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Information overload


The other day I was clearing out my eMail inbox of all the unimportant messages I’d not had time to read yet, as I’ve done before. But this time the thought struck me of how things have changed, we still can have lots to process but now it appears to be easier to fall into the trap of subscribing to so many things. How did this happen and how can it be managed?


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We’re all human, we have emotions / interests / whims / professional work to do. We need a connection to the world that provides an input to all of those things. Curiosity makes us seek out sources that provide those connections. We think and consider the value and trustworthiness of a source. Will it be of benefit? Is it reliable? Is it believable? Is it truthful? To answer those questions we analyse the source and look for connections to our existing knowledge. If there are matches, then this is a positive thing for that source. However, sometimes you have a gut feeling and just go with it on a whim.

Time passes and one day you realise that the spam filter isn’t working because all of the sources of information that you’ve subscribed to are not marked as ‘spam’ because you want them. Panic sets in and now you’re in the situation that I was. What do now?

What I then did

Taking a deep breath, I went for it and looked at over seven hundred eMails, and made a decision about each one. Archive for a later search, leave as unread to flag it up for later processing or just delete it because it’s out of date or no longer relevant. A ‘little’ while later I made a decision that I need to keep more on top of this, to be more disciplined with myself and find time between serious programming concentration to keep it under control.

The unsubscribe paradox

Ultimately, what I now should be doing is being brave and hitting that ‘unsubscribe’ option, but I’m not like that, I hoard things that might be useful one day. Annoying, this happens as I fixed the sink a while back with a bolt I’d kept from dismantling some flat pack thing ages ago. That’s what’s so frustrating, in a moment of panic late on a Friday evening before a bank holiday, I needed that bolt, and an emergency plumber would cost an arm and a leg. I digress, or have I? What if that information source one day provides you with information that really makes a difference? Too much information or missing out on what can make a critical difference – Catch 22!

Information management

Therefore what I think we need to do is carefully manage the information. To organise it so that it doesn’t overload our minds to the extent of causing a cold sweat of panic. To allow us to deal with the multitude of elements of the same concept collection in one go. In that way the many become the less because the granularity has decreased. To help with this, gMail allows you to filter messages on any number of criteria, then add labels, move to a different category etc. There once was ‘Google Wave’ that organised and grouped conversations together. Mozilla Thunderbird has ‘Message threading’ that appears to do something similar. All tools and features that we can employ to help us make sense of the flood of information that soaks into our everyday lives.


If we transfer these thoughts and considerations to that of how we design and implement courses, then we can think about the learner and how they feel. How they’ll cope with the information they are learning from you? How they could become overloaded, leading to stress and no longer fulfilling their potential or having the capability to learn? Questions that don’t have a general answer, but rather context driven and in your hands to solve within that context.


I don’t have all of the answers, and will value your perspective. Please do say what you think in the comments.

Gareth Barnard
Latest posts by Gareth Barnard (see all)

Gareth Barnard

Gareth is a developer of numerous Moodle Themes including Essential (the most popular Moodle Theme ever), Foundation, and other plugins such as course formats, including Collapsed Topics.

One thought on “Information overload

  • Intersting post Gareth.
    I too use email as my main communication method for work (I use different email accounts for personal to work).
    As an Apple Mail user I use Rules, and add additional spam words etc.
    But the Apple Mail client is not as flexible as some, and plugins are not as widely available.
    Even so, with rules, and moving, and marking as read, etc. etc. I can get my Inbox down to the 20-30 essential emails each day, and then if/when I have time check my spam folders, and less important folders.


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