Power Learning

Chapter Two - Real Time Research and the Media Center as Info Central

© Photodisc

I. Introduction

Because power learning engages students in "real time research" - the exploration of essential questions using current data - schools must take a new look at their information resources and how they are networked to support this kind of research. Information Age schools modify libraries and media centers to coordinate the delivery of such information to learning locations, wherever they may be - home, classroom, field or workplace.

Electronic highways will support research and thinking remote from the actual physical space occupied by the library itself but close to the learning action. Teachers and students will no longer need to delay or "send someone to the library" to find answers to pressing questions. Fresh, timely data will be right at hand.

Smokestack Research

A Scavenger Hunt

Smokestack education sees student research as a scavenger hunt in which students "go find out about" some topic, gathering up scraps of data and assorted findings. Such research is predominantly descriptive. Students collect what other people have thought and rearrange their findings in some kind of report. The process usually requires little independent reasoning.

Topical Research

One failing of smokestack research is a reliance on lists of topics rather than essential questions. In studying foreign countries, for example, students are often given a list of countries and a list of information categories such as climate, raw materials, products, culture, etc. Invariably, students go to a library, pull out an encyclopedia article or a book about the country and begin to transfer information from those printed materials to index cards or note paper. The trouble with this kind of research is its focus upon the location and moving of information rather than the analysis of information. Little reasoning is required.

Value of Essential Questions

It would be far more productive, challenging and intriguing to structure research projects around essential and higher level questions, ones which require a good deal of student reasoning and probably cannot be answered by copying anybody else's thinking. In the case of foreign country studies, for example, students could be asked to identify the most pressing problems facing their assigned country and evaluate the likelihood that government initiatives are likely to fix those problems. They could be asked to speculate regarding the relationship between the rate of infant (mortality and various health policies.

Questions requiring analysis, synthesis and evaluation radically shift the research experience from descriptive, in which students mainly collect data, to explanatory, in which students try to gain insight from the data regarding important relationships. Power learning shows students how to build their own higher level thinking questions around the topics being studied by the class so that student research is tied both to the curriculum and their personal curiosity.

Archaic Information Resources

But, even if students are researching essential questions, smokestack schools often offered limited and archaic information resources. Conduct a study of the foreign country books in most school libraries, for example, and it is not unusual to find that the great majority of books are more than 10 years old.

In smokestack schools, students might study countries which no longer exist or study data and images of the country from time past. How many school libraries have a collection of books describing the nations emerging from the former Soviet Union? This problem was not the fault of the librarian. It was the fault of the technology. It was too costly for publisher or librarian to keep revising such print resources.

Poor Information Seeking Systems

A third flaw of the smokestack library was awkward systems for locating information - wooden boxes with cards inside, printed bibliographies or the Reader's Periodical Guide. Indexing systems rarely permitted powerful search strategies involving combinations of key issues.

If a student were studying the impact of one politician on the campaign of another, for example, there would be no way to know which information resources would be right on target. Smokestack indexing condemned students to top level categories and blocked the deeper mining of the resources.

With today's information technologies we can do an on-line word search through 36 newspapers from across the nation to find all articles mentioning Reich and Clinton in the same paragraph in less than a minute.

This type of search technology supports far more complex reasoning about relationships and places the emphasis upon reasoning rather than locating.

Lack of Accessibility

Even those schools which viewed the library as the center of school learning still suffered from the physical limitations and scheduling realities of information resources being located remote from the learning action unless students actually visited the library. In many schools and programs, research was a carefully orchestrated annual event rather than a daily treat. Intriguing questions arising during class discussion could rarely be answered on the spot. Fortunately, electronic highways will eventually link all students and teachers with information resources wherever they may be and hand held "personal assistants" like Apple's Newton™ may even support networking without wiring so that accessibility will be constant and independent of location.

Info Central - Tomorrow's Library Today

If we intend to make student research a daily part of the school experience, thus empowering reasoning about complex data, we must engage in infotecture, designing school information systems to deliver current data wherever and whenever students may have questions. Real time research requires a fresh look at media centers and libraries as units coordinating "take out" information feasts. We will no longer judge the quality of a library by the number of books housed on its shelves. The test of a library will be the richness of the collection, the freshness of the data, its connectedness with external collections and the ease with which students can gain access regardless of location. We might even take a few lessons from the pizza delivery business. We want information which is hot, fresh and spicy delivered to our doorsteps in the wink of an eye.

Types of Data

Libraries once concentrated on print resources. The name changed to media centers several decades ago as collections of tapes and videos arrived. Now the categories of data are expanding further. The library of tomorrow will have a great variety of resources ranging from artifacts, tape recordings, newspapers, magazines and books to videodiscs containing thousands of photographs or paintings, CD-ROM discs holding hundreds of pages of text, databases offering numerical data or photographic collections, and on-line connections tying the school to just about every public information resource available throughout the world. It is likely that electronic information, digitized graphics and hypertext will come to occupy Nan increasingly prominent place in this library due to their freshness, their ease of access and the powerful tools such as statistical packages now available to probe such data.

