1. Monthly Comments
2. More is less . . . sometimes
Comparing Electronic Encyclopedias
by Jamie McKenzie

----- Monthly Comments ----

The Dallas Museum of Art is now offering a collection of art visuals over Internet through the gopher of the University of Northern Texas. With the right software and your own Internet node it takes less than a minute for a beautiful, high resolution color image to travel from their server to your screen. The first time I managed this transfer I squealed with delight and amazement. To think that every child in every classroom may have access to such resources! Some day, perhaps. And then we face the budget cutbacks, the retrenchment, the politics of schooling. What I find remarkable about so many technology people in schools is their persistence regardless of the obstacles and the barriers. I have endless conversations with colleagues in various districts across the nation who are all fighting the same struggle, yet I almost never hear defeat. Courage, persistence and faith.

Less is More . . . Sometimes
Comparing Electronic Encyclopedias
Sight Bites and Crackerjack Prizes

by Jamie McKenzie


While CD-ROM encyclopedias are all the rage these days, schools would be wise to look seriously past marketing rhetoric to make certain that new electronic information systems deliver the "goods." Just as we grew up with warnings like, "You can't tell a book by its cover," revised cautions may be in order during an Age of Information for those scanning glossy brochures proclaiming the wonders of multimedia products.

A. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words.

The wolf is barely visible. Set in a rectangle of one inch by an inch and a half, she stands on a hillside far from the photographer. The colors are muted, almost as if fog has crept across the Yukon setting. The viewer tries to sharpen the focus by squinting - in vain. With a mouse-click on the "play" button, the she-wolf steps cautiously forward. One step . . . two . . . three . . . four. She stops. The video segment is finished. With a mouse-click on the "play" button, the she-wolf jumps back to where she started and repeats the same script.

Boring. Lacking in information. The most powerful inferential reasoning skills stumble and surrender. There is simply very little we can learn from this "sight bite." Why is she there? What time of day (night) is it? Where are her babies? Where is the rest of the pack? Is she hunting? What might she be hunting? Is she hunted? By whom? Why? There is no narration and no handy print explanation. Text and sight bite are virtually segregated.

All too often the video segments included with multimedia encyclopedias are disappointing in half a dozen respects. Before investing in a site license for $1500 to provide school-wide access to a multimedia encyclopedia over a LAN (local area network), consider the following:

1. How many video segments are included?

2. How big is the screen size of the segments?

3. How clear are the pictures?

4. How long are the segments?

5. What can be learned by viewing the segments?

6. Can the segments or portions of them be legally cut and pasted into student-produced multimedia reports?

7. Once the gadget effect has worn off, how attractive will this feature be?

8. How does this source of video compare with videodiscs on the questions listed above?

In addition to video segments, most multimedia encyclopedias offer additional graphics such as drawings, still photographs, maps, graphs and charts. In some cases, these visuals are actually equivalent to or superior to their hard copy counterparts, but many suffer from the same limitations alluded to above. The following questions may prove valuable when assessing the quality of a particular product:

1. How big is the screen size of the visuals? Do they vary? Can they be enlarged without distortion? Can the viewer zoom in and out to clarify details?

2. How clear and sharp is the photography?

3. How much information is embedded in the visuals? Are they worth studying in detail? Can the viewer probe below the surface content and find rich veins of meaning?

4. Are these visuals legally available for student cutting and pasting? How user-friendly is the software process for doing so? Can a student move smoothly back and forth in Windows or Multifinder from encyclopedia to multimedia report generator?

5. If the maps or pictures are in color, how true is the color? Can they be printed on a monochrome printer without losing important information?

6. Is the visual integrated meaningfully with accompanying print material or offered as a side show? Is the visual illustrative of some important insight about wolves, for example, or is it a simple icon . . . "Me wolf!" Are examples of animals always shown in the singular, or does the visual show them in group settings?

7. Is the total collection of visuals balanced to match the broad emphasis of the encyclopedia or is it relatively narrowly focused on a dozen especially popular topics such as animals and dinosaurs, leaving huge sectors virtually unillustrated? If the text portion of the encyclopedia is comparable to the text in a hard copy, are there a comparable number of visuals?

When a school library owns a single CD-ROM player and the typical student enjoys a mere 15 minutes per year of hands-on time, questions like those listed above mean very little because users rarely rely upon that encyclopedia to conduct serious research, but once the system is available on 50+ machines across a building LAN with access from every classroom, these questions start to matter a great deal. When the electronic encyclopedia becomes a basic tool of exploring information, the quality of visual data becomes a priority criterion for product selection.

B. We are more likely to choke than starve.

Conduct a keyword search for "invention" and you find yourself with a list of more than 100 articles which contain the word. How helpful is your encyclopedia's searching software? What does it do for you? How well does it support the culling and synthesis outlined in last month's article, "Grazing the Internet?" Even third and fourth graders may collect dozens of fragments rather than two or three big chunks.

