Here is a guest post from Abir Qasem, director of academic computing at Bridgewater College, and Tanya Gupta, a senior resource management officer at World Bank.
In a world dominated by social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, mobile phones that never stop ringing or texting, a significant challenge faced by higher education is to prepare students to cope with information overload. In order to provide a more useful and relevant education, we need to recast the role of an educator as an information curator.
Why the need for curation? In the world most of the faculty grew up in, education started with the textbook. The more innovative faculty used photocopies from other books, copies of articles, and their own notes to supplement their teaching. With the advent of the Web, faculty introduced Web links, usually posted on their Web pages, as supplementary materials, perhaps appropriate in a world with manageable amounts of information. With the fast pace of technology, and the accompanying need to stay up to date with the latest developments in our fields, today, the roles have flipped.
Instead of the textbook being the primary tool used for learning with the lecture as a vehicle, and Web or hard copy references used as a supplementary source of knowledge; the Web is now the primary source of current and relevant knowledge and the book and the lecture becoming secondary.
One reason is that, very often, the most relevant and current information is on the Web and hence the Web should be used before textbooks. However, the second, more important reason is that students have changed in terms of how they consume information. Learning by using the traditional lecture format, where you use a book, and the lecture to explain the contents of the book, does not work for them. Don Tapscott, writing for Bloomberg, cites Joe O’Shea, the 22-year-old Rhodes scholar from Florida State University: “I don’t read books. I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” We do not believe that it is effective to force students into using textbooks or have them sit through a traditional lecture. Therefore we need to use the Web to enable learning in this new paradigm.
There is probably enough information on the Internet for anybody in the world to get the equivalent of a Ph.D. in any subject they choose. However, the information is like a deluge from all sides -- chaotic, huge and often unreliable. The gauntlet that has been thrown down to faculty in higher education is to make Web-based dynamic knowledge digestible, relevant and useful.
Educators can do this by creating an intelligent layer on the “Web” of information, using sources that are most useful for their course, and creating a virtual binder of materials through a wiki or other tools. Perhaps the most useful element would be annotating Web pages. By annotating Web pages, teachers could say how they agree or disagree with the argument, refer (and link) to other sources from within that annotation, and even summarize the discussion in a few lines. Students could interact with the faculty by posing questions, or making comments. This annotated, commented binder could be used by other teachers around the Web.
Our objective should be to teach students to manage the information firehose they will face, instead of being managed by it. By doing so, we hope we can help to produce learning outcomes because, and not, in spite of, technology and thus equip our students not just for the classroom, but for the rest of their lives.