Chris McGovern: Goodbye memory, hello Google Translate

Professor Eric Mazur has told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit that, because we can access the internet, ‘we don’t need to remember anything’ these days. He encourages students to use their smartphones and laptops in exams to ‘look up whatever you want’. On a recent BBC Radio 5 Live discussion, in which I was the lone voice of opposition, the professor said that he wants children of all ages to be allowed internet access during tests and exams.

Goodbye, then, to the age of knowledge and of memory – so old-fashioned! Welcome to the new age of educational Alzheimer’s and amnesia – learning without cognition. Is this the way that the US and the UK and their camp followers in the West are going to outperform the superstar education systems of Asia-Pacific that are already up to three years ahead by the age of 15?

Do not imagine for a moment that this proposal comes from some ‘nutter’, way beyond the ken of even the most wayward of educational trendies from the Blob. Eric Mazur needs to be taken seriously. He is a professor at Harvard and he has a CV that makes him a real educational heavyweight, especially with regard to the promotion of technology for teaching purposes. One of his teaching programmes, Learning Catalytics, has been bought by Pearson, the UK’s major provider of public examinations including Edexcel GCSEs and A-Levels. According to its website, ‘Learning Catalytics is an interactive student response tool that encourages team-based learning by using students’ smartphones, tablets or laptops to engage them in interactive tasks and thinking.’



Mazur’s arguments are gaining ground. Mark Dawe, the former head of the OCR exam board, was part of the same BBC discussion. His was the strongest voice in favour of Mazur’s Brave New World. A couple of years ago he kicked off a campaign to allow candidates to ‘google’ during exams. We discussed it on the Today programme at the time and I suspect that most listeners thought it was such a daft idea that it would never resurface. If so, they were mistaken. Mazur’s intervention has ensured that it is back with a vengeance. At the close of the 5 Live discussion the presenter opined to his co-presenter that it was only a matter of time. Using Google Translate in a French exam translation might be just around the corner, even if it does seem rather to defeat the purpose of ‘assessment’.

By chance, this latest assault on the credibility of our examination system has coincided with a speech in the House of Lords by Oxford University’s eminent neuro-scientist Baroness Greenfield. She was addressing the need to improve understanding of digital technology at all levels of UK society.

In her insightful book, Mind Change, Susan Greenfield has pointed out the dangers of addiction to smartphones and tablets. This addiction is causing observable physiological change in the brains of children that may well prove more significant to the history of mankind than any climate change. Now she is warning that, in effect, digital technology addiction is making the brain lazy and therefore making us dimmer. This applies particularly to children because their brains are more malleable.

She points that if children do not use it (the brain) they will lose it. The organ of the intellect needs ‘exercise’, much of which cannot be provided by addiction to digital technology. In addition, ‘Learning, playing and socialising in the real world’ beats the virtual, screen-based world for exercising it. The billionaire computer mughals running Silicon Valley in California are well aware of the dangers highlighted by Greenfield. As the Sunday Times reported not so long ago, they are increasingly sending their own children to elite Waldorf schools that severely limit the use of digital technology. They promote the digital drug for the children of others but not for their own. OECD data suggests they are right. Unlike in the UK, the most successful education systems limit the use of digital technology.

Two educational pathways are opening up. More digital technology, including freedom to google in exams, or some constraints on the technology and a reliance on the human computer – the brain – when it comes to assessment. Eric Mazur or Susan Greenfield? We have to choose.

Chris McGovern

  • Paul in Eastern Europe

    I am as conservative as they come and I would choose Eric Mazur.

    Do we want exams to be a test of memory or a test of ability?

    Of course, it’s faster to recall that 26 squared is 676 than to look it up or calculate it. But how often will you save that time?

    Take spelling. Google can tell me how to spell “Massachusetts” and I really can’t be bothered to remember. I don’t live there and I almost never write it.

    Google spell is even clever enough to tell me that “Drain the swap” should be “Drain the swamp.”

    Smart people use all the help they can get..

    • Anthony

      What do you mean by “ability”? I’d say “ability to remember” is a good ability.

    • paul parmenter

      Paul, please think about my comment above. I want exams to be a test of both memory and ability. They are both extremely important. Looking up an answer on a machine tests neither, because it requires neither.

