How has Information Changed?

Gary Stager challenged me yesterday by asking in his comment, “How is information changing?”

Of course, in certain frames of thought, information itself isn’t changing.  However, the nature of information has changed dramatically in the past decade or so in how it operates, behaves, the laws of physics that control it, and these changes, I believe, are critical to us as educators because they further define what it means to be literate.

  1. First of all, information has become increasingly networked.  When I was growing up, the information that I had access to what that which I could set in front of me in a book, magazine, newspaper, etc.  It had been produced (at great expense), carried, and stored in my home, or in the small public library clear across town (about four blocks away).  The information was, by and large, trust-worthy, because I trusted the people who produced it, selected it, and put it in front of me.

    Today, much, if not most, of the information that we encounter came from someplace else, where it was produced at little or no expense, and probably produced only a very short time ago without evaluation or vetting.  This gives us access to enormous amounts of content from a wide variety of perspectives, some of them trust-worth, and some of them not.

    This, I believe, expands what it means to be a reader in the 21st century.

  2. DiagramSecond, information is increasingly digital.  Rather than being stamped or scratched on paper, information is now made of numbers, ones and zeros.  Text, images, sound, video, animation — they are all made of ones and zeros.  Because of this new structure to information, we can use computational devices to affect information in brand new ways, searching vast archives of content, organizing it in amazing and brilliant ways, and even manipulate, disassemble, reassemble, mix and remix content to generate new information and new knowledge.

    I believe that this new shape to information is important to use, as educators, because it brings the concept of numeracy to all content.  It’s no longer just about computing numbers.  It’s now about adding value to content buy processing images, sound, video, and text.

  3. We are overwhelmed by information.  This is not really a change in the nature of information, but it is a distinct change in our information environment.  Much of what defined our information experience, and education specifically, was a world of information scarcity.  We did what we did in our classrooms because we were so seperated from the world we were preparing our children for.  Now that we have so much information and so much access to information, it hikes up the possibilities of classroom instruction — of learning in general.

    Specific to literacy, this overwhelming information environment requires us to be able to distinguish information, to make decisions on what information to use and what to ignore.  From the stand point of the communicator, it means that they must produce messages that compete for attention.  Therefore, it is no longer enough to simply be able to write a coherent paragraph.  We must be able to express ourselves compellingly, so that our information will compete for the attention of our audiences.

Web 2.0 adds more changes to these, but I’m out of time for now.  The graphic here is a slide that I will be using at the ISTE Leadership Symposium at NECC in two weeks.

34 thoughts on “How has Information Changed?”

  1. Those are all excellent points. I also think another way that information has changed is that our students don’t see it as a fixed and permanent thing.

    Wikipedia is a prime example of how information is “fluid” and can be changed quickly. As Will Richardson points out, it’s negotiated content.

    The web also allows news services like CNN or the Washington Post, etc., to quickly change a fact that is incorrect, update a story, change a headline, etc. So news stories aren’t the same “concrete” type of entity that we might have considered them.

    We teach as though facts are “set in stone” and I think one of the biggest challenges to education is to examine how we can change that paradigm, and also help students discover the truth behind the “mask” which is that content is always negotiated, interpreted and shaped by how it is presented. The internet just makes that much more obvious.

  2. I love your points and Carolyn’s.

    We never stood in front of our public library and thought “How will I know what to read?” “How will I find what I need?” Even though we faced massive information, we didn’t feel overwhelmed. We trusted the card catalog to help us find our way. But now, so many people sit down at their computers, imagine the vast internet within their reach, and feel blown away. They don’t feel comfortable with the ‘card catalog’ of the web.

    Perhaps that is due to the transparency of the authors? Perhaps to the fluidity of information?

  3. Excellent points —

    I also see that our students (ourselves for that matter) are dealing with “instant information” rather than historical past information in a variety of ways.

    When I was in school (many moons ago) I had no idea what was going on in my state, my country, or my world. Sure, there was the news — but pretty much NOTHING was instant.

    I remember going to bed the night that Nixon was running for president — not knowing yet who had won. In the morning, I remember hearing my mother yell, to my sister walking down the street to school, — “Nixon won!”

    Now — they call the election even before my polls in California close — (grins, which is terribly frustrating for a conservative living in the Golden State! –haha!!)

    I also think one area that has NOT been touched upon is that that teachers need to be preparing more for the PRESENT and the FUTURE…..and many still teach in the comfort of the past.

