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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 8|No 3|November|1998

Learning Digitally

by Jamie McKenzie

(About the Author)



Students learning with networked laptops in technology enhanced Swedish secondary school.


The arrival of networks and electronic information could bring about a major improvement in the ability of students to read, write and reason. Schools and homes now have tools and resources available which might transform learning into something more enticing, more valuable and more widespread.

Unfortunately, these wonders will not happen simply because we buy and install networks. They will not occur because we place laptops on children's laps. Learning digitally will only transform schools and student performance if we make wise program decisions, invest mightily in professional development and emphasize strategic teaching.

Books, Librarians and Libraries are still vital!

Even though digital resources and networking may eventually transform how students think, communicate and solve problems, it must be noted up front that we shall still require good books, librarians and libraries for the foreseeable future to balance electronic sources and help us find our way.

We have seen that information literacy is a critically important element in the successful introduction of networked information (FNO, September, 1998). We need educators with a strong sense of information science to help every student and every teacher acquire good navigating and interpretive skills.

There is entirely too much talk about replacing librarians, books and libraries with the Internet. This is folly. Madness. Intellectual disarmament. The free Internet, while vast in size, is plagued with weaknesses when it comes to disorganization, reliability and quality.

Even though it might be madness, there are hundreds of schools across North America which have furloughed the librarian and replaced them with computer teachers and the Internet. This is a dangerous trend which makes absolutely no sense for an Age of Information. At the same time that students need radically stronger information skills, some schools and districts are dismantling the programs which might equip them.

How may learning change with the addition of rich information and powerful tools?

    1. We can expect to see tremendous growth of independence along with an increase in the range, the depth, the complexity and the originality of the thinking and production.

Students will learn to make up their minds free of the "spoon fed" simplicities and homilies which have dominated many classrooms for too long.


For some categories such as news networked information will vastly extend the reach of anyone asking questions or exploring issues. We are no longer limited to the printed pages which arrive at our doors in the morning or the periodicals ordered by our local and university libraries.

Provided we have the right telecommunications linkages, we can check out what folks are thinking this morning in Stockholm, Auckland, Beruit and Lima without leaving our bedrooms or our classrooms and without waiting for the mail to be delivered. Networks can help our students to escape a narrow, local, provincial or ethnocentric perspective. They support a more global view.

This amplification of range will only occur if there is a thirst for knowledge and a willingness to seek out the foreign and the unusual. Just because a window or a door is open doesn't mean that folks will look outside.

Some school districts have found that e-mail, which carries with it the potential for global exchanges, is often used for primarily local communication. It does not automatically turn young people into global citizens.


While I have written at length in previous articles about the "Age of Glib" and the McDisneySoft communications empire which oversimplifies, entertainerizes and infantalizes much of the new information available electronically, the advent of networked information could support deeper explorations. Along with mainstream sources which tend to oversimplify, students might also take advantage of extensive archives which offer primary sources as rich as an untapped vein of coal.

Interested in turn-of-the-century American life? Visit and explore the 30,000 images available at the Library of Congress.

Ironically, the Internet sometimes distorts truth until it tastes like processed cheese, but it can also offer up mammoth helpings of undiluted, raw data which is free of contamination and interpretation. First hand accounts, diaries, census data, art collections and photographic portfolios are examples of electronic resources which surpass anything we have known in the past. To access archives of such depth and scale we had to travel to universities, libraries, museums or government archives. Today they lie a mouseclick away over the network.


The cabbage patch has been transformed into Monet's garden.

Prior information technologies - like the textbook - selected, summarized, distilled and simplified the world for young folks. Much of the world was portrayed in "white bread" simplicity. While the McDisneySoft empire maintains its commitment to this traditional simplification of reality, the newer technologies offer up a dazzling array of contrasting, conflicting, colliding perspectives and possibilities. We go from telescope to kaleidoscope.

As with all the potentials mentioned previously, complexity is simultaneously subverted and supported by the Web. One can find diversity, complexity and spice if one wishes. One can also find burnt white toast.


Paris open air market

Fresh perspectives and wide open windows to the seething new electronic bazaar of ideas could promote fresh thinking unlike anything we have witnessed in the past.

Innovation and originality thrive on the free flow of ideas and experiences. At the same time, much of the new information and the electronic media suffer from clip art banality and a template sense of style. Just as much of the world has been GAPped by the mass marketers, the news wires and McDisneySoft empire undermine creativity with their unrelenting drive toward standardization and "ready made" ideas.

