Teaching in the New (Abundant) Economy of Information

| March 6, 2014 | 50 Comments
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Part 1 in the series Learning In the New Economy of Information

By Shawn McCusker

In the past 10 years, perhaps nothing has changed more than the relationship between teachers and the information being distributed in their classrooms. Historically, the role of teacher has always been that of gatekeeper and distributor of the course canon. Information was dispensed. Students were encouraged to arrive at their own conclusions and interpret information, but they were limited by the fact that they were operating in a scarce economy of information (teacher, textbook and a limited number of outside sources). For the most part, the teacher was the sole provider of content, and though many teachers worked to provide quality materials and move away from a lecture-based curriculum, even these provided resources were no less teacher directed.

With the proliferation of mobile technology, our ability to access information has increased, dramatically changing the practice of teaching. Comparing the two scenarios, the circumstances couldn’t be more different.

Teaching in an Environment of Scarcity

When teaching in an environment of informational scarcity, lessons that deeply explored a subject were limited by the resources that the school library had available, as well as students’ ability to access them. (Remember encyclopedias labeled “Reference: Do not remove from library”?) Even the most thorough research might yield only a few resources. To put it simply, your Lego castle could be no larger than the maximum number of bricks that you possessed. There just weren’t that many bricks available for building.

In this information scarce environment, the main form of instruction was a lecture, and the tools that dominated the classroom were just as understandably those that distributed the limited information: textbooks and chalkboards. Much of early educational technology consisted of tools to enhance the lecture. While PowerPoint is often derided today, at its inception, it offered an effective way to share pictures and graphics, emphasize information, and ration the delivery of content (just as the cover paper on an overhead slide once did, only better).

A teacher might spend the better part of her career collecting effective, appropriate, and accessible sources for their students — think of all the hours and money spent finding specific artifacts at libraries and museums, which today can be found through one search of Google images. But before that was possible, finding, evaluating, preparing, copying, and distributing such materials made lessons with rich resources a rarity, and came at the cost of time — the ultimate educational currency.

The New Economy of Abundance

Today, there’s almost an over-abundance of information. A class of students could easily collect and process 100 potential sources in a single class. They can access materials from different eras and regions. They have access to experts and their work. It’s becoming common for actual artifacts to be available online; and in many cases, replicas of artifacts can even be downloaded and reconstructed with a 3D printer.

In an economy of such abundant information, the teacher who still insists upon distributing information via lecture is competing with primary sources and documents that would allow students to actively participate in ways far deeper than simply listening. If a student can download a PowerPoint, or take pictures of notes on the board, is it the most efficient use of class time to have them copy content line by line? The speed with which information can be accessed and shared seems to invalidate the pace of the everyday lecture.

But far from devaluing the role of the modern teacher, the new economy of information has freed teachers from their role as “font of knowledge” and allowed them to become chief analyzer, validity coach, research assistant, master differentiator, and creator of a shared learning experience. Today’s teacher will have to make sense of information that he may not be able to predict (because it is student generated), and yet still ensure that the daily learning objective is met. This is done by highlighting and celebrating successes, building skills, and honing the ability to evaluate information.

In the past, teachers gave life to learning for generations of students — no different than today. But they were operating in an environment of scarcity that would make today’s teachers cringe (and they do, every time the Internet is down for more than just
a short while). As the information available and our ability to access it increases, this new economy of information is transforming the practice of teaching and the roles of both teacher and student.

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  • Holli

    Love this line, “Today’s teacher will have to make sense of information that he may not be able to predict…” This is so true. The role has shifted to a much more guiding role. I love helping students explore the information that is right at their fingertips!

    • CrankyFranky

      true – every day I ask students to show me how to do something on the computer that I’ve never seen before

      I think I read recently that pretending to be perfect sets you up for disrespect, while acknowledging you don’t know looks more human and allows making mistakes and sharing of understanding – I don’t know, anyone ? – kids love it when they can show the teacher something

  • Natural Born Learners

    Unschooling, ‘open source learning,’ ‘passion led’ education has been saying so for decades. Check out this book on autonomy in education: http://www.amazon.com/Natural-Born-Learners-Unschooling-Education/dp/1489581634/ref=tmm_pap_title_0

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  • http://www.innovation.io Tamara Carleton

    You raise good points, thank you! I have been exploring the notion of abundance for the business community, which may interest you (and your readers) as a complementary thread: http://emerging.uschamber.com/search/site/abundance.