    I also would like to applaud you for your comments on trustworthy information. I had never really thought of that — but it is quite true. When my librarian said “Jen, I think you would like this book.” I usually did — I trusted her judgment.

    Finally, IMHO, we need to continually remember that we did not grow up the way our students are growing up – and though I had some great teachers during school — it would be unfair to my students if I was teaching the same way I was taught in the 1970’s.

    So glad you posted — hope the 7 hour drive was all you hoped it to be.

    See you at NECC.

  4. David,

    I think you make good points as well. One thing that is a constant between the past and present regarding information is what I call a person’s “comfort source”. When I was in elementary and middle school, that comfort source was the very old set of Encyclopiedia Britanica that my dad had bought. It was convenient (in our house), reliable (or so my Dad and teachers thought), and filled my need. (Gave me information to complete a homework assignment or school report.) Granted, there certainly were better sources had I chosen to have mom or dad drive me to the library, but again, the comfort. Today, even though the amounts of information has expanded exponentially and access is as easy as turning on a computer in the next room, I argue that a large amount of people (especially students) still turn to the electronic equivalent of my old encyclopedias because they “know” them. It might be wikipedia, it might be an online encyclopedia, or just the first hit that comes up in an unsophisticated Google search. Either way, I think the average student doesn’t look for writing that has “… express[ed] ourselves compellingly” (though that is an added bonus), they look for “comfort sites” that they know and that will get the task done.

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  6. Hi Dave,

    I’ve been grappling with what’s changing with information/knowledge as well – it seems to me that the fundamental product of our education systems – knowledge – has been subject to substantial changes, and that our institutions similarily need to change.

    If you’re interested, I tackled these changes in Knowing Knowledge last year – it’s available to download ( – pages 68-97…while I approach is from a “what’s changed with the changed context and characteristics of knowledge, I think the discussion supports what you’re saying here.


  7. I would add to your Item 2 about information becoming digital the discussion of SIZE and DUPLICABILITY. E.G. the book War and Peace can be shrunk to an electronic footprint that is so small we can pass it to others with little regard to the taking of physical space. Duplicability allows us to make one thing and provide it to millions of people almost instantly.

    Imagine the effects of these digital attributes when comparing the creating, delivering, and storing a million copies of War and Peace just three decades ago with doing so now!

    I suspect these attributes will have a larger impact upon us (the population) than the math/numeracy inherent in all digital manipulations, which will be important to special segments of the population only.

    Enjoy NECC!

  8. David’s argument here is that it simply is not about the “nature of information.” I don’t even know enough about philosophy or information theory to be dangerous, but I do know that the pieces of this argument don’t actually fit together. A definition of information would be helpful.

    Certainly David’s first point posits a distinctly school-librarian view of information. Didn’t they have television commercials in the 60’s? Were they information? Ever talk to a friend? Isn’t that information “produced only a very short time ago without evaluation or vetting?”

    David’s second point is just a philosophical swamp. DOES digitizing information change its nature? Do we believe that the “nature of information” is some kind of Platonic ideal which remains the same whether it is expressed in waves or bits? Clearly I can do certain things more easily with digital data, but framing this as a change in the “nature of information” makes this way more muddy than it needs to be. There are much simpler ways of expressing this idea.

    And David himself acknowledges that his third point is not, in fact, about the nature of information.

  9. David,

    Here is a dilemma I have been struggling with for some time.

    The intimacy, folksiness and familiarity of the blogosphere makes every blogger your warm dear close personal friend. What is the proper way to express thoughtful dissent without appearing mean, crazy or uncivil?

    In other words, What if I totally disagree with you?

    What if thoughtful dissent requires more than a paragraph to express?


  10. Dear David,

    Interesting territory you are entering. While I’ve only written one book on communication theory, and it is only required reading at one university, (Campfires in Cyberspace) based on my encounters with Marshall McLuhan, I have been an avid reader on the topic, including wading through the postmodernists who (genrally) have some interesting ideas.

    At the very least the tangibility of “frozen” media (whether print, video, etc.) gives it a different affect than the purely oral tradition that preceded it. I operate on the assumption that there is a difference between data, information, knowledge and understanding, and go so far as to suggest that understanding should be our goal as educators. So, without addressing what “information” means to you, I am at a loss. This word meant one thing to McLuhan, another to Jean Baudrillard, and something else to Gilles Deleuze. Well, you know what I mean.

