Part 1 in the series Learning In the New Economy of Information
In the past 10 years, perhaps nothing has changed more than the relationship between teachers and the information being distributed in their classrooms. Historically, the role of teacher has always been that of gatekeeper and distributor of the course canon. Information was dispensed. Students were encouraged to arrive at their own conclusions and interpret information, but they were limited by the fact that they were operating in a scarce economy of information (teacher, textbook and a limited number of outside sources). For the most part, the teacher was the sole provider of content, and though many teachers worked to provide quality materials and move away from a lecture-based curriculum, even these provided resources were no less teacher directed.
With the proliferation of mobile technology, our ability to access information has increased, dramatically changing the practice of teaching. Comparing the two scenarios, the circumstances couldn’t be more different.
Teaching in an Environment of Scarcity
When teaching in an environment of informational scarcity, lessons that deeply explored a subject were limited by the resources that the school library had available, as well as students’ ability to access them. (Remember encyclopedias labeled “Reference: Do not remove from library”?) Even the most thorough research might yield only a few resources. To put it simply, your Lego castle could be no larger than the maximum number of bricks that you possessed. There just weren’t that many bricks available for building.
In this information scarce environment, the main form of instruction was a lecture, and the tools that dominated the classroom were just as understandably those that distributed the limited information: textbooks and chalkboards. Much of early educational technology consisted of tools to enhance the lecture. While PowerPoint is often derided today, at its inception, it offered an effective way to share pictures and graphics, emphasize information, and ration the delivery of content (just as the cover paper on an overhead slide once did, only better).
A teacher might spend the better part of her career collecting effective, appropriate, and accessible sources for their students — think of all the hours and money spent finding specific artifacts at libraries and museums, which today can be found through one search of Google images. But before that was possible, finding, evaluating, preparing, copying, and distributing such materials made lessons with rich resources a rarity, and came at the cost of time — the ultimate educational currency.
The New Economy of Abundance
Today, there’s almost an over-abundance of information. A class of students could easily collect and process 100 potential sources in a single class. They can access materials from different eras and regions. They have access to experts and their work. It’s becoming common for actual artifacts to be available online; and in many cases, replicas of artifacts can even be downloaded and reconstructed with a 3D printer.
In an economy of such abundant information, the teacher who still insists upon distributing information via lecture is competing with primary sources and documents that would allow students to actively participate in ways far deeper than simply listening. If a student can download a PowerPoint, or take pictures of notes on the board, is it the most efficient use of class time to have them copy content line by line? The speed with which information can be accessed and shared seems to invalidate the pace of the everyday lecture.
But far from devaluing the role of the modern teacher, the new economy of information has freed teachers from their role as “font of knowledge” and allowed them to become chief analyzer, validity coach, research assistant, master differentiator, and creator of a shared learning experience. Today’s teacher will have to make sense of information that he may not be able to predict (because it is student generated), and yet still ensure that the daily learning objective is met. This is done by highlighting and celebrating successes, building skills, and honing the ability to evaluate information.
In the past, teachers gave life to learning for generations of students — no different than today. But they were operating in an environment of scarcity that would make today’s teachers cringe (and they do, every time the Internet is down for more than just a short while). As the information available and our ability to access it increases, this new economy of information is transforming the practice of teaching and the roles of both teacher and student.