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Beauty and the Beast: Using Digital Riches to Enhance Learning
Digital resources can be a blessing to both teachers and students, bringing a richness to learning that is dramatically different from what was available to schools four decades ago. At the same time, the shift of popular culture to embrace such digital possibilities often entails risks, difficulties and liabilities that usually go unmentioned by cheerleaders and digital promoters. This article takes a more balanced perspective, celebrating the benefits while identifying those risks.
It has become popular in recent years to set "Learning in a Digital World" as the theme of educational conferences especially those devoted to educational technologies but some of us do not believe this is a digital world. One can extol the many benefits of digital resources without surrendering to the enthusiastic labelling (and marketing) of the digital promoters. I prefer a more sensory rich way of envisioning the world one more in line with Thoreau's famous quotation, "In Wildness is the preservation of the world." It was such an honor to present this perspective at ASTE's conference as Alaskans would be especially tuned into the advantages of wildness, wilderness and the natural world.
In May 2008 I published the article "What Digital Age?" challenging the digital label. This current article builds on some of the reservations expressed in that article but also makes a strong case for the blessings of digital resources seeking a balance between enthusiasm and criticism.
A better beast?
Arriving in Anchorage the day before the keynote with a sunny, unseasonably warm afternoon to wander the city, I found this bear in a store window and thought it the perfect beast for a light-hearted and humorous look at digital issues.
In addition to the rich content mentioned earlier, the Net and various software products now also offer quite a few tools that can significantly enhance the quality and power of student thought or production. Many of these like the Visual Thesaurus pictured on the right rely upon Java to display the information and support the inquiry.
Many of these mindware tools support the kinds of thinking associated with powerful comprehension skills identified by P. David Pearson in his research on reading comprehension in the 1980s. His work has formed the basis for a reading approach called Strategic Reading that concentrates on showing students how to employ the following strategies:
Recalling prior knowledge
The Visual Thesaurus helps students to deepen, broaden and enrich their understanding of complex ideas in line with the lateral thinking approach advocated by Edward DeBono. He suggests that Anglo culture is better at what he calls vertical thinking the railroad track, logical-analytical, Roman Numeral approach as opposed to the wide-ranging exploration of new possibilities.
If we wish our students to develop an appreciation of complex ideas and an appetite for such understanding, sites like the Visual Thesaurus partner well with tools such as Inspiration or SmartIdeas that help them to map out their findings as shown on the left a diagram I created when preparing to present workshops on intuition in New Zealand.
There are also many Web sites that offer visual examples of synthesis ranging from jigsaw puzzles to virtual weaving and beading that help students to "see" the thought process required to "make up their mind" or invent something.
There are serious issues raised by the new technologies, but the wonderful beast on the left made a good symbol of these potential threats because most of them can be turned around into benefits if they are addressed conscientiously by those planning school programs. This need not be a Rocky Horror Picture Show, provided leaders act sensibly.
Potential issues to be addressed in some detail later in this article are listed below:
Poverty of Abundance
Age of Glib
The New Plagiarism
Acting sensibly? There are several broad strategies that are worthy of consideration:
Knowing when to go unplugged
Picking the right tools for the job
Producing inventive, high quality work
As will be outlined later in the article, these strategies can protect a school and its students from the threats listed and bring focus to the many benefits available because of the digital riches.
Thoreau's words are worth remembering when some claim this is a digital world.
Schools would be wise to maintain a sense of balance that cherishes the natural world while enjoying the best of the new digital possibilities.
Relying upon Information Literacies to Tip the Balance
Those schools that equip all students with a strong set of information literacy skills stand a good chance of tipping the balance so that the availability of digital tools and resources is more likely to a blessing rather than a threat.
Because a literacy is the capacity to make sense of information within a particular category or domain, that comprehension skill insulates students against manipulation, acquaints them with distortion and prepares them to probe past surface claims to see whether they are well founded. Many of the risks that will be outlined later in this article will be less of an issue if students are astute. Related words from the American Writer's Thesaurus are worth of note:
We make sure that all students understand the term "Photoshopping Reality" as a metaphor for distortion and help them to understand that portrait painters, historians and others started Photoshopping Reality long before the software appeared.
