Living in an Information Rich World

The other day I had a senior high school student who has been conditioned to be helpless say, “How am I supposed to know what aperture is?  You’re supposed to teach us!”  Aside from the fact that this student has evidently won photo competitions and got an 81% in grade 11 photography, I suggested that we have this thing now called the internet that has all sorts of information on it.  I was genuinely frustrated at her unwillingness to resolve her own ignorance.

I may have been a bit curt, but this is an essential truth of our age: information is at hand.  If you think education is about imparting information you’re about to become quite redundant.  Education isn’t redundant, it’s more important than ever to prepare students for information that is no longer vetted by the forth estate for them.  Unfortunately this isn’t a focus in education where bells still signal the start of shifts, um, classes, and teachers can still be found talking the whole period long.

Digital access to information greatly emphasizes how out of touch the sage on the stage is nowadays.  The teacher who talks for an hour straight giving their students facts has failed to realize that we no longer live in an information poor world.  Instead of letting students access information pouring out of the technology that surrounds them, the sage teacher puts themselves in the middle of the class and drips information on them slowly, like water torture.

Assuming we have connectivity, something school boards aren’t very good at because they were never meant to be internet service providers (yet have taken on this task poorly), and assuming the people in the room have developed some degree of digital mastery, then information will fall to hand.  Waiting for it to drip, drip, drip out of a teacher’s mouth or out of a static, out of date textbook shows a startling lack of awareness in how the world works nowadays.

The opportunity to collaborate and support each other is continuously available and learning reverts to the self-directed and driven activity it was before we institutionalized it.  Questions of engagement quickly become irrelevant in a world where teachers aren’t vital because of facts they know.  Those sages are going to have to find other ways to pamper their egos.  If they aren’t expert learners themselves they will quickly find that they have no skill to share with students, and if you have no skills to teach you don’t serve much purpose in a world where any fact is a few keystrokes away.

There was a time when you needed a teacher to show you the way into hard to find information.  Nowadays a good high speed internet connection has that information at your fingertips, assuming you know how to use it.  Many teachers are still trying to be a font of information, even as the information revolution passes them by.  The real losers in this aren’t the teachers struggling to keep things the way they were, but the students we’re graduating who have no idea how different the world on the other side of school actually is.

Sand in the Sahara

The other day I was trying to work out how experiential and academic learning interact.  In the process I also found myself assuming things about fundamental learning skills that don’t necessarily exist in many modern classrooms:

Foundational skills are changing now that information is no longer scarce

It used to be that literacy and numeracy were the student skills we felt they needed to succeed.  Information fluency was less important because the gatekeepers of knowledge (teachers) and the limited nature of published paper meant you didn’t have access to what you needed to know so you needed an expert to direct you.  In a world with limited information having a guide direct you to a scarce resource is invaluable.

When I was in high school information was hard to come by.  You needed access to a limited number of books and if you had a question a teacher would provide you access to that information.  Because of scarcity, verbal transmission of information (teacher’s mouth to student’s ear) made sense.  Many teachers still cling to that model because it’s the only one they’ve ever known and they identify their profession through that process.  In 2014 they they are trying to sell sand in what has become the Sahara.

Information is abundant and accessible with only a basic understanding of the technology that provides it.  A modern student who looks to a teacher to give them facts has been conditioned by teachers to be helpless.  Teachers who jealously guard and distribute knowledge in predigital ways are the ones crying about how technology lets students plagiarize or collaborate with each other, or share information – it’s really all the same thing.  Students who are able to find, critically assess and organize information are the ones modelling 21st Century skills.  The ones who have been taught to be passive receivers in a sea of information are a failure in an education system set on maintaining traditional habits.

Considering how information fluency has changed from a passive to an active pursuit (in much the same way that passive TV watching has evolved into active video game participation), it would behoove the education system to recognize the need to integrate information fluency into early education in order to produce self-directed, empowered learners who are able to leverage the ocean of information that surrounds them.  Ignoring this new fundamental skill is producing whole generations of digital serfs.

There is no doubt that literacy, numeracy and the basic socialization of early school is still the foundation, but upon that foundation we should be building information fluency in order to produce people who are not overwhelmed or habituated into a dangerously simplistic relationship with information technology.  By the time a student reaches secondary school they should be sufficiently skilled in literacy, numeracy and information fluency to be able to self direct many aspects of their learning.  In that environment a classroom teacher would very much be a facilitator rather than a traditional teacher, but it’s never going to happen if we don’t take information fluency as seriously as we do literacy and numeracy.

Building foundational learning skills should result in empowered, self-directed learners who can
survive and thrive in an information rich world.

