Posted by: Maria | June 12, 2008

What the internet is doing to our brains

Nicholas Carr’s recent essay in Atlantic Monthly, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, discusses the ways in which internet has changed the way we read and absorb information. He cites a study of online research habits, where researchers investigated the behavior of users online. Carr says:

They found that people using the sites exhibited “a form of skimming activity,” hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would “bounce” out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.

It is clear that the internet is changing the way we think and read and process information. But is it making us “stupid,” as that title of Carr’s article provocatively asks? I don’t think so. It is making us different, for sure. What interests me about this phenomenon are the implications it has for the students we teach and engage with in the library.

Think about the typical library instruction class with the typical 18-year-old traditional student. These students have never not known the internet. They’ve been online for as long as they’ve been able to access and operate a computer. In this typical instruction session, we spend at least 50 minutes demonstrating library tools, such as the online catalog and article databases. We usually stand in the front of a room, and we use a computer and projection technology to display the demonstration on screen, and we expect students to pay attention and follow along on their own computers. If we look around the room, we can see some students paying attention. We can see some students exploring the tools independently, conducting their own searches. We can see students checking their email, or using Facebook, or text messaging on their cell phones, or logging into their online course management system. Their attention is clearly scattered and lacks focus. And yet, we expect them to be singularly focused on our presentation.

If the internet is changing the way we read and absorb and thinking about information, and if this generation of students have had their thinking formed by using the internet, what does this mean for the way we conduct library instruction? Is it reasonable to expect students to remain focused on what we are doggedly and determinedly trying to teach? Should we give up on battling the texters and the Facebookers?

Carr observes that traditional media have had to adapt to people whose “minds become attuned to the crazy quilt of Internet media.”

Television programs add text crawls and pop-up ads, and magazines and newspapers shorten their articles, introduce capsule summaries, and crowd their pages with easy-to-browse info-snippets. [. . .] . Old media have little choice but to play by the new-media rules.

Does it follow that traditional forms of instructional technologies and design should follow suit? What would this look like in the library instruction classroom?



  1. I confess to being unable yet to buckle down and actually read through Carr’s essay. Thank you for giving me some skimmable bite-sized excerpts!

    I do think this means i should spend less time demonstrating how to key in keywords and more time talking about what sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves when we come face to face with information. Kids these days (and of course, we have to always remember, not all kids! not everybody has computer skills, even if they’re young!) know how to type words into boxes. Or am I wrong?

  2. It’s funny–I also found myself unable to just sit down and read the essay. I kept getting distracted, and would click away to a different page, and then return and scroll ahead a few paragraphs and etc. Basically, my experience reading the essay is very much representative of the “form of skimming activity” Carr talks about.

    I don’t think you’re wrong. I agree that we should be concerned with more than just demonstration. I’ve experimented with this in my FYS classes. Before I even have them log on the computer, I spend some time with them talking about different types of information, and where the information comes from, and what tools we have to locate that information, and so on. Then, once we’ve discussed that a bit, we turn to the computers and I demo the catalog and databases and suchlike. I then will give them some kind of activity that asks them to conduct some searches and then answer some critical thinking questions about those searches.

    I wonder what would happen if I merely pointed out the links to IUCAT and Academic Search Premier and then gave them the exercise, skipping the demo altogether? They would probably struggle a little bit, but that place where they struggle is an opportunity to learn, right?

  3. i vote for skipping the demo in a class or two this fall, or doing the demo post-exercises, just in a class or two and seeing what happens. I’ll try it if you try it, too!

  4. It’s a deal. Let’s both try it. And we’ll blog about it!

  5. I just noticed your entry now. Cool. It looks like this article is starting to stir up conversations in a lot of places. I think that maybe one of the really great things about this article is how it really speaks to all library types. It seems like a great piece to get us all thinking about what we’re doing. I fully support your decision to try instruction w/o the demos. I’ll be interested in hearing the results.

  6. I’m really interested in trying out the non-demo class, too. I do something similar to what you do, Maria, when I work with 1st year writing students (and some other classes, too) — we start with a hands-on activity about kinds of information they might want to find, ways to get at it, and then move on to the databases or other resources.

    I’ve also started having students answer questions (on a handout, then sharing verbally with the class) about their process so they can reflect on what they’re doing when they’re searching, what choices they’re making, where the opportunities are for changing their strategy/choosing another option, set of keywords, etc. This way they have a document that can trigger their memory around the process, and we can focus less on finding the “right” formula to type into the search box.

    Part of what I don’t like about the demo is that it takes so long — even I get bored standing up there, typing in keywords and boolean operators. And once they have the conceptual tools for doing searches, it seems like testing it out on their own would be the best way to learn (this from a hands-on learner…I should think about how to communicate this stuff in other ways, too).

  7. Hi, Alana! I also use a handout in a way that sounds similar to how you do it. I use it because I want them to think through the process and also have something to take with them, if they want. In classes where students already have a research topic selected, I will call on a student at random**, ask them to share the topic, and then the class as a whole will work through the worksheet questions as a whole while I write stuff on the board. I do it this way because I’m trying to model for them how they might approach it on their own.

    I also get pretty bored when I’m up there demoing stuff, and I, too, don’t like how much time it takes. I have stuck with it because I’m trying to reach all types of learners–including the visual and aural. It seems to me, though, that the kind of stuff we do in the library instruction classroom almost *has* to be done in a hands-on way. Listening to someone explain IUCAT, or watching someone demonstrate Academic Search Premier–it is hard to imagine that these tactics, alone, would be effective.

    (** my calling-out-students-at-random method involves asking for Ashley, Jessica, Matt, or Kyle to volunteer their topic. In the student population I work with, there is at least one student with one of the above names in my classroom 95 percent of the time.)

  8. […] job search, money matters, and library instruction. We debated whether or not we would want to try demo-free classes, and under which circumstances we ask students to ‘drive’ during reference interviews. […]

  9. […] Posted by Maria under library instruction | Tags: library instruction |   In a previous post and its comments, I talked about the impact of the internet on thinking, reading, and learning.  […]

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