Dove Onslaught (below) is an especially effective video to help students think about Photoshopping Reality.
In a cut-and-paste culture, when many are encouraged to scoop up the thoughts, advice and suggestions of others without carefully examining them, students should be helped to understand the value of original thought and production. The Taxonomy pictured below was designed to help them differentiate between scooping, smushing and more powerful levels of synthesis.
Not all synthesis requires thought, originality or imagination. The mere act of squishing a bunch of information together smooshing or smushing or compacting a heap of facts is low grade synthesis. It requires little thought.
The creation of a poem, a garden, a symphony or a good bottle of wine is quite a different matter.
A taxonomy provides clarity about levels of challenge and value - as with the taxonomies created by Bloom for Affective and Cognitive domains.
By alerting teachers and students to these levels, we hope to inspire production at a high level of originality and creativity.
One can ask students to consider the Slob Evolution video below a parody of the Dove Evolution video and decide where they would place the work on the Taxonomy. Is it just a "knock-off" or did the producers show a high level of originality?
Examples of Rich Digital Content
As mentioned briefly earlier in this article, the resources now available thanks to new information technologies can be quite splendid. This section examines examples of the characteristics listed in the diagram below and makes comparisons when appropriate with what was available to schools a few decades back :
Our students can now visit online museums such as the USA National Gallery of Art or the Sydney Art Gallery and profit from thousands of truly gorgeous images that would have required quite a bit of travel to see back in the 1980s.
While a school library in the 1980s could purchase several dozen printed images as posters for what was called "the vertical file," we have a far richer collection available now. Even though a high quality printed poster may have its advantages in terms of clarity and size, those museums with excellent collections and good interfaces bring students what amounts to visual opulence compared to the menu available in schools prior to the Net.
The collection in the National Gallery of Art pictured above (visit) is extensive and well organized a true visual feast. The link takes you to a Winslow Homer painting that is a favorite of mine. But, rich as the offerings may be, the interface is somewhat limited, allowing in most cases just two sizes and not much zooming in to look more carefully. This becomes an important issue when asking students to interpret images.
The Thinker.org (The San Francisco Fine Arts Museums) provides a much better interface so that users can zoom without pixilation, but it suffers from a poorly structured database that has few meta tags associated with each image, so the user may have trouble finding images. Constructed originally for inventory purposes, rather than searching, the database can be frustrating. It helped me understand what I ended up calling "the poverty of abundance" to be mentioned in some detail later in this article.
Corbis.com provides an excellent example of both an effective user interface as well as a well constructed database. Selling stock photography to the advertising world, Corbis helps busy art directors find "kittens drinking milk" or "old men skiing" with excellent results.
Not so long ago, you had to sit down at a desktop computer to take advantage of great digital resources. As we moved to wireless laptops, the ease of access improved dramatically. With the advent of the Smart Phone and 3G networks, the convenience improved tenfold.
Smart phones, laptops, tablets and a whole array of exciting devices have put great resources right into our hands. The picture on the left shows me checking currency values on a flight at 36,000 feet (in airplane mode). That iPhone also offers me Shakespeare's entire collection of plays as well as Alice in Wonderland, T.S. Eliot's poems and a few dozen Apps that seem magical. It holds 2509 songs or musical pieces such as the Bach Suites mentioned earlier as well as 623 photographs.
TripTracker gives me a scrolling list of every hotel, air and rental car reservation I have made up to December of 2010, integrating the records from a dozen companies into a single list. Convenient? Absolutely.
While there are many Web sites offering information that resembles processed cheese, some, like the Visual Thesaurus and VisuWords, offer complexity. Instead of smushing complicated concepts into simple definitions, these sites offer a cloud of related words that allow us to entertain nuance, subtlety and variations. They sustain inquiry into the intangible and elusive dimensions of life.
