From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal


Vol 6|No 2|October|1996

The Post Modem School
in the New Information Landscape

by Jamie McKenzie

The Net is for everyone.

The Internet, variously called "the Information Highway," "the Net," the "Web," etc., is creating dramatic changes in the ways people communicate, learn, play, do business and solve problems - changes which require an appropriate program response from schools, given their charge to prepare young people for this electronically networked global village and workplace.

The Internet has changed from a network of scientists and computer buffs to an increasingly vital communications medium for the workplace and a rapidly growing number of households. The user friendly visual format makes it easy for anybody to enjoy and explore. Its use will become widespread regardless of the actions of schools, especially among the more affluent families who can afford home computers with adequate RAM and speed. As the much publicized Internet Machine materializes at $500 - and Sony has introduced and is advertising one already, the WebTV Internet terminal - we may even see the Net as broadly available as NinTendo Game Boys and satellite dishes which manage to find their way into homes pretty much regardless of income levels.

The Web offers information treasures.

The Web offers rich potential for accessing information treasures . . . anything which can be digitized . . . great paintings, sculpture, photographs, and drawings from the museums of the world . . . great manuscripts and books from the leading libraries of the world . . . fresh and accurate statistics from government agencies and international agencies such as the World Bank . . . as well as information of interest to the family . . . to guide the purchase of a car, the selection of a movie, the choice of a vacation spot, the investment of family savings, the tracing of a family tree or the pursuit of a hobby.

One of the most dramatic examples to emerge in recent times is an offering from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. The Thinker ( is a collection of some 60,000 images which the museums have decided to share with the general online public. They mention with considerable pride that they are committed to sharing their entire collection while most museums can only show five per cent of their holdings. For most museums, the rest remain stored away in basements and warehouses.

The decision to share can be seen as a phenomenal breakthrough in the development of the Net as the San Francisco museums join the Library of Congress in creating a great digital splash. The combined effect of these institutional investments is something on the order of an earthquake. While Negroponte has been talking of a digital age (
Being Digital), the images and the text must move off the shelves and out of the basement if we are to realize the full promise of digital exchange.

Fundamental to widespread use has been the recognition by leading entertainment and communications companies that the Net will become as basic to the world as telephones and television. This is not a narrow playground for a small, privileged segment of the population. The Net is for everyone.

Schools must wake up and take this new responsibility seriously or they will find themselves failing to prepare students for learning and thinking in the next century and an Age of Information.


In this new landscape, Information=Power. The layperson gains independence from "authorities" as one is now able to find one's own answers. No more middlemen and middlewomen getting in the way. Buying a car, deciding treatment for a disease, arranging a mortgage, all of these are transformed. No more buyer beware. The buyer now has information as an ally.

"That car's book value is two thousand dollars less than what you're charging!"

What is an appropriate program response from schools?

What does it take to prepare young people to enjoy the full benefits of the Internet . . . this new information landscape? What is an appropriate program response from schools, given their charge to coach young people for this electronically networked global village and workplace? What is the role of teachers in delivering such a program?

The Goal: Developing Information Literacy

We might begin by providing students with the skills to manage these rich information resources: investigating, researching and making meaning from data.

In times of rapid change, the ability to create fresh meanings and novel solutions to problems becomes paramount. As states meet with educators and business leaders to ask what our students must bring in the way of skills to the workplace of the next century, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making come out on the top of the list.

Teachers may employ an array of new technologies such as the Internet, databases and CD-ROM disks to support the development of strong research and thinking skills. For staff development strategies to develop teaching skills in these areas, check out the lesson plans on the Bellingham School District's Web site (

The Advent of Post Modem Research

There is a substantial difference between descriptive research (pre modem) on the one hand, which was nothing much more than "word moving" and explanatory research (post modem) on the other hand, which requires real digging to answer how and why things are related, how and why things happen, as well as just what we might do about what we learn.

In pre-modem schools, the teacher had the answers. The job of students was to commit memory. Pre-modem, "go find out about" research projects required nothing much more from students than moving words from an encyclopedia page to index cards while changing one word in each sentence. Little thinking was required by such topical research. Go find out about Dolly Madison! Go find out about Molly Pitcher! Go find out about the Battle of Bunker Hill!

The copyright dates of a typical school library's books on science, American states and foreign nations are pretty discouraging. Example from an affluent private school

The old technology has not keep up with the times. Pre-modem education sent children to learn about countries, states, products and economies which no longer exist.

In post-modem schools, students make the answers. Teachers show students how to navigate through vast databases so as to locate information which will provide the basis for new insights. Information is hot, fresh, current and rich.

Why do we call such schools "post modem?" It is because they are linked classroom by classroom to a WAN (wide area network) and to the Internet at large by a direct connection. The modem is a rapidly obsolescing product of the analog age, translating the computer's digital messages for analog telephone connections.

In a post modem school, teachers provide students with the "technology of questioning."

essential questions
unanswerable questions
provocative questions
divergent questions
subsidiary questions

Questioning is the primary technology to make meaning(s). Questioning converts data into information and information into insight.

The Learning Strategy: Practicing Information Literacy

Teachers show students how to move

from data
-------------to information
---------------------------to insight

Students must learn at least three kinds of literacy (the ability to make meaning from data).

