Finding the Signal Amidst the Noise

I was really struck by a few things in the Vannevar Bush’s article, “As We May Think” and I was bummed that I had to leave last week’s discussion early. What really resonated with me was this idea of freeing one’s mind and imagination from the necessity to memorize and remember. When you have the comfort of knowing that you can retrieve relevant information when needed, your limited cognitive processes are less burdened from the mundane and are freed to wonder down more interesting paths.

Of course with the advent of Google, I feel like we have that now to some extent, but it certainly isn’t foolproof. I’ve often found a great article, simulation, or recipe online, thinking I could easily reproduce it with a Google search, but end up falling short when that potluck approaches. To attempt to remedy this problem, I’ve tried keeping bookmarks (both in the cloud and on a computer), but that creates its own problems of organization and retrieval. My less elegant fix is to email myself a link with keywords that I think I might use in a future search when I’m ready to retrieve it. While this fix works well for articles I remember, if I’m not cued to look for that information, it’s forever lost.

As Bush points out, as we collectively store more information, our organization is going to be key in being able to discern the signal from the noise. While I appreciate his fondness for our human ability to make useful associations, I wonder how this could potentially play out. While I see Wikis as being some sort of realization of this idea, I worry that our collection will be useful only to those who think like us. If we organize topics as an expert would, for instance, how useful would that be for someone who is just entering a field? If we organize things in predictable ways for the masses, would that deter revolutions in thinking?

One of my goals of this blog is to bring ideas back to teaching. In our classrooms, how can we utilize the collective knowledge, skills, and imaginations of our students so that they can scaffold on each other while providing a space for all students? What do we expect our students to “know” and what is acceptable for them to recall through a Google search, an equation sheet, notes, text, etc? If a student is freed from having to remember the mass of an electron, for example, she can focus her attention on understanding how an electron interacts with an electric field. But if she can google search “how does an electron move in an electric field” does that free her even more, or, does that deter from her motivation to create new knowledge?

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