Exploring the concept of beauty? Words like cosmetic, artifice, glamor and window-dressing come into view. Our appreciation for the many shades of meaning is greatly enhanced.
Coverage of events like the Olympics sometimes appears more rapidly on social networking sites like FLICKR and Twitter than on more traditional news outlets. Several decades back we had to rely upon evening news on TV and printed newspapers and magazines to inform us of these events, and this coverage, in addition to being delayed, was often both limited and filtered. Coverage of this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver was strangely delayed and filtered by NBC in order to maximize profits, so it was sometimes hard to see events like hockey games.
For Those who wanted to watch events not being broadcast by NBC in delayed broadcast formats, the Net became a helpful alternative, as hockey games could be found, for example, on MSNBC.
YouTube also served as a source of amateur coverage, often more timely than that provided by NBC.
The information about foreign countries and nonfiction topics available in schools obsolesced rapidly back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s as the cost of replacing books about these topics in a timely fashion was prohibitive. You could walk into many school libraries and find that 80-90% of their collection of other countries and various scientific topics might be 15-40 years old. When the library's encyclopedia was finally replaced, the old one was often scooped up by teachers for their classrooms.
The arrival of electronic encyclopedias in the early 1990s signalled a dramatic shift in the way students might learn about the world and created a flow of information that was updated much more frequently than it had been in the past. Schools that had been showing 20 year old 16mm films portraying life in other countries, began to see the distortions created by relying on such dated materials. The information available now is far superior in many respects, although it sometimes suffers from a focus on a tourist's view. Many of the Web sites describing other nations are offered by groups eager to attract travellers. There is some danger that our students will pick up current information that has been "disneyfied" shaped to entertain, attract and appeal.
If students begin their study by creating a complete mind map identifying all of the facets of a city, they are more apt to emerge from their investigations with a full picture. They are less apt to take at face value the portrait offered by the city and its promoters.
Some of the best thinkers, poets, philosophers and dreamers are now readily available online through videos, audio interviews and blogs. In the 1960s and 1970s you had to go to a record store or book store to find such works, and the choices were often quite limited compared to what can now be found while sitting just about anywhere with wireless and a smart phone. I first discovered John O'Donohue's amazing thoughts about beauty through Google and the NPR Web site, listening to his interview. His thoughts were so profound and his language so lyrical, I had to download the interview and listen to some sections over and over. I then bought his printed book. His thoughts are an inspiration.
Working on the concept of beauty with a group of ninth grade girls in New Zealand, a few years ago, I wondered how they would react to this interview how they might listen and appreciate or shut down.
I could tell by watching that many of them were touched almost to the point of tears.
Interested in political controversy? Cartoons that are politically incorrect? Attacks on the current President? Criticism of Presidents past? Criticism of the critics and the pundits? It is all readily available.
Just go to Google and type "recent political cartoons" and the resulting collection is quite impressive.
Why do we want our students to consult such sources? The health of any democracy depends to some extent on lively debate and dissent. When such thinking is stifled or punished, we are at risk. In Orwell's 1984, the state did what it could to end "crime-think."
It is possible for our students to tap into the thinking of people from many other nations in ways that were not possible a few decades ago. In the 1970s they had to send off for materials from consulates and embassies, waiting for weeks until something might come back in the mail. For those lucky enough to live near a university, it might be possible to buy international magazines and newspapers, but they were often several days or a week out of date. Now they can surf from newspaper to newspaper at sites like http://www.newspaperindex.com/ and read the latest news real time from hundreds of cities - gaining a sense of world opinion that frees them to some extent from the mainstream press in countries like the U.S. that have suffered from consolidation.
In addition to the diversity available through online newspapers, blogs now offer independent points of view and reporting that often stands in contrast with the mainstream press.
