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Book Review: Digital Dieting - From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness

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Kevin Sanders examines Tara Brabazon’s latest analytical work which investigates the proliferation of low-quality information in the digital realm and the issues of excessive reliance on social tools for learning.

Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness. By Tara Braba

Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness. By Tara Brabazon; London: Ashgate, October 2013, 342 pages, hardback, ISBN: 978-1-4724-0937-9.

Following a body of work that includes The University of Google: Education in the (post) Information Age (2007) [1] and Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching (2002), Brabazon has developed a central position within the debate surrounding technology and pedagogy, although there is very little that is centrist about Brabazon's writing.

Developing Contextual Themes

With Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness (2013) Brabazon’s primary research interests in media, information and digital literacies are extended even further into the core issues binding contemporary Higher Education (HE) and learning in a world surrounded by an excess of online information, and the political framework that surrounds it. By way of introduction Brabazon writes:

In April 2010, and for the first time, Facebook received more independent visitors than Google. Increasingly there is a desire to share rather than search. But what is the impact of such a change on higher education? How do teachers maintain expectations, motivations and standards in an environment of information obesity? [2]

Brabazon’s critique of managerialist approaches to the production of results in HE remains defiant, defending pedagogically sound, firmly evidenced and research-based practices throughout, while at the same time tempering her passion with some humour. However, Brabazon extends her polemic, sounding a call to arms for substantive change: namely, a movement away from the default position of appropriating technology from outside the learning domain in order to satisfy managerial vanity in wishing to appear at the leading edge of technological deployment.

This work is a conscious rejection of technological determinism and which debunks consumerist attitudes to scholarly information. The author's narrative builds throughout the monograph to form a deep, multilateral attack on contemporary academic administration. With such a thrust, there are parallels to be drawn with the work of scholars such as Budd (2009), reflecting assertions such as ‘[e]thical action and discourse disappear in a wasteful chasm, defined by […] popularity, and false measures of satisfaction’ [3] in contemporary HE.

Operational Manual

Digital Dieting is, however, more than an important contribution to the critical literature of neoliberalism within academia [4][5]. It is also a working model of practice which provides a comprehensive evaluation of existing work from a broad range of disciplines. It offers insights into various ways of working with students and information. Brabazon offers highly refined operational strategies; not provided as diktats, but rather as guidance towards diversification and experimentation.

In her usual informal and accessible style, Brabazon observes and records the behaviours evident in the emails and social media messages of international students. Such observations combined with selections of literature ranging from contemporary sonic art practitioners like Francisco Lopez, critical pedagogy specialists like Henry Giroux and pioneering technologists and futurologists like Alvin Toffler, help to form a comprehensive picture.

Brabazon’s principal arguments focus upon: the need to teach research skills effectively if we are to fulfil the needs of researchers; the centrality of information in the process; as well as the evaluation of information based on the needs of the user and the quality of the source, its applicability and suitability. I suspect many librarians in HE might find common cause with Brabazon’s views.

This is extended to show that the rationale for contemporary academic life is a complex one, be it for students, researchers or tutors. The many and various pressures that abound in modern monetised university management systems now dominate academic practice [6]. They have gone so far as to generate worrying connections between academia and pop culture media corporations, and damage the academic independence of students and faculties alike.

Despite the inferences that some may draw from the book’s title, Digital Dieting is not a Luddite’s call for a return to old ways, it is a fierce call for a revolution within Higher Education:

‘I demand more of our students. Our students should demand more of themselves [...] Online or offline, it is the dialogue, debate and dance between learners and teachers that provides the way out of the dark days of a credit crunched, collapsing university sector.’[2]

Brabazon’s convictions are accompanied by a cohesive guide on how to change the emphasis on praxis, and to improve the relationships between information, technology and teaching in a way that benefits all partners.

Existing Cultural Problems

The author furnishes numerous examples across the globe of students falling foul of academic practice which has been affected by modern trends in management. But Brabazon also offers a detailed analysis of modern Higher Education political economy. Brabazon analyses how some institutions demonstrate an inability to differentiate between learning and leisure in their practice and describes how some institutions fail in their central responsibility to promote: critical thinking in their students; or an effective means of evaluating the information they find; or, for that matter, an ethical approach to the use of the sources they choose to adopt.