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  • Katy Gallagher

    And don’t forget, in schools where there is a certified librarian, teachers and students have an expert on hand to help them with this!

    • T. Davis

      Let’s not assume a “certified librarian” is an “expert” in gathering and analyzing valid sources. Just as many certified teachers have not adapted and embraced technology, many school librarians remain in the environment of scarcity because they refuse to learn to use online resources effectively. If you are truly an expert librarian, I applaud you. If you have an expert librarian in your school, I am happy that you are so fortunate. The teachers have to be the experts at my school.

      • Katy Gallagher

        In Massachusetts”…gathering and analyzing valid sources” is a primary responsibility of a certified school librarian. I graduated from a school library program in the early 2000′s and learned that then. It pains me to hear there are school librarians who have not kept up with contemporary media formats. I hope that changes for your school.

      • guest

        Not really. Most teachers have the worst searching and evaluation habits and they pass their lack of knowledge onto their students. School librarians are teachers and they keep current unlike many classroom teachers. Librarians have been involved in information technology changes from the beginning. Just where do you get your information from? Are you a school librarian?

        • T. Davis

          I get my information from being at a school where I had to teach the librarian how to effectively use EBSCO. I have acquired good search and evaluation skills through classes taken at the graduate level and continually keeping myself updated. I feel like I must in order to be an effective teacher. I have spoken with other teachers in my district and we do have some excellent librarians, but we also have a few that just don’t keep up. As I said in my original post, I applaud all good librarians. I get to work with a great librarian from another school in the district when I teach summer school. I just don’t want all to assume that they will have that support. Sometimes the teachers are going to have to step up and fill in the gaps…if they have the appropriate skills themselves.

    • Shawn McCusker

      I think having a certified Librarian who is a legitimate expert in searching and managing online resources is key to the future of schools, especially those that are moving to 1:1 programs. The ever growing amount of online resources is incredible and an amazing librarian can make the entire school more effective at accessing them.

  • Dawn Lynch

    While I agree with most of what you say, you assume all of that information is good information and written in an accessible way. As a middle school science teacher, most primary sources do not allow students to actively participate in deeper ways, even for the gifted student with very high reading ability. I would venture to say the average high school student would be similarly challenged. I still spend a lot of time collecting effective accessible resources and do lecture once or twice every 9 weeks. I wholeheartedly agree that the internet makes it easier, but it does not by the fact of its existence make it better. I wish my students could easily collect and process a 100 potential sources. It usually turns out that many sources are just restating the original or written totally over students’ heads.

  • Kristopher Heinekamp

    While the tone of this is optimistic and light, I find some shortcomings in this analysis.
    I agree with the main idea though, teaching is changing in a fundamental way wherein they are no longer expected to be the sole source of information.
    But, where I disagree is that I think there is still a need for teachers to possess a lot of knowledge and to be able to model serious information gathering.

    First and foremost, why are we presupposing that the information students have access to is of any quality? Yes, there is a lot of information on the internet, but it is almost entirely shallow. The internet is a vast lake of information, but it never goes more than a few feet deep.
    In comparison, books and the library have VAST, DEEP reserves of information.
    Really, students just have QUICK ACCESS to Wikipedia; they have a speed advantage, but no advantage in regards to depth. I don’t think Wikipedia is unreliable in accuracy, but it is an encyclopedia! Back before the internet, we learned that the encyclopedia was the place you BEGAN your research; where you found the BASICS about a topic. Now, it’s the end-all, be-all of research.
    Worst of all, this PERCEPTION of superior information access leads students to become lazy researchers. If it’s not found on Wikipedia or the first page of the Google results, they assume it doesn’t exist.
    Further, if it’s not found in a VIDEO format, they can’t be bothered to seek the information most of the time.
    So, instead of arguing that the internet has given students wonderful, easy, vast access to knowledge, I would argue that it’s given them instant access to mediocre knowledge while it has completely shut them off to books and the deep knowledge of the library and other “traditional” information sources.
    i.e. The internet and technology has made students impatient with learning. They need to know it NOW, and it NEEDS to be in tl;dr format! Books!? “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” (<- That's a reference to a meme, btw)

    Second, this inspirational musing on the future of teaching is wholly disassociated from the reality of what focusing on technology has done to the classroom; "metrics."
    Whereas success used to be measured by the ability of students to learn information and analyze a topic, now it's all about the quantitative score they achieve on a standardized test.