The Web allows mavericks, clowns, heretics, poets and fools to publish their work without bowing before the editors, sages, and elders who have so long dominated the flow of ideas. This is a decidedly mixed blessing, of course, because it means the startling insight and bold dash of color may be submerged in a flood of mediocre and disappointing offerings.

As with the other potentials we can ascribe to digital learning, the prospects for a surge of creativity and originality will require some promotion and catering. None of this will happen automatically. While some idea generation will thrive spontaneously like a virulent virus, much of the good will be offset by countervailing viruses spawned by mass marketing and mass media. Clip art, templates, and user friendly short cuts will undermine some of the best prospects.

    2. We can also expect to see a dramatic shift in the nature of community along with the modes and the nodes of communication.

Kevin Kelly's provocative new book, "New Rules for the New Economy" takes us well beyond current notions of information and knowledge as he explores the impact of networks on the ways that people communicate, exchange ideas, build community and do business. Order New Rules for the New Economy from Amazon.

Few schools have even approached the challenge of preparing young people with the skills they will need to manage the tasks and the media of the next decade. Even the most forward thinking of the many studies projecting workforce needs into the next century fall short of identifying these realities.

According to Kelly, basic assumptions of the past decade will cease to operate and influence will pass to those who know how to "grow networks." The old rules centered on capturing segments, markets, technologies and domains. They rewarded preservation and conservation. Entrepreneurs sought ownership of market turf. They built corporate castles, moats and draw bridges which shackled and bound them to behaviors which could not keep pace with the kinds of change which accompanies vast, breeding networks.

The new rules require release, extension, and propagation. Instead of holding on, one lets go. Rather than clutch, one relaxes one's grip and releases one's hold, sending great value out across the network in ways which will come back around like a boomerang hurled into the Australian Outback.

Kelly explains how we are moving from a resource-based economy to a connected knowledge economy. Change, he explains is radically different under these new conditions.

      Change comes in various wavelengths. There are changes in the game, changes in the rules of the game, and changes in how the rules are changed.

      Kelly, Page 114

Kelly differentiates between two categories of change: selective FLUX and CHURN. CHURN he sees as change without much intention, purpose, value or direction. Selective FLUX, on the other hand, he sees as productive, developmental and evolutionary.

How do we teach our students to distinguish between the countless waves and surges? How do we prepare them to start paddling in time to catch and then ride the more promising waves? How do help them learn to let go, cut away, shift direction and take advantage of backwash, surge or undertow?

Many of the Internet's pioneering school efforts have centered on communities of learners exchanging data, ideas and inventions across state or national boundaries. In the best of these projects, the results have been consistent with Kelly's vision as students from two countries (the USA and Sweden) may develop a Web site to explore media literacy. In quite a few, however, the projects showed little payoff for the global community being constructed around the task at hand.

Example: ThinkQuest

It all depends on the elders.

According to some of the promises and the marketing missives, you might expect to see schools and learning transformed with the mere laying of cable, as if infrastructure by itself could infuse teachers and students with skill, wisdom and judgment simply by increasing connectivity.

It just isn't true. Impressive student outcomes might result from an investment in networked information and communications, but only if the elders do their part.

1. Support

The underlying notion behind all this networking is that students must learn to explore and communicate for themselves. While this hardly sounds like a revolutionary point of view, there is precious little student exploration and problem-solving in many classrooms. For networks to make a difference, teachers must embrace and support student learning and the value of exploration. Saddled with enormous pressures to cover thick curriculum guides and produce performance on increasingly difficult state tests, many teachers find it difficult to carve out space in the schedule for such time consuming student investigations.

So long as a majority of teachers may value teaching above learning, we are unlikely to see dramatic changes in student performance as a result of networks.

2. Structure

The mythology surrounding new technologies promotes surprisingly haphazard and irresponsible experiments which often create such poor results that critics and skeptics feel entirely justified in doubting the value of the enterprise and the new resources. Those who send their students down the hall to "surf" the Net often find that they return with hundreds of pages of questionable findings. It turns out that successful searching and efficient electronic investigations must rest upon a carefully developed, structured foundation of information literacy skills which would include solid questioning, prospecting, translating and inventive abilities.

Despite the marketing hype, we are unlikely to see improved reading, writing and reasoning because of new technologies unless we combine them with "strategic teaching" - the thoughtful application of best practices to the new tools. Without such "strategic teaching," according to some studies, the quality of student writing may actually decline as a result of computers. Sadly, the tendency to ignore or underfund professional development means that powerful new tools are used in ways which deflate their impact and potential. Professional development is probably the most important ingredient in the technology mix. Its absence, like the absence of yeast in bread dough, may produce nothing but flat and disappointing results.

