Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Too Much Information

Beltane Fire Festival
This morning I went to a Beltane Breakfast. Some of you may wonder if this involved fireworks or dancing round something without my knickers. I'm afraid I am not at liberty to divulge this information but they did do a good line in hot breakfast rolls in the Scottish tradition.

On the event webpage it says "The session includes a presentation, “What is the value of science blogging for public engagement?” delivered by two national and international authors, Ken MacLeod and David Shenk" (the organisers' emphasis, not mine).   I booked it in a fit of enthusiasm on 07 July at, according to the printed ticket, 3:22 am. Quite why my weird personal habits should appear on the ticket is beyond me but I'm glad I went nevertheless.

A member of the audience asked about handling the information overload. With so much out there, how do I go about finding blogs worth reading and how will people find my blog? Will I be wasting my time writing something that no one ever reads?

These questions resonated with me because similar concerns had arisen in a complete different context during a workshop by Paul Denny on Peerwise, an online application which supports students in the creation, sharing, evaluation and discussion of assessment questions. Peerwise has been used with very large groups of students who between them might contribute a couple of thousand multiple choice questions during a semester. It isn't sensible for students to try all of the questions but how can they choose the ones that will be of cognitive benefit to them?

Teaching students how to be discriminating is part of the reason for using applications like PeerWise but in fact many of our students (and academic staff) already have those skills in other contexts. For example, they know how to use ratings systems on Amazon to find music or goods worth buying.

In the PeerWise workshop we had been asked to estimate how long it would take one person to watch all the video loaded up to YouTube today. I don't think any of our guesses were close. On the YouTube website it states that 'every minute, 24 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.' This means 34,560 hours-worth of video per day, which would take about 4 years to watch provided you only took very infrequent, short comfort breaks and didn't sleep at all.

And yet no one panics about missing the good stuff on YouTube. Users have learned to use personal recommendations, rating systems, review websites, tag clouds and 'following' to find the stuff that interests or amuses them.

In conclusion, the academic blogger shouldn't dwell on the thought that their little blog will be swamped in a big ocean of other blogs. David Shenk said in the meeting that all that was important was that each blog reached a small number of the right people. And in that he's quite correct.

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