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From Now On
Vol 9|No 7|March|2000
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:
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:
The Age of Glib
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).
Oftentimes a BOOK is better
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 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."
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.