Are these digital riches truly free? Or do they come with costs that are not apparent? On the surface, it does seem remarkable that we have so many museums and so much information available to us without spending a dime. Of course, the cost of the equipment required and the cost of access might be sizable, but once online, what are the costs?
The two main costs that come to mind are the advertising that appears almost everywhere and the distortions that creep into material as groups offer free information that is shaped to meet their goals.
Early in this article, I pointed out that the many benefits that come to us from digital resources are offset by threats and risks. While these risks can be managed in positive ways by savvy schools, they can have a strong impact on the young if leaders jump on bandwagons uncritically and imagine that there is nothing to worry about. In this next section, the article will examine each of the threats and suggest ways to reduce their impact and damage.
The Poverty of Abundance
The Age of Glib
The New Plagiarism
The Poverty of Abundance
Ironically, there are times when there are so many thousands of images, badly organized, that is difficult to find the image that is needed. The same challenge applies to all categories of in formation - whether they be databases or text files. The patient diagnosed with breast or prostate cancer looks to Google for wisdom and finds there are millions of Web pages claiming to help with the decision-making. It is difficult to tell which of these are trustworthy. One quickly learns that quality is much more important than quantity.
There is lots of information, but some of it is just plain rubbish. Google quickly sends students to Wikipedia's articles often written by amateurs and zealots. The democratization of information production is appealing when learning about restaurants and night spots, but it can be a bit troubling when reading about a law such as "No Child Left Behind" or deciding upon a treatment for cancer.
The Age of Glib
The speed with which the young may access information sometimes seduces them into superficial thinking - gliding along the surface without actually probing to figure out how much logic and evidence exists to substantiate the claims being made.
Years ago, a class I had researching threats to Antarctica were listing ducks. When they looked for "threats" and "Antarctica" the article on ducks appeared on the list of hits. Many students listed ducks as a threat without actually bothering to read the article.
Stephen Colbert coined the term in the show depicted on the right. This is the essence of Wikilobbying, when money determines Wikipedia entries, reality has become a commodity. Wikipedia attracts many more readers that traditional encyclopedias, even though its entries are often warped by personal bias, institutional agendas and simple ignorance. The evidence of bias is quite chilling as reported by the New York Times in the article, "Seeing Corporate Fingerprints in Wikipedia Edits."
There are some who would pander to the entertainment wishes of the young, turning most learning into an arcade experiences. In 2000 I warned against this temptation in "Beyond Edutainment and Technotainment:"
While schools consider the vast array of new electronic tools and resources made available by eager vendors and publishers, some teachers and school leaders are awakening to the challenge of resisting the glib, the superficial and the disneyfied aspects of the digital economy and society. In some cases, it seems as if installation and purchase precede purpose, but in others, a strong sense of educational philosophy helps schools sail past the shallow waters and the navigational hazards of this brave new electronic world.
Even though the notion is weakly supported with evidence, one speaker has promoted the idea that students are "digital natives" who respond best to video games. Sadly, the educational technology community sometimes jumps on bandwagons and trendy fashions without probing to see if they might provide real benefits.
Closely associated with plagiarism is the willingness of many students to collect the ideas of others without doing any thinking of their own. They may properly cite their sources, but they are essentially collecting and recycling rather than adding value or doing any independent thought. Their work belongs at the bottom of the "Taxonomy of Synthetic Thought and Production" mentioned earlier in this article. They scoop and smush. http://www.fno.org/may09/synthesis.html This is such a dramatic problem for educators across the globe that I devoted an entire book to the subject. http://fno.org/nov08/beyondca.html
The consequences for the society are potentially tragic as we raise leaders incapable of thinking the unthinkable or managing catastrophes like Katrina (pictured on the left):
A lack of creativity
A lack of understanding
A lack of preparedness
Cut-and-paste thinking is not up to meeting the challenges thrown at leaders and citizens of this century.
