Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Information Overload

Looking back at John Seely Brown's PowerPoint slides for the OLN conference, I'm reminded of his advanced thoughts - of how we need to focus not just on learning, but on the differences between "learning about" and "learning to be," and many other important concepts. I'm going to review his website in detail to check out his latest thinking.

I was searching for John's thoughts - that I recall from his earlier SHEEO talk - on the problem of information overload, given the masses of new, unfiltered stuff we now get. It's a growing problem because even the media don't do the job they once did in critically evaluating the substance and value of information and opinion.

For most of my life, there have been professionals who have evaluated and assessed the value of much of the information that has gotten to me. Educators decided what was important for me to learn. Librarians decided which books to put on the shelves. The New York Times decided what news was fit to print. Times have changed.

Although so much of education is still based on the rote transfer of knowledge ("learning about"), the Internet has opened access to an inconceivable amount of unfiltered information. And it appears to be a basic journalistic tenet today that to be "balanced," a reporter must offer a contradictory viewpoint for every issue. 

The problem then is that educators haven't focused on how learners can - and must - determine for themselves the value or validity of information and points-of-view. Are we preparing our kids or ourselves to weigh the arguments of those who want us to believe that the holocaust never occurred or that the theory of evolution must be abandoned because of ones faith in divine creation?

Yet the founding principles of the United States recognize that widespread education is required to preserve our free and democratic society. Given the huge volume of unassessed information now available to all, we need to educate people on different things than we've done for the past 100 years. Yes, I know the cries from educators: "How can you ask us to do even more than we're already doing?" I don't advocate doing more, but doing different.

I recall that John said that kids today do judge the validity of information they receive. But are they developing the needed "critical thinking" abilities and dispositions to apply judgment throughout their lives, or are they doing so only in particular compartments of issues and information? I fear it's the latter.

But enough for now; more on this critical question in upcoming pieces.


  1. Isn't it wonderful that I can learn so much with just a laptop at home ... and learning what I want to learn without first completing all those 101s? -- A great-grandma

  2. Actually, you placed out of the need for taking a 101 course: You have the ability, discipline, and judgment to learn online on your own! Many students don't have those qualifications and need to take a course to develop them before they can be successful in learning at home on their computers.

  3. We are all overwhelmed by the ocean of information. The smartest person today may not be the one who knows more than that of the others, but the one who is capable of doing a faster search through all the information available. Google is certainly very helpful, but when I get 100,000 results to my searched subject, I do not know what to do. Wikepedia.com is always my gateway of learning. I highly recommend this web site to anyone.

  4. Yes, Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, though it is dependent on participants supplying content and correcting errant information posted therein. (I've actually done so once!) Wiki is a terrific example of the "democratization of information." I'd suggest, though, that the smartest person today is not merely the fastest searcher, but the one who also can critically discern the veracity of the information found. There are new skills and dispositions required by each of us to do both.