Collect it all

In the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, the Washington Post published an article about how the NSA had dealt with electronic data in Iraq.

“Rather than look for a single needle in the haystack, [General Keith Alexander’s] approach was, ‘Let’s collect the whole haystack,’ ” […] “Collect it all, tag it, store it. . . . And whatever it is you want, you go searching for it.”

That was it. “Collect it all” stuck with me as a neat three word summary of the NSA’s attitude to data, filed in my brain right next to the slogan of the Pokémon media franchise.

On a slightly smaller scale, the number of photos on our family computer at home has reached astronomical levels. My wife and I both take a fair amount of photos, and they all go on the computer. Occasionally a family member comes to stay and we look at some of their photos. Maybe we borrow the SD card from their camera, copy everything across. Music isn’t much different. A friend comes round with a hard drive full of music; I borrow it for 15 minutes, copy it all across.

And once those files are there, I’m loath to get rid of them. Photos and music are two of the hardest kinds of file to delete. Two possible reasons:

(1) In their physical/analogue forms, photos and music were precious items. My tapes and CDs cost what now seems like an unbelievable amount of money. Photos, meanwhile, carry some kind of quasi-spiritual power. Throwing away a photo of a person feels tantamount to destroying part of their soul. Maybe we have transferred some of this feeling of value to photos and music in their digital forms.

(2) In terms of storage, digital music and photo files are light. In the event that you do run out of storage space, an extra hard drive sorts you out. Job done.

This means that over the years, the files pile up. I have a weird personality trait where I actually enjoy battling the chaos, carefully keeping our photos and music filed according to my own personal system (or increasingly, Apple’s personal system).

So far, so good. How does this relate to education?

Analogue modes of communication put a limit on quantity because of the cost of reproduction. Photocopies cost money. Books cost money. This limit forces a teacher to be selective.

Digital modes of communication are much less limited. Once the course I’m teaching has a concurrent VLE presence, I can add as much as I want to it. Interesting things to read, videos to watch. But not just educational resources; administrative stuff too. A 40-page pdf of the course handbook goes up there; all the essay submission forms; rules and regulations; word count policies. Collect it all, let God sort it out. Student complains about something at the end of term? It was on the VLE. Sorry, I thought you knew.

You may guess that I’m unhappy with this state of affairs. What’s brought it about?

Maybe it’s because “Collect it all” has become not just NSA policy, but part of the spirit of our age. As photos, music, books and all the rest are turned into data, they become as light as the thinnest paper. We pile them up everywhere. The piles slowly grow higher but they weigh almost nothing. What’s at risk is the loss of expert editorial curation. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons a good teacher should spend some of their time standing in front of their students and pointing the way. A good teacher has seen the territory before the students, and is able to draw their attention to pitfalls on the ground and exotic fruit hanging from the trees. They are able to curate the material that is presented, pick out the most important bits and edit them into digestible chunks.

A teacher can easily miss this. Dazzled by the fast eroding limits brought by technology, it’s easy to forget that carefully selected course content will always win over a data dump of all that there is.

My suspicion is that some students might miss this too. With revision season coming up, maybe these data-hungry students will be asking themselves, “If only I had more content from the course, then I’d be in a better position to pass the exam”.

But maybe students would benefit. It’s hard to say at this point. We’re still in a period of flux. The resources that university students have access to now has profoundly changed since the 1990s. In the past, students prepared for an exam with lecture notes, handouts and books. Now they have all of those plus vast amounts of extra material online, lecture slides on the VLE as standard, and increasingly, full video and audio recordings of the lectures themselves.

Is this making today’s generation of students smarter? Lazier? Better prepared for the future? More forgetful?

A tricky one. If you can point me towards any interesting research in this area, I’d be most grateful.

Image credits

Haystack

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