Best practice now indicates the need to equip students with skills and structures before they drive the electronic highway. Surf boards no longer suffice. Models like WebQuest help direct student efforts around organizing questions, tasks and concepts so that time is spent productively and students wrestle with significant issues.

3. Guidance

If students are engaged in learning, then teachers do much less teaching. They act more like coaches, helping to shape student efforts through a mixture of modeling and suggesting. This is a very difficult transition for many teachers who have spent their lives knowing the answers. They were respected for their expertise and their knowledge. Suddenly they are expected to take a back seat and let students find and make their own answers. Many of the questions and problems (c.g., "What policy should the USA or New Zealand or Australia or Japan or Taiwan have toward China?") may be unanswerable in any final or finite sense. Problem-based learning is messier than the old smokestack model which required that teachers spout answers while students commit them to memory.

Guidance involves substantial silence and abstention. Tempting as it may be to take mouse or problem in hand and clear away the problem, more learning occurs when the teacher remains in the background requiring the learner to take responsibility for the mouse and the solution. This kind of learning is about "giving away" the skills and the power. The best indication of success is when the teacher has equipped the students to fly from the nest with considerable independence.

Far too little attention has been devoted to the creation of professional development models which would help teachers grow these "guide on the side" skills and strategies. Most professional development for technology still centers around how to use the tools, the software applications and the resources. There is little focus on strategic teaching or guidance . . . little focus on "unteaching" or the "unteachable moment."

Successful teachers of this method are sometimes a blur through the room. At other times, they are rooted alongside a pair of students digging deeply.

There is no sure fire formula or recipe for success with this method. It requires a continual diagnostic/prescriptive approach, as the teacher roams, browses and monitors. High on the list of skills is the ability to "size up" the progress and the process being used by each student or student team. It is important to keep moving and looking. While some teachers may expect students to call them over or ask for help, it is unlikely that all students will know when they are in need of help or coaching.

An important aspect of this kind of teaching is the goal of requiring students to become tool makers and strategy builders. The teacher holds back from handing over tools and strategies and solutions.

"What's the best way to do this?" they coach. "What's worked for you in the past? How can you build on that?"

Basic to the method is the goal of building student autonomy and independence. We cannot reach that goal as teachers unless we are willing to relinquish control. Success depends upon a substantial amount of letting go.

4. Encouragement

As with most creative enterprises, this kind of learning can be frustrating and discouraging. Good teachers know how to provide timely emotional support as well as skills and structures. Exploration of controversial issues and confounding problems is often disheartening. The worst moments may precede the best moments, as illumination often emerges from frustration and blockage. Good teachers also know when to stay back, allowing the student thinker to experience the fullness of intellectual inquiry. It helps if the teacher prepares students for these emotional dimensions by acquainting them with the stages of creative inquiry so they may manage much of their own emotional distress as part of the process.

5. Deliverance

While the book and the movie Deliverance connote a terrifying ride down a river, digital learning, in its best sense, is about a different kind of deliverance. We are talking about setting students free with a solid skill base to do their own thinking. We will equip them with the ability to break free of undue reliance upon pundits, middle men and middle women. We expect them to face the toughest questions of their lives with resiliance, self reliance and competence.

The Value of Rubrics

For many decades we have paid too little attention to standards clearly expressed at the beginning of a project or assignment. Recent attention to ongoing assessment and rubrics has made it much easier for students to understand what we expect from them and to shape their efforts toward those ends.

Rubrics are a fine example of the adult structures which can help deliver a return on our technology investment, but some teachers are finding that students can learn to develop their own rubrics. They report that students care more about the standards when they have a voice in their creation.

One of the most distressing disappointments of the technology bandwagon is the proliferation of flashy but intellectually weak multimedia presentations which utilize every transition and special effect possible but offer less content, less thought and less value than old fashioned "go find out about" encyclopedia research projects. We are seeing too much of what I have called the "New Plagiarism" dressed up in clip art and fancy special effects.

In working with a national multimedia contest (contest) recently, I offered several rubrics meant to "raise the bar" and require both originality and style. (complete rubrics)


We need to clarify the expectation that students will produce some new thought and new ideas, not merely rehash the ideas, contributions and thoughts of others. What counts is the inventiveness of these young thinkers, researchers and problem-solvers. They should know up front that they will develop original concepts, solutions and possibilities. We warn against the currently trendy preference in many places for packaging over content. At the same time we guard against "content as content" which is the time-honored school tradition.



The work is a meager collection or rehash of other people's ideas, products, images and inventions. There is no evidence of new thought.


The work is an extensive collection and rehash of other people's ideas, products, images and inventions. There is no evidence of new thought or inventiveness.


