Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Information abundance leads to restricted depth?

As a comment to Jenny's blog post on 'breadth versus depth - an illusion?'  in #PLENK2010 I have repeated here a short section of the literature review of my PhD thesis as I though it might bring some depth to the discussion adding literature on 'information abundance' and  'economy of attention'.:

Burkeman and Johnson wonder if we really want all this new information? They highlight that;
The end result of a perfect search world is that as fast as answers are generated and consumed, new questions come quicker, with the consequence that ignorance expands. . . What we know that we don’t know expands faster than what we know.  . . . there is this sense that the world is out there to be Googled. But linking from one thing to another is not the same as having something to say. A structured thought is more than a link.’
                                                                            (Burkeman & Johnson, 2005, p. 5)
Furthermore, Hagel explains that there are other problems with the information abundance and introduces the notion of the “attention economy”.
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate the attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.
                                                                                                      (Hagel, 2006, p. 1)
Hagel argues that the more information is available, the less time we have available to go into any depth when analysing the information. In addition, Goldhaber (1997) posits that, by using new technologies, we might end up chatting, but not necessarily about anything of substance. The abundance of information and the poverty of attention could be the cause of changes in thinking processes. If we compare the information behaviour of people in antiquity with current scholars, the former were able to spend their time contemplating minute details and perhaps discuss findings with a small number of people, while contemporary thinkers, if they make use of the Web, might be engaging with gigabytes of information and possibly communicate with a wide variety of people dispersed all over the globe simultaneously. Suggestions have been made that these new ways of working might influence our thought processes (Bauerlein, 2008; Armstrong, 2004). Dennis and Al-Obaidi (2010) for instance compare changes in modes of thinking and concepts through the new technologies with an “epistemic rupture”, while Greenfield problematizes Internet use as opposed to the book.
When we read a book usually authors take you by the hand and you travel from the beginning to the middle to the end in a continuous narrative series of interconnected steps. It may not be a journey with which you agree or that you enjoy, but none the less as you turn the pages one train of thought succeeds the last in a logical fashion.
                                                                                             (Greenfield, 2006, p. 1)                         
She argues how in traditional education teachers and tutors compare and contrast narratives with one another and help people with the building of a conceptual framework in doing so (Greenfield, 2006, p. 1; Greenfield, 2004). The Web is changing this linear process and of course not everyone uses books in the linear fashion she describes. New Internet-based ways of obtaining information, such as following hyperlinks, which are an integral part of the Internet experience, and the creation of knowledge by participation in informal, interactive online phenomena, in which people take part at their leisure offer opportunities for engagement in a wide range of subject choices according to one’s own interests. This offers learners the chance to follow their own learning journey in a manner suited to actively constructing knowledge and linking it to their own experiences in an autonomous fashion, while collaborating with others. Greenfield is concerned however, that if people do not have access to a robust conceptual framework developed over time with the help of knowledgeable others, they might have problems constructing knowledge (Greenfield, 2004).
The abundance of information on the Internet and other information sources have raised concerns about the feasibility for individuals to critically analyse all that is available to ensure reliability and validity and to manage the vast streams of information now available. Bauerlein (2008) even goes as far as arguing that the lack of attention span because of this overload of information and the different resources used today have created the “dumbest generation of Americans” to date. CIBER (2008) researched how people acquire information and how information behaviour has changed over time. They surveyed literature from the 1980s and 1990s and carried out primary research on internet based behaviour themselves and they found that “power-browsing”, the clicking of hyperlinks and the skimming of web pages,  replaced traditional chronological reading and longer term critical thinking. Advanced information searching was lacking and the level of information literacy, in the form of validating information and sources, was at a low level (CIBER, 2008).

Sandbothe argues that the ‘comprehensive and systematic development of reflective judgement at all levels of the population and on a global scale is the central task for a democratic educational system in the twenty-first century’ (Sandbothe, 2000, p. 67). This might not be promoted by the new ways of accessing information. Moreover, McKie emphasised that people, when they start an information search, will take into account the amount of time required for the search, where they expect to find the information and the route to take to get there. Not everyone uses the same route as people are different and have different learning preferences, cultural backgrounds and personalities. She argues that to give too much guidance would be a mistake as it would constrict the experience and the possibilities of finding the relevant information (McKie, 2000).

Walters and Kop (2009) argue that information literacy is acquired at a young age and highlight that “information behaviour” is a developmental process at a deep level and that this sort of behaviour will be very difficult to advance substantially later in life, eg. on a course at university. Bass, on the other hand, highlighted that there is a great deal of evidence to show that electronic environments encourage analytical and reflective practice. In addition, ‘there are clear indications that the electronic era will provide an unprecedented opportunity for immersion in archival and primary materials, and consequently the making of meaning in cultural and historical analysis for all kinds of learners, from novice to expert’ (Bass, 1999, p1.).

