Cognitive offloading and COVID learners

Pooja Birwatkar

Has corona impacted cognition? This question may seem absurd as amongst the countless effects of COVID, this has presumably been never thought of or even discussed particularly in educational spaces. Of course, while the effects on the body were easily recognized and deciphered, the effect on cognition is an after effect of the dramatic changes that have happened in the lives of millions of learners across the globe. What accounts for such changes in cognition? The answer lies in a single phrase, ‘online learning.’ In the last year and a half, the education system has witnessed and adapted to the biggest and fastest evolutionary or rather revolutionary change of going online – a complete discarding of the original and offline traditional setup, so much so that now the Internet has become the DNA of the education system.

Tracing the evolutionary history of man reveals that the inquisitive and creative human mind has always used and improvized tools for making tasks easier. The use of technology and tools has percolated our education systems since long starting with the humble calculators and the abacus to present day sophisticated apps, smartphones, tablets, etc. These technological tools have not only released the pressure of performing sequential physical actions but have also tremendously impacted cognitive processing. From where memory was once being relied upon as a fundamental cognitive process we have fast progressed to externalizing all cognitive processes.

Cognitive offloading is what our education systems have been largely witnessing. The term cognitive offloading as per Risko and Gilbert (2016) refers to “the use of physical action to alter the information processing requirements of a task so as to reduce cognitive demand”. Some common examples of cognitive offloading are writing down crucial information on a piece of paper, note-taking, setting reminders for upcoming appointments, making lists of tasks, etc. Online learning and smart phones have chalked out a new way of making note of information by taking screenshots or pictures and the information is available in split second son search engines.

Online teaching in these COVID times has increased cognitive offloading multifold. As a result, the learner’s dependence on memory is largely minuscule and the tasks once done by the learners themselves on the basis of memory have now been taken over by technical tools. Interestingly, researches have shown that while Internet usage for educational purposes had started on the premise of supporting and extending our memories, it soon led the user onto a complete dependency and reliance.

We are all products of education systems which have largely been based on memory testing. Our education systems centre around cognition which is understood as consisting of empirical sensations and meanings thereafter, reasoning, attention building and scaffolding knowledge, comprehensions, problems solving, analysis, and computations. These systems automatically programmed the learners right from the early formative stages to remember and recall and later regurgitate orally or through paper-pen tests.

Consider cases where in an offline set up, learners had to rely on memory and analytical processing to solve problems, recall and recognize and basically store a lot of information on a daily basis. Compare and contrast the situation now. COVID has given rise to a new genre of learners – the e-learners. With easy access to the Internet, and the availability of vast information at the click of a button, the need to store information in the memory has reduced. Learners in the past year have become so accustomed to getting everything from the Net that books have also taken a backseat and so have teachers. Online education has helped learners avoid putting in mental efforts. The effects can be seen as negative in terms of their ability to recall, engage in problem solving, learning and actual assessment of task difficulty.

How easy it is to solve the worksheets sitting at home and with all answers available on the Net. Our traditional systems do not permit students to even use calculators in classrooms and during exams. While calculators had previously just served as an aid to provide output, today the entire an math sum is available stepwise on the screen to the student and there is no check on usage. Leaners in our rote memory based systems have always been under undue stress of remembering. With online learning, learners have embarked on a journey where they can easily forgo the demands of loading and taxing their memory and opt for external storage.

However, these e-learners of today were not so long ago, learners of the traditional systems who packed their memory cells to the fullest capacity year after year of educative experiences. Once offline schools start, how much effort will it take for learners and teachers to come out of these super easy and comfortable moulds? Will these learners go back to the old ways of manually doing all mathematical operations and relying on memory to do problem solving, abstract and concrete thinking, reasoning and computations, etc? Will such learners question the traditional systems and beliefs of undue reliance on memory? Will these learners crave to go back to the online mode? Can our education systems afford such offloading of memory since the systems have been based on assessing and monitoring accuracy of memory performance? Is there a need for a paradigm shift to accept that information from memory is not to be tested, but rather the focal area of concern should be the ability to comprehend information, understand its usage and relevance along with the ability to scaffold ideas into a meaningful whole? Does it then make any difference if the student has the screen in front with the solution but is able to comprehend the solution and logically process it? Time to seriously think about this before students are pushed back into offline systems which have remained idle during COVID times without an iota of change.

The author is Assistant Professor at Somaiya Vidyavihar University, Mumbai, specializing in the field of teacher education. She is passionate about research and ardently pursues it. Her areas of interest are constructivism, dialogic teaching, socio-scientific issues, diversity and inclusion in education and science pedagogy. She can be reached at [email protected].

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