, 2010

Overview
Author Nicolas Carr made a name for himself with his article featured in the Atlantic “Is Google making us Stupid” in 2008. Carr is not a proponent of the Internet as one might guess from his article and from the title of his most recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain (2010). Though the book’s title implies that the Internet is not good for our brains, makes us shallow, no longer capable of deep and thoughtful thinking and learning, Carr fails to provide convincing evidence that this is indeed the case. A more appropriate title might be The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Culture. Carr describes his own challenges with disconnecting with Internet-enabled devices and social media, which is more of a reflection of our current culture—the constant and often frenetic connectivity to the Internet via our mobile devices. Our behaviours as a society have deeply changed due to engagement with digital media, and it’s this behaviour research suggests, that is responsible for changing our brains. Granted the Internet is the vehicle, the catalyst to the Information Age, which impacts society, culture and global economies significantly. Though the point is moot, what I found worthy of consideration while reading Carr’s book from an education standpoint is the concept of ‘efficiency’.  Frequently mentioned throughout the book via the studies quoted, is the idea that the Internet increases efficiency—efficiency usually in the context of work, doing more with less, or in terms of finding information quickly and accurately.

The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient, automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are Internet on finding the “one best way”— the perfect algorithm—to carry out the mental movements of what we’ve come to describe as knowledge work” (p 150)

The Culture of Efficiency and Education
And is this not what we have been hearing in the last couple of years in education circles, how technological advancements can increase efficiencies in education? Efficiency is often cited in the same context as effectiveness, yet more often in terms of cost savings. I was surprised to unearth a book on this topic, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, by Raymond E. Callahan, published in 1962 no less. The author was responding to the post-industrial business model that sought efficiencies in work processes for greater costs savings and higher profits.

Raymond Callahan’s lively study exposes the alarming lengths to which school administrators went, particularly in the period from 1910 to 1930, in sacrificing educational goals to the demands of business procedures. He suggests that even today the question still asked is: “How can we operate our schools?” Society has not yet learned to ask: “How can we provide an excellent education for our children? GoodReads

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By Raymond Callahan, 1962

And though Carr references efficiency in his book, it is not necessarily in an economic context as Callahan outlines. Yet the theme of efficiency as it relates to the Internet extends to our education culture—institution leaders, politicians and administrators seeking efficiency in practices and methods (automated grading, online courses with great numbers of students, etc.) Efficiency is not a ‘bad’ outcome to strive for, yet the idea of efficiency in education is frequently referenced in terms of increasing or maintaining education outcomes, with fewer resources. A recent situation in California’s public higher education system illustrates this point beautifully. Governor Jerry Brown looked to online education (MOOCs is more accurate), as a solution to the problem of bottle neck courses, where students couldn’t graduate from public universities due to too many students and not enough general education classes. Brown and members of his team referred to efficiencies frequently:

“Gov. Jerry Brown last year said that the state’s public colleges operate on a high-cost delivery model that the state cannot sustain. The price of a college education in California is growing steadily without “adding productivity or value,” the governor said….Online education is one practical way for the state’s public universities to improve efficiency.

But online education can expand college capacity and access to courses in affordable fashion. That approach is sensible for the UC system — and a worthwhile start on the much larger task of creating a more efficient and sustainable higher education system.”  The Press Enterprise

In fact, there are numerous articles and papers describing efficiencies in education published by many prominent organizations involved in education. This article for example, Higher Education: Quality, Equity and Efficiency published by the OECD which has this to say:

All nations face the challenges of mobilising more resources and using them effectively in meeting the strategic goals of society with maximum efficiency. “

Conclusion
I’ve referenced the theme of efficiency as it relates to education here which is really not the thrust of Carr’s “The Shallows“, however his book raises several interesting points about how the Internet has affected our culture which extends to our culture within education. The book is a worthwhile read, specifically for the references to how the Internet affects our ability to educate and learn—though learning not from a scientific perspective but from a behavioural one. However, when it comes to efficiency and education, I rather like Callahan’s question posed in his book “Education and the Cult of Efficiency”, ‘how can we provide an excellent education for our children’, and I would add to this, ‘in a connected world’.  The latter is now on my to-read list.

Further Reading:

4 thoughts on “What the Internet is Doing to Our Education Culture: Book Review of “The Shallows”

  1. Debbie,

    I don’t think your review is fair to Carr. For one thing, he certainly doesn’t hate the Internet, otherwise he wouldn’t still be using it. His problem is with how most people use the Internet these days. It’s not Internet or no Internet, there are many shades of in between. Also, cutting that book down to just education issues is like treating Moby Dick as a primer on how to sail.

    You can see a lot of Carr’s subtlety expressed at his blog, Rough Type [http://www.roughtype.com/]. As a regular reader, I also know he has a new book coming out this fall. I’ve already pre-ordered it.

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    1. Jonathan,
      Point taken. I should reword my position that Carr is not a proponent of the internet. Though I am at a loss for words in how to describe Carr’s position of the internet given he does mention frequently throughout the book the benefits of, and mentions his consistent use of the internet. A ‘pessimistic internet user’ perhaps?

      Though I like your analogy of Moby Dick as primer to sail, I have to disagree that I cut the book down to education issues. I acknowledged that the point of the book was not about the theme of efficiency, however I chose to elaborate on this theme and draw out an important issue that emerges from the research cited and points made. The theme of ‘efficiency’ was not explored in several other book reviews of The Shallows (which is why I included two others at the end of my post for readers to consider) yet it is a theme that runs (subtlety) throughout education discussions today. The point I want to emphasize is all that is potentially lost in educating students when we look to a model that strives to do more with less. Applying a business model, without asking questions such as ‘what is the purpose of educating students in this way?’ or ‘what outcomes are we looking for?’ or even ‘what are we sacrificing if we seek efficiencies in this area’? is misguided.

      My post did stimulate some discussion about efficiency and education as described in this post
      http://bwatwood.edublogs.org/2014/04/21/connecting-some-dots/ .

      Overall I actually enjoyed Carr’s book more than I thought I would. Thanks for the link to his blog, and the heads up about his new book. As always Jonathan, I appreciate your perspective and comments.
      Debbie

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