Sunday, December 13, 2009

Your Brain on Google

Most of us are familiar with this scenario: You sit at your desk to do "x". As you begin the task at hand, you decide to check your mail/facebook page for just 'one second'. Thirty minutes later, you might return to the initial task. The web and its wonders has a way of seducing us away from our work priorities and 'squandering' our precious time surfing, reading, and engaging with the virtual world. I'm always amazed at how much time I can spend in front of the computer but I'm equally amazed at how much I learn.

This study out of UCLA explains some of the reasons why the 'black hole of the internet' can suck us in so quickly. It seems that surfuring, reading, learning, and just generally exercising web literacy is excellent brain food. Internet searching involves complex tasks of reading, selecting between options, evaluation, prioritizing and in short, challenges the brain in ways that other learning does not. This study involved people between 55-76 years of age; half were already computer literate and the other half were not. The study concludes that the brains of those respondents with pre-existing web skills showed more active brain function in more regions than those with fewer or no skills. This is good news for Baby Boomers who already use the web and a powerful incentive for those who don't!

But what about our students who seemed to be plugged in 24/7? If internet searching increases the brain activity twofold (as per study's conclusions)in a way that simple reading does not, then what does that mean for classroom teaching and learning? It's true that we read web pages but we also make many other decision involved in the process of searching for information. This heightened neural activity is seen in the brains of those searching the web and not in those involved in simply reading a book. The researchers at UCLA reported thier most striking finding was that "Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading."

This is exciting news. This is a powerful argument in favour of one to one laptop initiatives and against the technophobes who think that 'technoignorance' is bliss. While laptops in the classroom may still only be expensive pencils that don't engage the young brains to their fullest potential, it still is a step closer to integrating the web into teaching and learning in a way that is dynamic and relevant. The future is theirs - the students - so let's step up and do the techno dance together.

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