GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Information Diet

In Information Minoration on 2010/02/16 at 09:00
The evolved human cognitive system has an extraordinarily sophisticated capacity for ignoring, filtering, and occasionally purposefully selecting information. (From time to time, some of us stand in awe as we witness multitasking students).

The question of whether or not laptops or WiFi are permitted in classrooms is increasingly passe. A more engaging question is: how are students paying attention and what is the quality of that attention? With a multitude of information channels ever present while they listen to a professor lecture, or while they study in newly-built library information commons, how has “paying attention” changed, and what does it mean for learning?

Taking a step back, what exactly is information? I’m currently studying Information Science, and I can’t quite grasp the enormity of information being created and available on my blackberry and my laptop, waiting for me to tune in to the stream. The average American diet of information was recently reported to be 34 gigabytes per day, the equivalent of 100,000 words. The question is: what is our capacity as humans to absorb information? At some level, this is synonymous with our ability to learn. As educators, we spend a lot of time thinking about how students learn.

Last semester, one of my professors stopped in the middle of a lecture, and asked the students to close their laptops, stop Facebooking, Twittering, and taking Sporcle quizzes. Another professor told us on the first day of class that he doesn’t care if we come to lecture, if we come to lecture and sleep, or if we come to lecture and look at Facebook. His theory is that students today absorb information in a variety of ways, and we know ourselves well enough to pay attention in a way that works for us. While this works for engaged graduate students, would it be the same for undergrads?

Although I am young enough to have brought a laptop with me to college my freshman year, the very nature of learning in the classroom is different today than it was twelve years ago. I no longer have a spiral bound notebook for notes and a folder for handouts for each class. Now I edit papers as they are being written by group members in a shared Google doc, record lectures and take notes in Word documents, and download my PDF readings from course managment systems.

How technology serves academic learning is an endless debate. As Rosalie pointed out in her post, students expect a WiFi-enabled library, feeding them a constant stream of updates and google searching to supplement their academic work. Students enjoy a rich information diet while learning.

Each year in January the resolutions for healthy eating habits spawn advertisements and promotions for gyms and the latest diet craze.  What are we feeding our brains? And what type of information do our brains want to absorb? What is our information diet?

  1. Nice, well-framed. Such an interesting conundrum: what has become the single tool for education — and for most of our professional activity — is the also primary obstacle to focus and productivity.

    I gotta get back to work.

  2. What is our information diet? I would think as varied as the individual…though increasingly overlapping given the rise in use of shared social networking resources.

    We are a generation that expects to be connected and feels disconnected otherwise.

    The information stream is like a stream, or a fire hose even, but analogies should be left alone when the stop working. Our information stream is a co-created one in which value is created by our interaction.

    Like commenting on blog posts and such.

  3. Ugh, I have the same problem as Douglas. I am constantly connected.


    When I am lecturing. During those pure hours, I am not looking at facebook, tweeting, blogging, e-mailing, g-chatting,e-mailing, etc…I am focused completely on sharing information, contemplating big questions with my students, prodding them to think, engaging. And it always feels good.

    So. I used to allow laptops in my “megacourse” (which thankfully shrank from 329 to 250). The result in a course that large was predictable–students felt relatively anonymous and used their laptops to simply tune out. Two semesters ago I outlawed them in my big class and the results have been astounding–students actually participate in discussions–as I wander around the room lecturing and asking questions, they look me in the eye! They engage! My teaching evaluations have improved (with the exception of one kid who complained that he “paid too much for this school” not to be able to use his laptop) and I like my class more because we’re communicating. So, yes, people may soak in information through many different levels, but I know, from own experience that it doesn’t hurt sometimes to limit that intake a little.

  4. Good job Heather! Very interesting topic and rather than clutter your space here, I will write about it in my own blog.

  5. Unlike Heather, I am old enough to have typed all of my high school and undergraduate papers on a typewriter – ok, I wrote my last couple of papers on some sort of apple computer. I graduated from Michigan State in 1989. When I started grad school in 1996, everything was done on the computer. For me, 90% of writing is editing and this had been next to impossible on the typewriter. Writing on a computer requires a different type of thinking and logic – the same type that excels in a media and information-rich environment – one that momentarily structures chaos. My current information diet is one that attempts to structure chaos — but one that also hits the limitations of a 16-hour day. I tend to ladder-up –starting the day with the caffeine of facebook, email, twitter, and then into a nutritious breakfast of nytimes, blogs, electric journals. I’m subscribed to about 80 blogs via the bloglines reader — many are serious education blogs (Bridging Differences) and some are business blogs (HBR) but a fair number cover knitting (through the loops), cooking (tartelette), and mothering (shiso mama). They are a mash-up of my favorite magazine, newspaper, and television topics — and they represent the area I fine tune when my “diet” seems off — when I’ve had too much chocolate and red wine and feel like I need to stick with oatmeal and fresh fruit. Now, more than every before — the individual user controls their interface with information. We should be cognizant of the diet we are creating – the food we are feeding our brains.

    • Interesting point about writing and editing on typewriters and computers — I got my BA before the age of the PC, but I cannot figure out how I ever wrote anything. On my Mac, I write most of a sentence, look at it, shudder, rewrite it five times, move on, review the paragraph I’ve written, shudder, rewrite it a word or a sentence at a time, finish the paper, read it, shudder, and rewrite it a word, sentence or paragraph at a time.

      Looking back, the level of *commitment* involved in depressing a typewriter key is hard for me to fathom. Give me an old Smith Corona now and I’d feel like a Roman with a chisel.

  6. Librarians and higher education administrators–and teachers–rack their brains trying to understand what students want and how they learn. For a while, everyone was impressed with the “millennials” and how they could multi-task with so many different technologies and purposes. Finally studies are showing what’s been true the whole time–brains aren’t necessarily rewiring themselves to accommodate and negotiate this kind of behavior, and multi-tasking doesn’t mean multi-tasking well. Rather many of those on FB, Twitter, and Sporcle (that’s a new one for me–now I know what I’m doing after I type this …) can’t concentrate and aren’t learning as much for that reason. Here’s a summary of a Stanford study: I’ve also read a few brief articles by teachers about how to use the classroom to do quick experiments to demonstrate to students how multi-tasking deteriorates their ability to learn. I know I have to do FB blackouts sometimes because I’m so distracted by it and everything else. The web is this endless possibility that seems to hold something that will make me content, and it’s so vast that I can’t keep still in the face of it, can’t stay on one page. At least a book is a physically contained object with nowhere else to go (unless I’m reading it too close to my laptop …)

  7. Denise, Cathy, you raise excellent points about the need to put aside all mediated information and engage with faculty and scholarship in deep, meaningful ways.

    A friend posted this over on Facebook, and I think he raises an interesting distinction that wasn’t clear in my original post:

    … [] is “learning” the same as “absorbing information”? What about practicing/acquiring skills, changing attitudes, making connections, evaluating information?”

  8. Here’s one professor’s creative — and alarming — response to the question of laptops in the classroom:

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