Window to the World

Info Central will offer electronic field trips to students intent on understanding the world outside the classroom and the school. By tying into the national and global electronic highways coming available (such as Internet), the school library can help all students venture out into that world without even leaving their classroom seats. Instead of the classroom being a student's world, the world will become the classroom.

On-line searches will put students in touch with the world's newspapers and databases, will open the doors of the world's museums, will give them access to the photographer's latest work, and will then support the quick transfer and down-loading of such data into student computers for analysis and consideration.

Less costly searches will be conducted on resources resident in the library itself - CD-ROM disc towers offering thousands of pages of less current newspapers and journals, for example, which can be searched powerfully and inexpensively without paying for telecommunications charges.

Electronic Catalog

Info Central will offer and electronic catalog of its resources that can be searched at terminals in the library or remotely, and many of those resources will be available for home or class delivery. Unlike the card catalog, this electronic catalog will support far more powerful searches through descriptors attached to each resource. Students will be able to jump quickly to the section of a book that details Martin Luther King's last conversation with Malcolm X, for example, and download just those paragraphs that relate to the essential question being explored.

Information Shopping Center

Despite the current fascination with longer school years and school days as possible solutions to disappointing school performance, the school of the future is likely to reduce the number of hours of formal contact time between students and teachers as students engage in more research, both singly and in teams. The school library may become a community learning center where people of all ages may shop for information, stopping or plugging into a variety of information "boutiques." Virtual reality may become the school version of the shopping mall cinema, allowing students to "suit up" for thousands of exploits and adventures. Just as the Jason Project allows thousands of students to "be there" as a tele-presence at the floor of the ocean, virtual reality may transport students to settings hitherto unimaginable (Ballard, 1992).

Paintings and Hardcovers

Along with the dazzling new information technologies, the library will continue to offer archives of printed, non-electronic media, such as copies of famous paintings and hard-covered novels with which to curl up in a corner. We must be careful to hold onto the best of the old technologies and exercise caution about what is lost with the new technologies. Some musicians, for example, have derided the loss of certain frequencies when music is recorded onto CD discs. They have claimed that a good deal of the emotion or soul of a piece may be lost with this technology that produces sound that is brighter than it is deep. The same is true for electronic versions of paintings by the great masters. Neither a paper print or a videodisc image of Van Gogh's paintings of irises can match the originals, but they each serve well until the student can manage a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Getty Museum in Malibu, or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

From Librarian to Information Importer/Exporter

The role of the librarian as media specialist will shift to include a major emphasis on infotecture - the design of information sharing systems across the school community, Although a premium will still be placed on creating an attractive and welcoming space to support research, the library program will become ubiquitous, omnipresent and far-reaching. School librarians will oversee the electronic highways and make sure the information goods can flow smoothly to their appropriate markets.

Personal Assistants Linking Students to Info Central

Within the next few years, handheld personal assistants will allow students to communicate with Info Central without bothering to plug in or hook up - no matter where they are. Once this capability exists, libraries that stick to the smokestack mold may suddenly find themselves shut down by competitors beaming info-services down via cable, satellite, or some other vehicle. Now is the time to develop a local vision that will support a local facility carefully customizing its services to make it uniquely attractive to local populations. Otherwise, school libraries could go the way of "Mom and Pop" stores driven from business by supermarkets and huge discount stores. Perhaps the convenience stores that have spread rapidly across the nation in the past decade offer a model for Info Central.

Technology Snapshot 2.1

When asked to compare and contrast the impact of various writers during the 1840s, students in Council Rock, Pennsylvania, can turn to their online catalog and search the collection by names and dates. A list soon flashes onto their screens that includes many resources that they might have overlooked in the past, collections of brief biographies or histories in which these people figured prominently enough for their names to appear in a descriptor field, as well as many documents available from other libraries in the region, such as the community college and the public libraries.

Technology Snapshot 2.2

A team of high school students evaluating the effectiveness of the Clean Air Act of 1990 in reducing problems of acid rain gathers around a PC in the back of their classroom and calls up the Reader's Guide Abstracts - a collection offering 25,000 selected articles each year from 237 core periodicals. Applying the Boolean logic search strategies they have learned, the students quickly generate a list of relevant articles and begin assigning portions of the list for home reading, since each member of the team can dial into the school media center at night from home to access the articles for reading.


School information services are undergoing a remarkable transformation in those districts where the librarians or media specialists have ventured out onto the leading edge by exploring ways to bring the best of information services of the adult workplace into the schools. In such districts, students find themselves immersed in data and information resources that are far richer and more accessible than those provided by smokestack schools. Because power learning, which dramatically increases the responsibility of students to generate insight from data, depends upon rich resources freely, easily, and widely available, the shift to Info Central and its powerful connection with electronic highways is a keystone in the development of schools for the Information Age.

© 1993, J. McKenzie, all rights reserved.
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