The End of Knowledge

I’ve just wrapped up a grade 11 university level English class.  I only tend to teach these classes once every couple of years now, so I see real differences in how academic students are evolving with technology use.

This time around we have a Google Apps for Educators system well established and I assumed academically focused students would be very handy with it.  I shouldn’t assume these things.  Once again I’m surprised at how habitual digital natives are with their technology use; they know how to do the few repetitive things they use technology for very fluently, but asking them to extend that fluency to other software or hardware results in the same kind of frustration you see in anyone.  Technology use really needs to be a generally taught skill – teaching specific apps on specific hardware doesn’t create genuine understanding of information technology and what it can do for you.

Beyond the typical tech-incompetence that we prefer to ignore rather than resolve, there were some deeper implications to technology use that became apparent while marking the final exam.  As a general rule, I encourage productive use of online information resources.  I consider a student who can meaningfully and accurately use the internet to enhance their knowledge to be in a good place academically.  I’m starting to rethink that position.

Marking these exams, I was surprised at how many of the students I thought were A+ English students couldn’t see the figurative implications of a fairly basic piece of satire.  This article from The Onion was included on the exam, but a frustratingly high number of students thought it was about ants.  Those that did pierce the literal barrier more often than not thought it was about the government (?) in spite of me telling them again and again that figurative meaning isn’t your opinion, it’s there in the text.  Less than 1/5 of the class were able to recognize the obvious references to religion and see that article as a satire about it.

Google doesn’t know anything.  The confusion between
information and knowledge is now rampant.  It’s
based on misunderstanding how technology works.

I’m left wondering, as I finalize grades in this class, how many students didn’t so much understand Macbeth as spout internet revelations about it.  In class, students would frequently answer questions from the smartphone Google search in their laps.  I once lamented, “there is no intelligence left, just high speed internet.”

Perhaps the future of learning is the opposite of what it has always been.  Instead of internalizing information and creating constellations of meaning within our own minds, we only need know how to find what someone else said about it on the interwebs.  This raises some scary questions around what understanding is.  Complex ideas, like being able to see into figurative meaning in a text, aren’t a matter of looking up what to say on the internet.  Skills like these are based on interrelated knowledge and practice.  If it isn’t internalized, no matter how tedious digital natives may find that process, you don’t know it.

That digital natives, even the really capable ones, are shying away from internalizing knowledge in favour of getting highly proficient at finding other people’s thoughts online is a real problem.  General ignorance around how digital technology works allows people to say stupid things like ‘Google knows everything!’  Educational technology happily exists in that ignorance, encouraging the use of technology without understanding the hows of it.  Rather than question technology use in learning using epistemology and pedagogy, we try to mimic its general use in society where it is driven by market forces.  If the kids are carrying smartphones around with them everywhere, they should be in class too.  BYOD, wifi everywhere, a screen for every student; these things aren’t going to necessarily increase learning.  When you’ve got Google in your pocket you end up questioning nothing.

Learning has always demanded the internalization of information in order to form knowledge.  This was due in part to the scarcity of information in the past, but it also developed the kind of self discipline that allowed knowledgeable people to do their own research.  In our information rich world the struggle for knowledge is everything modern education is turning away from.  Student centred learning, 1:1 technology, de-emphasis on traditional learning methods – all of this is the new normal.  What was once a mentally rich and demanding internal process is turning into flat, generic, external fact regurgitation.

Digital natives live in a world of media at their finger tips.  The information revolution is, for them, an entertainment revolution where digital delivery systems create a personalized cocoon of immediate and continuous whim satisfaction. The personalization of media has created the impression that technology is there as either distraction or, at best, a shortcut to easy answers.  When all our knowledge is reduced to information we might be able to spout facts, but we understand nothing.


After repeatedly being told verbally and in writing that you can’t have an electronic device within reach during a formal exam, one of those grade 11s had his cell phone fall out of his jacket pocket while writing.  He wasn’t cheating with it, he just thought all those warnings didn’t apply to him because asking him to leave his phone at the front of the room is the equivalent, in his mind, of asking him to pull off his ears.  The digital revolution is fusing itself to our bodies and our minds, and it isn’t always an improvement.

Thoughts on how information becomes knowledge.  We simplify a complex process that demands focus and self discipline
when we infect human knowledge with machine fact.


Privacy Never Existed & Ownership of Information Is Dead

What you do when you try to privatize,
own or control digital content in the C21st

When #ontsm considered how to introduce social media to students there was a lot of talk about walled gardens and safe places.  By creating private digital spaces students could become used to the nuances of online life in a tidal pool before they wandered out into the ocean.  It’s a nice idea.  It’s predicated on a myth.