    The distinction between print and electronic forms has, perhaps, some small relevance, but in the end it is all physical (physical pits on a DVD, electron transfers in RAM, etc.) At most we might be talking about the difference between “light through” media (stained glass) vs. “light on” media (paper), and volumes have been written on this topic, none of which have enlightened me much on the issue you raise.

    The pragmatist in me thinks we are confronting, at the very least, a false dichotomy: print v. electronic media. Every day I see kids who do all their research on the Internet, thereby missing out on the vast number of powerful texts and other resources that have yet to be digitized. Google’s plan to digitize several university libraries does nothing for the high school student whose school library has huge numbers of books that are never searched or read.

    As for misinformation, I find the argument of relative accuracy of web v. print to be sloppily researched. The one decent study I found showed that Wikipedia is as accurate as Encyclopaedia Brittanica. So that’s one point. Second, the supermarket tabloids (Wolf give’s birth to Elvis’ baby on Mars) are in print. Does that make them more accurate?

    Hidden behind many arguments is a deep issue no one seems willing to shine light on: why do we persist in measuring the use of technology by seeking data that shows it to improve student performance in an otherwise unchanged (pre-computer) curriculum?

    This shows up in interesting places, not the least of which is the powerpointless use of technology in many classrooms instead of (for example) teaching kids how to create programs of their own. But that is a topic I’ve addressed in my blog (at (shameless promotion, as you call it).

    Now, on to the whole Web 2.0 rant. If the key is interactivity, then aren’t e-mail or IM examples of Web 2.0? The changes (IMHO) are quantitative, not qualitative. Bandwidth makes a difference, and blogging lets people author web sites easier than traditional tools. But other than using broadband, what is REALLY new about Web 2.0? I only have a PhD, but if you explain it slowly, I just might get it :-).



  11. Greetings, all,

    I see the same issues coming up with regards to attitudes towards information/content in media literacy/information literacy/open educational resources —

    As David says, the print vs digital question is a false dichotomy.

    Information is information is information, whether its from the neighbor, the teacher, the Weekly World News ( as we all need a little Wolf Baby now and again), or some other source.

    What people always seem to miss, or to leave out of the equation, is the relationship between person A and information and person B and information and person C and etc etc.

    The “information” we seek is more a shift in how we *think* about how people relate to content. Just as the printing press didn’t make the book, the web didn’t create information. Both inventions simply changed how we think about our access to it.



  12. Taking my lead from Danny Hillis, ‘The Pattern on the Stone’, Gregory Bateson defined information as “the difference that makes a difference”

    Hillis goes onto argue that computers have made a difference. So I agree with David Warlick’s second point, about the importance of the change to “being digital”, a point made long ago by Negroponte (book title)

    I also like the McLuhan / Alan Kay / Philip Armour suggestion that the important thing is that we are undergoing a shift in the dominant media that we use to transact knowledge. Philip Armour said it this way:

    “Software is not a product. It is a medium in which we store knowledge. Historically there have been 5 such media: DNA, Brains, Hardware, Books, Software.”

    Software is a superior medium to print, more powerful things can be elegantly represented (eg. simulations of systems), it is more readily searchable etc. So I disagree with David Thornburg in playing down the importance of this shift. The future is (almost) here it just hasn’t been distributed yet.

    It’s dangerous to talk about information in isolation and I agree with Tom Hoffman and David Thornburg that we need to be clearer about the terms and also look at the interplay between “data, information, knowledge and understanding” (David Thornburg)

  13. I do not disagree with anyone here, and terms are important. But do you disagree that information is increasingly networked, digital, and overwhelming. If you agree, what would you call this change. I still believe that they are important developments, especially as we try to keep a handle on the basic literacy skills we should be teaching our children?

  14. Dave,
    I’m not sure I understand why the question you raise is important. The information may be in a different package or delivered via a different channel or stored in a different location. What does that tell us about the nature of learning or inform teaching practices or the creation of new learning environments?

    Also, you confuse me when you speak of the imperative for a more enlightened educational approach and basic skills simultaneously.


  15. In passing, I agree with Tom Hoffman.

    To help out David Thornburg, who asks, “Now, on to the whole Web 2.0 rant. If the key is interactivity, then aren’t e-mail or IM examples of Web 2.0?”

    It is because email and instant messaging are not web technologies.

    The Web (aka the World Wide Web) is a set of protocols that run on top of TCP-IP, specifically, the HTTP request type, the hypertext markup language (HTML), and arguable other browser-based technologies such as Javascript.