      You say that Google can tell you how to spell a word. Actually, it doesn’t. It is the person who has fed that spelling into Google that is telling you how to spell it. You just have to hope that they have got it right. If not, then you will get it wrong by blindly copying them. This may not be of any great significance when it is just a matter of how to spell an obscure or difficult word. But what if you are relying on Google to tell you what happened in history, or some other matter which really counts? Would you prefer to have your house wired up by a qualified electrician who learned his skills from practice under the eye of an experienced human expert, or someone who looked it all up on Google and believes that is plenty good enough?

      Then again, what if you really do want to drain a swap, and not a swamp? Being “corrected” from what you want to say, to what you don’t want to say, is a nuisance, not a help. The machine does not always know best.

      • Thomtids

        I’m irritated with the late alteration by “auto-correct” of something I’ve written that turns it into grammatical nonsense and changes the meaning and intent. Of course, we’ll just end up with all the tablets, PCs, phones etc wittering between themselves, endlessly criticising the auto-corrected nonsense until someone just pulls the plug on the lot!

      • Indeed, my spell check is confused, sometimes it wants me to use UK English, sometimes US. Lucky I can tell the difference.

        I’m that electrician, and have been for over forty years, the kids coming up now, I wouldn’t trust them to wire one wire from terminal A to terminal B in the same panel. They can read prints, sort of, but they have no idea what those circuits are supposed to do.

        In addition, I can do circuit calcs for a house before they can find a wifi hotspot, because I know my business, they have to look everything up. I’d bet that all the tech types here have similar stories, they do around here.

        • gs_schweik

          Bloody right. Basically it is about knowledge. Which leads to awareness, which prevents bad stuff.

          • Indeed so. If you know what is going on, you automatically avoid a lot of (often expensive) blunders.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Well when I last took exams they were not just “a test of memory” but of the ability to digest information, analyse it and articulate that analysis. Can’t see how it demonstrates anything about the individual’s ability by looking it up on Google and regurgitating someone else’s work. Apart from the ability to cheat. Which of course the corporates seem to value.

      • Bik Byro

        It’s not about looking it up on Google and regurgitating other people’s work. It’s about looking it up on Google and then applying that information to a particular problem in hand and/or having your own analysis of it. That’s why every laboratory and good engineering facility has a mountain of reference books in it.

        • Colonel Mustard

          Reference books were not allowed in exams either so your point about book mountains in facilities is irrelevant.

          And examiners would be unsure whether a student has done all that you suggest or simply copied and pasted. Verifying that would waste an inordinate amount of time.

          This is simply a case of technological convenience driving a silly idea, like goverment email surveillance. They do it because they can. It was impractical to carry a “mountain” of reference books into an exam and was not allowed anyway. Nothing has changed in the underlying rationale for exams apart from the ability to look things up anywhere and more easily. But even so you won’t find all text books or treatises available on the internet. You will find plenty of regurgitated opinion, imperfect “summaries” and falsehoods. An exam where that was allowed would simply be an exam of the student’s ability to look things up. Would you want medical staff or safety engineers to be employed on that basis? Of course not.

          • Bik Byro

            Really? I was allowed a book of log tables in my maths O’ level.
            Did your school make you learn the entire book of log tables off by heart?
            Oh, of course, you didn’t do maths O’ level, did you?

          • Colonel Mustard

            Actually I did – and passed. But conflating log tables with “mountains of reference books” simply demonstrates your usual manner of argument. Tedious.

          • Bik Byro

            Actually I doubt that you know one end of a hypotenuse from the other. Your boring cuck drone simply demonstrates your usual manner of living in the past. Tedious.

          • Colonel Mustard

            Doubt away!

    • Simon Platt

      You’re sorely mistaken if you think you’re “as conservative as they come”!

  • Luke

    Stop the Government from spying on everybody. The more we use them the more powerful they become. So stop using the spying search engine google, use the no tracking search engine that owns its own search results Lookseek.com try it have a nice day

    • Bugle

      duckduckgo

  • paul parmenter

    It is a frightening trend, fraught with danger at every turn. For a start, what happens when the internet goes down? Does education, and possibly everything else (depending on our degree of reliance on the machine) grind to a halt with it until somebody starts it up again? One great beauty of the brain is that it doesn’t have to be plugged in, or charged up; it moves around with us, and you cannot leave it behind on the train or drop it down a crack.

    Then we have the spectre of exams becoming meaningless. What is the point of testing children when every one of them will tap into Google and all come up with the same answer – which they don’t have to understand, just regurgitate? But it is far worse even than that. There can be no assumption that Google’s answer is the correct one. If the machine tells them that one plus one is three, then everyone will accept it. They will all be awarded a mark of 100% and believe that they are all geniuses.

