Not Infowhelm
but Information Fluency

“A world rich in information streams in multiple formats and from multiple devices brings the issue of cognitive overload to the fore.” (Institute for the Future, 2011)

While it has never been easier to find information, and “searching is becoming easier than thinking” (Heine & O'Connor, 2013, p. 3), in some ways it has never been harder to deal with the results. Concepts such as information anxiety, information fatigue, infoglut, information obesity, data smog, filter failure and digital bombardment – pathologies of an information society (Bawden & Robinson, 2012, p. 243) - all stress the problems of constant exposure to the many devices and sources of information in today’s world. To be able to harness and better utilise technology is one of the great challenges faced in the digital world. In education, it is critical that, rather than being overwhelmed, students are taught how to take charge and manage information efficiently, effectively and ethically.

The video from the Global Digital Citizenship Foundation provides an idea of what this feels like:

Noam Chomsky defines the purpose of education as “helping people determine how to learn on their own” (Jones, 2012). This is certainly the case for teachers in the 21st century, since they prepare many students for a life with many parameters (of work, career and lifestyle, to name a few) as yet undefined. As proposed by ‘Future Work Skills 2020’ today’s students need to “be able to navigate a rapidly shifting landscape or organizational forms and skills requirements” (2011, p. 13) and educational institutions must adapt to prepare them.


Views on how well the ‘digital generation’ manage technology, vary. For some time, the concept of the capable ‘digital native’ has been proposed (Prensky, 2001). However, as time goes on, this has been challenged - particularly when evaluated with respect to how well teens can manipulate technology, for the purpose of information gathering and research.

While a Pew Research Center survey of teachers (Purcell, et al., 2013) indicated that teens expressed confidence in their use of the internet, it also pointed out that many did not move far beyond ‘Googling’. According to their teachers, there was an overdependence on search engines, a fast-paced approach to completing research (“just enough information to complete an assignment” (2013, p. 14), and a lack of evaluation skills.

These educators also expressed concern that “today’s digital technologies may in fact do more to distract students than to help them academically” (2013, p. 11). Many others now articulate a concern for a growing tendency of learners to undertake only shallow research; this at a time when there is so much to more to be found and shared. According to Sharkey (2013, p. 33) students rarely go beyond the ‘grazing’ stage when it comes to scholarly research, and that need to move beyond this to higher order thinking skills to construct new concepts.

Others believe that many 21st century skills are actually being learnt at random (White, 2013), and that self-taught search strategies can be problematic (Heine & O'Connor, 2013) - possibly in harmful ways, for children who are Internet users. For example, when students come to believe that “I found it on Google so it must be true”, they are lacking the critical thinking skills needed to make sense of the digital world. A different way of thinking, that “if you cannot ‘Google’ it, then the topic could not be researched” (Cooper, Lockyer, & Brown, 2013), clearly points to a way of thinking that needs to be addressed.

Another consequence stemming from our ‘always-on’ technological way of life is the problem of distractions (Turkle, 2011). While there are many tools available to enhance online experiences (through notifications and alerts), digital overwhelm can also interfere with attention and impact on ability to focus. Since attention is actually a limited resource, according to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (O'Callaghan, 2014), learning to focus is more important than trying to multi-task.

So, what skills are needed?

There are numerous information literacy/fluency models with lists of skills which need to be developed in all digital learners.

For example, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) standards for information fluency focus on planning, locating, manipulating and evaluating information, alongside critical thinking skills, creativity, collaboration and communication skills.

ISTE Standards for students

This identifies closely with the type of skills targeted by ACARA as General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum which are necessary to become a successful learner of the 21st century.

Moving along the information literacy continuum, where learners have to deal with problems of the digital age (to manage information overwhelm), there are skills that become even more significant. Skills such as critical thinking, evaluation and synthesis can be nore closely addressed in these groups from Bawden (2008, p. 20):

1. Knowledge assembly

Paul Gilster, who first wrote about digital literacy in 1997, is quoted as stating that knowledge assembly is a necessary skill in the digital age (Lankshear, Peters, & Knobel, 2000). The idea of managing and corralling knowledge from digital sources in a meaningful and purposeful way is definitely one of the key elements to address. While Gilster speaks of customised newsfeeds, online newsgroups and mailing lists, current equivalents to these are no less important to today’s learners. Learners may derive knowledge from different sources such as blog feeds, Twitter and other alerts, but the integration of internet materials with traditional sources of information—assembling with books, journals and newspapers, is also important.

