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Avoid Information Overload! Learn to Aggregate, Filter, and Curate


By Melissa Venable

Recent posts here at Inside Online Learning have encouraged you to expand the amount of information coming directly to you through the use of RSS readers and the development of a Personal Learning Network. As an online student or instructor, it is important for you to stay current in your field of study and pursuit of knowledge and skills. Conducting Internet searches is just a first step. You'll eventually want to be able to reach out further and create ways to access the information you need, when you need it.

While it's necessary to open the channels you can end up with an overloaded stream very quickly and there's no end in sight! Schools, organizations, and a variety of authors continue to provide new sources of information at a rapid pace. How can you decide what information is important? In this post, I'll explore current ideas about managing all of this information and provide you with a few tools and techniques to consider as you move forward.

Part Science, Part Art

Let's start with a few definitions. Maybe you've encountered these terms somewhere in your reading already – aggregating, filtering, and curating have become popular ways to describe the tasks important to the efficient management of information.

  • Aggregating – collecting all items related to specific criteria. Tom Foremski describes how search engines do this with algorithms and we do it when we tag items with keywords and save files on our computers. Aggregation describes the addition of items to our collection of resources.
  • Filtering – removing or screening out unnecessary or unwanted items. Jim Raffel describes filtering as separating "signal" from "noise." There is a significant amount of noise in all of the information available, especially online, and filtering can help us to reduce the total number of items and focus on sources that are most relevant to us.
  • Curation – purposeful organization of the items we are collecting; sorting and assessing each for value and relevance. I like Robert Scoble's description of an effective curator as "an information chemist." Tom Foremski also provides this helpful definition: "… a person, or group of people, engaged in choosing and presenting a collection of things related to a specific topic and context." Curation is a more meaningful process than the basic aggregating and filtering. There are no hard and fast rules for curating information. What is valuable and relevant to you may be unique to your educational and professional pursuits and interests.

Tools and Techniques

The concept of information overload is not new, but the ways in which we can manage the information are evolving. How do you want to receive, access, and interact with all of this information?

  • Identify existing curators and lists. One of the quickest and easiest ways to get started is to rely on a key source that you trust to do the heavy lifting for you! There are a lot of experts out there curating their own lists and then sharing them with the rest of us. Take a look at sites like Alltop and Mashable. These sites provide lists of the day's "top stories" organized by category. Find an existing source that is already curating lists of current events and activities in your field of study or work.
  • Create your own collection(s). Use an RSS Feeder (like Feedly) to subscribe to multiple blogs, news feeds, and websites with one account. These tools also allow you to organize the items you add with categories. Livebinders is another web-based tool that allows you to create collections of information. Consider how you might use a tool like this to organize resources for your academic program, course, or for a course project (see a few examples).
  • Sync your social networking. Do you have multiple profiles – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.? Dashboard tools allow you to connect all (or most) of your social networking accounts so that you can not only see all of the streams in one place, but also send our your updates to these accounts from one place. HootsuiteTweetdeck, and Seesmic are three popular examples, but there are many more. Find one that will allow you to connect the networks you are following.

A Few Tips

As you approach new ways to manage your many channels of information, make some early decisions about what is important to you in terms of the types of information you want to monitor (news, publications, blogs, social media, etc.) and the topics that are the most relevant to you. All of these tools and techniques can be powerful when applied to your education, work, and professional development interests.

  • Modify as you go. Aggregating, filtering, and curating require regular maintenance to ensure the stream stays relevant and interesting to you. New tools are certainly on the horizon as well, so concentrate on finding the features and functionality that work for you.
  • Resist the temptation to read everything. Trying to keep up with everything would be terrific, but it's just not realistic. Allow yourself to let some things go by. As you grow your network you'll start to notice a certain degree of repetition – specific items will resurface as multiple sources identify them as important.
  • Become proficient at skimming. As your list of items to review grows it will be even more important to learn how to quickly scan and select a small number for more thorough review. Think about how this technique will help you with curation as well.
  • Make it easy to use! The goal is to create a system, and incorporate tools, that are helpful. Finding methods that work for you will ultimately encourage you to come back to the information and be able to find items you need, when you need them. Look for features like mobile apps and browser add-ons, and when you find a technique that works, stick with it.
  • Set some ground rules. It can be tempting to get lost in the information, one link leading to the next. Decide how much time you'll spend each week or each day reviewing new information. Consider scheduling brief periods of time, and plan out how you'll use that time (e.g. learning new information, finding resources for school, exploring current trends, connecting with others.)

Make it Yours

Your management solution should be your solution. Ask around, find out what your colleagues are doing, where they are having success, but engage in the activities that ultimately work for you – your schedule, interests, and technologies. Aggregating, filtering and curating techniques should be of assistance to you, not an additional source of stress – you have enough of these already, right? There are no right or wrong solutions, just a host of techniques and tools to help you. Take a little time to establish a strategy and then refine your approach.

June 13th, 2011 written by (learn more about our authors)

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