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ORLANDO — In the age of social media, everyone is behind on the reading.

There was always more potentially relevant information out in the world than people could ever hope to know. But Twitter, Facebook, social bookmarking sites, and countless other content streams and conversation threads — constantly available in the era of wireless networks and mobile computing — have thrust many in academe into an endless, unwinnable race to keep up.

At a session on Friday here at the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning, called “Managing the Flow of Information,” a roomful of higher ed technologists commiserated about the information assault and discussed how to figure out what information to ignore without abnegating their obligation to stay current.

The antidote might be extracted from the venom, suggested session co-leaders Amy Hilbelink and Melissa Venable, from Kaplan Higher Education. They and the audience recommended an array of Web 2.0 tools academic technologists can use to streamline — or at least organize — the stream of social media fare flying into their orbits. Among them: sorters such as Paper.Li, Tweetdeck, Diigo, Google Reader, and Google Buzz — as well as blogs curated by experts, such as Jane’s Pick of the Day.

One audience member mentioned that Steven Knode, a management and technology professor at the University of Maryland University College, had published some wise words on the topic of information overload in academe. Contacted by Inside Higher Ed, Knode passed along a few of them, from a chapter he wrote for a book, Knowledge Management and E-Learning, being published today:

“Now, with an information hyperabundance, the tasks of searching, sifting, and synthesizing information may no longer be manageable by human effort alone,” Knode writes. “Indeed, the ‘self-service’ model of information retrieval and digestion might necessarily have to change to a more of a 'room service’ mode… Room service, properly implemented, relieves the user of some of the burden of finding, filtering, and fusing the information."

Using Social Media to Focus Attention

Beyond limiting the distractions of social media in their own lives, academics face the challenge of keeping students — who are equally awash in always-accessible information — focused. Here, some have bypassed moderation in favor of outright obstruction, banning laptops and mobile devices, and even going so far as attempting to shut off Internet access in the classroom. While some professors have championed the use of Twitter in class, others have dismissed it as an attention-bankrupting dalliance with little or no educational function.

But a new study, scheduled to be released next week by the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, suggests that using Twitter in class might in fact lead to greater engagement and higher grades — as long as professors harness their students’ urges to Tweet for “educationally relevant activities”: class discussions, asking questions, getting reminders from instructors, organizing study groups, and so on.

The students in the experiment, first-year pre-health majors (and Twitter novices), varied widely as far as how frequently they tweeted over the course of the 14-week semester — the median was 30 times and the mean was 48 — but overall their GPAs averaged half a point higher than those of the non-tweeting control group.

"Using Twitter produced a more rich discussion of students' relationships to themes covered in the book than would have been possible during the limited class time,” write the study’s authors, researchers at Lock Haven University, South Dakota State University, and Pennsylvania State University. “Twitter allowed us to extend conversations in ways that would not have been practical during the hour-long class sessions. [Students] also engaged in a great deal more cross-communication about the book than first-year students typically do during class sessions.”

The opportunity to have parallel classroom discussions on Twitter also deepened relationships among students in the class, the authors say. “While they discussed the reading, students made connections when realizing they had shared values and interests,” they write. “Indeed, one of the striking effects of having students communicate on Twitter is how they built strong relationships across diverse groups — something that rarely happens with first-year students at this institution.”

While some instructors might take the sight of students typing on keyboards and smartphones as a sign of chronic inattention, the authors of this study take it as the opposite. “One of the great benefits of using Twitter in this way with our first-year experience courses,” they write, “was that we were able to maximize time on task.”

Lead author Reynol Junco, an associate professor in the department of academic development and counseling at Lock Haven, told Inside Higher Ed he thinks evidence of Twitter's pedagogical benefits might open the minds of some skeptics. "The core findings are noteworthy — Twitter can be used to increase student engagement and success," Junco said. "This is the first controlled study to examine the effects of social media on student academic outcomes.... I think this study provides just that and may change the minds of educators looking for evidence of effectiveness."

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

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