    It should be noticed that when we go to use nail or instant messaging, we typically open separate applications – an email client, or an IM client.

    Historically, the web has *not* embraced the interactivity demonstrated by email and IM, which is what has allowed them to flourish alongside it. The shift from Web 1.0 – which was all about broadcast and presentation media – to Web 2.0 means that the web is acquiring some capacities hitherto available only in email and IM.

  16. I’m not very philosophical and I don’t have a PHD. I know what works and what doesn’t work for me. How has information changed?

    As a K12 Educator living in Toronto, Canada – I will never see David Warlick, Gary Stager, Tom Hoffman, Stephen Downes, George Siemens and David Thornburg in the same room, discussing the same topic, and learn from it.

    Oh wait a minute – there must be something to this blogging thing – eh Gary.

  17. Quentin,

    Good news!

    I will be speaking in Toronto at ECOO on November 7-9, 2007. I’m better in-person 🙂

    Over the years I’ve found that all of the people whose ideas I respect are better in-person. I do however appreciate that not everyone can travel, although it’s recommended.

    Therefore, the web DOES facilitate all sorts of communication over time and space. I have been online since 1983 and have taught hundreds of graduate students over the past decade. I’ve fallen in love and managed relationships online. I’m NOT against the web or Web 2.0.

    What I am against is the simplistic notion that this technology leads to “School 2.0” and that it represents a revolution in learning.

  18. Incidentally, one of the severe weaknesses of the blog interface is the fact that this discussion will soon fade from view, despite its relevance, importance and potential to attract eyeballs simply because blogs are last in, first up.

    I know that RSS technology might help address this problem, but that’s throwing another technology at one that we really want to be using in a particular context, in this case – the blog. Also, many RSS readers do not collect comments (a terrible term to describe conversation).

  19. There are many ways of looking at the storage of information. The McLuhanesque choice divides us into tribal (storytelling), scribal, typographic and telematic eras, of which we are well into the last one (McLuhan died as it was starting to take hold.) Since I’ve written extensively on this elsewhere (Campfires in Cyberspace book), I’ll not elaborate here except to point out that each of these revolutions was a threat to the one that preceded it. e.g., when the Iraqis (Uruk) developed the phonetic alphabet (which allowed writing based on sounds) orality was threatened at the expense of those who yielded power through their transient stories which were now frozen for all time. Socrates (as explored in the Meno) was probably one of the last “tribal” thinkers. Once writing took hold, it too was threatened by Aldus who co-opted Gutenberg’s press to let print reach the common man. He did this through the invention of the “italic” typeface, and by publishing books in the size we still use today. (I have a volume he printed in 1513 that fits normally on my bookcase, and is remarkably easy to read since he published many books in Italian, not Latin. (yes, it is “old” Italian, but it is not that hard to read.) And, now, we see the cybernetic world threatening the world of print.

    But what do new media do? They generally extend reach. Books reach more people than an individual storyteller can (pre-radio). An online encyclopedia can reach far more people than a single copy of a paper-based encyclopedia, assuming that we have access to the appropriate technology. This is why I’m such a zealot on 1:1 computing.

    But this is not the only perspective. Hugo (in Hunchback) provides a brilliant analysis of how printing competed with the architecture of the church. Grand cathedrals, with their stained glass and sculpture, were books built of stone and glass, telling the story of the bible. To “read” this story, one had to travel to the church. As Hugo remarked, the book let ideas be more like a flock of birds in the square that would scatter themselves way beyond the edifice. To Hugo, print destroyed the power of the edifice, and THIS was the threat to the church.

    Again, the point was access.

    On reflection, I will grant that new media provide a different way of gathering and storing information. I still maintain that the nature of the information itself is not necessarily changed by the medium of expression. And, if you think that McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is an argument against my point, I encourage you to read Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media again before commenting.

    As the Snowcrashians like to remind us, “All information looks like noise until you break the code.” even this posting.

    Hugs to all.

    reading list for this post:
    Victor Hugo, Hunchback of Notre Dame
    Marshall McLuhan, Gutenberg Galaxy
    Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (recent MIT edition)
    Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash
    David Thornburg, Campfires in Cyberspace

  20. Gary,

    If you are worried that conversations in comments will fade from view (which they almost always do), you can also reply on your own blog and/or link to and quote from the comments on your blog. Remember, the more incoming links, the higher the pagerank of this page, the more people will find it via Google, etc. In terms of persistence, transparency and searchability, this process compares favorably to other methods of online conversation (aside from the fact that David’s capcha seems to periodically reject entries for no reason).