    Third, this also presupposes access to a pretty expensive setup. While it's entirely reasonable to assume internet/computer access inside a Suburban white school and (especially) in their homes, there are a lot of kids who don't have access to computers or the internet at home (and even at school). If we entirely externalize information content onto the internet, this could seriously disadvantage large amounts of students (and, see point 1 for why I think this disadvantages ALL students).

    Fourth, why are we presupposing that constant access to computers/internet is good for kids? While it sounds great and noble to stick kids in front of computers to "find" knowledge, sitting people in front of computers inevitably leads 90%+ of people to immediately become distracted with banality. The moment a student has a lapse of attention (which is pretty quick these days), being on a computer isn't going to help. The most engaging lessons on earth will still present students with ample opportunity to distract themselves. Any teacher who disagrees that I've met simply doesn't know enough about using computers to understand how their students are messing around, even though they don't SEE it when they look over.
    Lack of focus and lack of attention spans are two of the most troubling aspects of younger students. Sometimes, making them interact and stay focused with another human being in order to gain access to knowledge can be great.

    So, in closing, while I agree with the sentiment and overall arch of the article, I find some major problems with this idea as well. Self-paced, individualized learning SOUNDS great, but the reality is that humans learn best from other humans. Talking, arguing, and interacting with other people creates real, deep learning. The nature of technology and the internet make it problematic for technology and the internet to be the solution. Instead of providing meaningful interaction with others, instead of being a hub of deep, vast knowledge, and instead of being a supplemental resource for students, technology and the internet are becoming THE answer we're being sold; despite being a constant source of distraction and banality, despite being a source of limited, superficial knowledge, despite being the one and only resource students rely on.

    • OAllieG67

      And more than that, why are we assuming that students even want the information available? My undergraduates simply are not interested in reading, at all. They aren’t interested in reading news reports, they aren’t interested in reading articles, essays, or blogs; unless it has something to do with entertainment or gaming or some other irrelevant issue, they just are not interested. So yes, all this information is available. Yes, it can change the face of teaching. Yes, students have access like they’ve never had before, but none of this matters one whit unless students want to access that information… and they don’t

    • Josh

      Knives can cut people who don’t know how to use them correctly, so lets only let adults use knives.

      Children need instruction and experience in HOW to use the new tools at their disposal. The unfortunate truth is that most teachers do not know how to use the internet to find quality information and so cannot teach it. However, the answer is not to give up. Deep, insightful information IS available on the internet but one must be persistent and look with a critical eye. Students must learn how to ask themselves, “What is viewpoint of the author of this article or study?” “What is the motivation they have for sharing this information.” “What kinds of criticisms might others have of this source?” “What counter-arguments or alternative interpretations exist?” While we might pretend that these skills were not necessary back in the book days…Actually they were. Many of us learned that if it’s in the encyclopedia it’s true. If it’s in the newspaper it’s true. If someone with a PhD says it, it’s true. However, this has never been the case.

      What is most needed now is not new ways to fill students head with as much information as possible as fast as possible, but tactics to train students to seek truth amongst oceans of information, to analyze, criticize, and always look for the other side.

      When teachers were hailed as the fonts of information, students were not taught to question that information, lest they question the teachers themselves! What good is a gatekeeper of information if that gatekeeper is suspect of having an actual perspective, a bias, on said information? The truth is, teachers have never been unbiased dispensers of information, neither have newspapers, encyclopedias, or experts.

      The primary purpose of school should be to train students to gather and analyze information critically, no matter the source. It should be to help the make up their own minds, with the best intellectual tools available, what is true.

