How does one process multiple data streams and learn more than superficially?

I’ve been reading blogs regularly for two months now. I’ve found it alternately exhiliarating and exhausting. One question keeps forming in my head no matter how much I try to ignore it. And it seems to be coming at me from several different directions. First, is the information overload problem that Martha Burtis, Brian Lamb and Stephen Downs have discussed.

Another is Diana Oblinger’s presentation at the 2005 UMW Faculty Academy, where she argued that the net generation uses a different mode of learning than earlier students, one characterized by multiple data streams and multiple media, including more images, video, animation, and audio.

Martha observed:

“I’m simply innundated with information and ideas. And the thing is, I’m barely skimming the surface. As wonderful as the the information-saturated world of blogs, and wikis, and podcasts, and social bookmarks, and all that other great stuff is, I simply can’t. . .take. . .much. . more. … And when I do read them and they are something really interesting (which isn’t ALL of the time but happens A LOT), I think “Oh no. How do I hold on to this?” I know that in two days I’ll be thinking back fondly on that great blog post I read, but I’ll have no idea of what it REALLY said…”

Okay, let me try to get to my point: this new mode of information distribution seems to emphasize breadth (e.g. multiple data streams) rather than depth and organization. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but when I read a blog and follow the links I don’t end up with an organized sense of what I’ve learned.

Compared with the “old mode” of learning using a textbook and a series of lectures, each of which tend to be organized, the new mode is bits and pieces, lots of links and references to other links and references.

Don’t get me wrong, many of these are really pithy, powerful ideas, but how does one get a sense of the whole? In short, I am left with two questions:

� With this new mode of learning, how do we know what we’ve learned; and
� How would an instructor assess what we’ve learned?

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6 Responses to How does one process multiple data streams and learn more than superficially?

  1. Jeff says:

    Steve,
    This is something I’ve struggled with as well, although less on the processing/consumption side. (I seem to take multiple streams of information with odd or non-linear narrative structures for granted, especially when it’s online.)

    My problem has been more with assigning and assessing student work online. [Box checking isn’t just easier for the students sometimes.] With my student websites I encouraged them to hold onto a clear narrative structure, despite such a order not taking advantage of all of the possibilities of the web. [See for example this article by Ed Ayers and Will Thomas as a possible approach to rethinking narrative online: http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/AHR/%5D

  2. I don’t have answers to all your questions, but here’s an intriguing view that argues podcasts can go deep, while blogs go wide (an oversimplification, but an interesting idea): http://archive.scripting.com/2005/05/24#When:2:22:36AM

    “It’s nice to see a review of podcast styles. Why not slow down and take a look at what makes this medium different from others. Maybe there’s more to it than radio; maybe, like blogs, it has something to do with the telephone? Small scale instead of huge. Maybe it’s silly to ask how many people listen to your podcast, as it would be silly to ask how many listen to your phone conversations? (Hopefully only one!) Also, podcasting is clearly not a conversation, even more than a blog, it’s one-way. I’ve never bought into the idea that a blog is a conversation. I think that came from the always-more-influential Doc Searls’s observation that markets are conversations. That doesn’t mean everything is a conversation. Hehe. Okay, imho a podcast is less a conversation than a blog is because one listens to a podcast away from the computer, and you have to remember to respond. That doesn’t mean I didn’t hear what was said, quite the opposite. When I’m walking or driving, there’s less to interfere, I hear better than I do when reading a blog or an email, where there is so much competing for my attention that I skim for comprehension. Podcasts can go deep. Permanent link to this item in the archive.”

    There are issues of genre, tempo, and who-leads-the-dance here. My own view is that we need many different kinds of cognitive workouts to have the strongest possible brains. Sustained long-term attention, useful grazing, trances, follow-the-leader, make it all up as you going along, the whole thing. Two more links:

    Wade Roush on Continuous Computing: http://www.continuousblog.net/2005/05/disconnected_at.html

    A blogger’s response quoting part of my comment on Roush’s article: http://www.crumbtrail.org/mt/archives/001229.html

  3. Jeff says:

    Gardner,
    Your point about multiple approaches is an excellent one. It’s easy to forget that, however, as one attempts to create and manage four separate courses at the same time.

  4. Right on point, Jeff. Great teaching can’t be scaled as easily or directly as current educational structures imply. Reduced teaching load is not just about more research. It’s about better teaching. That’s what my first department chair at UR told me, and she’s absolutely right.

  5. Charlotte Houtchens says:

    Hello, Steve, Jeff, Gardner, et al. Thank you, Steve, for inviting me to read the blog. I very much appreciate and relate to the suggestion that within blogs, wikis, and other multi-threaded, un-moderated, un-edited media, the center of our traditional system of scholarship and learning may not hold. (How do we know what we’ve learned? How does an instructor assess what we’ve learned?)
    The question that kept coming up for me as I listened to Diana Oblinger’s presentation and to comments and other presentations at the Faculty Academy was, “But what about authority?” (Let me also say, that until that day, I never had entertained the notion that, with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, I just might be a Luddite.)
    By “authority” I mean a couple of things. First of all, those peer-review kind of questions: “Who are you?” “What are your credentials?” “What have you read?” “Do you have the chops to join a particular scholarly discussion/write for this journal/teach this class, etc?”
    I’m so inculcated (some might say “mired”) in this model that when I clicked on the Martha Burtis link in your posting, I expected to find something that would tell me why–in addition to her terrific writing–she has the “right” to be a quotable, citable source. When I couldn’t find an “About Martha Burtis” link on her blog, I figured at first there was something wrong with me. Then I realized that’s all there is. One blogger has cited another. This is far more courtesy that we had come to expect on the Wild and Wooly Web. But the same questions arise that have to some extent been answered for the open Web. Can traditional scholarship ever comfortably nestle in the blogosphere or on a wiki? IMHO, probably not. Can blog and wiki be modified to serve traditional scholarship? Hope so. Remains to be seen.
    Honestly, the Wikipedia makes the hair on the back of my neck spring in alarm. Where’s the authority? I think I’m next on the list to check out The Wisdom of the Crowds from our library. Maybe that will shed some light.

  6. Hey Charlotte, do I have an opportunity for you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Librarians.

    Great and thoughtful comment, by the way.

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