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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 7|March|2000


The Joy of Reading
Photo Essay

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author





When the Book?
When the Net?

by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

This article first appeared in the February-March, 1995 issue of From Now On, written at a time when schools were just beginning to network, at a time when the promises of great virtual libraries were being trumpeted far and wide. The 1995 article struck a cautionary note, arguing that printed books would remain essential for quite a long time.

Five years later, the printed book seems even more important as the free Internet has spawned a new information landscape that often seems blemished and disappointing, dominated by pop culture, commercials, entertainment values and a billboard sensibility. Information is more freely available than ever before, but quality is elusive. Noise often exceeds signal.

We are finding that the most thoughtful current writing will often surface first as printed text in books and periodicals. While digital and electronic versions of some work might eventually find their way to the Internet, these often come with prices attached to them in the form of subscriptions or download fees.

The public library and the school library have offered virtually free information services for decades, with most of those services being delivered through books. This article argues that those services have become more important than ever before as the quality and the depth of information has sometimes suffered as the world has rushed to network. Digital is sometimes extraordinary . . . sometimes disappointing and vapid.

What happened to the Free Lunch?

Back in 1994 and 1995, they promised us much . . . an Information "Free Lunch" with schools and students gaining access to magnificent resources if we would just network our schools and connect with the Internet. Politicians and business people seemed united in their faith that e-commerce and e-learning would be the salvation of society, schools and school children. While there was concern about digital divides and inequity, there was little questioning of the value of networking. The threads of the emperor's new clothes were too bright and full of promise to allow for serious doubt.

Five years later we continue to read little but buoyant coverage of the bandwagon as billions of dollars are diverted from roofs, libraries and art programs to fund the networking of classrooms on all continents. The bandwagon is global as political leaders and business people trumpet the benefits of a knowledge economy and a Net generation.

As was outlined at some length in the January, 2000 issue of From Now On (go to issue), the free lunch has proven disappointing and many schools now face big bills required to purchase quality information. The free books, the free museums and the free images have turned out to be, in all too many cases, false promises. We search for images on Altavista and find the offerings dominated by Microsoft spin-off, Corbis and other vendors.

First the hardware companies and software companies sell us a network and then we learn about the rest of the program - the educational and learning elements not included with the wiring and computers.

They bring us products with price tags and consequences. Meanwhile, we see a catastrophic weakening of support for books, libraries and librarians in Canada and the United States as book and library budgets are cut back and librarians find themselves on the street considering new career paths.

An Age of Info-Glut, Info-Garbage and Info-Tactics

All too often, information available for free over the Web suffers from serious problems and fails to meet the high standards educators would normally apply to the purchase of textbooks, books for the school library or even supplemental learning resources, all of which normally must meet some kind of district curriculum materials selection criteria.

Info-Glut is a large volume of noise overcoming signal. Noise, like static, is information that interferes with understanding and obscures the truth. When the student does a search for California and finds more than 8 million "hits," many of the hits are unlikely to cast light on significant questions.

Info-Garbage is low quality and irrelevant information stacked up like tires in a landfill. "Hair by Emanuelle" tops the California list - a salon offering styling services. Also, in the top ten one usually finds a Chevy dealer and several tourist sites.

Info-Tactics (coined by Alvin Toffler) are manipulative strategies employed by power brokers to distort information in ways that will influence thinking, buying and voting in ways that match special interests. We are likely to find glossy tourism sites when seeking information about cities, for example. These sites may remain silent about crime rates, rainfall, human rights violations and bad air as they sing the praises of local shopping and entertainment opportunities. Students end up with a tourist's view of other countries rather than a balanced and comprehensive view of the culture, the politics and the living conditions.

Given the lack of revenue to fund site development, we often see sites that are created to serve:

  1. a special interest (environmentalist sites vs. timber and mining company sites)
  2. a personal passion (hate group sites vs. cult or New Age sites)
  3. a profit motive (book sales, movie sales, CD sales, etc.)
  4. a personal hobby

We see far too few sites professionally developed with school curriculum topics in mind. Within a few months of trying out the free resources available on the Net, many teachers begin to complain about its inefficiency and weaknesses:

