Digital Dieting: From Information Obesity to Intellectual Fitness

By Tara Brabazon. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013. 342 pp. $59.95 (hardback). ISBN 978-1-4724-0937-9.

Tara Brabazon in her book Digital Dieting completes a trilogy that includes Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching (2002) and The University of Google (2007) that all deal with the question of assimilating digital technologies into college level teaching. This series also points to the very real pitfalls posed by this trend to the purpose, aspiration, and ultimate function of higher education. Brabazon is uniquely qualified to tackle these issues as a leading educational technologist and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Strut University in Australia.

Digital Dieting probes the difficulties and dangers for students in managing vast amounts of internet generated junk information. Brabazon sees the proliferation of low quality information as a consequence of a reflexive reliance on new digital media. Fast, available, and superficial is beating out filtered, relevant, and appropriate for most students. Many students are falling into a cycle of “quick fix” dependency that leaves them with information that does not allow for sorting, evaluation, and critical analysis. Using a parallel with food, Brabazon compares the easy access to low quality sources as a type of junk food that causes an intellectual “obesity” for its users. In a very real sense, she sees this “obesity” as compromising the education of students and negatively impacting their competitiveness in the future job market.

Far from merely diagnosing a problem, Brabazon proposes a program of detoxification or “dieting” to wean students away from the temptation to use the digital path of least resistance. She outlines a road to “fitness” that comprises a mixture of common sense and traditional pedagogical practices. Some of these practices would consist of downsizing and applying restrictive rules for using digital resources like Google and Wikipedia. She also argues for a scaffolding approach on assessment that requires deeper interpretive thinking instead of paraphrasing and memorizing disarticulated ideas out of context. Social media needs to be put at the heart of classroom dialogue creating a community that can monitor progress and serve as an additional filter for bad information.

In such a “diet”, all information is not created equal and students need to be exposed to the best writing and research in the fields they are learning. Brabazon clearly feels that fewer media options can weed students away from bad choices, increasing their chances of being led to information that is useful and can stand up to critical scrutiny. The literacies that take students to the places of “good nutrition” have to be put at the heart of expectations and integrated into the evaluation matrix for every college class. These literacies would certainly imply a more broadly conceived information literacy that would include competencies across multiple media. “Multimodality” is a consistent theme of the book, and a positive learning outcome for any “digital diet” would be an understanding that not all research problems can be solved online.

While students need to move towards “intellectual fitness,” Brabazon also takes aim at the misuse of technology by professors. She has particularly harsh criticism for the use of PowerPoint in class lectures. Conceived as a value added presentation technology, PowerPoint is increasingly being used as an educational delivery system – a function for which the platform was not designed. The reading of textually rich slides is increasingly passing for lecturing in a growing number of classes. Skills like note taking, listening, and spot recall are rapidly disappearing much to the detriment of the overall educational experience. This is enabling students to ignore information in real time, because they will be able to consult it at a later date. The availability of ready-made notes diminishes the importance of the classroom creating profound anti-learning entitlements and dependencies. PowerPoint is a powerful example, both in reality and allegorically, of a trend among professors to teach to the technology, often forgetting about the learning that needs to take place in the classroom.

Applying a selective “media diet” must be extended to teaching at all levels of the college experience. Brabazon favors restricting the use of PowerPoint and mixing this platform with other media like YouTube, podcasts, or even iTunes to create a “visual wash” that serves to supplement a lecture rather than replace a lecture. She also recommends the limiting or outright banning of wireless laptops in the lecture hall to focus attention back on the professor teaching in real time. The classroom needs to be liberated as a learning space that provides experiences that are unique and not interchangeable with what students can get from other venues.

Brabazon sees teachers as the principle agent in restoring “intellectual fitness” in both themselves and their students. She decries the “de-skilling” of teaching that is implied in the rise of digital technologies. A compelling argument is made for technology as a tool that can enable and enhance learning, not as something that can replace the classroom or provide the actual learning. Teachers ultimately have the responsibility to reclaim their status as experts and to reestablish their role as the “adult in the room.”

Tara Brabazon in Digital Dieting further develops themes that can be found in her other books, and eloquently restates a problem that both college teachers and librarians grapple with every day. She does not hesitate to propose some practical strategies to move the higher education experience back to respectability. This book would be essential reading for anyone involved with college and university students. For any academic library this book would be a welcome addition, and may be a particularly good choice for specialized collections in library science and education.

Joseph E. Straw, Marietta College, Ohio