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Posted on Nov 2, 2013

Data Smog

Data Smog

by Michelle Davis, Director of Educational Technology and Learning Design ◊

Equipping Learners to Filter and Discern

If you’ve visited a big city, you’ve likely experienced smog – that polluting condition that can damage your health and impair visibility.

Smog prevents us from seeing clearly.  “Data smog” is a term coined by American journalist David Shenk to describe the overwhelming amount of data available through the Internet and the difficulty of the average individual “to sift through and separate fact from fiction.”1 The term was eventually added to the Oxford English Dictionary.2

Student Laptop

In this age of “infowhelm”, where information is unfathomably abundant, we need filtering skills. Consider this: if the average adult finds it difficult to cope with information overload, how can we effectively equip our K-12 learners to navigate the smog?

One of the most common student uses of technology in our schools is conducting research online.3 The question is, are they skilled at it?  Not according to a 2009 study presented by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. This study revealed a rapid decline in first year students’ research and Internet navigating skills.4 Google and Wikipedia have become the predominant research “default” for far too many students.  Moreover, they are not engaging critically to sift through their quick fix information finds.  Our 21st century learners require specific guidance “to become more effective, ethical and critical users of information,” according to the BC Teacher Librarian’s Association.5 They need information literacy skills.

The American Library Association defines information literacy as “the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.”6 Our schools need to focus on teaching our students these kinds of skills to help them thrive in a technology-driven world.  As Michael Fullan, Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education asserts, students need to “learn how to learn because the evolving world is ever changing and elusive.”7 Finally, in a keynote perspective entitled, “Literacy is not enough”, the 21st Century Fluency Project takes this concept one step further.  By promoting “a focus on fluency rather than literacy” their approach “requires educators to completely rethink current assumptions about teaching, learning and assessment.”8


You can learn more about the 21st Century Fluency Project here:

For example, this Project’s Information Fluency offers 5 A’s, which include:

  • Ask (good questions)
  • Access and acquire
  • Analyze and authenticate
  • Apply (the knowledge within a real world problem)
  • Assess (both product and process) 9

Data smog can cloud our judgement.

And technology, by its very nature, can serve as a distracting haze.   As Christian educators, we need to model discernment with our uses of technology and designs for learning.  Technology in schools offers great potential to advance our students’ learning and their understanding of the world, but as Michal Fullan warns in his book Stratosphere, it has a dark side: “no powerful tool is ever neutral in its use.”10 We need to “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:21-22, New American Standard Version).

It’s time to clear the air.

Works Cited  

1 Data Smog. (n.d.) In Wikipedia. Retrieved October 2, 2013, from

2 Data Smog. (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from

3 Purcell, K., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, L. (2013). How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from  accessed on October 2, 2013.

4 Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations. (2009). Students less prepared for university education. Retrieved from accessed on October 2, 2013.

5 British Columbia Teacher Librarians’ Association. (2011). Points of Inquiry. Retrieved from accessed on October 2, 2013.

6 Association of College & Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. (2013). Retrieved from accessed on October 2, 2013.

7 Fullan, Michael. (2013). Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Ltd. (p. 2-3)

8 21st Century Fluency Project. (2013). Literacy is not Enough. Retrieved from accessed on October 2, 2013. (p.2)

9 Ibid., p.8.

10 Fullan., p.7.

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