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Vol 18|No 4|March 2009
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Reading Between
Digital Lines

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2009, all rights reserved.
About author

There is often a subtext when it comes to digital media and information, even though that subtext may be quite well hidden and difficult to identify. Not all that matters is glimmering on the surface.

Inference is required now more than ever. Students must know how to read between the lines, put clues together and fathom meanings that are not self-evident. They must look past the words.

The very term "reading" must be applied more broadly than it was in the past to include the capacity to comprehend any category of information or medium, as in "read a face," "read a building," or "read a situation." Students must now understand how to "read a page" - understanding implicit meanings, context and the intentions of the information producers. They become astute with regard to page design and subliminal manipulation.

Order You Can Read a Face Like a Book: How Reading Faces Helps You Succeed in Business and Relationships
by Naomi R. Tickle (Author) from Amazon (click here)

As an increasing share of the texts young people read are now delivered electronically, the challenge of comprehension has shifted in some ways from the days when most words appeared in books, magazines, newspapers or notes passed in class.

Among other things, students must now learn to cope with the "poverty of abundance" - overwhelming amounts of information - as well as issues of credibility and authority. Reading skills of prior decades remain important but they are not sufficient.

Reading a Page

Lots of money is now spent on page design - how the information on a page is displayed and arrayed. Many of these aspects of communication will be subtle and subliminal, unless students have learned to consider the techniques employed on each page. Compared to pages in a book from years past, the layout of the page and its visual components may have great impact on one's understanding of the information.

Google offers a dramatic example, as its basic page is remarkable in its thin design while its pages reporting search results are crammed with information carefully arranged so that "sponsored links appear around the so-called regular search results in ways that are subtle, as colors and placement are used to make them pretty much unnoticeable. 89 millions hits for laptops! What a great example of the poverty of abundance - a mountain of pages that sets up Google to make money by steering visitors to sponsored links. The information tidal wave actually increases dependency.

Coping with Abundance

Not so long ago, schools and students often suffered from too little information, especially information about current events and times. With many school library collections suffering from underfunding, it was too easy to find books about other countries published 20 years earlier.

Now we can find heaps of information about other nations that is published currently, but these piles often amount to what some have called an "information landfill" and others have called a "rubbish heap."

It brings to mind The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road

Note the article, "Managing the Poverty of Abundance" at http://www.fno.org/oct06/poverty.html. The article proposes that all students be taught search logic as an antidote to the heaps of sites and pages:

What is search logic?

Search logic is the thoughtful combination of search terms - much like a boxer's combinations of punches - that allows the researcher to eliminate irrelevant information and focus on the most promising sources.

Students as Prospectors

For students to read between digital lines, they must become prospectors capable of finding the gold, the oil or the water below the surface.

Roget's Thesaurus draws a connection between the act of prospecting and a treasure-hunt. But it may prove to be a treasure hunt through a garbage pail or landfill!

The information prospector must . . .

Scour, clean out, turn over, rake over
Pick over, turn out, turn inside out
Rake through, rifle through, go through
Search through, look into every nook and cranny
Look or search high and low
Search high heaven
Sift through, winnow, explore every inch
Go over with a fine-tooth comb
Pry into, peer into, peep into, peek into

Overhaul, frisk, go over, shake down
Search one's pockets, feel in one's pockets
Search for, feel for, grope for, hunt for
Drag for, fish for, dig for
Leave no stone unturned, explore every avenue,
Cast about, seek a clue, follow the trail
and PURSUE the TRUTH!

(SOURCE: Roget's Thesaurus of English words and phrases.)

For this kind of digging to be successful, students must be skilled at asking probing questions.

Probing Questions

In previous articles published in FNO and subsequent books, this type of question was outlined in detail. It is one of a dozen question types that students must learn to employ in combinations. They are described in "The Questioning Toolkit" at http://fno.org/nov97/toolkit.html.

Essential Questions Subsidiary Questions Hypothetical Questions Telling Questions Planning Questions
Organizing Questions Probing Questions Sorting & Sifting Questions Clarification Questions Strategic Questions
Elaborating Questions Unanswerable Questions Inventive Questions Provocative Questions Irrelevant Questions
Divergent Questions Irreverent Questions

Probing questions take us below the surface to the "heart of the matter." They operate somewhat like the archeologist's tools - the brushes that clear away the surface dust and the knives which cut through the accumulated grime and debris to reveal the outlines and ridges of some treasure.

Another appropriate metaphor might be exploratory surgery. The good doctor spends little time on the surface, knowing full well that the vital organs reside at a deeper level.

We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.

Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape, ch. 5 (1967).

