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.