Text Literacy

Good teachers have always taught students to be critical readers, but the task of finding meaning in thousands of pages of electronic text is a new challenge requiring new skills. (Internet Example: key word searching at Project Bartleby - an online collection of classics - Dickinson, Shakespeare, Frost, etc.) For staff development lesson on text literacy, go to Bellingham Schools

Numerical Literacy

Understanding the modern world requires some ability to think mathematically, analyze databases and crunch numbers. Once students have the vast databases of the US Census available on their desktops, they must know how to ask powerful questions about relationships and use a spreadsheet to find answers. (Internet Example: understanding data about crime and infant mortality at The US Census) For staff development lesson on numerical literacy, go to Bellingham Schools

Visual Literacy

While most young people learn more than half of what they know about the world through visual information, few schools teach them how to probe the information critically.

We're in the middle of a major communications shift from print to imagery.
Politicians are aware of it, but I don't think educators are.
------------Mary Alice White

Teachers can show students how to look below the surface to grasp the content of a photograph, the strategies of an advertisement or the emotions of a painting. (Internet Example: analyzing turn of the century photographs at Library of Congress). For staff development lesson on visual literacy, go to Bellingham Schools

This is not about Surfing!

Information ATMs

Electronic information resources now provide the equivalent of information ATMs in many homes and across the classrooms of networked schools. Information is everywhere and available 24 hours a day. You can access the Net from an airplane 40,000 feet off the ground or an elementary classroom far from any metropolis.

Students can now do real time research . . . exploring questions as they appear in the here and now with fresh data right in the class room.

The new tests of information are speed of access, currency and quality. is it fast and easy? Is it hot? Is it accurate and reliable?

Learning Strategy: launching student team investigations with new technologies

Real time research is often project-based research which requires students to work in teams on problem solving or decision-making questions using a combination of new technologies (the CD-ROM encyclopedia and the Internet) with older ones (the book). Students may employ the Research Cycle:

Sorting and Sifting

Which of the following three cities in New England shall we move to?

Portland, Maine?
Cambridge, Massachusetts?
Hartford, Connecticut?

Previous issues of From Now On and a series of articles published in Technology Connection have described this research process in some depth. The series is available in the book, Net Profit in a Post Modem World.

Curricular Goal: Interpersonal and Cooperative Learning - Collaborating, Communicating and Problem-Solving in Groups

The workplace and the society rely increasingly on telecommunications to carry on the daily business of the "global neighborhood" with teams working to create answers to issues. Schools must prepare students for this present world (and their future) by involving them in challenges which engage teams across local boundaries.

The "global neighborhood" also offers teachers a chance to step outside of the isolation which too long characterized the life of teachers in smokestack schools, communicating with colleagues across town, across state lines and across national boundaries on how to achieve the best results for students.

Electronic publishing offers new possibilities for learning and communicating. As traditional publishing shifts to electronic forms and the Internet, schools may engage students in publishing the findings from their research, the fruits of their creative production and the best of their thinking.

Learning Strategy: launching global problem-solving, investigations and exchanges with e-mail and Web sites

Judi Harris, a professor at the University of Texas has collected and organized several hundred of the best Internet projects involving students in global partnerships and investigations.

She has grouped these projects into three major categories:

From Collaborative Problem-Solving Projects, Save the Beaches ( as an example of a social action project.

From Information Collections, Midlink Magazine as an example of Electronic Publishing (

From Interpersonal Exchanges Writers' Corner as an example of Electronic "Appearances" (

Go to the Judi Harris list of projects.

Learning Strategy: Publishing Student Work with Web Sites

What models work for making meaning and publishing findings?

Virtual Museums

Virtual Galleries


Data Warehouses/Intranets


Learning Strategy: Teaming with Colleagues Nearby or Far Away

Just as collaborating and communicating across a global network enhances learning for students, teachers will find that the Internet provides a chance to step outside of the isolation which too long characterized the life of teachers in smokestack schools, communicating with colleagues across town, across state lines and across national boundaries on how to achieve the best results for students.

Teachers may select a listserv from this list of educational listservs which will engage them in an electronic community of educators exchanging ideas, questions, good strategies, fears, doubts, etc. about teaching and learning (


The Internet presents schools and teachers with a challenge and a rich array of opportunities. We have explored two aspects of the challenge . . .

Providing students with the skills to manage these rich information resources: investigating, researching and making meaning from data.

Encouraging the capacity to work effectively on a team (sometimes a global team) exploring information in order to find solutions or make decisions.

Great opportunities emerge from a richer environment and enhanced communications. Learning becomes a real time exploration of real world issues.

If schools fail to address this challenge, the families and the consumer marketplace will do it for us with all of the predictable emphasis upon entertainment, advertising and pop culture which we have come to expect from that segment of the society.

The consequences of inaction are unhealthy for a democratic society which can ill afford to turn over the education of its young to commercially driven enterprises. Inaction breeds inequality and threatens us with a future cloaked in virtual truth.

Sven Birkerts argues in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of reading in an Electronic Age, that "deep reading and thought" is required to discover or fashion truth out of information. In the days before the printing press, he explains, a few people had just a few books. They read them over and over, pondering and reflecting - "vertical reading." With the advent of the printing press, many more people owned many more books and people extended their range to read much more broadly - "horizontal reading." With the advent of electronic text, Birkerts fears that "deep reading" will all but disappear from popular experience and we will be stranded in an ocean of information with little truth at hand.

In a democratic society, schools are responsible for raising a citizenry capable of deep thinking and reflection. Thomas Jefferson expressed this responsibility long before the Information Highway appeared:

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." Thomas Jefferson

The new information landscape offers us great opportunities, but only if we proceed with some inventiveness and energy to build Post Modem Schools.

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