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How Are Students' Roles Changing in the New Economy of Information?

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Part 2 in the series Learning In the New Economy of Information.

By Shawn McCusker

Perhaps one of the most powerful expectations of students in an environment of scarcity is that they not question the source of the information. As the modern classroom has become connected, the amount of information available to both teachers and students has exponentially increased. Where teachers once lectured about important ideas and events, or shared their acquired knowledge with their students, today’s classrooms can see every key primary source document, the actual notes of great scientists, and a limitless amount of literary criticism. For students, this abundance of information means not only a changing role from the traditional classroom, but also a drastically different set of skills and expectations.

For generations, being a student meant being the recipient of scarce information. This role of the dutiful recipient came with a certain set of behavioral expectations. The student who could not sit still, or could not slow themselves to the pace of the teacher, was a problem to the class, as her disruption interfered with the sole source of information -- the teacher. Without the teacher as the disseminator of information, no student would have the pieces that they needed to construct bigger ideas and higher level thinking.

Socializing with others in class took place during some activities, but overall, the term “socializing” was used as a pejorative. Adding the comment “frequently socializes in class” to a student’s progress report was not considered a positive thing. Furthermore, in order to test whether the content had been effectively inculcated, assessment focused on measuring memorization. In a traditional classroom, a student who could listen attentively, and had the ability to gather and memorize facts, was in their element; however, the active student with the gift for gab, or whose mind went off on tangents, was not.


The skills necessary to be a student in today's information-rich environment are radically different. In an economy of abundant information, connected students neither need to sit still to access information nor slow themselves to the pace of the teacher or their classmates. They are often free to explore and discover -- often at their own pace and on topics of their own choosing.

At the core of finding and evaluating information from a wide variety of sources is the need to question and evaluate its validity to determine its true usefulness and worth. The student who actively challenges sources, as well as the thoughts and opinions of others in class, perches at the center of information processing. Social students excel in this environment as they collaborate and commingle ideas from individuals into greater community ideas, making them a potential asset to other students in their class rather than an interference.

While there's a place and time to be still, moving around the classroom to collaborate with others provides the active student with an outlet. Today, we don’t see classes that buzz with arguing and problem solving as disruptive -- we see them as active and engaged.

Imagine the consequences for a school in transition where some classrooms operate under the old framework and others under the new. Consider the difficulty for individual teachers whose students might split their time between classes operating on different models. Difficulties could potentially arise in defining “good” student behavior as well as classroom expectations.

Beyond increasing the amount of information that students can access, the new abundant economy of information has far greater implications. It represents both a shift in the way that future classrooms will operate as well as in the student behaviors that we will value and expect.