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Information Underload and Overload

I have recently substantially revised and updated my IAE-pedia entry, Information Underload and Overload (Moursund, 2016a). This has proven to be a popular article, with more than 50,000 hits to date. Since I first wrote this document in 2009, the total amount of information available on the Web and from other sources has grown remarkably. Indeed, quoting from the new version of the entry:

Reading, writing, and arithmetic (math) became formal subjects in schools more than 5,000 years ago. Since then there has been a steady increase in the accumulated knowledge of the human race. The pace of this increase has been increasing. Quoting from the article, Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours (Schilling, 4/19/2016):

Buckminster Fuller created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve”; he noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today things are not as simple as different types of knowledge have different rates of growth. For example, nanotechnology knowledge is doubling every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. But on average human knowledge is doubling every 13 months. According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Information Overload, Underload, and Appropriate Load

It is easy to see why so many people experience information overload—too much information. I certainly see it when I do a Web search and get a hundred thousand results.

Information underload refers to the situation where we don’t have ready access to information needed to help us solve problems and accomplish tasks that we face.

I have now added a new short section on Information Appropriate Load to this updated IAE-pedia entry (Moursund, 2016a)

Consider an Information scale with one end labeled Overload and the other end labeled Underload. Let's label the middle of the scale Appropriate Load. This reminds me of the Goldilocks story in which the bowls of porridge were too hot, too cold, and just right; the beds were too hard, too soft, and just right.

For a particular person faced with a particular information need, there might be too much information available, too little information available, or an appropriate (for the person) amount of information available. Moreover, the information might be written at a level that is way over the person's head, way under the person's reading and understanding levels, or appropriate to the person.

Educators are familiar with this situation. A dictionary with a quite limited number of words, and containing illustrative pictures and simple definitions, is appropriate to a student just learning to read. Books for students at different grade levels have readability levels appropriate to average students at those grade levels.

Now, think about this situation from the point of view of the creators of the Wikipedia. They envisioned a collection of articles (information) that would eventually exceed that in any current print encyclopedia and that articles would be authored by many different writers. What readability level should it have? What background knowledge of the subject of a particular article should the writer of the article assume the readers will have?

Every writer faces the challenge faced by authors of Wikipedia entries. Every educational system faces the challenge of meeting the information needs of a very wide range of students with different interests, background knowledge, and reading/viewing skills.

Retrieving Just the Information One Needs

Part of the information underload problem is that often one cannot find the needed information, even in cases where it exists. The various Web search companies and many other groups are working on this problem. Quoting again from the updated entry, what is emerging is a three-pronged approach:

1. Increase the breadth and depth of information available of the Web. Develop more intelligent search engines that order the search results in a manner that better fits the needs of people using the Web. Currently Google is the most widely used of such search engines.

2. Develop answer engines that are designed specifically to produce answers to problems (including questions) posed by users. Two important examples of this are:

•  Wolfram Alpha, a computational knowledge engine. This is an online service that answers factual questions. It comes in a limited free version and a (not free) professional version. Among other things, the system “knows” a lot of math and can solve a wide range of such problems.

•  IBM's Watson. Watson gained fame by defeating two past champions in the TV question and answer program Jeopardy in 2011.

3. User-specific search, answer, and teaching engines. Such a system would "know" a great deal about what the question poser knows and would provide information and answers that are individualized to that person. Moreover, such a system views a question as a "teachable moment" and uses it to provide not only the desired information but also appropriate instruction to help the question poser learn more about the topic area.

Final Remarks

A good, modern education acknowledges and makes use of the information available to today’s students. It prepares students to make use of and build on this accumulated knowledge of the human race. Moreover, it assumes that it is preparing students for adult life in a world in which computer-based aids to learning and using information are readily available in daily life, on the job, and in further lifelong education.

What You Can Do

As I have mentioned many times in my writing and presentations, I consider each person to be both a lifelong learner and a lifelong teacher. The rapidly changing face of information storage, retrieval, and use provides an excellent opportunity for each of us to be a learner and a teacher. I hope that you will do so and thoroughly enjoy these activities.

References and Resources

Moursund, D. (2016a). Information underload and overload. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2016b). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (10/26/2015). Nearly 4,000 MOOCS. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (10/22/2015). Openly licensed educational resources. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Digital filing cabinet. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

Schilling, D.R. (4/19/2013). Knowledge doubling every 12 months, soon to be every 12 hours. Industry Tap. Retrieved 2/29/2016 from

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Friday, 03 December 2021

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