Are Malaysian university students becoming stupid with more use of the internet?

It seems scandalous to suggest that the internet is making us stupid. How can this be true? The internet is a cauldron of knowledge. With the right search engine, we could rapidly sift and pull out the relevant information regarding our search question or query. I use the internet everyday, and I admit I am hooked to it. One day without the internet is like a day for me without electricity.

Is the internet changing how we think for the worse? (photo from blaugh.com)

At work, I use the internet to search for information. I pull out journal articles, read information from Google books, and if I cannot access the article, I only need to email the corresponding author. Sometimes, within a day, the author would reply my email and attached with the email is his or her paper that I had asked.

It has come to the point where I am hardly at the university library looking for journals or books. If there is a book at the library I need, I only need my research assistant to go get it for me at the library (after I searched the online library database for that book). This is in sharp contrast with my postgraduate days, where I would spend nearly everyday for a few hours at the library, sometimes just “window shopping” at the book shelves, looking for interesting book titles to pull out and read.

No doubt that the internet has changed not only our lives but in how we think. Nicholas Carr, in his newspaper article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, captured people’s attention about the possibility that the internet may have a double edged sword. Nicholas Carr later expanded his article into a book entitled, “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows”. I read this book with great interest because I share some of his worries about the internet.

The internet, Nicholas Carr warns, encourages shallow reading – the kind where we scan sentences rather than reading the words one-by-one. The latter, so called “deep reading”, forces us to think, consider, and evaluate more deeply than shallow reading.

In one job interview, I once asked a young aspiring lecturer what his hobbies were. I cannot remember what he said, but I remembered that he did not mentioned reading. I asked him why reading was not one of his hobbies considering the importance of reading to academicians. To that, he replied that reading has become old fashioned. The internet, he said, has replaced books.

"What the Internet is Doing to our Brains" by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr

And that is the crux of the problem with the internet. While the internet encourages rapid, current, and a multitude of information, the internet also encourages superficial, unfocused, and shallow reading.  Stories written for the net must be in “bite-size”. Twitter and micro blogs have replaced blogs (such as this one) because conventional blogs contain too many words. Our attention span have become shorter, and we have become impatient with the slower process of internalization of information that we get from reading printed books.

Mark Bauerlein, in his book entitled, “The Dumbest Generation: How Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future”, is relentless in his attack on computers and the internet. Interestingly, he cites several scientific research that showed that the ubiquitous use of computers and the internet in classrooms have no significant effect on improving school grades.

"The Dumbest Generation" by Mark Bauerlein

So while the Malaysian government are encouraging more broadband penetration in the country and encouraging more students to own their own computers, research have shown that we should not be misguided into believing that this policy would make a significant impact on improving our students’ intelligence.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein cites scientific research that students who get better grades in schools are not those who are computer or internet savvy. Instead, students who do well in school are those  who read books! These students who read books regularly develop deep reading skills, and they become better in understanding and interpreting more complex texts and ideas. In contrast, students who use the internet and computer regularly (and read less books) instead develop poor understanding of complex information.

Students in my university are shockingly poor in searching for information. Though Google is undeniably a very good search engine (and easy to use), university students are seemingly unable to enter the right keywords to search, and of the thousands of hits Google may return, students have difficulty in identifying the relevant information. In other words, university students may see all the pieces of information, but they are unable to identify the important pieces and are unable to “connect the dots” to see the overall picture.

We should not, Mark Bauerlein reminds us, be mistaken into assuming that students who are proficient in computer and internet are any good in learning and thinking.

Books by Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein summarizes what I see at universities here in Malaysia. Despite the ubiquitous computer and internet access, students read books even less than before. They have poor thinking skills and are poor in identifying important and relevant information. University students remain weak at reading complex texts. Consequently, there is a frustratingly some mental block when they try to understand, interpret, and appreciate complex concepts and ideas presented in the text.

Lastly, the internet has become a distraction to work and thinking. Nicholas Carr mentions this and other notable figures do likewise in the book, “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?” (edited by John Brockman). My Masters student has recently told me about her difficulty in writing her thesis. While writing her thesis, she would “multi-task”: checking her Facebook, surfing the entertainment news, and so on. I suggested she remove her broadband connection whenever she writes.

"Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think" edited by John Brockman

So, I like to end this blog with an article from Leo Chulpa, one of the contributors in the book “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?”:

“The Internet is the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of television. It can devour time in all sorts of frivolous ways from chat rooms to video games. And what better way to interrupt one’s thought processes than by an intermittent stream of incoming email messages? Moreover, the Internet has made inter-personal communication much more circumscribed than in the pre-Internet era. What you write today may come back to haunt you tomorrow. The recent brouhaha following the revelations of the climate scientists’ emails is an excellent case in point.

So while the Internet provides a means for rapidly communicating with colleagues globally, the sophisticated user will rarely reveal true thoughts and feelings in such messages. Serious thinking requires honest and open communication and that is simply untenable on the Internet by those that value their professional reputation.