The flaw in this thinking is that privacy exists, that it ever existed.  Anonymity is very difficult to maintain, it always has been.  This isn’t a digital issue.  A hundred years ago, people weren’t able to move about as easily as they do now.  You tended to exist in a much more colloquial and static social group.  Your town or village knew who you were because you were contextualized in it by your family, job, religion, culture and friends.  Modern cities barely existed at that point.  Industrialization and the machinery it produced gave us the  ability to migrate individually in the 20th Century, but even that came with a lot of social baggage.  If you were out alone on a motorcycle, you were socially classified, even if people didn’t know you personally. We do this all the time with race, socio-economic status, even accent; every time we stereotype we do it.  Privacy has always been a myth.  If anyone lays eyes on you who doesn’t know you, their impression of you is what you are socially.  Digital information makes a greater mockery of that myth by spreading us across the web, ignoring our geography.

Digital information is so fluid, so easy to create and share, that it is frictionless.  You don’t have to physically share a book to share text any more, you don’t have to physically share a DVD to share a video any more.  When information is a stream of data constantly flowing, ownership and privacy become impossible to manage in any traditional sense.

If you put student data into a digital format, your ‘privacy settings’ (an ode to the myth to make you feel better) are set to whomever is the viewer of your content with the least goodwill toward you and the least respect for your privacy.  This goes beyond the people you shared it with to anyone at all who can view your information.  Any attempts to ‘lock down’ (another backward looking term designed to make you feel better) digital information is easily bypassed by a screen capture or a cut and paste.

The digital is leaking into the physical world too.  If anyone sees or hears you doing anything, anywhere, at any time, and they have a smart phone on them, you are the push of a button away from being published.  Stupidity has never been so readily documented; see youtube for a billion examples.  If you think you’re ‘safe’  because you’re not doing something digitally, the ability to record and publish digitally makes your point moot.  Want to go back to report cards on paper?  It’s one photo away from being on Facebook.  Think you’re in private because you’ve closed the door to your classroom?  The kid videoing you without your knowing will have you on youtube in thirty seconds, and then copies of copies of copies spread across the web.

The idea of privacy might be a byproduct of industrialization – that machines can insulate us from our social context and offer us a kind of freedom people have never really had before.  We leapt into digital machines thinking they would further isolate us from each other and preserve the myth of privacy, but the slippery nature of digital information makes a mockery of the myths of privacy and ownership of information.

Revolutions and Dataspheres

When you can propagate information this easily and quickly, and exponentially like a virus, who owns it?  When we stumbleupon material intentionally author intent quickly becomes a secondary influence in media.  The viral nature of social media sharing pushes information in a way that used to be the job of publication.  It’s hard to even introduce traditional publishing into this environment.  This is such a chaotic, crowdsourced, place, the idea of a professional publisher (itself based on an industrialized limitation around the costs of printing to paper) becomes almost impossible to justify.  Editors give way to crowd wisdom and the results are often indistinguishable.  An argument might be made for professional publishing, but if crowd sourced material finds ways to approach the quality of traditional media, and ends up forcing it out of the market, what is left for the professional publisher?

Does the author’s intended audience matter?  That information takes on a life of its own.  Its audience is dictated by its accessibility and how effectively it hooks a viewer’s attention.  In a medium where people are buried in information, caprice replaces intent, information that captures curiosity is gold.

The shear volume of data in this wild-west is so overwhelming that it couldn’t possibly be managed by traditional (industrially designed, limited paper media driven) editorial systems.  Machines can try to self organize the data they present, and they are getting better and better at it, but crowd sourcing offers a way to keep a human touch in information flow.  It lacks the clarity of purpose of professional editorial work, but given enough time it often produces surprisingly similar results.  In fact, it often bypasses the political spin and self interest that traditional hierarchies have always put on the limited industrially defined information they claimed ownership over.  Democratization of information means it becomes free from manipulation by the former gatekeepers of it.

If you’re making content in this brave new world, don’t expect to own or even direct it, once it’s out, it may end up in unexpected places.  If you’re not making content, don’t worry, everyone one around you is, and it will end up where you don’t want it as well.  How do companies and individuals survive in this madness?  No one is really sure (I have a guess), but one thing is sure, it won’t be boring.

I was listening to CBC’s The Current today as they had Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas on talking about what is about to happen to the world.  Two billion people are online, another five billion are about to join them.  We’ve already seen the internet bypass governments and ferment revolution in the Middle East, and we’ve seen Western governments struggling with trying to keep control of information with wikileaks and other hactivism.  If you have a few minutes, listen to Cohen on The Current.  His ideas about where the world is going are radically transformative.  The only part I’d question is his assertion that Google is a force of nature in this process, rather than just the most successful parasite.