1. Does the encyclopedia support keyword searching?

2. Can the searcher employ logical operators such as "and," "or," and "not."

3. Can the proximity of words be changed from sentence to paragraph to article according to the goals of the searcher?

4. How complete is the "hit list" showing the articles containing the keywords? Some encyclopedias arbitrarily limit the "hit list" to the first 100 articles or the 100 articles with the most hits. Alphabetical order and frequency of appearance of the keyword are not necessarily valid criteria for selection or exclusion of articles.

5. How easy is it to scan the hits? Does it require a simple mouseclick on a menu or a key command? Does this command take the reader right to the keywords highlighted in the text? How easy is it then to return to the hit list?

6. How easily can the student cut and paste pertinent sections of text to add them to electronic notepads ultimately imported to a report generator? Does the software support targeting single sentences and phrases, or must one collect big chunks? Must the text be saved to disk or can it be pasted directly into a different application?

7. How well do tables convert into ASCI or text files which can be used with database and spreadsheet programs? Do the tables maintain their format or lose tabs in the translation process?

C. Inventors do not invent.

Information is not truth. More information does not guarantee greater truth. Rich as these encyclopedias may be when it comes to certain aspects of the truth, they can focus on certain aspects of experience to the exclusion of others. Search for "invention" and one hits several hundred articles. Search for "invent" or "invented" and the list drops to a few dozen. Why? Encyclopedias do not generally tell stories. They define, they describe, they list and they categorize. Without strong narratives and dramatic characters, there is little need for action verbs. Encyclopedias tell us about the relicts, the trophies, the victories and the losses, but the smoke of a battlefield and the stench of death are rarely described. The irony is, of course, that we can read of great men and women without feeling much of their greatness. Passion is wrung from content.

D. Treaties remain unbroken.

Encyclopedias can sanitize and distort historical reality by emphasizing certain aspects of experience and excluding others. A keyword search for treaties in one product identified hundreds of articles on Native Americans. Adding the word "broken" to the logic of the search eliminated every article. Somehow a major blemish upon the face of our history was lifted, forgotten, ignored and eliminated. You can read article after article about tribes who signed treaties and then moved, signed treaties and then moved, without any mention of betrayal, broken words or malconduct.

E. Behind every good man . . . a dead poets' society.

Bias may creep into some encyclopedias in subtle ways. One product has a really impressive collection of poets which includes a great number of women and minority writers who are often excluded or forgotten, and yet it is difficult to find any of these women and minority poets by conducting multiple keyword searches. One has to use a single word, "poet," and then scan the list for women. Unlike many text databases, there is no "descriptor" field which would support entry of key locator words such as "women." The reader must experiment with feminine words such as "her" or "she" which might appear in an article about a woman poet. This same product compounds the problem by offering a series of menus which allow readers to scan lists of politicians, artists, poets, etc. These menus, in contrast to the collection as a whole, are often male dominated, as if to say, "Here are the real poets." In a different twist, this same list is biased toward "dead" male poets. As one compares and contrasts the products available today, it is critically important to ask the same questions about bias and thorough coverage one might ask about any instructional materials. Unfortunately, new technologies such as videodiscs often seem to slip by such questioning as school people embrace the technology without examining the content.

F. Multimedia can require Plumber's Helper.

Because they are memory intensive, graphics can cause serious problems for networked systems sharing CD-ROM servers. Full text encyclopedias are more apt to flow rapidly to 25+ users than a multimedia product. Before committing $1500+ to a site license, make certain the product has been field tested with 25 concurrent users all in different parts of the encyclopedia at the same time. And the field test must be on a system analogous to your own. Each configuration and design of server plus network can present its own unique bottlenecks. Sometimes cabling such as AppleTalk will cause the system to bog down because it cannot transfer data at high speeds. At other times it may be the speed of the CD-ROM server. At other times it may be the caching capacity and processing speed of the file server. The best way to protect against system gridlock and constipation is to test the product with a large crowd of users before purchasing. Too many schools have trusted the reassuring words of vendors only to wake up with sluggish systems incapable of delivering the "goods."


Technology has its own seductive tendencies, crying out to us like the sirens singing to Greek sailors hoping to lure them to the shore and an untimely death. The marketing folk keep pointing to bells and whistles as if all that sound and fury signifies much of anything. While it is highly likely that the visual aspect of multimedia encyclopedias will grow dramatically in quality, we are still in a stage of development where it may sometimes pay to go with a full text product instead of a flashy multimedia package. After decades of skeptics warning that new technologies such as television and the computer will destroy reading, we may shortly see a resurgence of student interest in reading as they graze the Internet and enjoy electronic encyclopedias. Having gorged on high quality visual media since infancy, students may actually embrace text with fresh enthusiasm, especially since the new information sources support curiosity and a sense of wonder rather than adult-controlled, linear sequences.

Credits: The background is from Jay Boersma.
Other drawings and graphics are by Jamie McKenzie.

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