How Schools Can Respond To The Age Of Information

How Schools Can Respond To The Age Of Information

11/07/2012, Terry Heick

We really all should have seen this coming.

The information used to be here, and there, and over there. Now it’s moving, from a singular there, to a plural everywhere–very much a new age of information and information access.

The response to this access has been slow–and even when swift, it has rarely been compelling or long-lasting.

Information Sources

Historically, when you needed to understand something, you went somewhere—you physically had to move from one place to another. From your home to an expert; your neighborhood to some kind of school. From where you were standing, to some place to experiment.

Libraries for centuries have acted as points of media aggregation that were intellectual and cultural, and functioned as lodestones of information. While you still had to seek out the information—you had to go to it—it at least was all in one place. This reduced the activity necessary to retrieve information. Daily newspapers were the closest the mainstream came to passive media collection–each day pages of news and data would show up on your step.

The internet has changed things again, offering virtual libraries and fingertip-access to collective human information-lodes. And it can be accessed not simply from computers, but phones and gaming devices. If you consider the growth of the internet not as a cause (of the persistence of information), but an effect (of the basic human need for information in various forms), then the internet itself is simply an intermediary for how people connect—to information, and to one another.

But there is yet another change enabled by modern, digital information forms and systems: In 2012, information is becoming infinitely plural. It is packaged and re-packaged, fragmented and aggregated, split into strands, and synthesized again across platforms, devices, and apps in a ways that are simply impossible to grasp. You have the New York Times newspaper and RSS feed, twitter stream and facebook community, supplemented by an instagram and tumblr feed and “push alerts” that send out breaking news.

And it’s all the same news, but it’s not.

Marshall McLuhan’s insistence that the media is the message continues to not simply resonate, but hum in thrumming spectacle. How we access information is becoming more important than the information itself. The incredible diversity of information forms, and prevalence of devices built to access those increasingly diverse forms, is changing societal interactions with facts and ideas.

This kind of nuanced access is currently being supported through apps. Apple has sold more than 25,000,000,000 apps and counting. While that number is inflated by birds that are angry, and me-too Scrabble games, it is impossible to qualify the consumer demand that led to that kind of proliferation, as it is equally unlikely one could ever accurately describe the social change engendered by that kind of volume.

That number represents 25 billion consumer decision-making processes–and only the ones that were successful (people with iPads and iPhones, with disposable income and spare time). Imagine the actual cultural demand.

Everything Old is New Again

So enter Google Glass. It is what the name suggests it might be—Matrix-style glasses that allows Google to stream information directly to your eyes via a heads-up display on the glasses. From a general technological standpoint, it really isn’t a huge leap from existing augmented reality apps that offer a digital information overlay of a non-digital, physical environment.

In the past, augmented reality apps like Layar used camera viewfinders to identify locations for users. You’d hold up the camera and pan around, and little digital icons would pop up telling you where coffee was, the phone number of the closest bookstore, or even the average customer rating of that restaurant across the street.

In the late 20th century, you would have to ask someone where something was, or where to get a cup of joe in an unfamiliar city.

Phone numbers were in a phone book.

Restaurant ratings were in the Saturday Post next to Normal Rockwell paintings.

Information access was not only active (as opposed to passive), but it was fragmented–in bits–everywhere. If you trace the evolution of that kind of information, streaming the information right to your eyes (in lieu of being able to beam it straight to your subconsciousness) makes perfect sense.

While interesting, Google Glass is simply the continuation of that process, and it’s really the process that’s interesting.

Information has moved from singular places (here and there) to infinitely plural realities. Data is now entirely decentralized and fragmented, then re-aggregated and socially forged through apps. Then, through apps, they are re-packaged for personalized delivery to users. And with it not dropped on your doorstep, stored at the local library, or out of the mouth of inaccessible experts, that data’s retrieval is now more passive than ever before. Push technology in your smartphone will send you an alert of a nearby task that needs completing, consumer “opportunity,” or even a field trip idea.

That move from pull (seeking information) to push (that’s automatic and passive) is significant.


In and of itself, this kind of movement will not make an individual any smarter, nor society any more productive. But given the right kinds of needs for information, and the right kind of authentic opportunities for the application of information that’s persistently accessible and consumable, suddenly there is opportunity for actually improving the planet through highly-consumable data forms–taking real-time facts and statistics and improving basic human interdependence.

In all likelihood, Google Glass will arrive to little fanfare. It won’t change the world, allow the governments to control our minds, or destroy real-life human connections. The glasses may not sell well, and even if they do they will gradually be replaced by other emerging methods of providing users access to information and general digital content. But the macro trends at work here are indeed interesting. The information is constantly duplicating, diversifying, and moving all around us.

It’s not simply about more outlets or even more information, but rather an almost overwhelming environment of enormous access.

How should education adapt as a result?

By un-tethering from classrooms and pursuing fully mobile learning?

By changing the role of the teacher as content holder to resource expert and coach?

Or by dispensing with the stunningly ambitious and short-sighted goal of content-based learning standards, and instead focus on data sources, consumption patterns, and life-long learning habits?

This article is based on an article originally written by Terry Heick for Edudemic Magazine for iPad.


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