Curating knowledge: Why structured learning succeeds


The advent of the internet heralded the “information age”, a time when vast quantities of human knowledge were available to anyone with a computer and internet connection.

For education, the potential seemed endless: anybody could read and publish anything, meaning that anybody could teach and be taught.

However, access did not equal utility.

The sheer amount of information made it difficult to find anything that was accurate, relevant or high quality.

Accessing the web soon became a matter of information overload.

People who are unfamiliar with a topic have no reliable way to assess the quality and correctness of information on it.

They must rely on trusted experts. Recently, content experts have begun to appreciate this process of filtering, ranking and verifying information – considered under the catch-all term “curation”. Just like the curator of a museum chooses pieces to display, based on which are the most interesting, relevant and representative, a knowledge curator sifts through the available information and uses their skills and knowledge to assess, order and categorise it.

This vital step lends meaning to the unshaped mass of data and makes it truly useful. It also means that some of the best-known experts rarely create their own content; they simply organise existing information in a reliable way.

Curators can gather knowledge on any topic – from particle physics to the latest sitcoms – and the web provides many tools to accomplish this. When it comes to educational material, it can be just as hard to find a good curator as it is to find good content. A curator needs four essential traits:

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1. Expertise in the field. First of all, curators must be skilled in and have a broad understanding of their fields, either through study or experience. This may seem self-evident, but many so-called “experts” simply promote a certain point of view or tailor content to favour their beliefs.

2. Research and evaluation skills. A curator must have a strong grounding in the academic skills of finding and judging material on its reliability. Learners must be able to rely on the fact that the curator has found and filtered a wide range of relevant material.

3. Creativity. The curator’s job is not merely reactionary; the best curators apply creativity to the way they organise, discover and present the information they find. On the web, information need not be static and linear.

4. Trustworthiness. Above all, a curator needs a reputation for being unbiased, authoritative and reliable. This can arise from broad public recognition, respect in the professional world and long-standing contributions.

Universities and educational institutions have long been considered the curators of knowledge in society, and this applies equally online.

While it may be possible to find all manner of raw data about a field, it can be very hard for a non-expert to put it together in a meaningful way, or discern good data from bad.

Online courseware and teaching are excellent ways of melding the scope of the web with the precise skill and reliability of knowledge curators.

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