Just enough? Or not enough?

February 22, 2010

Tony Karrer posed some interesting questions over at the Learning Circuits Blog; he was looking “Instruction in an Information Snacking Culture”.

Information Snacking worries me.  Not that it is entirely bad; it is in fact critical to recognize those times when you need “just enough” information to go on with; and equally key to recognize what is “just enough”.  Where problems crop up is when things shift from selective “snacking” to a practice of getting most of one’s learning from quick, surface level skimming of information.  I’ve encountered this in a variety of learner groups and the result of constant snacking is often that the habitual snacker not only has not developed the patience to consider complex ideas, but worse they have either not developed any interest in deep understanding or have lost that interest.  Those effects make me realize that the phrase “information snacking” is the perfect descriptor.  With food we all benefit from snacking occasionally. But the person who makes a steady diet of snacks can lose all appreciation of, and interest in, a well prepared dinner.

This is concerning to me for a couple of reasons.  Primarily I can see this approach leading to a new kind of “assembly line” worker, not working with mechanical parts, but limited in their work to only handling the snippets of information that are necessary to performing their function.   The second concern goes well beyond the workplace.  If a person becomes habituated to getting their information from sound bytes, whether that be 140 character tweets or a casual perusal of the first few lines of a blog, they can lose the ability to ask hard questions, and lose the interest in learning the deeper story.  That makes lives much less rich and interesting.  It also leaves people ripe for manipulation via emotion and propaganda.

With the advances in information availability in this Web 2.0/3.0 world, it seems painfully ironic that there is a growing tendency to shy away from in depth analysis.   We have all the ingredients for a rich feast of learning, but if we access it mainly in the form of snippets and quick skims, we’ll never be able to assemble that information into first rate knowledge.

Perhaps instruction in this age of a super-abundance of information primarily requires giving learners an experiential understanding of when to snack, and when they have to do the hard work of digging deeper.  The brain resists hard work, but perhaps understanding when and why it is necessary will provide the motivation to move beyond snacking and into true knowledge.

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