View from the Classroom: Google thinking, Google learning

Steven D. Schwinn is an associate professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. He is co-editor of the Constitutional Law Prof Blog http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/ and he can be reached at sschwinn@jmls.edu or (312) 386-2865.

Students these days are coming to law school with entirely different skills than they brought 15 years ago.  Case in point: Research.  Students today know how to find almost anything on the internet through very basic search techniques and the skill of following the links.  These searching and linking skills are entirely different than the principal research skills we used as recently as the mid-1990s.  In those days, we used indices and tables of contents in books, and then flipped through the pages until we found what we were looking for.  “Linking” meant cross-references or annotations, and usually opening a different book, not the click of a mouse that it means today.

These differences are more than just mechanics; they represent different ways of thinking.  In the books, for example, we organized material in outline form (with a table of contents) or by subject (searchable through an index).  Moreover, the books physically allowed us—required us!—to distinguish between those resources that contained primary authority and those that contained secondary authority, those that contained mandatory authority and those that contained merely persuasive authority.  In other words, the physical features of print books organized our research and, by extension, organized our thinking.  We built our mental schema for the law around those features, and our synapses fired accordingly.

Today’s students, by contrast, organize material entirely differently.  Their research experience, largely through Google, is based on imprecise word- and phrase-searches that yield results indiscriminately, even randomly, sequenced on their screen.  They then follow links that lead them through sources with little sense of hierarchy, credibility or relative value.  The result is something like a web of equally valued sources and the many links between them.  In other words, like the features of books, the features of internet search engines organize the research.  And like the features of books, they organize their thinking.

Some in legal research and legal education have caught up with contemporary student thinking.  For example, Westlaw recently unveiled its new service, WestlawNext, which operates very much like Google.  Lexis is not far behind.  And our traditional libraries are phasing out their books in favor of electronic resources, most with Google-like searching.

But these trends are not always positive.  Just as Google searches are imprecise and yield indiscriminately ordered results, so too electronic legal search tools based on Google-like searching are imprecise and yield results that do not allow students to judge the hierarchy, credibility, or relative value of the sources.  If students lack savvy research skills, these electronic legal search tools can yield the same unhelpful results that they get from Google:  a mere web of equally valued sources and the many links between them.  This isn’t particularly helpful in a field that relies on distinctions between authorities and a hierarchy among them.

Our challenge in legal education is to meet our students as they come to us, as Google thinkers, and to help them develop the skills to be critical, analytical, and discriminating—in their research, and in their thinking.  Our challenge is to help our students move beyond Google thinking to legal thinking.

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