  21. I distrust the term “information itself,” used by both Warlick and Thornburg, which suggests to me that information is some chunky nugget lying about waiting for us to pick it up, wrap it up in some medium, and trade it with others. Does information exist by itself, like a pebble, say, without some human context? I don’t think so.

    Rather, it seems to me that information is the product of an orchestration of people, symbols, and media interacting for play or work, the product of some context. As soon as you change any one of the elements of that context, then you change the information. Information is dynamic, not static.

    We have perhaps been deceived by the relatively stable texts of the print-age into thinking that information is static, but surely it isn’t. Change the reader of the Bible, for instance, and you generate different information. Convert the Bible to a Charlton Heston movie, and you have yet different information. I’m certain that the Bible in Japanese or modern English is different again from the Bible in Hebrew. Decide that the Bible is written not by God, but by Moses, say, and you get even different information.

    So would you get different information if the Bible were on a wiki updated daily by millions? It seems obvious to me that you would. You’d probably also get more argument than this blog has generated, but I’m one educationist who doesn’t think that’s a bad thing.

  22. Your words: “…information is increasingly networked, digital, and overwhelming.” Indeed. This changes the format of information but not its essence. It is essentially the same information it always was. We are able to grapple with it, to interconnect it, to process it, to share it, to transmit it more quickly than ever before. I am guilty of becoming inpatient with anything that is slower than a snap of the fingers. But when I was a little girl, 3 TV stations was a lot! The Book of Knowledge, published every 5 years, was up-to-date.

  23. Hi Gary,

    I have seen you at ECOO (twice) and enjoyed your inspirational style, although I have found some of your best practices very changing to replicate. Best doesn’t mean easy, and that’s what makes them so good. I was looking over your ECOO session in the fall “If Blogging is the Answer, What is the Question?” and will have a few questions for you. I hope you have time to visit my session “Web 2.0 Promises and Potentials.”

    I have also traveled quite a bit for PD purposes and personally. I am hoping to make it to NECC next year and meet some of the faces of all those who I read on a regular basis. Even if I had made it to NECC, would I have seen everyone who has added to the discussion here in a room discussing the same topic – would I be invited to that table? If I had my hand raised at your session would you have answered my question?

    PD as it is currently done, whether it is a conference or workshop, is not what I have grown accustomed to using “my web.” I have been blogging for a few years – reading, discussing, and reflecting on my practices and that of my peers. A few years ago I would have taken anything that you, David Thornburg or others presented at your sessions as gospel. I feel more than ever that I have a voice that can add something valuable to the discussion or investigate what “experts” say either broadly or narrowly depending on my own interest in the subject and report back to the larger community. To me, as a professional, this is an empowering shift.

    These web2.0 tools filter and echo good conversations in more blog posts, in social bookmarking tools like , podcasts or added to the sum of someone knowledge in a wikis. What happens to the conversations and questions that occur in face to face workshops, and I’m not talking about the speaker’s presentation, are they preserved?

    Love to engage you in more discussion on your current writing, but “Pulse” doesn’t allow me to register because I’m Canadian.

  24. Hi Quentin,

    Thanks for your kind words. I am quite interested in what you have to say. I go to tons of conferences to be inspired by others and to engage in conversation. You are always welcome to hang out with me.

    In fact, unlike many other keynote speakers, I strongly urge conference organizers to schedule a session after my keynote so that attendees can ask me to clarify, elaborate or defend my statements. I not only relish this opportunity, but feel it is my responsibility.

    Please send me the URL and I will look at your work. It might take me a while since I’m running EDUCOMM this week, The Constructivist Celebration next week and speaking at NECC a bunch of times (all on new topics). I also have to teach this week. Frankly, I’m overwhelmed, but I know all teachers are at this time of year.

    As for The Pulse registration, I humbly apologize and am horrified that you can’t register. That’s one of the kind of bugs that you never think of until it rears its ugly head. Unfortunately I don’t run the entire operation and am dependent on the the cooperation of others. You can count on me sending an email in the next two minutes demanding that this problem be addressed ASAP.

    I fully understand what the RSS and social bookmarking tools can do in aggregating information, but think that every time you need to “change rooms” to continue a conversation, the discussion dies just a little bit. All technologies and software have affordances and constraints.

    All the best,


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