Google University: Why you shouldn’t enroll

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, I attended an actual physical college. It was a collection of buildings, dorms, classrooms, labs, gyms, and dining halls very much like those portrayed in movies and on TV. For three and a half years, I went each semester, attended classes, turned in papers, took tests, got involved in extracurricular activities, and lived in a dorm.

After passing everything, I graduated and was given a diploma and went off to the working world, where my education continued. That was back in the year 1985. Before the Internet. Before cell phones; mostly before computers were common and before Google. Yes, kids, there was a world before Google.

Today, in 2015, I’m noticing a lot of people skipping traditional college for online learning. And, if we’re talking about distance learning, full-degree courses at accredited colleges and such, that sounds like a pretty good idea for those who can’t afford the old-school model or don’t have the time to devote to a full-time education.

But there’s a very disturbing trend that I’m seeing a lot of: People with virtual degrees from Google University.

What does a degree from GU mean? In the purest sense, it means that somebody with an interest in a given subject did a Google search and read anywhere from one to five articles that the search turned up

They hit a few blogs, wrote up (regurgitated) a few short articles and essentially declared themselves experts in the field. In some cases (look up, a GU graduate with no actual professional credentials whatsoever, has turned likes, follows, and lies into an actual career. That includes publishing and selling a book and being quoted in the mainstream media.

And, just to make it very clear, foodbabe is not worth the virtual paper she blogs on, even on a good day. As a GU grad, she has a serious problem every time she publishes a blog post based on no evidence, and professionals in the field call her on it.

You see this a lot with GU grads — an inability to defend themselves when confronted with, well, umm, actual facts. Eeek! Not facts!

But stepping back from the virtual abyss, the real problem with GU and much of the information on the Internet is that it’s accuracy, provenance, intent, and honesty cannot be easily determined. That means that the coursework completed by GU graduates can’t really be counted as legitimate in the same way that a completed course at an accredited college taught by a real (breathing) teacher can be.

When folks call the Internet the modern Wild West, they’re actually far more accurate than most of the Internet. And therein lies the crux of the problem.

When any of us look up things on the Internet, the results of a given search can usually be broken down into categories. For instance, if you do a search on tomato fungus that is causing you garden headaches, you’re likely to get the following types of information: Ads for fungicide; articles by well-meaning gardeners who may, or may not, know what they’re talking about; articles about Kim Kardashian’s butt; articles that sound legitimate but are actually marketing materials for the corporate producers of fungicides; and finally, hopefully, articles from real sources like Cornell Cooperative Extension or horticulture departments of colleges or research institutes.

That’s quite a range of information. Of course Kim’s butt probably didn’t cause your tomato fungus, but hey, you never know. That thing can block a lot of sunshine, after all.

If finding a legitimate cure for your garden issue is this tricky, then how can people declare themselves experts in any subject after a Google search? Because there’s nobody out there to call them on it.

After all, as the famous line goes, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity has been blamed for a lot of bad Internet behavior and it’s also why a GU degree is not worth the virtual paper it’s not actually even printed on.

If you were to spend months and years carefully studying a given subject, using source materials that were created and curated by actual experts in the field, then you could likely declare yourself something of an expert after a suitable period of time. Oh right, that’s what happens when you go to college. Sorry, got carried away there.

Not everybody who uses the Internet turns themselves into publicly avowed experts on things. But we all know plenty of people who claim expertise in areas they have no right to, thanks to their GU degrees.

So what to do? Well, we could all start by admitting that, while Google is useful, it does not take the place of real, honest academic research and learning.

The truth is, a trained reference librarian can get you far better information that is more accurate than Google ever can, or will. Librarians don’t get paid by advertisers and don’t consider Perez Hilton to be a credible expert on anything (except maybe Kim’s bottom).

You’re also unlikely to get hit by pop-up ads when chatting with a librarian or pick up a computer virus either. Reference librarians are usually very interesting people, too. Think about what they do every day for a job. Oh yeah, reference librarians all have MLS degrees (Masters in Library Science) from real colleges. Just sayin’.

If you want to get your next degree in the socio-political-economic impact of Kim K’s bum and the underlying implications for the world, then by all means attend Google University. If you want to lecture on the finer points of first-person shooter video games or the latest rumors about Bruce Jenner or Miley Cyrus, you have found your alma mater.

But, if you want to actually learn real facts in a given subject, visit a library, read real books, take real college courses, and put in the time and energy. Never forget, you get what you pay for (well, sometimes anyway).

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg holds exactly one degree, from the State University of New York College at Brockport, a bachelor of science degree in communications. He says that it’s framed and covered in dust, the way a real degree ought to be.