Information Ecology and 21st Century Learning

(Originally published on my Budget Astronomer website)

I like organic metaphors for information transfer and learning. I trained as a biologist, so it is not surprising, but beyond that – there is something right about a complex, non-linear  process, as opposed to an orderly one. Orderly things are only that way because constraints have been put on them.

One of the ideas I really like is that of the Information Ecology – a term I am sorry to say I did not coin. It is a concept that relates the flow of information to an ecological system. So, let’s go back to a little refresher on ecology….

Remember what you leaned in school long ago about food chains and food webs? Producers, consumers, more consumers, top predator, detritovores and decomposers? Well, here’s the tough news. You never learned it right in the first place, and here’s why. Your teacher didn’t understand it. Your teacher learned it from a textbook that was as dry as the one you learned from, and was even more outdated. More’s the pity, as the real beauty of ecology is in the complexity and interractions – things that are very difficult to convey effectively in a textbook.

In any ecology, There is a foundation, and that is the producers. Electromagnetic energy in the form of light is used to convert CO2 to chemical energy, in the form of biomass. This can then be used to sustain each successive level. At each level, however, there is less useful energy, as much of it is used up by the previous level. As a result, in most food webs producers have the largest numbers, and each successive level of consumer has fewer and fewer numbers. This does not mean, however, that the producers are the most important, per se, since each and every trophic level is entirely necessary for the web to function. Remove one, and the entire thing collapses. There really is no “Most Important”.

The Information Ecology can be outlined with many parallels to a food web. However, it needs to be drawn upside down. In the living world, producers are common and produce a large but finite amount of usable energy for the next level. Each level is smaller and smaller in number, with final consumers being the most scarce. In the Information Ecology, primary producers are scarce, and produce a limited amount of primary information. This information, however, can be consumed an infinite number of times by information consumers. These consumers, in turn, can settle for mere consumption (terminal consumers), or they can take the information and in turn produce something of their own using what they have gleaned. When information is consumed and something new is produced, there is a significant chance that the quality of that information will decline. In other words, the information gets ground up in a rumour mill. Broken telephone. Take your pick of metaphors.

So in an information ecology, we should be able to qualify information by its proximity to its origin (of course, whether the origin itself is reliable is another matter altogether!). Is this to say that all information should be tracked down to its source? For graduate studies, definitely. For the purposes of K-12 education, the source information might be too rich, and completely indigestible. A secondary source may provide similar information presented in a much clearer fashion.

One thing that is clear, however, is that in an information ecology, pure consumers do nothing of benefit. It is only producers who cause the information ecology to grow.

So what is the take-away lesson? It is that quality learning is tied to the quality information, and that information is really only processed when it is used to produce more information. Today’s learners should be encouraged as much as possible to both produce and consume as close to the primary production level as possible.

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