When I was in college (for 12 years I might add) there were really only three sources of information available to students: 1) Instructor 2) Textbook 3) Library. This was not such a distant past. A mere two decades ago I finished my undergrad, and I graduated with my PhD in 2001. I don’t think learning, or even how we learn, has changed all that much since then. But what has changed is access to information and how that access might actually distract from learning.
We live in the information age. We have more information available to us than we could possibly keep up with on a daily basis. Everything we do now revolves around obtaining more and more information. We think that if we have more information, we are better “informed”. The issue is not with the information itself, but with the quality and sheer quantity of the information.
For those of us raised in that distant galaxy two to three decades ago, or even further out, this is not so detrimental because we already have a solid context and construct from which to place all of this information. Think about today’s learner however, someone who doesn’t have that context or construct fully developed. Now think about the sheer quantity of information to which they are exposed. If learning is about putting together a puzzle and then connecting those puzzles to form a bigger picture, they don’t even know into which puzzle all of these pieces fit. They lack context. If building a house, they have tons of building materials at their fingertips, but don’t have a solid blueprint or foundation to build upon.
The abundance of freely available information also has changed the role of educators. It’s no longer about us standing in front of class and providing information. It’s about helping these learners contextualize that information. Helping them connect it to what is out there in the real world and give it foundation and meaning. They have access to the information already, but can they critically evaluate it and figure out which piece goes into which puzzle? Then the question becomes, how should we, as instructors, be helping them?
One method to facilitate this process is to have the students contribute to the class content. There are a variety of sites out there that combine content curation with a social networking component, thereby allowing users to discover, organize, and share content around a specific topic. Two of the better known mainstream tools for doing this are ScoopIt and Pinterest, however I use TheHubEdu. In the spirit of full disclosure, I helped found the company in 2011 because I was looking for a space that was both educational and social that I could use to organize and share educational content with students and colleagues, but without the extraneous noise inherent of most social sites.
TheHubEdu uses a shelf mechanism to organize content. I often have my students search for and post on their shelves content that is relevant to what we discussed in class for the week, and then explain why it was relevant. Sometimes I have them search my own shelves of vetted resources. On the site, users can follow other users or users’ shelves, effectively creating their own personal learning network. Allowing students to explore, discover, and contribute expands their thinking and actually gives me insight into what they are taking away from the lectures or readings. I am often amazed at the resources they discover and post, and often the take-aways are different for each student. Because I am following them, when they post an item it shows up in my activity stream and I can comment or provoke further thinking. They enjoy the exploration piece and they enjoy sharing these resources with their classmates and even individuals beyond the classroom.
Here’s an example of a shelf in TheHubEdu:
Dr. Tiffany M Reiss is the cofounder of TheHubEdu and has more than 12 years in higher education as an instructor, scholar, leader and administrator.