Brabazon's suspicions about the motives of modern HE managements in their approach to ITC in teaching are evident in her analysis of the use of technology in Higher Education institutions.

It is not that Brabazon prefers or even promotes the use of more ‘traditional’ methods; the importance of selecting and carefully developing the use of digital technologies and multimedia in teaching and appraising work, and in deploying researched-based practices is highlighted throughout. Having studied teaching and applied strategies comprehensively when delivering audio-visual materials, from cassette tapes to YouTube videos, Brabazon talks of continually learning and experimenting, evaluating and planning ahead - all to enhance the teaching and learning experience that is delivered. Ultimately, this is to provide the all-so-important 'student experience'; but for very different reasons to the neoliberal ends to which many in present-day HE now have to work.

Brabazon talks of this critical approach to digital strategies as an improved approach towards digital dieting. The excess of digital approaches in HE stems from our cultural inability to differentiate between leisure and work, and as such, the tools and methods to apply in a given context.

There has been an overly simplistic rationale from those in senior institutional positions that the technologies they consider to be familiar to students, for example, Facebook, YouTube, Google, PowerPoint and word-processing software - must automatically offer greater value and efficiency within education, despite pedagogical analyses pointing to the contrary, the associated higher implementation and maintenance costs, as well as other cultural problems. Citing evidence both from personal accounts and from wider research across scores of fields, the picture Brabazon creates is clear, and it does not support this de facto position. In fact, it contradicts it.

Reclaiming Core Values

By contrast, Brabazon lays great emphasis on the social nature of learning. The introduction of Vygotzky’s model of the Zones of Proximal Development [7] is an important part of the social learning structure. The relationship between teaching staff and students should encourage the latter towards the interrogation of intellectual concepts, not only through interesting teaching but also their own personal research and study. Brabazon also places importance upon the need for time and space in which to learn in this process, something which Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Higher Education, it is proposed, does not always deliver.

The ready adoption of ICT in undergraduate lectures and even seminars has been rapid. However, Brabazon wonders how carefully have the supposed benefits of ICT in the teaching of undergraduates been evaluated. For example, it is argued that the frequent posting of Powerpoint presentations of lectures for students present and absent alike could actually be detrimental. Their ready availability could diminish the importance of physically attending lectures and taking one's own notes. Thus the actual effect of what is often considered a 'safety net' has been, in Brabazon's view, a means of encouraging students towards relying on the less effective resource of Powerpoint slides deposited in (sometimes dated and inefficient) Virtual Learning Environments, in the mistaken belief they are a reliable alternative to the live lecture.

Thus in some students' minds, a supposedly supportive practice, ie the routine posting of slides, has called into question the value of lectures and seminars to their learning. Brabazon sees lectures as opportunities for active engagement rather than passive attendance, let alone no attendance at all. However, Brabazon does not point to such instances in order to demonise the use of technology in Higher Education teaching, nor indeed to claim that it destroys traditional teaching strategies; far from it. However, such instances do serve in the author's analysis of how the short-sighted misuse of technology does represent a cultural problem both for the teaching institution and its students. Thus the ready availability of, and access to digital resources can be seen as depriving students of the opportunity to engage with learning material first-hand; that is, in lectures and seminars.

Brabazon, therefore, calls upon academics to reclaim the task of teaching and seize the opportunity it affords to develop their students' critical faculties, rather than bowing to the commercial demand to turn out only industry-ready employees. Such commercially oriented pressures form part of the simplistic and reductive strategies pedalled at government level down through the hierarchy of budget holders. The notion that students should be prepared to work for IBM, Apple, ICI, Coca-Cola, Ikea or Virgin as a result of their graduation from a course is part of the neoliberal dogma that conflates academic excellence with corporate success. They are by no means mutually exclusive, neither should they be an automatic outcome.