      The fallibility of the internet is not a fundamentally new aspect of information, it has simply eroded the illusion that published or printed information is unquestionably true. It has exposed the fact that there is no such thing as unbiased information.

      The article doesn’t go far enough in suggesting that teachers step aside as pez dispensers of truth and teach skills for lifelong learning, lifelong research, lifelong critical analysis. I think we can see the results of a generation that believes anything they are told in the way politics has so neatly divided our nation along clean media lines. Most people either believe everything Fox News tells them, or everything MSNBC tells them. Critical analysis and seeking a balanced perspective are skills that are desperately needed.

      These skills cannot be learned through lecture, however, they can only be learned through practice. A debate would be a great tool for this. Students will soon learn to predict where their opponents will find their information and successful ones will find ways to undermine those sources to win the debate. If one side relies on Wikipedia, the other side can win by going deeper and finding all the holes. In the process, the winning side will have the experience of critically analyzing sources and the losing side will have the experience of why that skill in necessary. It’s not enough for a teacher to just state: “Don’t believe everything you read.” Students must live it to learn it.

  • chrisfs

    This article comes with a presumption that all students have good access to those many resources. In a middle class neighborhood with a well funded school district perhaps. However there are still districts were that is not the case, and even if they have a cell phone, doing research for homework over a cell phone is impractical due to screen size and data speed.
    Taking a picture of the board does not aid in memory or comprehension anywhere near as much as writing the items down by hand.

  • Jim

    Interesting points, but I’m not sure I’m hearing anything new here. It has been my experience that students need help finding appropriate and correct information from internet sources, and that they have trouble making sense of it without a teacher there. I teach mathematics – students have always had access to good textbooks, but few students have been willing or able to read them effectively.

  • Costello N Coffee

    Remember that merely accessing information is not learning. Learning is active. Taking notes is one form of participating in the learning process.

    • Amy

      But most learning objectives today ask students to “use evidence to explain” and other such ways of participating in the learning process that are far more authentic than just taking notes.

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  • Clifford Nickerson

    I’ve read several articles over the past three days that have had sentences like, “The teacher who insists…” This ignores the fact that virtually all teachers are employees and it is their employers that define the curriculum. Performance is based on a single metric: test scores. (Here in Brazil in private education, they have added another important metric: student retention.) If you have to teach a specific set of information in a specific form for the test that determines if you keep your job, how is it somehow your fault for doing that? The perspective here needs to change: Businesses insist on doing things. Stop blaming teachers like me for doing what we are paid to do the way we are told to do it.

  • Clifford Nickerson

    If you encourage people to take pictures of notes on the board, you have no knowledge of the learning process and shouldn’t write about education. Please read a scientific article about the role electronic devices play in information retention. It’s your damn job to know what you’re talking about.

  • GHI408

    Most of the “information” found on the web is pure psychobabble; thus leading us back to the good old days when the expert in the classroom (teacher) provided the appropriate resources. Indeed, the teacher is now the “chief analyzer, validity coach, research assistant, master differentiator.”

  • Education Debate Sidelines

    for historical perspective, folks might be interested in reading Education Automation by Buckminster Fuller …

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  • Tiffany Reiss, PhD

    I noticed this shift start to happen back in 2007/2008 when laptops started showing up in the classroom and students used them to take notes (or surf social media). The role of the instructor is changing in that we are no longer the primary sources of information. However, I think our role is now even more important as we are the ones with the ability to give that information context and help the students connect what we are discussing in the classroom back to the “real world”.

    I would argue that just because there is more information, does not mean we are “better informed” and most students are overwhelmed with the amount of information and lack the context to know how to put all of that information together to form a bigger picture. This is why we created TheHubEdu to help everyone organize and contextualize the proliferation of all of this information, much of which I do bring into the classroom to help them connect those dots.

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  • guest

    Everyone thinks that this information just popped up. Dorothy click your heals. Information has been at your local public library for probably 100 years. Information does not make you educated. Knowing your information needs, locating the information, and effectively applying it is what makes you educated. We need to get heads out of rear ends here. You need a curriculum. You need standards. You need assessments. They need to be realistic, practical, and socially responsible. By glorifying the availability of information you are inadvertently negating the need and importance of public education.

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