The product shows evidence of originality and inventiveness. While based on an extensive collection of other people's ideas, products, images and inventions, the work extends beyond that collection to offer new insights.


The product shows impressive evidence of originality and inventiveness. The majority of the content and most of the ideas are fresh, original and inventive.


One of our goals should be the development of judicious and elegant use of design principles. It is not just whether graphics match the text. It is whether they are PLEASING to the eye. Sometimes "less is more." There are issues of balance and proportion. If our goal is to teach persuasive communication, then we must ask if the glitter, the movement and the graphical elements actually CONTRIBUTE to UNDERSTANDING. In many quarters, it is enough to be COOL! The challenge is to teach young designers not to be distracted from idea generation and communication by the temptations of Jumping Jack Flash.



Exaggerated emphasis upon graphics and special effects weakens the message and interferes with the communication of content and ideas.


Graphical and multimedia elements accompany content but there is little sign of mutual reinforcement. There is no attention paid to visual design criteria such as balance, proportion, harmony and restraint. There is some tendency toward hodge podge.


Design elements and content combine effectively to deliver a high impact message with the graphics and the words reinforcing each other.


The combination of multimedia elements with words and ideas takes communication and persuasion to a very high level, superior to what could be accomplished with either alone. The mixture brings about synergy and dramatic effects which reach the intended audience with style, pizazzz and elegance.


If we expect to see dramatic improvements in student reading, writing and reasoning, the issue of quality becomes central. Rubrics offer one of the best ways to clarify our expectations in ways that will produce the results we seek. Silence on those same quality issues only helps to maintain the status quo.

The Importance of Scaffolding

Well intended progressive efforts of the past have foundered and floundered because, among other reasons, there was not enough structure to maintain quality. Many of the more current approaches have emphasized scaffolding of various kinds as a strategy to enhance student performance and production.

Scaffolding allows considerable leeway while maintaining parameters and limits.

Developmental stages

Recognizing that younger children may not be able to handle the unstructured new information landscape as well as older, more highly skilled students, we would recommend a greater level of direction, guidance and structure for them.

Concentric rings

We would expect that all students might begin their research with high quality resources such as books and encyclopedias and then move outward to explore increasingly diverse and disorganized sources once they have established a foundation of understanding and knowledge.

Look before you leap

We encourage students to begin with authoritative lists of good sources rather than wading through monstrous lists of search engine hits. Some commercial products like Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encarta offer Internet links which are intended to reduce the need for searching and sifting. (Go to October FNO) User interfaces like these can speed students toward relevant, authoritative and reliable information which might otherwise remain obscured in the vast information heaps of the Internet.

High Standards

Many states have clarified expectations for student learning which are quite well aligned with the elements of digital learning outlined earlier. The State of Illinois, for example, has standards for Language Arts which are right on target. Students are expected to demonstrate strength in 1) problem-solving, 2) communicating, 3) using technology to access information, process ideas and communicate results, and 4) working in teams. (Go to ISBE site)

Scenario One - A Question of Courage . . .

What does digital learning look like?

You enter a middle school classroom and find that students are engaged in half a dozen different activities. Half the students are clustered in pairs and trios around computer monitors. They are trying to decide which of a dozen pictures does a better job of representing courage. More importantly, they are writing papers summarizing their findings. They are substantiating their interpretations, demonstrating visual literacy.

Try your hand at this activity with a partner. Go to the Thinker, the online exhibit of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum which shares more than 70,000 images.

Once you find the imagebase and read the copyright notice, do a search for "courage" and decide which three pictures deserve your attention. Copy and paste these images into your word processing program and then write a paper which compares and contrasts the three pictures with regard to their portrayal of courage. Which one does the best job? Why?

Digital resources are especially well suited to exercises which challenge student to make and defend choices, building a case by gathering and explaining evidence. Archives are so extensive they support a wide variety of activities and increase the chance that students will be able to work on issues which matter to them.

Scenario Two - All the News that's fit . . .

What does digital learning look like?

You enter a high school classroom and find that students are exploring news coverage of a hot international conflict on the dozen laptops which they have brought to class and plugged into the network docking stations installed in all six corners and along all six walls of their irregularly shaped room. They have found sufficient electrical support along with networked information.

The teacher has located several Web sites which offer up links to hundreds of newspapers from around the world. Students are busily comparing foreign coverage with that of the US press. CNN, USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post are compared with Le Monde, Figaro, etc.

The reach of student exploration far exceeds anything possible a few years back. Far from being captive of the McDisneySoft empire, these students can see strands of bias and national trends in coverage. They can further distinguish threads of conflict within individual nations as newspapers on the right report the news one way while their left wing counterparts see and report the facts differently.