  • Does the creator of the Web site have a significant background in the subject or topic that might qualify her or him to write and publish authoritatively?
  • Can the visitor to the Web site find any information about the author or the creator on the page? All too often the author goes unmentioned and we are told nothing about their experience and training.
  • If a student finds ten different sites about a science topic such as acid rain, which ones speak most authoritatively and provide the most credible information?
Validity & Reliability
  • Does the site provide data and evidence to support positions and opinions?
  • Are sources clearly identified?
  • Are sources credible?
  • Is the information comprehensive and balanced, covering multiple perspectives?
  • Is the information provided in clear, user-friendly formats that speed the visitor to just the "right stuff?"
  • Are various categories of information stored in ways that make sense so it is easy to find what one needs without wandering about or wasting time?
  • Is the treatment of the subject fair, balanced and reasonable in tone and content?
  • Has the site avoided bias, distortion, prejudice, stereotyping, propaganda and the skewing of information?
Reading & Developmental Level
  • Is the material on the site developmentally appropriate for the students who might explore its resources?
  • Can students read the material?
Other sources for evaluation of Web information

The Age of Glib

Surfing off Manly in NSW, Australia ©JMcKenzie

As suggested in previous FNO articles, we face the danger that new technologies might encourage increasingly glib and superficial work by students as a cut-and-paste culture prevails and students find it easy to accumulate and shrink wrap the opinions and factoids of others - a New Plagiarism, if you will. (see article)

Along with the many new information products flooding the marketplace, we are seeing a transformation of the way young people and adults come to know and understand their world.

Once we worried about illiteracy. Now we must concern ourselves with an electronic version:

The Mind Candy Kafe:
Replacing Truth with Placebo

With the shift toward electronic media and information, the challenge of knowing and comprehending is complicated by a movement toward superficial and plastic coverage. Deep thinking, deep reading and deep commentary are replaced in many quarters by Sound Bites, Mind Bites, Eye Candy and Mind Candy. (see article)


Kafe in Santa Monica ©JMcKenzie

The Disneyfication of Information

Many commentators have noted a tilting of modern information toward entertainment and tabloid values away from more careful and objective reporting. Jeffrey Scheur in The Sound Bite Society (1999). See June, 1999 issue of FNO, "Teaching Media Literacy in an Age of Edutainment."

The term Disneyfication refers to information that has been prettified and made more fun, more entertaining and easier to digest than the real version. Information has been glamorized and beautified to make information, history, literature or reality easier to swallow, read or watch.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame becomes a lovable character. The pirates stop acting in sexist ways. Times Square becomes a haven for family entertainment. Battlefields become great spots for a picnic (theme park).

(see article)

Oftentimes a BOOK is better
than the NET!

While it may not be fashionable to praise printed books, many of those who have struggled with electronic resources in recent times have come to appreciate more fully than ever before the attributes that distinguish printed books from what is currently available on the so-called free Internet.

Even though some of these attributes of printed books might be replicated or improved upon electronically, the lack of revenue available to fund such electronic books has stalled their widespread development, publishing and distribution. This article will first explore the advantages of printed books, will identify the advantages of the Net and then consider how electronic versions of the book might some day provide a desirable option.

Click on the image below to review the advantages of the book or click on the list below if the image does not work with your browser.

Electronic Books - Great Possibilities

Electronic books could offer special features. Fully developed, they might offer capabilities making them superior to their printed cousins. To read about current offerings, visit Powell's Bookstore online.

    "The Rocket eBook™ lets you carry and use a small library – anywhere, any time. Compact, portable, and exceptionally readable, it puts a world of books in the palm of your hand."

1. Searching

Electronic text lends itself especially well to searches for combinations of words and specific phrases. An electronic book can offer more detailed searching than a book, allowing the reader to find combinations not anticipated by the author in the Index or Table of Contents.

When reading to locate specific thoughts and concepts, electronic texts could provide a distinct advantage over paper ones. Search capabilities make possible a kind of electronic "skimming" as the reader skips from hit to hit.

2. Cross-Referencing

Extending the point about searching, electronic texts allow the reader to compare and contrast the thoughts of several or many writers on the same subject without taking the time to read their entire works.

Project Bartleby, a collection of classic writings at Columbia University, is a prime example of this kind of cross referencing. Go to Project Bartleby. You can search across the writings of Shakespeare, Dickinson and countless others to see how they view death, dying and darkness. Accomplishing the same task with paper books might take days.

3. Note-taking

Electronic text is notoriously easy to cut and paste. This is, of course, a big challenge for teachers, as students may collect whole passages without bothering to read them.
In the best cases, students might begin by mapping out their questions in a cluster diagramming program such as Inspiration prior to beginning their research and reading.

