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A critical assessment of learning to cope with information overload: moving the focus from retrieval to use

CHAPTER ONE

INTRODUCTION

1.1 BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY

Although many of us regard ‘information overload’ as a recent phenomena, the word has been in use for more than 50 years; and even before that, people were concerned about the increasing volume of information that they had to deal with in their daily lives. According to a 1963 report by the United States President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, “we shall cope with the information explosion in the long run only if some scientists are willing to commit themselves to the job of sifting, reviewing, and synthesizing information; i.e. to handling information with sophistication and meaning, not merely mechanically” (U.S. President’s Scientific Advisory Committee, 1963). Since then, the world has witnessed an exponential increase in the volume of information items in various forms, which has been accelerated by remarkable advances in Information and Communication Technologies. Although there have been systematic efforts by libraries and information science (LIS) professionals and computer scientists to deal with this massive proliferation of information through various means of bibliographic control and information management and retrieval techniques, no sure success way to deal with this growing form of information overload has been found. With huge advances in research and development in practically every country around the world, we are on the verge of an even greater information explosion in the coming decades.

The generation of new ideas demands their documentation. Since time immemorial, people have been recording their ideas, activities, and expressions in a variety of ways. The body of knowledge created and acquired by humans began to expand with the development of literacy and the invention of new techniques of recording one’s thoughts and ideas.

This gradually began to put strain on people’s limited resources and time. Dominican Vincent of Buauvais was discovered in 1255 lamenting “the abundance of literature, the shortness of time, and the slipperiness of memory” (Blair, 2011). With the introduction of the moveable printing machine in the 15th century, book output surged rapidly and the cost of books reduced significantly. The European Renaissance heralded a widespread respect for knowledge as well as the diffusion of information to the masses. The establishment of England’s first fully public library in 1598 promoted the dissemination of information and knowledge to a greater audience (Strother et al 2012) The industrial revolution and many breakthroughs in the 18th and 19th centuries produced a vast body of knowledge that served as the foundation for social, economic, and cultural growth in the twentieth century. Great improvements in ‘Because of knowledge, we learn more about how to overcome life’s fundamental obstacles. Food is more plentiful. Our physical constructions are stronger and more dependable. Our societies are more stable now that we understand how to run political systems. Our citizenry are more liberated as a result of the widespread diffusion of information that has empowered the individual’ (Tofler, 1970). However, with too much information comes too many tasks – duties such as filtering through this ever-expanding body of knowledge to discover the information we require. And, in today’s fast-paced world, people have less and less time to do so. As a result, information overload has become an issue that is becoming more severe by the day.

In the 1970s, Alvin Toffler popularized the term “information overload.” He defined it as “the problem a person encounters when making a decision in the presence of excessive computer technology in the mid-twentieth century,” and the introduction of the Internet Society Wide Web has made our world genuinely information-driven. ‘The technological innovations of the previous 50 years have made more information, more accessible to more people than at any other point in human history,’ Feather said (Feather, 1998).

 The shift of industrialized countries from the industrial period to the information age has been described by noted writer and futurist Alvin Toffler as a movement from the “Second Wave” to the “Third Wave,” with the “First Wave” being the prehistoric Agricultural Revolution (Toffler, 1981). During the Middle Ages, the rise of literacy and new printing advances played a critical role in helping humans grasp the importance of ‘information.’ People realized that having more knowledge will allow them to make better choices and decisions. With the passage of time, this knowledge turned into a firm conviction, resulting in the fundamental role that information today plays in propelling human civilization forward. ‘Information,’ as David Shenk pointed out (Tofler, 1970). In general, information overload refers to a scenario in which the information user is unable to process any additional information due to its enormity in quantity and volume. According to Edmunds and Morris, information overload is defined as a ‘overabundance of relevant information that cannot be processed, or being burdened with vast amounts of unsolicited information (which may be beneficial)’ (Edmunds & Morris, 2000). According to Mayer, information overload is a “condition that exceeds the restricted human information-processing capability” (Meyer, 1988). According to Bawden, Holtham, and Courtney, information overload is “often interpreted to reflect a state of affairs in which an individual’s efficiency in using information in their work is impeded by the amount of relevant, and potentially helpful, information available to them” (Bowden, Holtham & Courtney, 1999). Information overload has been linked to information consumers’ ability to assimilate information. Individuals with little or no knowledge have little or nothing to comprehend and, as a result, make poor decisions. As the volume of information grows, so does the amount of information processed and the quality of decision-making.

1.2 STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM

Information overload affects or impedes an individual’s ability to clearly think and make decisions properly, this is because with the availability of more information, an individual examines which will be of the best outcome; a rigorous process in the mind  of an individual takes place. However, is it possible for information overload to be a good thing? Can we humans learn to adapt and cope to overload of information and more importantly, can we retrieve the information which has been consumed and apply it to life? This study seeks to assess learning to cope with information overload.

1.3 OBJECTIVE OF THE STUDY

The primary aim of this study is to critically assess learning to cope with information overload, therefore, the following are the specific objectives which will guide this study;

  1. To determine whether there are any benefits of information overload.
  2. To determine whether students can learn to adapt to information overload.
  3. To investigate the consequences of constant overload of information on students.
  4. To investigate the retrieval rate of overloaded information the students have consumed and their application in their studies.

1.4 RESEARCH QUESTIONS

The following questions guide this study;

  1. Are there any benefits of information overload?
  2. Can students to learn to adapt to information overload?
  3. What are the consequences of constant overload of information on the students?
  4. What is extent of retrieval of overloaded information the students have consumed and the application of the information in their studies?

1.5 SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY

This study is significant as it will bring to the fore the concept of information overload and its consequences if too much information is consumed. It will also be beneficial to any sphere of life as it will reveal whether individuals can learn to adapt and cope with the overload of information and it will also provide findings on the extent to which individuals can retrieve overloaded stored information and apply it to daily activities or work. This study will also be significant as it will add to literature for other researchers or scholars who wish to take this study from another perspective or delve deeper into it.

1.6 SCOPE OF THE STUDY

This study will only look into information overload and whether individuals can learn to adapt and cope with it. It will also cover the extent of their retrieval of this overloaded information. The study will only cover students in one selected private and public tertiary institution in Abuja.

1.7 LIMITATION OF THE STUDY

This study will be limited to one public and one private tertiary institution in Abuja. The findings of this study will be limited to the data gathered from the students in these institutions. During the course of this research, the researcher was faced with time and financial constraints.

1.8 DEFINITION OF TERMS

 LEARNING: Simply refers to the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD: Information overload is the difficulty in understanding an issue and effectively making decisions when one has too much information about that issue, and is generally associated with the excessive quantity of daily information.

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