Library and Information Science is showing an increasing interest in critical information literacy [8] in order to increase the political acuity of students, as much for the benefit of their citizenship as their scholarship. In this context, Brabazon’s assertions seem even more imperative. As Higher Education is increasingly employed to enhance job opportunities in the labour market and to give graduates value-added CVs - both important benefits - the danger in the misdirection from HE's primary academic focus and the social benefits that it brings should not be underestimated [9].

Successes and Opportunities

Brabazon’s detailed investigation in Digital Dieting is delivered in a very engaging style. Where appropriate there is clarification, but at the same time there is always the invitation to debate. Brabazon’s analysis of pop culture and media theory through her explanation of Baudrillard’s post-modern conception of media re-representations serves as a good example of her ability to de-mystify.

There are current issues which Brabazon does not examine, most notably Research Discovery Services (RDS). What effect do they have upon the 'information-obese'? Such information discovery systems suffer from the same technological determinism of research discovery as do other algorithmic options (i.e. Google), although the Directory of Open Access Journals is positively referenced throughout. Is the deployment of RDS the result of pressures to save time, simplify the learning process, and so forth, when in fact it would be better for students to understand the nature of analytical research approaches, even if they take more time in doing so? Given Brabazon's desire to revolutionise contemporary HE teaching methods, the absence of any comment on such a current aspect of technology is a little surprising.

Conclusion

The bold examples cited throughout this book could be misinterpreted as driving an ideologically partisan narrative. Not so: the discursive nature of the research displayed, combined with its engaging, passionate synthesis, the extensive footnotes and the inclusion of various forms of information and methodologies, provide an earnest stability that is welcome within scholarly monographs, particularly those that are challenging entrenched attitudes and systemic failings. The clarity of Brabazon’s text, given its theoretical and practical underpinning, presents a refreshingly passionate vitriol in the quest for truths and justice in contemporary Higher Education.

References

  1. Judy Reading. "Book Review: The University of Google". January 2008, Ariadne Issue 54
    http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue54/reading-rvw/
  2. Brabazon, T. (2013). Digital dieting: From information obesity to intellectual fitness. London: Ashgate.
  3. Budd, J. (2009). The purpose of Higher Education. Plymouth: University Press of America.
  4. Cote, M., de Peuter, G., & Day, R. J. F. (2006). Utopian pedagogy: Radical experiments against neoliberal globalization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  5. Stevenson, N. (2010). Education, neoliberalism and cultural citizenship: Living in ‘X factor’ Britain. European Journal of Cultural Studies. 13(3) : 341-358.
  6. Larner, W. & Le Heron, R. (2005). 'Neoliberalizing spaces and subjectivities: Reinventing New Zealand universities'. Organization. 12(6): 843-862.
  7. Kozulin, A., Kindis, B. Ageyev, V. & Miller, S. (2003). Vygotsky's educational theory in context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Smith, L. (2013). ‘Towards a model of critical information literacy instruction for the development of political agency’. The journal of information literacy. 7(2): 15-32.
  9. Bourg, C. (2014) ‘The neoliberal library: Resistance is not futile’. Feral Librarian blog, 16 January 2014 http://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-neoliberal-library-resistance-is-not-futile/

Author Details

Kevin Sanders
Information Librarian (E-Resources)
University of Bath

Email: k.j.sanders@bath.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.bath.ac.uk/library/

Kevin has worked in academic libraries since 2008. In this time he has operated in a range of roles
across five academic institutions, including as a library assistant and subject librarian. He now works with e-resources at the University of Bath. Kevin has a broad range of interests, but is particularly interested in scholarly communications,
the politics of information and the efficacy of neoliberalism. Kevin is a moderator at theinformed.org.uk/

Date published: 
26 March 2014

This article has been published under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) licence. Please note this CC BY licence applies to textual content of this article, and that some images or other non-textual elements may be covered by special copyright arrangements. For guidance on citing this article (giving attribution as required by the CC BY licence), please see below our recommendation of 'How to cite this article'.

How to cite this article

Kevin Sanders. "Book Review: Digital Dieting - From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness". March 2014, Ariadne Issue 72 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue72/sanders-rvw


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