They can then attach their findings to the questions and keep information well organized. None of this is time consuming or laborious like the manual note-taking of previous generations.

4. The Rubik's Cube Hyperlinked Book

The truly hyperlinked multimedia book provides three dimensionality in text organization and display, employing graphics, audio and video in a dramatically supportive manner. Picture information assembled and displayed as a Rubik's Cube. Intense! Intuitive. Nonlinear. multi-sensory. This kind of book supports nonlinear exploration. Intuitive leaps. Inventive dance. Curiosity. Wonder. Revelation. Insight. Illumination. AHA!


  1. Reinventing Schools
  2. Engines for Education - by Roger Schank and Chip Cleary


Making Wise Choices

During this time of change, schools must teach students to make wise choices. They must be discouraged from automatically rushing to a computer when a book or a print source might be the best place to turn for some items. On the other hand, perhaps the "free" NET will prove the best source after all. Perhaps an electronic subscription will offer the best insight. Maybe a CD-ROM or a different networked information product will outperform the others?

The Net at its Best

Current Events The Internet provides an array of news media outlets that is far superior to anything available just 10 years ago through the print media. Everything from CNN to newspapers in Sydney are now available at a mouseclick. For a list of global newspapers, click here.
Math and Science Originally funded with plenty of government money to help spur scientific research and communication, the Internet still offers excellent resources for math and science, whether it be museums like Boston's Museum of Science or the Exploratorium on the one hand or government agencies like NASA on the other hand.

Excellent lessons for teachers reside at most of these sites. Swarthmore's Math Forum also provides great lessons.

Looking for statistics and numeracy in the news? Take a look at Numeracy in the News, a site with stories from Australian news stories and superb teacher resources.

Primary Sources An increasing number of government agencies are putting archives on the Net, many of which provide excellent resources for students exploring history and art. Impressive as these may be, they still represent a fraction of the non-digital collections of institutions like the Library of Congress.

The availability of free government statistics varies from country to country, as some governments try to raise revenue by charging citizens.

The U.S. Census provides a vast amount of free information. AIC: Australian Criminal Justice Statistics provides excellent reports. The National Library of Australia provides an extensive image collection as does The New Zealand National Library. Government statistics may be found at Statistics New Zealand - Te Tari Tatau ll Statistics and Information about New Zealand. Statistics Canada provides a broad selection of free data.

Museums While the museum world in general has been disappointingly slow to share its collections digitally, it is one of the most promising potentials of the Net, as evidenced by extraordinary sites like The Thinker (the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums) and the National Gallery of the Arts are notable exceptions along with Museum Victoria in Australia and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec. We are seeing new museums with an emphasis upon virtual exhibits such as the newly opened Women of the West Museum.
Divergent Views Even as huge international conglomerates seem to be narrowing down the sources of news and opinion, there are some counter trends as numerous ZINEs like this one (From Now On) proliferate, often taking independent and irreverent positions on issues. (click here for a list) We can also find collections of essays on line that provide breaking edge perspectives unlikely to survive the newsfeeds and wire services or the local editors of small town papers. (click here for a Forbes collection)
Entertainment & Pop Culture We have come to count upon sites like Amazon and CD-Now to provide the latest breaking news in books, music and other entertainment media.

The Net is an ideal source when it comes to movie reviews, sports news and the "new new thing."

Consumer Information The Net is also a wonderful place to learn about products, whether we start at Yahoo or Excite. We can read product reviews, compare prices and hunt for bargains in ways never possible before.

We may even find our next car on the Web and save ourselves both money and stress.

Concerned about a disease like cancer? Resources abound to help guide decision-making. List

Travel We can find savings in airfare, check the location of hotels, explore entertainment in foreign cities, read reviews of restaurants and ease the journey in many ways thanks to Web sites like Travelocity, Fodor's and many others. We may also gain useful tips from amateur travelogues. Need a street map or directions? Give MapQuest a try.

This strength of the Net is also a weakness when students try to learn about foreign nations and cities, as the information is so heavily shaped by tourism.


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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Icons from Jay Boersma at (http://www.ECNet.Net/users/gas52r0/Jay/home.html)Copyright Policy: Materials published in From Now On may be duplicated in hard copy format if unchanged in format and content for educational, nonprofit school district and university use only and may also be sent from person to person by e-mail. This copyright statement must be included. All other uses, transmissions and duplications are prohibited unless permission is granted expressly. Showing these pages remotely through frames is not permitted.
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