Watchworthy Wednesday: Google Scientist Tells How Tech Affects Learning

When his daughter was studying linguistics, Daniel M. Russell observed her reading a book on Turkish grammar while connected to her earbuds, listening to Turkish news on an online app. “She was multiple coding,” he explained Tuesday to a group of UC Irvine computer scientists.

Russell, a senior research scientist at Google, said that as technology rapidly changes, “it’s tied to our ways of thinking. It affects us in the way we think, the way we frame and the way we reason. And, how we learn is highly dependent upon the technology we bring into the classroom or the technology you have in your pocket or you have at home.”

Literacy is a changing and continuous concept, he said. “What I mean by literacy is that you can read and write in a particular symbol system, you have an associated body of knowledge that goes along with it and you can function critically in that domain.”

People can find apps for learning myriad topics by searching for them on Google, which now indexes apps, Russell said. But, how do they know how to find information? Not everyone has the same level of knowledge when it comes to online searching expertise. For example, many people don’t know that they can press the “command” and “f” keys to find certain words in a document, let alone the more sophisticated search functions that make information finding easy and quick.

Knowing the capability is “deeply, deeply important,” Russell stressed. “It does all kinds of things to the way you think, the way you learn, the way you know.”

And, beware of spoof sites, hoaxes and fake news, he warned. Many have been fooled. So, “how do we learn to read critically? There’s no manual for that,” Russell said. “What do we need to do as a culture? We need to understand these cultural semantics — emoticons, acronyms and terms/concepts.”

He said people have “site blindness” and “don’t understand our world” when it comes to figuring out how to find good information. For example, Russell asked 250 engineers at Google to find an aerial image of a particular house before 1977 and none could do so because they didn’t know that Google Earth has a tool that allows users to quickly search for historical aerial photographs of any place on the planet.

Evolving Literacy Skills

That’s why “meta-literacy” is important, he said. “Meta-literacy is this skill of being aware that you need to change your literacy from time to time because the underlying stuff changes. It’s not fountain pens from 1500 B.C. It’s not books that have been in libraries indexed by their card catalogues for the past several hundred years. This stuff changes all the time. … The kinds of data that’s out there is constantly growing, constantly changing. … We need to start planning for the change that will inevitably come. … Learners will be searching for new things. The tools and systems we have will continue to evolve and offer new capabilities.

“We all need to understand internet information content — how it’s organized and what is possible,” Russell added. “It’s not optional. If you’re going to be a participant in our democracy, in our world, where you’re trying to make decisions about whether or not we should be emitting more or less methane, we need to know what methane is and whether or not it’s a greenhouse gas and how do you know it’s a greenhouse gas? We need to emphasize these skills in ourselves and in our students and we all need to become this meta-literate person to understand that this stuff changes and we need to change what we do.”

Literacy has traditionally meant reading, writing and arithmetic — also known as the 3 Rs. Russell said literacy today should include a fourth R, for research. “This is now a fundamental skill,” he said. “If you exit school, even middle school or high school and don’t know how to do basic research, your teachers have cheated you.”

For research tips and strategies, check out Russell’s web page, read his “How to become an instant expert” guide or his “Advanced skills for investigation research” guide or take one of his MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Here’s Russell’s entire lecture, sponsored by the UCI Department of Informatics:

Banner images: Daniel M. Russell delivering a lecture at UCI.

Editor’s note: Watchworthy Wednesday posts highlight interesting resources and appear in DML Central every Wednesday. Any tips for future posts are welcome. Please comment below or send email to mcruz@hri.uci.edu.