Bruce saw the information abundance as an advantage over earlier media in ‘the way it can open up our questions. We ask one thing, but the Web leads us to ask more questions and to become aware of how much we do not know’ (Bruce, 2000, p. 107). He would like us to use the Internet not to “pick and choose” what fits in with our own points of view, but also to take on board what discomfits, and to look for alternatives that make us think. It should perhaps be questioned if people will do this of their own accord or that they will need the guidance of an educator. He saw the greatest challenge as a change of our search strategies from looking something up, to incorporating web-searching into thinking and reflection processes in order to enable a fruitful investigation. 

New emerging collaborative tools that facilitate networking and communication with others might aid in developing such a referencing strategy. Also information aggregators could help with the organisation and streamlining of searches.In addition, PLEs that have 'smart' data analysing and recommending features could enhance searches to be relevant to the needs of learners and increase depth of reflection and thinking.


  1. Thanks Rita for such a wonderful post.
    You have raised many important good points:
    1. Problems with information abundance and attention economy
    2. Changes in thinking process
    3. Feasibility of individuals to think critically
    4. Importance of reflective judgement
    5. Importance of information literacy
    6. Advantages of information abundance - a change of our search strategies from looking something up, to incorporating web-searching into thinking and reflection processes in order to enable a fruitful investigation.
    7. PLEs that could enhance searches to be relevant to the needs of learners and increase depth of reflection and thinking.

    That stimulated me to ask:
    1. How far would PLE assist in consolidating the above points for individual learning?
    2. "If people do not have access to a robust conceptual framework developed over time with the help of knowledgeable others, they might have problems constructing knowledge." What sort of robust conceptual framework would be important or ideal in PLE? Would such framework be based on a social constructivist or a connectivist approach, or a combination of them?
    3. How would the development of critical literacies impact on PLE?
    4. How effective is PLE in solving the information abundance problem as compared to VLE?
    5. How would one evaluate a PLE? What are the evaluation criteria of a successful PLE?
    Thanks again for making me think.

  2. Looking at the third paragraph from the end,where you talk about acquiring information literacy at an early age versus later on, I'm thinking of another complex area of learning: foreign languages.

    From what I've seen, in general it's easier to acquire another language at an early age, such as before the mid teens. That doesn't mean it's impossible to acquire one later on. In fact, because the definition of "language mastery" is essentially situational, many people throughout history have mastered other languages that they began learning well into adulthood.

    In PLENK 2010, judging from the here's-my-intro messages, lots of participants are new to this environment and find the multiple options, dearth of "requirements," and maybe some of the epistemology discombobulating.

    That's not a criticism of the course; it's just my own small, on-the-fly impression. Honestly, I don't think I've ever written "epistemology" in a blog comment before.

    Going back to the foreign language analogy, for some people, plopping into PLENK is like an American suddenly teleporting to London. Or maybe Amsterdam, where enough people speak English that they're mostly disconcerted by all that Dutch on signs.

    For some, though, it's like being teleported to Riga or Mumbai, with a lot more "foreignness" -- an abundance of unfamiliar information. When it comes to economy of attention, they feel like their account is overdrawn.

  3. Hi Rita,
    I have responded to your comments in my post.
    @Dave, That's an important insight - on foreign language, especially when one immersed into an MOOC, where actors of multi-nationals and multi-cultural backgrounds are meeting and interacting in an introductory session, via various media - forums, blogs, twitter, FB etc. Such multi-faceted way of interactions are often fascinating, and may even be overwhelming for many new to the ecology.

    May I use a metaphor borrowed from Stephen's previous discussion/presentation? Learning in a network with different mixes would be like the fruits & vegetables mixing in "salad bowl" (especially in Canada)where ideas and languages are churned, mixed together. Here I would add that jargons are used as a salad dressing and flavour, to accentuate the salads.

    In the forums or blogs, you could also find "mixing pot" when small groups of participants are clustering and interacting with each others - like the SL group or the specific language groups that are formed based on the geography or nationality.

    This is a typical pattern of network and group formation that was once revealed in CCK08 (especially in the forums & blog community), though not that common in the CCK09 and CritLit2010, due to various reasons.

    So, your foreign language analogy is again a re-surfacing of the pattern once people had faced in CCK08.
    How would that impact on the economy of attention? That would be interesting from you and others in the MOOC.
    As I am researching on MOOC, so would like to see what patterns would emerge from the development of MOOC.

  4. A learning event like this with the large number of participants will naturally break up in sub groups. There should be something for everyone, in an academic or practical sense and that is also happening on this MOOC.

  5. Rita;
    Thanks for the great background summary! My position is that the limits of our individual cognitive abilities is being replaced by collaboration with committed and passionate others; and PLEs are one example where this is happening. I think (at least sometimes) our distributed cognitive abilities are much greater the our individual cognitive abilities. This is one of the ways we are changing information consumption. I've written more here