Congestion on the information highway?

Exactly 30 years ago today, a great disaster nearly overwhelmed me. I was at the time a postgraduate student in Cambridge University, working on my PhD. I had agreed to deliver a paper at a conference scheduled to take place there in mid-January; when I accepted this invitation, I had calculated that I would have some time over the Christmas break (while allowing for a few days off for the actual Christmas celebrations) to do my background work, read relevant articles and books, and do a first draft. So on December 20th I was ready to make a start. Or actually no, I wasn’t: because the library which had all of the materials I wanted closed that day, not to re-open until January 4th – which was far too late for the purposes of working on my paper. I remember having a sudden panic attack, as I could not see how I was going to be able to do the work in these circumstances. And so for the next two weeks or so I was a bundle of nerves, wondering whether I would be able to prepare a good paper for this prestigious event, my first ever conference presentation.

In the end I was fine, and while I had to forego sleep for a few nights before the conference, the re-opened library provided me with my materials I needed and my paper, even if I say so myself, was not at all bad. But what I have just described would be hard to understand for anyone in the same position today. Yes, a closed library is an inconvenience, but not a crisis. Instead, they would now be able to settle down at their computer and access pretty much everything they would need online, day or night, Christmas Day or any other day of the year.

Or is it that simple? Might it be said that there is now simply too much online information available to today’s researchers? And more significantly, is it becoming impossible to distinguish easily between genuine scholarship and online rubbish? And even if you can securely identify the gems, are there not just too many of them ‘out there’ to enable a worthwhile assessment of which ones are most relevant or best suited to the immediate project?

In the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University argues that the information mountain available on the internet does not need to be a serious problem. Referring to one of her students, who had confided that she experienced ‘intellectual paralysis when confronted by the information choices’, Professor Brabazon concluded:

‘If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.’

Is that really the right advice? I cannot help feeling that the learning experience needs to be more emancipated than that. What Professor Brabazon appears to me to be suggesting is that you can overcome the fear of information overload by being methodical and taking instructions from your teachers. But the whole point of independent learning is to be able to find your own way to reliable data and analysis that is available to you and to use that in an innovative way. Having a routine framework and instructions handed down by your elders and betters does not seem to me to be the way to do this.

But then again, the academy has been through the concept of information explosion before. Back in the Middle Ages Professor Brabazon’s student would not have been struggling with information overload, she would have been struggling to come up with anything reliable or even just anything at all. The nearest monastery library would probably have provided the best and maybe only source. Then came the printing press, and suddenly there were books and pamphlets on absolutely anything, and almost immediately voices emerged saying it was all just unreliable stuff, and if a monk didn’t have to write it by hand on pigskin and add some beautiful illustrations it really couldn’t be worth anything. But the scholarly community quickly discovered how to handle the new information volume and in fact use it to enormous effect; and we are beginning to do the same with the internet.

I remember that when I was at school, another pupil once expressed a concern to a teacher that there were too many items for reading included in a homework assignment and that he didn’t know where to start. ‘Sharpen your pencils and sit up straight, read my instructions and then have a go’ was the rather opaque and (I think) utterly useless reply.  So let us not suggest to students that the universality of information requires a methodical application of your instructor’s rules. Yes, they must acquire and be familiar with information sifting tools, including Google; but they must also be willing to pursue less obvious paths and to try that which no-one is recommending just then. Learning must be something of an adventure, as well as the application of a method.

In fact, the only thing to fear is that, on December 20th, your library may close and a new virus will shut down the internet, just 14 days before you have to deliver your paper. Everything else is a piece of cake.

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10 Comments on “Congestion on the information highway?”

  1. Niamh Says:

    I think Professor Brabazon’s advice is excellent, if a little too regimented for me to follow exactly. The issue here is that students need to use the expertise of information professionals to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The problem is that for some inexplicable reason people think librarians just deal with books – they don’t! They are highly trained in information retrieval and will certainly be able to advise students on how to decide which articles are suitable for their purpose.

    Solution – maybe lecturers should be talking to librarians basing the first assignment of the year on information retrieval within their subject area? This would be far more useful than the generic library tours given in most libraries, students would actually see the importance of it and those skills would stand to them throughout their studies. I know that some universities do this already, but maybe it should be standard?

  2. Vincent Says:

    Does it not depend where on the trip out of Plato’s Cave you’re at. You are correct for those a bit nearer the Sun, while the Brabazon approach might be better for those less capable of winnowing grains from chaff, or understanding what constitutes shadows.
    You are after all a Library of Record, why not hold every item. Are there not other reasons beyond the cost which have to do with your Librarian and your lecturers narrowing slightly the field that the undergrads have to plough.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I agree with Niamh: Professor Brabazon’s advice is perfectly sensible given that she seems to have been advising a student who was panicking about how and where to start. When this happens, you have to do the intellectual equivalent of getting them to take slow and steady breaths! What more confident, more advanced students (or we ourselves) may do is another matter, but for most undergraduates, half the battle is getting them to either not panic or to discriminate more about their sources, depending on the personality of the student in question.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    It’s not just the information load caused by the amount of sources, but also the speed and time factor. With modularisation and semesters we now operate a system which has relentless, unmovable deadlines, continuous assessment and end-of semester exams. There’s little chance a student in such an environment, feels that they can explore the paths and byways of the library (virtual or real) and slowly develop their own individual approach to dealing with sources and honing their skills. On top of this, the essay, the report and the reading that informs it is now so ephemeral it lasts in the student’s consciousness (and probably that of the lecturer) until the deadline, perhaps lingering until feedback is returned but then, mark assigned, is gone and certainly won’t be remembered in the following semester when a new set of tasks and deadlines loom.

    • You’d rather students have the whole semester to delicately “learn at their own pace” (i.e., get smashed every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday) and then cram for exams, most of which are rehashed versions of regurgitation-centric exams given in previous years?

      Modularization and semesterization has finally brought Ireland into the 20th century (yes, 20th) of teaching and learning. It is time “relentless and unmovable” Irish academics get over with it and start learning from international best practices, otherwise this country’s students are going to keep falling further and further behind.

      • iainmacl Says:

        That’s not what I’m implying. Far from it. Actually how can you say that modules/semesters in ‘international best practices’? In particular the ‘best’ part. As for the international, well witness the protests in Germany, Spain and Greece over the Bologna process and indeed the cases of universities which are now going back to terms and year-long courses augmented with continuous assessment after using modules/semesters.

        But that’s not really my argument, its about a more coherent approach to course design linking between and beyond modules., looking at scheduling and types of assessment across the whole programme and not in a fragmented module-by-module basis.

        • Iain, I guess that raises an interesting question: whether in fact we still have a concept of what constitutes a ‘programme’ in valid intellectual terms. I may yet blog on that.

  5. Vincent Says:

    All told, my earlier comment notwithstanding. You were sailing an confident tack one way or another prior to this date thirty years ago. Never came across the law by Murphy.
    I’ll bet the instruction in the Carol to ‘fall on your knees’ was the only reason Murphy did NOT complete.

    I wish you and all of yours a happy Christmas.

  6. […] Constantin Gurdgiev has published a leaked memo indicating that Irish researchers won’t have access to E-Journals for much longer. Our third level institutes are going back to paper and print, it seems, as the rest of the world moves online. Underfunding is looking terminal, bring back fees, for fuck sake, I say. Also: a partially related post from Ferdinand Von Prondzynski. […]

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