Information Services Today: The Consistency of Change in Our Information/Learning Landscape

April 10, 2015

Given all we read and hear every day, we could easily (and mistakenly) assume that being overwhelmed by information and a rapid technology-driven rate of change is a new phenomenon—but it’s also relatively easy to discover what a consistently-important challenge the flow of information and the pace of change has been, if we delve into Sandra Hirsh’s newly-released anthology Information Services Today: An Introduction.

Information_Services_Today--CoverWhile the entire book is—among other things—a richly rewarding exploration of the changing nature of librarianship/the work of information professionals, one important moment of change- and information-management revelation comes in Christine Pawley’s contribution (Chapter 2, “Libraries and Information Organizations: Two Centuries of Experience”) as she writes about how “new technologies lead to information overload”: “…William S. Learned noted a ‘phenomenal improvement in speed and accuracy of communication’ and complained that even the trained student finds the time required thoroughly to examine a topic in an unfamiliar field almost prohibitive”—not today, but in 1924 (Information Services Today, pp. 13-14). If we pursue this theme by revisiting Sarah Houghton’s “Being Wired or Being Tired: Ten Ways to Cope With Information Overload” (originally published online July 30, 2008 in Ariadne), we find the reminder that “As far back as the sixteenth century people were complaining about the wide range of information they had to consume in order to contribute to society.”

Flip_Your_Classroom--CoverAny of us involved in training-teaching-learning within libraries and other learning organizations viscerally know and understand the feeling of being overwhelmed by information and change. We recognize that an important component of our learning-facilitation efforts is to help learners come to terms with the changes they face within any learning opportunity. We also are struggling to find words evocative enough to describe what we do so we recognize the ever-expanding breadth and scope of our work and offer terminology that helps others understand how much what we offer has changed. And we do understand that the goal of “keeping up” with educational technology and even with the basics of how to learn in a world where the way we learn is continuing to evolve (e.g., through the flipped classroom model, through massive open online courses—MOOCs—and through innovative blended-learning opportunities) is about as easy to reach as the pot of gold at the base of a rainbow.

At a certain level, it’s somewhat comforting to read those words that Learned wrote in 1924 and that Houghton wrote in 2008: we realize that others have faced and survived the challenges we continue to face. It’s also comforting and inspiring to read those words within the context of Information Services Today’s book-length exploration of our changing learning and information landscape: we see that the nature of library collections is changing—but that has always been true. We see that the nature of libraries is changing—but that, too, has been true for many decades. We see that library users’ expectations are changing—another consistent element within the library and information services world. We see that the tech tools that information professionals use continue to evolve and that the need to continually upgrade our skills is essential—but the best of our current and former colleagues have always recognized that their work required and continues to require a commitment to lifelong learning. And I suspect many of my best training-teaching-learning colleagues in a variety of learning environments would have little argument that continual learning and a responsiveness to change are among the requirements and the pleasures of the work we do.

The theme of change is particularly apparent in Lisa Gregory and Amy Rudersdorf Information Services Today chapter on “Digital Resources.” As they discuss a digital librarian’s roles (cataloger, collector, educator, legal expert, manager, negotiator, researcher, and technologist), we see some terms that would be familiar to most librarians/information professionals as well as to many trainer-teacher-learners, and we see some terms that reflect how quickly our professions are evolving. Nowhere is the need for adaptability among all of us more apparent than in the section about technologists: “The technology skill sets needed by digital librarians are as varied as the technologies that surround us. However, most digital librarians should—at the minimum—have a basic understanding of content management systems, databases, some metadata standards, and web technologies (p. 102)”—advice that can easily guide our training-teaching-learning colleagues to greater opportunities for success.