The search for insight involves some of the same exploratory elements. In an earlier issue of From Now On (January, 1997), I wrote at some length about the search for "convergence" which guides oil prospecting. The geologist knows that the odds of finding oil are greatly increased when three or four elements are all present in the same location.

When it comes to information-seeking, the convergence is established by creating a logical intersection of search words and key concepts, the combination of which is most likely to identify relevant sites and articles. Probing Questions allow us to push search strategies well beyond the broad topical search to something far more pointed and powerful.

And when we first encounter an information "site," we rarely find the treasures lying out in the open within easy reach. We may need to "feel for the vein" much as the lab technician tests before drawing blood. This "feeling" is part logic, part prior knowledge, part intuition and part trial-and-error.

Logic - We check to see if there is any structure to the way the information is organized and displayed, if there are any sign posts or clues pointing to where the best information resides. We assume the author had some plan or design to guide placement of information and we try to identify its outlines.

Prior Knowledge - We apply what we have seen and known in the past to guide our search. We consider information about the topic and prior experience with information sites. This prior knowledge helps us to avoid dead ends and blind alleys. It helps us to make wise choices when browsing through lists of "hits." Prior knowledge also makes it easier to interpret new findings, to place them into a context and distinguish between "fool's gold" and the real thing.

Intuition - We explore our hunches, follow our instincts, look for patterns and connections, and make those leaps our minds can manage. Especially when we are hoping to create new knowledge and carve out new insights, this non-rational, non-logical form of information harvesting is critically important.

Trial-and-Error - Sometimes, nothing works better than plain old "mucking about." Push here. Tug there. Try this out! We find a site with so much information and so little structure that we have little choice but to plunge in and see what we can find.

Debunking and Deconstructing

In these times of spin, deception and false claims, debunking and deconstructing have become survival skills. Things are often quite different from what they appear to be.

This oil by Sarah McKenzie will appear in the NYC show "de/construction" with the artist Wendy Heldmann, opening at the Jen Bekman Gallery. More about Sarah's work here.

If you click on the image, you can see a much larger version.

© 2008 Sarah McKenzie

When we accept claims and reports at face value there is a substantial risk that we will be hoodwinked. Variants on hoodwink include the following list from the thesaurus:

deceive, trick, dupe, outwit, fool, delude, inveigle,
cheat, take in, hoax, mislead, lead on, defraud,
double-cross, swindle, gull, scam; con, bamboozle,

hornswoggle, fleece, do, have, sting, gyp, shaft, rip off,
lead up the garden path, pull a fast one on, put one
over on, take for a ride, pull the wool over someone’s
eyes, sucker, snooker.

Good teachers equip students with the questioning skills to challenge the veracity of information, whether it appear on a library site, a "green" site, a politician's site or pages advertising a product.

Does the “free range” chicken actually venture outside or is the label a misleading technicality? The door was left open and the chickens elected to remain inside. They may still carry the label “free range” on their package.

Can we trust the pharmaceuticals to reveal the real risks?

Why did the incidence of breast cancer decline dramatically when the use of hormone supplements dropped off?

“Get real!” is a rallying cry for those who wish to cut through the hype, the exaggeration and the pseudo-science that is often used to promote an idea, a product or a plan of action.

Sadly, given the prevalence of distortion, skepticism is warranted when anyone is pitching their wares, whether they be manufactured goods, news, government policies or candidates.

Sadly, any expectation of verity is naively old-world these days as simulacra and the plastic often substitute for the real. Virtual reality shoves the other reality into the background, as the hip version is often more attractive and entertaining than the original.

Beth Orton sings . . .

“Reality never lives up to all that it used to be.”
Later she adds, “The best part of life, it seemed, was a dream.”
Lyrics from “Best Bit” on her record Pass in Time (2003)

The article, "Photoshopping Reality" at http://www.fno.org/dec06/photoshopping.html provides program suggestions to develop the media literacy skills of students so they can stand up to the perception management often aimed at them.

Additional program suggestions can be found at The Center for Media Literacy (CML) - a nonprofit educational organization that provides leadership, public education, professional development and educational resources nationally.
http://www.medialit.org

The Center outlines a program called "Five Key Questions That Can Change the World: Deconstructing Media" at http://www.medialit.org/reading_room/article661.html

Unlike other media literacy activity books, which typically are organized by genre (news, advertising, etc.) or topic (violence, gender, etc.), the inquiry-based lessons in Five Key Questions That Can Change the World: Deconstruction help students build an internal checklist of questions to ask about any message in any media - television, movies, the Internet, radio, advertising, newspapers and magazines, even maps and money!

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New McKenzie book arriving in June. Save 20% by ordering now.
Outline of chapters and description of book available here.