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Filtering and Preventing Information Overload

Alvin Toffler coined the term “information overload” in the 1970’s, referring to an excess amount of information being provide which made processing difficult.  Many have suggested that the internet has increased information overload for both students and faculty.  However, Clay Shirkey gave a presentation with the title "It's Not Information Overload. It's Filter Failure" at the Web 2.0 Expo. He argued that information abundance has been a problem since Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

People have studied information overload for decades.  Miller (1960) identified six strategies for dealing with information overload:

  • The strategy of omission, or the temporary non-processing of information.
  • Processing information readily at hand, even if it is bad or incorrect information.
  • Queuing or delaying the processing of some information with the hope of catching up later.
  • Information filtering or looking at information at a higher level and saying, "I will go through this and I won't go through that." 
  • Simply walking away from the task.
  • Generalizing, using minimal information to draw broad conclusions.

None of these are really sustainable in a digital age.  There is no single cookie cutter approach to information management.  However, there are emerging trends that suggest you and your students can develop personal approaches to information management.

Technologies can help learners take control of and manage their own learning. Johnson and Liber (2008) noted that in using technology to shift the locus of control over learning to the learner, the ways in which learners exercise that control becomes an important educational issue. Tools such as RSS feeds, wikis, social bookmarking, and blogs potentially set up an environment that allows learners to:

  • set their own learning goals
  • manage their learning;
  • managing both content and process
  • communicate with others in the process of learning

…and thereby achieve their learning goals.  These tools can be multi-layers or simple, and may include a desktop application with one or more web-based services.  For instance, a fairly mature personal learning system illustrated below uses multiple systems for collecting information, creating and sharing information, collaborating with others, and communicating with a fellow network of learners:

Taking the time to develop your own process for filtering information (and helping your students build that skill) is an investment that pays off over time.  Using web tools for collection and filtering can integrate both the formal and informal learning episodes into a single experience.  Social networks can be used to cross institutional boundaries, connecting a range of resources and systems within a personally-managed space.

In developing this personal space:

  • Clarify your information needs for each situation. Information needs are dynamic, varying according to the decisions you need to make, the projects you are engaged in and your role in those projects.
  • Identify potential sources (books, articles, Web sites, databases) and common keywords that describe the concepts you are researching.
  • When using search engines, use advanced search options in lieu of simple search options.
  • Rather than trying to follow everyone, pick the three to four "thought leaders" and just follow them.
  • Use RSS feeds to pull in the information you need.
  • Use filters to pre-sort incoming mail and selectively participate in aggregators, listservs, chat rooms.
  • Adopt naming conventions for tags and stick to them. 
  • When working in a team, agree upon naming conventions at the outset. For example, add draft numbers to file names as revisions are made.
  • Set criteria for what you want to save or delete.
  • Work out how and when to process information.
  • Review your information periodically. Prune ruthlessly based on use. If you don't access a file within a specified time limit, then don't keep it.
 
 
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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