The one area where the Internet could be considered to be an aid to thinking is the rapid procurement of new information. But even here this is more illusionary than real. Yes the simple act of typing in a few words into a search engine will virtually instantaneously produce links related to the topic at hand. But the vetting of the accuracy of information obtained in this manner is not a simple manner. What one often gets is no more than abstract summaries of lengthy articles. As a consequence, I suspect that the number of downloads of any given scientific paper has little relevance to the number of times that the entire article has been read from beginning to end. My advice is that if you want to do some seriously thinking than you better disconnect the Internet, phone and television set and try spending 24 hours in absolute solitude.”

I could not agree more.

Comments

  1. This is very interesting. Not the first time this idea has been voiced, but I think every new form of tech sees this bit of societal panic. TV was once – and still is, to some extent – blamed for decreasing spans of attention. But the internet is here to steal its thunder so the panic once focused on TV has shifted.

    I DO agree that reading is important but the definition of “books” is so blurred right now, what with ebooks, internet journals and the like, that it’s silly to say students have to read books – and not things off the internet – in order to be good students. I know people who have hilarious aversions to books but get great grades in school.

    Also, Leo Chulpa’s assertion that “serious thinking requires honest and open communication and that is simply untenable on the Internet by those that value their professional reputation” seems a little off. After all, I am doing some serious thinking right now over the internet, with no fear of what it will do to my professional reputation. The anonymity might have something to do with it. I would never have the courage to voice an honest opinion like this in real life (another example of societal influence in action?).

    On the other hand, the notion of internet as an attention span decreasing monster is, sadly, very true. I’m a prime example of this. It takes me quite a while to read any academical work nowadays because my mind keeps drifting. An attempt to time how long I could keep my attention on one thing was thwarted when I discovered that my mind had drifted so far away I’d even forgot about the watch in my hand… That sounds pretty scary now that I read it back. I might have just freaked myself out a little.

    But I digress. I think the apparent stupidity of these university students comes from a lack of knowledge of how to apply the information they’re receiving over the internet. In addition to the heaps of distractions, they are also overloaded with facts and information that have nothing to do with their research. Does this make sense? What do you think?

    • Thank you for your comments. I hope my blog didn’t make me sound anti-TV and anti-Internet. It would be a sad day if those two technologies never existed. Those two technologies have changed not only our lives, but how we think. In other words, they have changed our brains. Our brain structures aren’t set in stone at birth — they are “plastic”, meaning that our life experiences can physically and chemically alter our brain structure. This has been proven in scientific research.

      Consequently, I am very pro-reading. Most people believe that reading books is only to gain information or for entertainment. But that is only a small part of the benefits from reading books. Reading expands our outlook, deepens our understanding, appreciation and sensitivity, and encourages us to examine ourselves. A person who reads a lot eventually behaves, thinks, and talks differently than if he or she did not read books. And I am not talking about differences in school grades here. Like I have mentioned in my blog, reading encourages self-learning and the ability to understand complex ideas and concepts from text. TV and internet, though important, are not as effective as books in achieving those two goals.

      In my university here too, I have met many high scoring students who are adverse to reading books unless these books are required reading for exams. And these students, like most people, believe that learning is relevant only if what they are learning is related to their expected career. In other words, an electronic engineer student, for example, would only consider subjects related to electronics as important to learning. But any knowledge regarding climate change, financial crisis, or Malaysia’s palm oil industry, for instance, would be regarded as a waste of time because these topics are remotely related to electronics, if at all.

      I have a son, and I would not want him to grow up learning only on matters that would help him in his expected career. Is that what life is about? That we learn only on matters related to our work? That life is just one big preparation towards our career?

      I would want my son to develop a wholesome thinking and attitude toward life, not only his own but those around him and in the world. And to achieve that, reading is a big part (but not the sole part) in achieving that aim.

  2. The irony is I’m a reader and I just read through your whole post to distract myself from work I’m supposed to do – on Malaysian electricity and renewables.

    Ever since I started work 6 months back (ie. broadband access) I’ve been reading actual books a lot less – my personal library is barely touched. I’ve actually been spending more time online, reading interesting and thought provoking ideas the world over (such as your blog). There’s just so much to read!!

    I’ve always had the same niggling suspicion about reading on the web and it’s infinite power to distract (or I may just be looking for an excuse)

    Even when reading books I’ve always been a flippant reader (ie. read multiple books at a time). So Articles on the web has been… I’m like a kid in a candy store and I’m worried I might get sick one of these days.

    Even now, I’m really, really tempted to follow your links to the other articles and read further but my work is due today. Another day perhaps, (if my attention hasn’t been grabbed by another interesting thing to read)..

    “As a consequence, I suspect that the number of downloads of any given scientific paper has little relevance to the number of times that the entire article has been read from beginning to end…”

    Hehe :-).. Guilty here.

    • Thank you for your share and humour. At work too I have to struggle to stay focus and not be distracted by other web activities. And I too have a backlog of books to read at home, and one of my magazine subscriptions would end next month. I won’t be renewing it — not because I did not find the magazine helpful but simply because I have a 6-month backlog on unread issues! And at the same time, I am still buying books I know I won’t read any time soon. This is not helped when there is a big book warehouse sale that crops up from time to time…

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