All of this would seem to be the fodder for nightmares among those who despair of ever keeping up with the flow of information and the rate of change within our lives. But some of what we gain through contemporary learning experiences themselves is an understanding that keeping up has long required an ability to sift through what comes our way. Filtering out what is less important. Applying what we can apply. Relying on our colleagues and other members of our personal learning networks to help us fill the gaps we face. And developing what might be coined as yet another form of literacy: “information-overload literacy”—the skill and the ability to know when it’s time to step away from the flood of information and rapid pace of change long enough to relish what we have absorbed.

N.B.: This is the second in a series of reflections inspired by Information Services Today: An Introduction, which includes Paul’s chapter on “Infinite [Lifelong] Learning.”


#etmooc Tweet Chat: Navigating Streams and Rivers

February 7, 2013

Fascinated by and immersed in Twitter backchannels and tweet chats, I’ve recently been assisting learners in the latest offering of our ALA Editions Social Media Basics course as they explore live chat sessions in a variety of social media platforms. Guiding them through chats in Twitter via TweetDeck, HootSuite, and TweetChat as well as through a private discussion group in Facebook has given me a greater appreciation for how much we all struggle to cope with the information deluge that we face every day—a situation that for me has increased exponentially over the past week as a result of my decision to dive into #etmooc, the Education Technology and Media MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) organized by University of Regina professor of educational technology and media Alec Couros and several “co-conspirators.”

etmooc#etmooc is incredibly engaging and well organized—which makes it one of the best online learning experiences I’ve ever had—but there’s no avoiding the constant risk of drowning in the deluge if those of us actively participating in #etmooc are not diligent about managing our time and resources. There’s the main site itself; the blog hub that aggregates postings from nearly 500 course participants; several branches that lead us to other social media platforms (e.g., Twitter and Google+) where various discussions are carried on day and night; extended sessions that occur live and then are archived in Blackboard Collaborate; and numerous offshoots through links to online articles and other resources, including postings on YouTube. (When you’re among 14,000 learners who are distributed all over the world, there is no possibility of closing down the course for the night, so one of the many lessons learned through this education technology and media course is how to focus on what’s essential and to not worry about what we don’t have time to explore.)

Deciding to join the #etmooc weekly tweet chat yesterday afternoon initially didn’t seem to present much of a challenge. I logged into TweetChat so I’d be able to focus on nothing but the flow of #etmooc tweets, and set up my account to pull in anything tagged with the #etmooc identifier (the course hashtag). As the discussion began, I was struck by a couple of unexpected observations: the number of participants seemed alarmingly small given how many people are registered and participating in the course, and the moderator seemed to have set up an unnecessary extra step by referring us to a different site if we wanted to monitor the questions that were meant to seed the hour-long conversation. I was even more puzzled by that decision when the moderator mentioned another very popular and well-organized tweet chat (#lrnchat) as a model for the #etmooc session, yet wasn’t following the obvious #lrnchat practice of posting questions directly into the chat as it proceeded. Bouncing back and forth between the site with the questions and the TweetChat stream of comments wasn’t impossible, but it was a bit frustrating, so I actually started copying the questions into the live chat session in the hope that it would stimulate others to contribute more dynamically to the conversation.

But this just didn’t feel right in a course as well designed as #etmooc is. And it wasn’t right. Because in my haste to join the session, I had missed a notice on the #etmooc site providing the chat hashtag as #etmchat to differentiate it from the general course Twitter feed to be found at #etmooc. What finally tipped me off was noticing, nearly halfway into the session, that a few notes had both hashtags—which, of course, prompted me to change my TweetChat setting to #etmchat and immediately discover the flood of exchanges I’d been expecting from the beginning.

Making that quick virtual leap from a meandering stream to a raging river of tweets was, to say the least, temporarily disorienting. And there was no way, given the flow of words, to review what had come before if I wanted to keep up with what was yet to come. So I took the plunge, joined the larger conversation, and had 30 minutes of exchanges with colleagues worldwide on the topic we’re currently studying: digital storytelling.

By the time the session reached its conclusion, I had made a few wonderful new connections. Learned an incredible amount on the topic under discussion. And received a very important reminder regarding a key element of online learning: don’t forget to read the details in online postings if you don’t want to end up floating on a stream via the wrong hashtag when a river of information is just a virtual stone’s throw away.