For all the talk of social networking and collaboration, new technologies can separate and isolate, replacing face-to-face intimacy with second, third and fourth lives as families may sit at a restaurant table busily texting those not sitting at the table or zapping aliens on a game machine. The technologies can link us, but mere gathering is not the same as intimacy or collaboration. For adolescents, the temptations of online life can represent an escape from the more trying complications of face-to-face relationships. For adults, retreat into virtual existence carries with it some serious risks. Katie Couric devoted a segment on CBS to Internet Addiction. NetAddiction.com is a site devoted to the treatment and study of this disorder.
Among these are the loss of creative play and hands-on activities in childrens lives, and the excessive amounts of time spent in front of screens instead of in face-to-face engagement with other children, caring adults, and the natural world. We also work against the commercialization of childhood, the misuse of high-stakes testing, and increasing levels of childhood obesity.
Back in 2000, Don Henley wrote the song, "They're Not Here, They're Not Coming" in which he lamented . . .
Well, it's a cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold
Post, postmodern world
No time for heroes, no place for good guys
No room for Rocky The Flying Squirrel
Despite all the hype about new technologies, there are significant risks to childhood and culture that often go unexamined.
The Kaiser Family Foundation published an extensive study of young people's media habits in January of 2010 . . .
Over the past five years, young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from 6:21 to 7:38almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day, except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five.
Moreover, given the amount of time they spend using more than one medium at a time, todays youth pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those daily 71/2 hoursan increase of almost 21/4 hours of media exposure per day over the past five years.
The Kaiser Family study mentioned above describes a generation that is spread out on a continuum defying simple generalizations, yet many observers are quick to define, oversimplify and generalize. Some members of this group have trouble managing multi-tasking while others seem to do just fine.
This past week I found a column in the Sonoma Press Democrat exploring the digital temptations faced by today's high school students "Can electronic distractions hurt your grades?"
It begins with a question from Kelly, who reports that her grades are low and wonders if her Facebook and musical activities might have contributed. A panel of teens weighs in suggesting that digital distractions can hurt performance. The column ends with the statement, "Recall the Hewlett Packard-commissioned study that showed that responding to text and emails while doing other tasks dropped a person's IQ more than twice as much as being stoned on pot."
It is difficult to find the study mentioned on the left. Various Web links to the document have disappeared from The HP Web site and when one reads the newspaper summaries, the claims made seem scantily documented, based on just 60 clinical trials and the dubious notion that IQ declines immediately upon experiencing either pot or email. http://kurtsh.spaces.live.com/blog/
Pretty dramatic headline and finding, eh? But HP seems to have distanced itself by removing the following links:
One of the most entertaining and illuminating attempts to explore distraction is this visual hierarchy created by David McCandless.
It is difficult to find conclusive, reliable rsearch on this issue, but one group has started to collect pertinent studies at the Information Overload Resource Center http://iorgforum.org/ResourceCenter.htm
Fleeting, Speeding, Frantic - Thin
The Poet John O'Donohue, whose interview on NPR was included earlier in this article, expressed serious concerns about the impact of technologies on our sense of time:
. . . the digital virus has truncated time and space.
The self has become anxious for what the next moment might bring. This greed for destination obliterates the journey. The digital desire for the single instant schools the mind in false priority.
The self has become anxious for what the next moment might bring. This greed for destination obliterates the journey. The digital desire for the single instant schools the mind in false priority.
Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
This rush or frenzy comes into direct conflict with the possibility of reflecting or considering deeply, as Sven Birkerts laments in The Gutenberg Elegies:
there is no wisdom without it.
Resonance is a natural phenomenon, the shadow of import alongside the body of fact, and it cannot flourish except in deep time.
An Emphasis on Comprehension, Literacies and Questioning
As mentioned earlier, schools that equip students with the capacity to make up their own minds and think through the mysteries and conundrums of our times will have rendered the digital beast no beast at all. When students can form powerful questions and probe past surface meanings, they will mainly profit from the resources now available to them. Central to such a plan is the development of comprehension across a dozen or more literacies:
When students are taught to think in this way, the risks and the dangers
are pretty much negated.
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