How Information Overload is Affecting Our Learning

October 2nd, 2012 1 Comment Other

Information overload

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Ikenna Odinaka of After School Africa.

The need to stay connected to the internet keeps finding its way higher up our list of daily priority. And for some, staying connected is more important than staying healthy.

For life-long learners, there is always the need to conduct personal research, learn something new or improve on existing skills. With more user-friendly technologies around the hood; social media, blogs, video sites and some more of them, the magnitude at which information is produced is lightning speed, to keep up with.

This has brought us to a new way of life, where we are now in danger of becoming dependent on the internet method of producing and consuming information; further, resulting in a steady over flow of information, coming our way. And we are ever more prone to invalid contents and the risk of misinformation.

A few interesting statistics

With the torrent of information we receive in the form of e-mails, tweets, Facebook updates, RSS feeds and a zillion other ways we consume data, the average internet user receives 63,000 words of new information every day. That’s about the length of a novel.

“If you had this crazy idea and wanted to read everything you got in 2011,” says Robby Walker, co-founder of Cue, who calculated the words-per-day statistic, “it would take you the first three months of 2012.” So you have virtually 9 months left to sleep, eat, work, study, learn, care and live.

On how we have become so used to the internet method of content consumption, another statistic shows that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and switches programs 36 times an hour. That means we change tasks more than once every two minutes.

A New York Times/CBS News poll found that 30 percent of people under 45 said the use of devices like smart phones and personal computers has made it harder to concentrate.

So, are these really something to be proud of? Like, does it make us superhuman to be used to multitasking (doing more than one thing at the same time)?

Information overload, Multi tasking and our learning pace

Learning online would be a lot easier if all you have on your computer screen, at your learning time, is the learning platform and your coursework. But unfortunately, you have to be disciplined enough to turn out the noise and deal with the over flow of information coming your way, and the urge to want to keep up to date at all cost.

A body of scientific evidence demonstrates fairly conclusively that multitasking makes human beings less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. Our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient.

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found. Take a moment to read through the link.

When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time, which reduces productivity. If we want to be effective learners, we need to stop and focus.

Multitasking and Creativity

Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School evaluated the daily work patterns of more than 9,000 individuals working on projects that required creativity and innovation. They found that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person. Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days—with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups—their creative thinking decreases significantly.

This makes sense with learning unfamiliar subjects, since part of the process of understanding a new concept involve creatively finding a relation between the unfamiliar and the familiar. This should require dedicated and undistracted thinking most times. But with loads of information to process every day, we are at risk to run short of sanity.

Dealing with Information Overload

So if multitasking isn’t the answer, what is?

Addressing information overload requires enormous self-discipline, especially if you are already addicted (most of us are, and are either aware or not). It’s a little like recovering from addiction. We have to consciously labor each day to keep on track by finding time to focus, prioritize tasks, and take time out when necessary.

You don’t have to totally wipe out every communication system. We still have the need to keep in touch, as we retain the benefits of connectivity without letting it distract too much.

It would have been easier back in the days, when we couldn’t talk on the phone during the daily commute, we don’t have the luxury of multiple mobile connectivity-enabled devices, social media was not yet invented and building websites and uploading them with contents was reserved for very few.

Today, it’s tougher to keep track because of the fast-attitude norms we have developed, over time. Most people today would feel guilty if they didn’t respond to an e-mail within 24 hours.

But there is a personal responsibility to reset these norms, given how significantly information overload decreases the quality of learning and concentration. Multitasking does not result to more work done, but creativity and productivity suppressed.

The benefits of lightening the burden of information overload—in productivity, creativity, morale, and results—will more than justify the effort. And the more we appreciate the benefits, the easier it will be to make our new habits stick.


Ikenna Odinaka is the founder of AfterschoolAfrica, a resource on local and international educational and career development opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. You can follow him on twitter @ikennaodinaka

Image by Jorge Franganillo


Andrianes Pinantoan is InformED's editor and part of the marketing team behind Open Colleges. When not working, he can be found reading about two of his favourite subjects: education and psychology. You can find him on Google+ or @andreispsyched.

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