N.B.: This is the fifth in a series of posts responding to the assignments and explorations fostered through #etmooc; it also serves as another example of digital storytelling.


Nicholas Carr, the Shallows, and Reflective Learning

July 1, 2011

An author who begins his book on “what the Internet is doing to our brains” by admitting that he is rarely able to “immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article” raises an obvious question in the mind of even the most lackadaisical reader: So how were you able to write a book inspired by your lengthy article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and how is anyone who uses the Internet going to be expected to actually read it?

Fortunately for all of us involved in training-teaching-learning, Nicholas Carr managed to persevere and even address those obvious questions near the end of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And, in offering us that book, he provides an engaging look at how the neuroplastic nature of our brains is helping us adapt to the flood of information the Internet brings our way—something we need to understand if we’re going to effectively work with the learners we are serving.

“The very existence of this book would seem to contradict its thesis,” Carr disengagingly admits (p. 199). “If I’m finding it so hard to concentrate, to stay focused on a line of thought, how in the world did I manage to write a few hundred pages of at least semicoherent prose? It wasn’t easy.” He even, at that late point in the book, softens the case he makes throughout the book by writing, “The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can.”

But by then it is too late for us to quibble. Through his lucid prose and by consistently introducing us to a variety of sources documenting how we absorb information, he builds a strong case for the argument that what we are doing as we quickly jump from Internet site to Internet site leaves us skimming the surface—wading ineffectually through those shallows he cites in his title—rather than engaging in the sort of reflective learning that the act of reading books often supports.

Those of us who do not have trouble reading (or writing) long articles or books would suggest to Carr that he appears to be right on target in explaining how our brains change physiologically in response to the constant inundation of information. Furthermore, he builds a strong case for his contention that quickly leaping from one website to another in a frenetic race through an enticing array of hyperlinks leaves us with little time to reflect upon and absorb the writing in any one article we encounter.

And yet—as usual—I find myself focusing on people as much as on technology. I find it as hard to blame the Internet for what we are doing to ourselves as I would find it hard to blame television or radio or videogames for the shallowness that is so often apparent in our intellectual lives. What I’m actually seeing here is yet another opportunity for trainer-teacher-learners: the opportunity to call our learners’ attention to all that Carr documents and work with them to counteract the shallow learning curve this sort of leaping produces.

It really is no different than the effort our best teachers made, during our academic careers, to help us develop effective study habits. If we accept Carr’s thesis that we’re undercutting our own ability to read and absorb material because, like kids in a candy shop, we’re always racing off to the next bright and shiny bit of information the Internet offers us, then the answer is to help interested learners find ways to slow the process. Step away from the hyperlinks. And spend a little more time in the uninterrupted pursuit of reflecting upon the more thoughtful pieces of writing that come our way—like The Shallows does—so we can have our learning cake and eat it too.

If “information overload has become a permanent affliction,” as Carr asserts (p. 170), then we as trainer-teacher-learners need to play a leading role in acting upon that diagnosis and showing our learners—while reminding ourselves—that slowing down a bit will bring us long-term benefits including reduced stress levels, higher levels of creativity, and more productive approaches to the challenges we face in our work and personal lives.

We don’t really have to go down the unnecessary path of making this an either-or choice between reading books and reading online materials. We can and should continue using the Internet and all those fabulous hyperlinks when they serve our needs. We also can and should continue recognizing that immersion in a printed or electronic book while fending off distractions does require effort on our part.

As Carr notes, it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding enough to be well worth the effort. As anyone who made it this far into this article can probably confirm.


Trainers Talking: Maurice Coleman and Sarah Houghton-Jan

January 11, 2010

When two of the great voices in training meet (virtually) to explore their craft, the rest of us can listen with pleasure. And learn. Which is exactly what happens in a new special recording in the T Is For Training series. Program host Maurice Coleman, Technical Trainer at Harford County (MD) Public Library, interviews Librarian in Black Sarah Houghton-Jan in a session now available online, and the result provides comfort and inspiration for all of us.

