June 1, 2013

On Google maps and education

At lunch today, I talked with a former professor about some of the issues that he sees with his students. This, by the way, is at Amherst. The students who get in there did so because they knew how to present themselves to their high school teachers and admissions boards. They knew how to win.
Many student wrote papers that were focused on a narrow topic, crisply-defined, but with little connection to other ideas or domains. These students did well well because they showed a clear answer to a specific, albeit esoteric, question. Their research skills were limited to delivering a precise answer with no ragged edges.
If you ask Google Maps (or any GPS system) for turn-by-turn directions, you get good results. Using those directions will get you where you intend to go, but with a curious side effect. You are delivered as in a tunnel, without context.

Time was, we studied maps and knew not only the path, but also the frame of reference. Recently, I had to travel to a part of a nearby town that was unfamiliar to me. The person I was visiting said that his street is right near the so-and-so school. I used Google Navigation. It made no mention of the school as a prominent reference point. Instead, it said, “in 600 feet,  turn left.” I got where I was going, but Google told me nothing of the fact that this family lived near a school.
It turned out that living near a school was very relevant to this person and his wife because his kids could walk to school. Google told me what was true, but not what was meaningful.