    From there, the next step is controlling minds. Whoever commands the machine, commands the herd who are dependent on it. But you have to do it in the right order: first get everyone trusting in, and reliant on the internet; and then, when they are all hooked, you can change what is being disseminated to them.

    “This applies particularly to children because their brains are more malleable.” And don’t the politicians and other power-hungry manipulators know it.

    • Bik Byro

      It has been suggested that world war 3 will leapfrog the use of nukes and instead will focus on bringing down a country’s internet services. If so, I suppose it beats going up in a mushroom cloud.

      But there are different ways to train the brain. Instead of training it to remember facts that are readily available anyway, teach the brain to creatively solve problems. Once you have a brain that can come up with creatively solve problems, Google is just one the tools you can use to advance any project.

      • Anthony

        “Let’s all apply our minds to solve some problems creatively. How about how we improve school exams?”
        “Brilliant idea, so how do you think we solve this problem?”
        “What problem? Sorry, I’ve forgotten what problem we’re trying to solve already! If only I’d learnt how to remember things. Or did I?”

        • Bik Byro

          Let’s all apply our minds to realising that Anthony is a complete tw@
          That’s one fact we can all easily remember.

          • Colonel Mustard

            I’ve realised a different thing. But I tend to forget it which is why I waste my time replying to your comments.

            Anthony’s comment was quite amusing.

          • Bik Byro

            Anthony’s mum is even more fun.

          • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

            “That’s what SHE said.”

    • Labour_is_bunk

      “what happens when the internet goes down”
      As it might if one day there are enough solar storms thrown at us.
      One thing the climate alarmists never mention, and utterly beyond our control.

  • gs_schweik

    You haven’t said it Chris, but the most frightening aspect of this trend is that it allows the ‘technology’ to control what people think, how they think, and what they ‘know’.
    Science fiction become fact of the most dystopian kind.

    • Bik Byro

      The massive bit that George Orwell got wrong in 1984 was that we’d buy all the cameras out of our own money and publicise all the photographs ourselves.

      • Thomtids

        And transfer them up to a central “cloud” computer equipped with facial recognition software and identification information supplied by the user “fingering their friends and families”. Metadata linkage through central surveillance; police surveillance of popular media output…..the knock on the door in the night. 1984? Been and simply becoming proven every day.

        • Bik Byro

          *That* is the bit that people should be really worried about, not regurgitating the old “don’t allow calculators in maths exams” argument from 1979 which is a distracting sideshow issue.

          The new iPhone X will unlock using “face recognition”. Great! Very convenient! But who controls where the face recognition system sends its data? Do many people care as long as is allows you to upload pictures of funny cats a few seconds quicker?

          Who will be the owners of Apple 10 years down the line? Who will own Facebook in 10 years time? There’s no need to put your tinfoil conspiracy hat on just yet, but it is certainly time to be very cautious about guarding your personal details and teaching your children to do the same.

          • Thomtids

            I have long suspected that the exponential growth of the personal computer, popular methodology of computer use, cloud storage of data (plus CIA and GCHQ surveillance) was funded and directed by the American Governments and their surveillance agencies. Given that everything goes through the IT mega-companies like google etc big brother not only lives in your living room watching you from your iPad, mobile phone or TV but listens in, monitors your health, eavesdrops on your communications, identifies your friends, records everything and surveilles it for offences against the State, hate-group targets, use during driving. Locates you for drone-strikes and your execution by missile.
            It is impossible to deny the inevitable linkage between the IT industry and central Government. Somebody funded it and as Mr Putin recently said, he who controls the world of computers/IT will rule the World.

          • Bik Byro

            Actually, I think even more worryingly, the government has barely paid a cent, it has sat back and watched us all happily spend our own wages to finance and publicise our personal details. We’ve paid to be spied on out of our own money! And done it happily!

        • English Advocate

          I used to think that biometric chips implanted in one’s hand were a slight case of sci-fi scaremongering. But no, I read this week that in Sweden, a country at the cutting edge of dystopia, one can buy a train ticket in just such a fashion. The young will no doubt think that this kind of thing is very cool and convenient. But one day a police officer or any other government official will be able to learn to everything about you by running a scanner over your chip.

