Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 1|September|2001

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Surf's End?

by Jamie McKenzie
About the Author

Are we seeing a trend away from mere surfing? What follows surfing? Deliberate, planned, careful research?

"Exploration of World Wide Web Tilts From Eclectic to Mundane"
by Amy Harmon (from the August 26, 2001 New York Times)

. . . new data shows that for many people, the Web has become a routine electronic device. Often, Internet users stick to a half-dozen sites for news, sports scores, airline tickets and other things they need regularly. Many set up "personalized portals" that display only the categories of news, entertainment and financial information they are interested in when they log on.

Citing data from two different studies of Internet usage, Ms. Harmon notes a decline in surfing and an increase of more routine visits to a smaller number of sites. According to one study, fewer people are beginning their online time with search engines.

Some of us have been arguing the need for scaffolding, direction and structure for several years now, as the weaknesses of search engines and the disorganization and the lack of reliability of the Net have made it less than attractive to many reluctant and late adopting teachers. (See "Scaffolding for Success,"

The Surf is Down (1995)

Excerpt from "Planning a Voyage into Cyberspace," by Jamie McKenzie in the April, 1995 issue of Technology Connection.

Time has come to lay aside the "surfing" metaphor for student use of the Internet. While it is fashionable these days - even in educational circles - to speak of "surfing" the Net in reverential terms and tones, as if time browsing the Net were a sufficient end in itself, mere surfing can be as productive as hours spent in some arcade bombing aliens. The Internet is a vast hodgepodge of information resources thrown together with very little planning, structure or quality control. Wandering aimlessly across the Net's shimmering surface or delving haphazardly through its labyrinthine menus may be addictive, but students can easily squander hours without gaining any new insight or valuable information.

Some of us have also been pointing to the ongoing need for strong library programs, library collections and librarians even while some heralded the end of the library and replaced library staff with aides and technology teachers. (See "A Brave New World of Padlocked Libraries and Unstaffed Schools?

The New York Times article is one more sign that the hype and exaggerated promises of the dot com and technology cheerleaders outpaced the needs, interests and wishes of the consumers. The cheerleading assigns blame to those who do not immediately climb aboard the bandwagon, charging that these laggards are shortchanging today's students and arguing the need for technologically savvy employees. But the cheerleading becomes a kind of unquestionable digital tyranny - that new technologies are always good, always better, always preferable.

In another recent article, the highly touted advantages of electronic books were shown to have disappointed rather than pleased, with actual sales and consumer acceptance falling well below expectations.

Forecasts of an E-Book Era Were, It Seems, Premature"

By David D. Kirkpatrick (from the August 28, 2001 New York Times,)

Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of the books division of AOL Time Warner (news/quote ), pledged to lead the charge: "We want to see electronic publishing blow the covers off of books." Andersen Consulting had recently estimated that by 2005 digital books could account for 10 percent of all book sales.

A year later, however, the main advantage of electronic books appears to be that they gather no dust. Almost no one is buying. Publishers and online bookstores say only the very few best-selling electronic editions have sold more than a thousand copies, and most sell far fewer. Only a handful have generated enough revenue to cover the few hundred dollars it costs to convert their texts to digital formats.

One perceptive letter to the editor pointed out that electronic books rely upon scrolling - a technology actually older than printed books.

The codex — the rectangular arrangement of pages fastened at one side — represents technology superior to the scroll; so superior, in fact, that no culture that has been introduced to the codex has ever gone back to the scroll, save for artistic, archival or ceremonial uses.

Berkeley, Calif., Aug. 28, 2001
The writer is an associate professor of rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley.

Smart schools and smart teachers will be very careful about pressures from the outside arguing for technological literacy and 21st Century skills - unless those literacies and skills include the ability to make wise choices when selecting tools and technologies. The wise consumer and the wise student will make discerning uses of new technologies and shrug off the marketing pressure to use the latest gadgets and gizmos. Why read a book on the tiny screen of a hand held device when a printed book may provide a much better reading experience? Why surf the Net for information when several brilliant thinkers have collected that information into a carefully balanced and synthesized book with focus, depth, quality and reliability?

21st Century skills should include a healthy and well informed skepticism regarding the products, the promises and balance sheets of companies eager to sell a brave new world of education to schools.

"Take Away the Window Dressing, and Who Will Buy?"
By GRETCHEN MORGENSON (in the September 2, 2001 New York Times)

With the global economy in a stall, corporate spending at a standstill and layoffs threatening to subvert consumer spending, it is no surprise that the United States stock market is feeling overwhelmed.

But something else is weighing on stocks. That is the creeping realization among investors that the momentous earnings reported by many companies in recent years may have been digitally remastered to include a lot of hype, embroidery and fluff.

Schools could make wiser choices when making purchases of new technologies if they had more reliable assessment data indicating which tools and which strategies might actually make a difference in student performance. Unfortunately, there has been too little investment in objective, reliable program evaluation.

When we shop for a refrigerator or a car we turn to Consumer Reports ( to find out which brands and models have good track records for repairs, longevity, quality and service. We can find out energy efficiency rating and typical gas mileage.

We can even use Consumer Reports to check out the battery life of laptops. What they don't tell us is the impact of the equipment on student reading, writing and thinking.

When schools shop for new technologies, they need independently collected performance data to guide them toward programs that will make a difference in student learning. The line between vendor data and marketing is very thin.

(see "The Research Gap" at

The question is not "Which laptop should I buy?"

The question is "How can we best use laptops with software like Inspiration™ to improve student writing?"

Back to September Cover

Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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