[Gilster offered advice on wise internet use in the second half of the 1997 interview below]

2. Retrieval skills (including critical thinking)

While it has already been stated that “searching is now easier than thinking”, and we can acknowledge that using Google is becoming more ‘helpful’ as time goes on, for useful results, learners need to be able to make judgements about what is delivered from any particular source. Predictive services now offered by search engines (which derive from past user input) can help or lead your search astray.

Teaching learners how to evaluate the results of an information search is another essential skill in this age of infoglut. Knowing how to recognise hoax information, inaccuracies and scams takes practice, and as Heine points out, it is not easy to define just what makes digital information appear ‘not right’ (2013, p. 16). Exposure to sample hoax sites, direction to credible addresses (e.g. .edu or .gov domains) and alternatives to search engines (databases, information repositories, structured guides) are but some of the ways to enhance the retrieval skills of learners. Examining the credibility of an author, their viewpoint and their purpose in publishing are vital in critiquing the value of a find. Experience in comparing the information from a number of different and unrelated sources is another proficiency required to become digitally fluent – a check often known as triangulation, one it is hoped that learners will perform if they are intentional in their research purpose.

Summary of search options for students - Mindmap using Mindmeister

This diagram illustrates some of the techniques discussed by Heine (Thinking outside the search box, n.d.), to break search habits, and to enable students to gather information more methodically, including:

  • Mindful thinking about the topic at hand – using hypernyms and hyponyms to broaden and narrow the search – the assignment’s terms may only deliver limited results
  • Control the search using an advanced search and any filters available (to eliminate irrelevant information)
  • Try more than Google – including databases and researched guides
  • Think about the answer – where the research is going
  • Avoid too much ‘going off track’ – remember the focus of the search
  • Evaluate information - don't just accept without judgement - applying some of the 5 A's Lee Crockett discusses in the video below:

3. Combining information from different media sources

The availability of online resources should not, however, lead learners to a sole reliance on technology to provide information. Though the internet is increasingly providing access to many historic treasures, and virtual experiences (such as Google Art Project), traditional sources can still provide a solid informational foundation. The skill in combining information from different media sources is one which will create a more well-rounded investigation - if learners take advantage of the offerings of different media, while simultaneously understanding their limitations (e.g. immediacy of a blog post vs credibility of information).

4. Awareness of “people” networks

One of the great values of the internet has been the development of online networks which learners can join. Understanding how these networks actually function is an important aptitude, and knowing which network to make use of, for what purpose is another. Sometimes the ease of access to different communities creates difficulties, when there is no critical understanding of their form and function. As Resnick states (2002, p. 33), digital fluency is analogous to becoming fluent in a foreign language – it is beyond just understanding what the words say, and being able to “make things” with language. Following on with this analogy, understanding the language of online (and offline) people networks, learners should know the language and culture of the community in which they wish to participate (e.g. a digital forum may be the place to chat as they might on FaceBook or Twitter!).

5. Using filters

A number of filters have already been identified above, but there are others needed to encourage focused habits. Debate occurs around whether constant access to computers and associated mobile technologies is necessary. Indeed, some professional educators have proposed educators have proposed turning off laptops to ensure engagement and better note-taking in lectures (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Switching off access to the distractions of social media and notifications are among the reasons for this idea.

Others, such as Rheingold (Stewards of digital literacies, 2012), argue that learners of all ages need to practise how to focus in this age of distraction – by turning of all unnecessary applications and devices. This is instead of being in a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ as experienced when multitasking – which according to Levitin is really just “fractionating our attention” (2015, 1:50) In other words, learners in the digital world need to know when and how to filter out unnecessary distractions to achieve meaningful focus.

Source: RSA Spotlight: Daniel Levitin on Information Overload from The RSA PRO / Creative Commons License: by nc nd


As noted at the 21st Century Information Fluency site, stumbling blocks for digital learners include a lack of confidence with technology, frustrations in finding information, sticking rigidly with the same approach or tools used in the past (though without great success) and the desire to find things fast (with little critical evaluation of discoveries). Alongside these, there is also the suggestion of a lack of motivation or curiosity to dig deeper, adapt and confront challenge to utilise technology to its full potential.

To be able to manage information today's students need an authentic purpose, knowledge of the tools and platforms available, and perhaps an authentic audience (for a global conversation) to share their ideas and discoveries. The potential avenues are there, to use the transformative power of technology - if learners don't learn ways to manage, we may as well turn off the technology tap.

Source: Wiil Lion, Fire Hydrant,


Art project. (n.d.). Retrieved from Google Cultural Institute:

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