Worried about feeling overwhelmed by the flood of information we drown in nearly every day? Then you’ll be relieved to hear Houghton-Jan admit that having subscriptions to approximately 690 RSS feeds and more than 30 newsletters finally forced her to do a massive amount of trimming to bring that deluge under control.

“I have this drive to know everything all the time,” she explains before noting that she is now “down to about 100” feeds and just a few newsletters. She still consults too many sources, she acknowledges, but is finding sites including ReadWriteWeb (web products and trends), technology strategist Emily Chang’s eHub blog, and Lifehacker (a blog designed to help readers efficiently and easily accomplish a variety of technology and other tasks) helpful in efforts to remain current as a writer, trainer, presenter, and the Digital Futures Manager for the San Jose Public Library system in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Wondering how trainers can acquire a better understanding of the market they serve? Then her description of traveling up and down the state of California while teaching for Infopeople provides a great reminder that the best workplace learning and performance practitioners are continually learning while they work.

Curious about whether well respected trainers and other presenters feel the same nervousness you feel when you stand before an audience and, if so, how they deal with that challenge? Then you’ll enjoy Houghton-Jan’s description of how she has learned to remove the shakiness from her voice at those moments by “quieting” her voice: “I don’t think it matters who you are…We all get nervous,” she says.

And if you’re still struggling to come to terms with how to strike an adequate work-life balance, you may benefit from the words she offers here: “…some sort of work-life balance is not a luxury. It’s a necessity…It’s not OK to spend 18 hours a day away from home…and then, when you get home, spend another three hours on the computer.”

Which is fine, as long as we don’t spend so much time away from our computers or mobile devices that we overlook the pleasures of passing an hour or so with colleagues like Coleman and Houghton-Jan.


Best Practices: Sarah Houghton-Jan on “Being Wired or Being Tired”

June 2, 2009

 

Infopeople instructor and Librarian in Black Sarah Houghton-Jan has hit another home run, and it would take someone like Sarah to pull this off.

In “Being Wired or Being Tired: 10 Ways to Cope with Information Overload” (published online in the July 2008 issue of Ariadne), she produces a journal-length article of more than 6,000 words for those of us who don’t have enough time to do everything we want to do. The piece ends with 16 references for those wanting more information. And she manages to entice us into making the time to read the entire piece.

“I am still here, I am still alive, and my brain has yet to explode, so somehow I must be finding a way to make it work,” she writes at the beginning of the article, and we’re with her all the way from her brief history of information overload, through the techniques for managing overload, to her conclusion that “as information professionals, we are best equipped to recognize information overload and deal with its effects.”

There is lots of common sense here: filtering the information we receive; controlling rather than being controlled by incoming email; not feeling compelled to answer every phone call or instant message as it comes in; and having no hesitation about turning off a cell phone when interruptions will interfere with our ability to complete important tasks or be attentive during meetings.

We also find some uncommon yet easy-to-implement suggestions here for those of us congenitally afraid of cutting ourselves off from any information source: “Cancel subscriptions to periodicals you rarely read. If you do not get to read the Sunday paper until the following Saturday, that is a clear sign that you need less information,” she counsels in a section on print media overload techniques.

Nearing the end of the article, she takes us to the heart of the matter in a paragraph on balancing life and work: “If you find yourself tapping at a keyboard next to your partner on the sofa while you are watching a movie, instead of sidling up next to him or her, you may have a work/life balance problem…”

“Being Wired” is obviously resonating with readers: Sarah is receiving quite a few queries from those interested in having her speak to their groups on the topic. Which, we can only assume, is adding to her own overload while she is helping us reduce our own.

This item was originally posted on September 26,  2008 on Infoblog at http://infoblog.infopeople.org.


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