Are We Pancake People?

I wanted to title my post Are We Pancake People? because Sparrow et al’s research reminded me of Nicholar Carr’s article: Is Google Making Us Stupid? In his article, Carr quotes the playwright Richard Foreman who talks about how our intelligence is evolving: the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available. Thus, the connected world enabled by google has spread our intelligence wide and thin – like a pancake. This kind of information processing wherein we rely on our connections with other people, a kind of distributed neural network, is transactive memory – a term coined by Daniel Wegner, a social psychologist, in 1985.

The experiments described by Sparrow are simple information retrieval tasks that rely on knowledge and some comprehension. These are lower level tasks on Bloom’s taxonomy. However, computers and networked environments are also used for conducting more complex information processing involving analysis, synthesis and evaluation. The discussion board forum, for example, that we are engaged in, is a form of distributed information processing where we engage in higher-order thinking and learning tasks. Based on this example, it can be argued that networked environments do enable distributed information processing for higher-order tasks. However, it is much more difficult to design and conduct research that measures the effects of distributed learning in this context. Balaji (2010), for example, has measured the effect of online discussion forums that facilitate interaction and participation as a supplement to classroom lectures. He finds that the multi-modality of the approach induces students to engage in enriched communication and deeper understanding through discussions, participation and interaction. This distributed performance of higher order information-processing enables greater engagement, synthesis and analysis, i.e. higher order learning.

Willis identifies developing students’ habits of mind as the primary goal for educators. Her blog demonstrates her approach of breaking down tasks into achievable challenges at the achievable challenge level for learners and using incremental goal process. This is in line with the Behaviourist tenets of establishing hierarchies of learning, establishing instructional steps and teaching incrementally. Moreover, Willis’ elaborate guidelines for feedback by using hints, cues and feedback are also along the lines of Behaviourist feedback techniques. Willis also mentions the ability of computerized learning to facilitate goal-directed paths and individualized learning. This was reminiscent of Skinner’s teaching machine. Even though Willis draws from her background as a neurologist, especially in her discussion of dopamine as intrinsic reinforcement, there is heavy Behaviourist subtext to her approach. I found less evidence of the information-processing model except for Willis’ use of the basic concepts of memory creation, reinforcement and retrieval.

I believe that Dr. Willis would recognize the potential for transactive memory and networked environments to engage students in a broader spectrum of learning activities. Even though transactive memory is more of a social psychology concept about external memory, Dr. Willis does recognize the potential for computers and online platforms to assess students and engage them in tasks at the appropriate achievement level. Since the concept of transactive memory is built on the engagement of distributed information processors, each operating at their achievement level, the two concepts are not in conflict.

This week’s readings introduce how we can use online tools to facilitate multiple strategies, social learning and also make use of Dr. Willis’ neurological-behaviourist approach to develop networked environments that enable assessment and engagement of learners at their achievement level – i.e. from a gamification (sorry for using that term) perspective with achievement levels, small instructional steps, feedback loops and incremental levels of difficulty.


Balaji, M. S. (2010) Student Interactions in Online Discussion Forum: Empirical Research from ‘Media Richness Theory’ Perspective. Journal of Interactive Online Learning. Available Online:

Carr, Nicholas (2008) Is Google Making Us Stupid. The Atlantic. Available online:

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333, 776-778. Available online: 



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