17 Oct 2013

Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness - by Tara Brabazon (Review)

Digital Dieting addresses a question that is fundamental in teaching and learning today, and one that will be particularly resonant with any LIS professional: In our overcrowded digital lives, how is information "judged, sorted and sifted, to separate the basic and simple from the important and complex?” Here, Tara Brabazon offers a brave and powerful insight into the day-to-day reality for students faced with this very challenge, and what the solutions might be.

Her discussion is initially presented in the context of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, a study which suggests that college students often fail to develop the higher-order critical thinking and reasoning skills we might expect. An avalanche of new media formats and digital information, coupled with a lack of essential literacies are fuelling this problem, Brabazon argues, which necessitates “digital dieting”. The culprit - “information obesity”- often manifests itself through the oversharing of personal information, a culture of copy-and-pasting over note-taking, reproduction of content rather than interpretation, and often a lack of personal responsibility for one’s own work. At the extreme, in Brabazon’s experience, it can result in students treating “academic staff like shop assistants”. Education has become a commodity. Students are seen as consumers, rather than producers of their own learning, and there is a growing expectation on their part that their lecturers should answer every question and query instantly, rather than having to find an answer for themselves.

Brabazon describes the confusion that many students (of all ages) experience with leisure and learning when it comes to social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, mistakenly conflating both concepts and unable to distinguish the boundaries between them. Whilst such tools can help certainly build social connections between student and teacher and encourage interactivity, focussing on the technologies rather than the teaching will have a negative impact on the quality of learning. In contrast, Brabazon showcases some examples of using educational technologies successfully, particularly audio formats, in an integrated way, rather than simply as an add-on or as a means of replicating a lecture. Her experience suggests that when presented with appropriate formats and well-structured content, students actively engage in independent and self-directed learning, even recording and uploading their own seminars.

“More is not always more”

However, we often assume that the endless new channels and emerging technologies automatically have the potential to help support learning and increase engagement. But Brabazon makes an excellent point: it is often those who are already engaged, performing well and in need of least assistance who also make use of these additional channels, rather than those who are disconnected or adrift from the academic experience. Indeed, there is little evidence to suggest these new platforms help to draw in the disengaged, who may fall even further out of reach with the introduction of yet more media and information channels. 

One of the most fundamental issues is the challenge faced by first year students who have no basic subject knowledge and no knowledge of the key authors in the field when arriving in University. They typically have little or no context or scaffolding around which to contruct their own new learning, and so when confronted with a sea of the unfamiliar, the obvious solution is to reach for the comfortable and easy, which is often the same information that is pushed to them through social and other online media.

Removing the easily-reached introductory sources (textbooks, Wikipedia, encyclopaedias) forces students to stretch themselves, and to find and evaluate good sources for themselves. Brabazon goes as far ‘banning’ the use of Google and Wikipedia until they have acquired sufficient expertise to use them correctly. Whilst this may seem radical or unnecessary to some, it does drive home the point that we need to make sure we are helping our students to realise the value of selecting the most important sources rather than simply the easiest.

A favourite principle of mine when it comes to information literacy is “less is more” and Brabazon adopts a similar attitude in some respects. She argues that reducing information choices and options “reorients the focus to the quality, rather than the speed and scale, of returns”.Brabazon’s strategy goes as far as preselecting and compiling reading material and directly providing it to students, in order to give them a baseline level from which to develop their own information skills and knowledge. I think this philosophy is particularly effective in IL instruction, and have found that the more sources or databases you introduce in a single session, the more confusing it can become for students. Reflecting on my own approach to information literacy instruction, when engaging with early undergraduates I adopt a similarly pragmatic strategy. I typically pare down the material I cover to two or three key messages or concepts, leaving out a lot of material I feel I ‘should’ be covering. If I explore one or two key databases, there is a greater chance of them using one, than if I list out 8 or 9. Building instruction in a programmatic, consistent and gradual way over time, and drip-feeding sources and skills over the course of three or four years can provide a bread crumb trail that supports self-directed learning and confidence, rather than overwhelming the user from the outset. This kind of scaffolded approach is so important in learning; as Brabazon encapsulates, “we cannot put words into a search engine that we do not know” (p. 55). Perhaps not only do out students need to start digital diets, but some of our information literacy instruction could also look at going 'back to basics' also?

Strategies and solutions

A large portion of the book discusses the various actions and approaches for ‘detoxing’ and ‘dieting’. Brabazon’s recommended strategies are rational and practical ones. A first step can be reducing or rejecting automated choices in favour of more considered, reflective ones. Stopping ‘pushed’ information and notifications, and instead actively choosing the information we receive is one fundamental change that can be introduced. Moreover, making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of content you produce, focussing on quality, well-crafted and considered messages over quantity, extends this idea beyond our role as passive consumers of information. Focussing on using and understanding a single or small number of media platforms rather than everything at once can also support higher quality learning and increased engagement. However, developing the mindset that “information literacy is more important than information availability” (p. 31) is an essentially simple, but far from easy, task. I fear that some "information obesity" habits may be deep-rooted ones acquired over many years, and consequently difficult to 'unlearn' or change without the motivation to do so. Devising strategies for achieving success with this cohort may prove more challenging.

The breadth of the book is staggering at times, as Brabazon explores a wide range of issues that surround the digital media and information landscape today, including the concept of digital justice and equality, how the ‘conspicuous consumption’ of iPads and other branded technologies can ‘control’ the information we receive, and how to help learners effectively migrate through the different stages and levels of literacy. Throughout, Brabazon’s strategies are delivered in a way that is refreshingly personal, honest and passionate. Her desire to improve the quality of student learning and engagement permeates every page. Some of her ideas and techniques may (inadvertently) make great soundbytes, however this is a book about a lot more than the idea of banning Google for first year undergraduates, and it would be very wrong if that were to be the main focus of what is a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and much-needed discussion.

Digital Dieting by Tara Brabazon is published by Ashgate, October 2013, £35.

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