Internet Learning: Are We Outsourcing Our Memory?

by Jennifer Warren|

Vast amounts of knowledge are at our fingertips owing to the Internet. As we continually immerse ourselves in the online world of information, what are the cognitive effects of it? This fundamental question is on the mind of Marketing Professor Matthew Fisher of SMU Cox in new research about Internet learning and its consequences. According to Fisher, little research about the subject has occurred to date in understanding this phenomenon.

The Internet opens a “flood gate of what we can learn,” Fisher notes. “A key difference that keeps cropping up, given that information is so accessible, is that people have a hard time drawing the boundary between where their own internally-mastered knowledge ends and where the outside world begins,” he says. According to him, we are effectively outsourcing our memory to the Internet.

“Interestingly, after people are exposed to retrievable information, they do not remember it,” he notes of the study’s findings. The study reveals an unintended consequence: When trying to master information, or recall it, we end up not mastering it as well when it’s from an online searchable source, like Google.

The research
The research examines how accessing online information impacts how people learn. Across four experiments, the study participants studied for a quiz either by searching online to find relevant information or by directly receiving that same information without searching. Despite being told that they could not use any outside sources on the quiz, those who used online search felt confident they had mastered the material. This confidence was unwarranted— those who searched online performed worse on the learning assessment, indicating that they stored less new knowledge in their own memory compared to those who studied without online search.

These effects are not explained by the amount of processing (study time), but by how the information is processed. The results highlight that how information is accessed is an important component of learning. When people rely on search tools like Google to acquire knowledge that they want to remember, for example, when studying for an exam, this reliance on technology impairs learning. Experiments 1 and 2 show that online search reduces study time, but another part of the experiment indicates that online search also induces changes in the processing of new information.
The illusory sense of knowledge translated into worse performance when actual knowledge was assessed. The authors say a straightforward explanation for this performance gap could be reduced engagement: because online search makes people feel more knowledgeable, they prematurely conclude that they are prepared for the assessment and further study of the materials is deemed unnecessary.

Real world implications
When participating in an online class, making a presentation, or in a job interview, the stakes are high for recalling knowledge or material. The blurred boundary between what you think you know from Internet search and what you have mastered needs to be nailed down. “You need to have that information on demand in your head,” explains Fisher. “If you’ve been surfing around and finding information online, it could be simply stored online but you think you know it. So, you could preemptively think you mastered the material but have only read about it or know where it is located.”
In the political domain, Fisher has also considered the effect of Internet search and learning. “When it comes time to vote on issues, one would think that people have the issues at their command,” he offers. “But if people point to the website that explains what they think but don’t take the time to actually go and understand the logic or rationale, they could vote or align with issues they felt like they know but actually do not know.” This mismatch in knowledge could have bad consequences, such as voting for a candidate but not clearly understanding the nuance of their positions on an issue.

So how does one protect themselves from mistakenly attributing the Internet’s knowledge base to their own? Fisher says it’s an open question about how to get people to calibrate better. He relays: “Internet search prevents us from realizing our own ignorance. We never really have to examine what the gaps are in our knowledge base because it is so easy to look information up at any moment, having access to the world’s encyclopedia.”

To correct this eventuality in domains where it actually matters, Fisher suggests to slow down and self-test. “Be aware and think through what we know ourselves,” he suggests. “Unplug and try to articulate what you know; determine what you yourself know and not about clicking some link.” So, take that intentional step—pause, reflect, unplug, think on your own, a sort of mental recess.

There are benefits of having the world’s encyclopedia at our fingertips, however. The boost in self-confidence could lead people to study a subject outside of a formal learning setting. Social networks can be created as a result of new knowledge and the processes Internet learning sparks. “There are tremendous benefits to being able to access and use information effectively,” says Fisher. “However, personal mastery becomes more difficult.”

In the meantime, don’t overestimate what you think you have learned from searching online. Check in with yourself.

The paper “Information without knowledge: The effects of Internet search on learning,” by Matthew Fisher of the Cox School of Business, Southern Methodist University, with Adam Smiley and Tito Grillo is under review.

Written and summarized by Jennifer Warren.

Matthew Fisher is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at SMU Cox. His research examines the consequences and inherent tradeoffs of our current information-saturated environment.