Scenario Three - The New Neighborhood

Young people may emerge from this century with a new sense of neighborhood . . . a far more global perspective which includes friends and like-minded thinkers from all around the world.

They will sometimes find they have more in common with people from other countries than they do with people who live just down the road.

With the right introduction to global communication and with the permission to use e-mail (which is often blocked by schools), our students can begin preparing for an adult work life which will rely more and more upon team invention across electronic networks.

There are already some outstanding examples of this phenomenon and this possibility. The ThinkQuest contest has promoted invention by students across international boundaries.

Students from Sweden combined with students from Hawaii, for example, to build a Web site devoted to media awareness. Go to the site. There are dozens of other examples of excellent student projects at this site.

Judi Harris of the University of Texas has gathered together a master list of online projects which engage students as teams in various kinds of learning and problem-solving. Go to the site. The possibilities seem endless.

During the past ten years, many people have discovered the pleasure of building friendships and working relationships across state and international boundary lines.

In the 1920s, writers and artists felt they had to cross the ocean to spend time with other artists and thinkers in Paris. Today, they can trade ideas and invent good things while separated by thousands of miles. Thanks to e-mail and various forms of conferencing, we can build electronic communities around shared interests, issues and goals.

Despite the amazing potential of this new medium, some schools have been remarkably resistant to students having e-mail at all. The press has done such a job of scaring people about the risks of e-mail, that many school leaders have taken the route of blocking student access altogether, an astoundingly wasteful approach to the use of a very expensive network.

Barriers and Obstacles - Why is the journey so difficult?

Even though we pour billions of dollars into new technologies, there is no credible evidence yet that these vast expenditures have resulted in the kinds of benefits outlined as possibilities above.

Why is this so? Aside from the failure to fund professional development and adequately staff the new networks, it seems that schools have been frozen between tradition and chaos. The proponents of new technologies are so often guilty of exaggerated, simplistic claims and hype that they are easily dismissed by the skeptics and doubters who eagerly point out the many failures and misfires which so often accompany these new installations.

A failure to clarify learning goals lies at the heart of this conundrum. Schools have a long history of simultaneously resisting and embracing bandwagons in such a way that no real change seems to materialize despite all the sound and fury. Networking has fallen prey to some of the same "virtual change" characteristics. We have all the outward accouterments without much of the substance. Too many schools are networking for networking's sake. They uncritically do technology as if it were a goal in itself.

Resistance and inertia cannot be eliminated simply by cabling a school. Stasis, a lack of blood flow, cannot be cured by installing new equipment. Stasis is a cultural phenomenon. Organizational development is the cure. Not hardware. Unfortunately, technology proponents rarely seem to understand the steps required to energize a staff and equip them with the instructional repertoire required to take full advantage of digital learning tools.

The Road Ahead

We stand on the brink of disaster and opportunity. Those more foolish and wasteful early efforts to introduce networking will soon inspire an acrid trail of newspaper articles and news programs that will "out" the scandals and failures of the past five years. Taxpayers will demand results. The thoughtless, fad-driven wiring of schools will slow down and be replaced by much more purposeful ventures as parents realize that the mere wiring of schools does not improve, modernize or reform schools, that wiring in itself does not contribute to the quality of education.

When parents see that their chidren's use of these expensive networks is often heavily shackled by fearful network and school administrators, they will begin demanding a better return on investment. When they see the quality of their children's research and their access to reliable information decline as they spend hundreds of hours wandering across the vast wasteland of the Internet, they will ask why crowns and dollars and yen have been diverted from libraries and books, from roof projects and art projects, to fund this new information delivery system.

In the next two years we will see many schools commit themselves to clear learning goals, robust professional development programs and assessment models with a focus on stronger reading, writing and reasoning. Time is running out for those who fail to convert technology dollars into real gains, real opportunities and the exciting possibilities outlined in this article.

Schools that commit to digital learning and the qualities associated with information literate school communities will find that their investment pays handsome dividends.

The Results

If we put the bandwagon and the tomfoolishness aside long enough to focus on strategic teaching and student learning, there is good reason to believe we can significantly improve student reading, writing and reasoning performance in ways that are measurable. If we invest heavily in the right kinds of professional development and if teachers take full advantage of these new tools, we shall see impressive results.

Imagine the benefits if Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, Chile, and the United States all managed to dramatically increase the capacity of their young people to make up their own minds, work in teams, invent new possibilities, communicate effectively and make a substantial contribution to their communities.

The health and the well being of democratic societies depend upon developing such capacities. Without them, our basic values are at risk.

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