          • Thomtids

            The Government’s requirement (through arm-bending the major outlets) of proof of age of 25 to buy alcohol or tobacco has ensured that anyone up to 30 has to carry identification. At least we oldies have our wrinkles!
            Car recognition already records every journey everyone takes of any significance. Car known to police, uninsured, taxed mot’d sets off automatic notification to mobile units in the vicinity.
            The mobile phone providers have full records of every log-on a phone makes as it progresses through the masts areas. Get arrested and the police will download every piece of information your phone contains. A complete gift to the burglary squad who can pin a phone to its exact whereabouts all the time….
            In the historic olden days, those claiming sanctuary and “benefit of clergy” were branded on the forehead to ensure they only got one bite of the cherry, so why not electronically implant anyone upsetting the State by getting banged up….like my dog. It should be easy to invent a reader for these implants operative at distance; erected at bus stops, pavements, supermarkets…in fact Big Brother already exists and is watching you all the time…smile you’re on candid camera and it isn’t Jonathan Routh behind it.

    • TheRightToArmBears

      Haven’t most governments pondered controlling the printing press?

  • Bik Byro

    Years ago we used to train people to be blacksmiths. Now thanks to technology we don’t need to train blacksmiths in those numbers. Move with the times !

    Don’t waste time training people to learn facts that you can get at the click of a mouse. Train people and give them the skills to build the next generation of microprocessors, build the next generation of jet aircraft, give us all cheap sustainable fuel for our cars and find a cure for cancer.

    • Thomtids

      Retention of factual detail is not, with technology today, of real importance. As you note, the important purpose of education is to train the brain to think both creatively and analytically. And to “know” things when there is no wi-fi signal, electricity or Chinese 12 year-old available.

      • Bik Byro

        Exactly. It’s not as if real life employment, particularly in science and engineering, doesn’t have reference books. And if I need to know the year that Anne Boleyn died, I can happily wait until there is a wi-fi signal.

        • AKM

          While it is not necessary to know the exact year Anne Boleyn died, it is useful to have some idea who Anne Boleyn is in order to know to look her date of death up in the first place.

  • Colonel Mustard

    The UK seems to import quite a lot of American BS.

  • PierrePendre

    The length of time for an exam is usually set. If we are going to allow examinees to research their answers on Google, much more time will have to be allowed. How much? And at what stage does the exam become redundant since it becomes largely a test of keyword expertise? Examinees will finish up being rewarded for how smart they are at Internet research. I wouldn’t put too much faith in Google translate for a very accurate account of a foreign language text although it will doubtless improve. But why bother even teaching French if I don’t need to know the vocabulary or have a command of the grammar with its tenses and accords? In fact, why bother teaching anything if all a pupil needs is the ability to trawl an Internet search engine and ask the right questions? Though that poses the question of what sort of education is required to enable him to ask the right questions in the first place? Knowing where and how to find what you need to know has been a critical aspect of education since the invention of printing enabled the easy storage of knowledge. Now Google has taken information out of the physical confines of the library and put it at our finger tips. But neither a library with stacks nor a computer can replace the mind itself and an examination with pen and paper alone remains the best test of the mind’s capacities.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      …I wouldn’t put too much faith in Google translate for a very accurate account of a foreign language text …

      I wouldn’t put too much faith in Google for a very accurate account of any political, social or historical event either…

      • Colonel Mustard

        Or Wiki which appears to have been well and truly nobbled by leftist dogma and revisionism.

        • Even worse, most Wiki moderators are between 15 and 22 years old, if memory serves. Yeah, I didn’t bother to Google it.

          And while we’re on the subject, here’s a list of websites almost black listed by Google, meaning that the results for them are artificially lowered in search results.

          americanthinker.com
          drudgereport.com
          powerlineblog.com
          pjmedia.com
          thegatewaypundit.com

          See any common ground there?

  • Dodgy Geezer

    …This addiction is causing observable physiological change in the brains of children that may well prove more significant to the history of mankind than any climate change….

    That’s not difficult. The catastrophic climate change predicted by wild-eyed environmentalists and the BBC just isn’t happening.

    • TheRightToArmBears

      It is happening in the minds of the malleable, and thus can be asserted as a fact by the righteous followers of the true faith.

  • Labour_is_bunk

    Perhaps the future is East Asian, not Western or Islamic?

    • English Advocate

      China may well be the world’s superpower by the end of this century. The Chinese combine business pragmatism with a healthy absence of political correctness.

