“Google It!”: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving in the Internet Age

by Ali Arya and Luciara Nardon

This post is part of an ongoing Digital Scholarship Ontario series which highlights the research of Ontario’s digital scholars.

Most educators are familiar with students’ growing reliance on online search engines for finding information and researching topics. “Google It!” is a near universal term. The ubiquity of Internet search technology has made it possible for people to find information and solve problems for which they have no personal expertise. While, in daily life online searches have positive uses, in an educational setting the overreliance on search technologies may result in a reduction of student problem solving and critical thinking abilities. This in turn may result in weaker academic performance when search tools are not available, in the long term compromising creativity, adaptability, and originality.

While everyone “sensemakes” on a continual basis, expertise plays a role in influencing what is noticed and what is the subject of sensemaking. Lundberg (2004) proposes three levels of practice in managerial sensemaking which parallels students’ sensemaking in various fields: naïve practice, systematic practice and sophisticated practice. In naive practice, individuals notice symptoms but their problem solving is focused on fixing the symptoms, usually by relying on what is familiar. In systematic practice, individuals can identify the problem and adopt best practices and apply research to solve the problem. Finally, in sophisticated practice, individuals are able to regularly assess their performance and refine their practice according to contexts and contingencies. In our research, we build on Lundberg’s framework to explore the role educational technology plays in three similar stages of problem solving practices: naïve, systematic and sophisticated. While the naïve stage uses imitation-based mental models and is good for gathering information, the sophisticated stage is based on complex mental associations that can facilitate idea development and exploration.

Current technology (particularly online tools) can facilitate the collection of information which is a characteristic of naïve practices. As students approach novel topics of study, information technologies facilitate the collection of information that will form the basis of a more sophisticated mental model later on. However, if we are not careful in how we structure our learning experiences, some students may over rely on information technologies for problem solving and not develop the mental models required to advance to more sophisticated levels of thinking and practice.

In our EduLearn-2014 paper, we demonstrated the need for tools to aid sensemaking through two example courses: cross-cultural management and computer programming. While the  two courses focus on distinctively separate domains, in both cases we saw how students may use ubiquitous information collection methods to solve problem without proper sensemaking. Students may develop strong search skills for the acquisition of information from online sources, and in a few cases successfully solve problems by copying a solution that deals with similar symptoms, but they are likely to lack a proper understanding and creative ability to deal with new and ambiguous circumstances.

In terms of next steps for scholarship in this area, we suggest that future research in part focus on the development and validation of educational technologies aimed at helping students move through the process of sensemaking.

Note: This post is based on a paper presented at EduLearn-2014, in Barcelona, Spain.


Lundberg, Craig C. (2004). “Is there really nothing so practical as a good theory?” Business Horizons 47.5: 7-14.

Ali Arya and Luciara Nardon are professors at Carleton University.

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