Why I Don’t Allow My Students to Use Google

I have decided to prohibit my undergraduate business students from using Google when they write their semester papers. In my teaching, I emphasize interpersonal communication and critical thinking. Future business executives will, as they always have, need to work with others, negotiate, resolve conflict, write clearly, integrate information, and have good judgment. Google attenuates such skills.

The internet does many good things—in particular, it makes otherwise difficult-to-obtain information accessible. Nevertheless, just as excessive use of the automobile makes us fat, excessive use of Google numbs critical thought and the ability to communicate face to face. Excessive reliance on the internet discourages questioning, evaluating, and integrating information.

Google arrays information according to algorithms that lack transparency—they are at best random or tailored to the user and are at worst biased. A chaotic list of randomly selected sources does not substitute for philosophical reasoning. If I want to know whether to doubt Google, am I better off using the Google search engine or reading David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding to inform myself about the limits of the human mind?

Last semester, I asked my class to write about a case study on the human resource policies of the SAS Institute. Reading the case gave my students a chance to see how Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford, a leading scholar, integrates information in analyzing a firm and its policies.

Rather than read the case study, one-third of my students collected information via Google search. Their essays were disjointed and were often based on the first few results that appear in Google’s search results. They were unaware that an author’s perspective is more important than a laundry list of facts.

Facts without perspective are, of course, of limited value. Excessive reliance on Google results in a lack of depth, a lack of reasoning, and a lack of perspective—in other words, Google destroys critical thinking.

In 2007, Allison J. Head found that most students do not understand what college-level research entails and that 40% used course materials as a first step in completing an assignment. In a 2008 study in Aslib Proceedings, Ian Rowlands and his associates found that students rely heavily on search engines, view search results rather than read, and do not possess the critical and analytical skills necessary to assess the information that they find on the web. In a related 2010 study done for the British Library and published in Art Libraries Journal, David Nicholas found that students who use search engines quickly settle on what they find, but they do not find what is best. Search engine use leads to superficial, extensive knowledge, for search engine users rarely read content in depth. In a 2010 study of 8,353 students sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Truth Be Told: How College Students Evaluate and Use Information in the Digital AgeAlison Head and Michael Eisenberg found that students had trouble getting started with and understanding the scope of research projects. They reported that many students were overwhelmed by information overload, although almost all say that they rely on course readings. Few studies on this topic have been conducted since. As has been true in many areas of higher education, educators have encouraged the use of technology without empirical justification.

The internet is changing how we conceptualize, seek, evaluate, and use information. The technology behind the printing press was associated with a widespread elaboration on and expansion of Aristotelian rationality. The Enlightenment occurred in tandem with the industrial revolution and the advent of liberalism. It led to the present information age. By restricting and directing information as well as making it available, Google is undoing the Gutenberg universe, but educators have little sense of what Google will bring going forward. Perhaps my decision is a case of “too little too late”; perhaps I am overreacting. The point is, educators don’t know.


Image: PhotoMIX-Company, Public Domain

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Mitchell Langbert

Mitchell Langbert is an associate professor of business at Brooklyn College.

6 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Allow My Students to Use Google

  1. …search engine users rarely read content in depth…

    It’s not limited to search engine users. Writing on-screen, where the viewport, to use a tech term, is much smaller than a piece of paper, reduces awareness of flow and continuity. Scrolling, and cut and paste, further reduce awareness of flow and continuity. We, and this includes me, do not write or read (or proofread!) in the same depth that we did in the era of paper. There appears to be a glaring example in this very article, above, which I leave to close readers to discover. Solution: whenever possible, ditch traditional assignments and exams; teach and test using the Socratic method.

  2. “Their essays were disjointed and were often based on the first few results that appear in Google’s search results.”

    I would argue that the problem is far deeper and has nothing to do with Google — they have been taught *what* to think rather than *how* to think.

    My guess is that you’d be having the same problem if you handed out copies of the _Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature_ and had them looking up sources the old fashioned way in the stacks. It’s the way they’ve been taught for the past 12-15 years — that there is a “right” answer and they merely need to know it.

    No one has ever asked them to explain *why* the “right” answer actually is right…

    1. This 👆👆 right here. Lack of critical thinking skills. I blame decades of standardized testing and the accountability mindset. Too many multiple choice tests and not enough handwritten essays. A mile wide and an inch deep. Sad.

      1. I don’t think it is standardized tests as much as there being even less political diversity in K-12 than there is in higher education — it’s become a left-wing echo chamber where there is a “politically correct” answer for everything.

        As those who disagree are dismissed out of hand, there is no reason to even listen to them, let alone refute their arguments — they are merely “wrong” (and evil — and should be silenced for the public good). Hence the student need not even know (let along articulate) the reason(s) *why* he/she/it feels a certain way, merely feeling it with sufficient emotion will suffice — although a few gratuitous ad hominems will always help with the grade.

        Critical thinking skills *can’t* be taught in such an environment because it would necessitate conceding that there are two sides to every issue, and that is something that ideological fascists are simply unable to do.

        Yes, “teaching to the test” is an issue, worse because of what the test is, but I don’t think that is the cause of this problem.

  3. I would probably caution them to limit their use of google, without banning it outright. There’s enormous information that just isn’t accessible any other way.

    Then if they hand in a “googleized” paper, point out all the flaws that has brought.

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