    • MorganCourtenay

      The future is definitely Chinese/Indian. They are outpacing us educationally by miles and no surprises there– they take education seriously. When you have to learn hundreds of characters throughout the school years, then you’ll not be averse to learning formulae.

  • TheRightToArmBears

    For many years past it has been evident that our politicians have relied upon instruction from their HQs for which words and phrases they utter. New words become fashionable – conflate instead of confuse, dog’s breakfast instead of dog’s dinner. Railway stations are now train stations, while travellers become customers.
    Our collective memory is being erased and it has been happening for many years since politicians became a separate and different breed from us.

  • Timmy

    Dumb down the people.

  • UKCitizen

    I must say that the prevalence of spellcheckers has actually made my spelling ability worse.
    The Eastern star is rising and ours is setting. These are all symptoms of a tired and declining civilisation.

    • Paul Robson

      This is normal. Calculators used to be, probably are still looked on as oracular. It doesn’t occur to children that they might have pressed the wrong button, so the answer is wrong, and because they don’t know anything they don’t instrinctively know that 10 x 2 is unlikely to be as much as 600.

      • That’s why I still prefer my slide rule, if I get it wrong, it will be a fairly minor error, a blunder, like placing the decimal point, remains on me.

  • therealguyfaux ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    Let’s say that someone taking the examination is permitted to “Google” for the information– then what is being tested is the ability to recognise what is being asked for in the problem, isn’t it? Has anyone here ever had the experience of being marked down with the instructor’s comment, “Excellent answer to a question that wasn’t being asked.”?

    • Yep, and the ones who made that comment were correct, I read (misread, actually) too fast, perhaps skimmed is the word.

  • Paul Robson

    Skills are built on other skills. We’ve had this with calculators. We have calculators so we don’t need to learn times tables. Try doing complicated Mathematics without knowing the basics instinctively. Try trying to write if you have to look up every spelling. Try doing Chemistry or Physics where you have to look everything up all the time.

  • Two points. It doesn’t work, there are quite a few US studies coming out that in exceptional cases the technology rich schools hold their own, mostly they lose ground.

    The other thing is, it is sort of valid for raw data, we’ve always used external storage for thing that we must get right, whether it was clay tablets, parchment, books, or electronic data storage. That’s fine, but one must have at least some dim idea of how to apply that data, or it is meaningless.

    Google is (as they say) my friend, it is not my mentor, nor my teacher.

  • Royinsouthwest

    I am sure that Professor Eric Mazur is good at finding information on subjects that he knows a lot about but how well would he do in finding information on subjects he knew very little about? Librarians in universities and reference librarians in public libraries spend a lot of their time looking up information both online and in print and even though they develop considerable skill in finding information they know that it is a lot more difficult if it is a complex inquiry on a subject of which they themselves have little knowledge.

    Having knowledge makes it easier to acquire more knowledge.

  • MorganCourtenay

    I teach French and German and one of the first pieces of advice I give to every student is to NEVER use Google Translate. The only tools allowed are a dictionary and the language structures that I have taught them. Google Translate does not translate anything usefully apart from words and short sentences. In languages that have particular word orders, like German, it becomes virtually useless very quickly. Besides that, I don’t allow Google Translate because it creates laziness.

    I also advise against prolonged use of online bilingual dictionaries, unless they are high level like Larousse and Duden, which would give definitions in the target language and are thus doubly useful. Otherwise, we stick with pen, paper and books for each lesson, along with memory cards and such. One of the reasons I’ve had so much success with private tutoring is that I shun the methods used in the student’s schools. Almost all of my English students who learn foreign languages willingly confess that they know very little, if any, English grammar. Only students who are continental European or non-European perform better with English grammar as well as other languages, having learned their own to a proper standard. I began English lessons with a Czech lady on Monday, and asides from small mistakes, she spoke very well, and knows French as well as her mother tongue. Evidently other countries aren’t following our own educational suicide.

  • timbazo

    When my father went to school, he wrote on a slate that had to be wiped clean before he could write a second page. No doubt there were idiots then who said that exercise books encouraged laziness and should not be used.

    Even if we exercise our brain, our memory is limited. The key is to using our memory in the most effective way and enhancing what we have memorised with the information that is available through technology. Of course, determining how we do this is difficult and open to discussion.

    The IT billionaires are probably not concerned about their children accessing Wikipedia, buying books on Amazon or reading newspapers online. They are worried about their children spending all their free time bantering with their friends on social media.

    The more obvious objection to the use of the internet in exams is plagiarism.