The phone rings. Nola: Good morning. Jane: Hi Nola, it's Jane here. My class is going online and I wonder what we might do. I need some ideas. Nola: What do you want to do Jane? Jane: I want to use the Net. Nola: Why? Jane: Because we have it in the school and we are going to get it in our classroom soon.
This conversation has happened many times. Jane, and all the others like her, are brilliant teachers. They are creative, resourceful and willing to try new things. I wonder why being online is so important but remember that we hold conferences and courses on the topic. We read journals, magazines and newspapers about the Internet. Clearly Jane is being seduced by this medium. Is it any wonder she wants to be involved?
We continue our conversation: Nola: Jane, do you use all the other information technology resources in the school? Jane: No, I don't need to. Nola: Do you have 10 minutes to spare while I tell you a story? Jane: Sure. I began by telling Jane a story about a group of children I met last year.
We have 'done' New Zealand:
While living overseas last year, I received a phone call from a teacher in a local city school. The teacher phoned to tell me all about how they had 'done' New Zealand and now that the project was finished they would love me to come along and hear what they had found out. She told me how she had worked for a period each day with this class of gifted and talented students, and I was led to believe that this would be a most exciting occasion. As a visitor in the country one is keen to see the local school landscape so I accepted the kind invitation.
Having got through the various security measures in place in the school I spent some time chatting to staff, visiting the Media Centre and finding out about the information activities that were in action in the school. Half an hour later I entered the classroom for the presentation by the students. This consisted of readings from the booklets they had each produced followed by a reading of their individual charts. Each was beautifully published and appeared to be quite comprehensive. I heard about the length of sealed and unsealed roads we have, the number of sheep and kiwis that roam wild, temperatures, rainfall, industries and a little about tourism. Once the reading activity was over I was treated to our national anthem.
Alas, there was no 'God Defend New Zealand'. The song would have been stunning if I was an Australian!
By this stage I was bursting with questions but I continued, as the guest, to maintain my polite silence until finally I was asked by the teacher to respond to the presentations. I could not resist and asked them, 'where did you get your information about New Zealand?' The response was instant, 'we got it all off the net!' I took a deep breath and then enquired what it was they had searched for and what keywords they had used. I was told that they just typed in 'New Zealand' and used whatever came up that looked interesting or good' for the project. I was unsure about what 'good' meant but it was clear that they viewed the project product as being something that presented a range of important looking facts. This was a brilliant copy and paste activity that had not apparently required too much thought or consideration as to the value and validity of the information. There was no question that the results looked impressive but how deep was their new understanding about New Zealand?
I knew I would have a captive audience as I continued to speak because they really wanted to continue to hear how funny I sounded! Here they were face-to-face with a real New Zealander. I encouraged them to ask me questions and after some coaxing they started to ask:
- What do kiwi kids watch on TV?
- What do kiwi kids like to eat?
- What music do they listen to?
- What sports do we play?
- What chores do kids have to do?
- How much allowance do kids get?
- How much do Nike and Reeboks cost in New Zealand?
- What would school be like over a whole day?
The fact that our schools generally have a swimming pool and some classes go on school camps drew gasps from the children as they pointed out the window at a relatively bare and barren landscape. Having met classes of students internationally before I also knew they would be interested in such things as seasonal variations and time difference. This was quite an exciting thing to pursue as the notion that New Zealand was almost a day ahead was quite something to grasp, almost as difficult as them discovering they were in fact behind as far as time was concerned.
The interaction between the children and myself was like a storm. Here were all these questions that they had about life in New Zealand, questions that were relative to their own view of the world and allowed them to compare and imagine just what it might be like living in this country. Once we had dealt with what they clearly saw as essential information we moved on to discuss aspects of our economy, industry, government, landscape, etc. These more traditional facts were understood when the children had some feeling of ownership over what they wanted to find out about and it was meaningful for them.
Having answered the numerous questions, I now let the teacher in me emerge even further. I asked the question, "If you wanted to find out more about New Zealand where else could you look if the Net was not available?" There was a deathly silence. I tried again, "If you wanted to know more about the food we eat how could you find out?" One brave soul suggested the library and there followed a discussion about how they might go about this process. I interrupted once more, repeated the question and finally one of the students announced, "You could ask a New Zealander or someone who has been there." I now let them into a secret. In the first thirty minutes I had been in the school I had discovered that one of their teachers had been born in New Zealand and another had visited there recently in her summer vacation. You could have heard a pin drop!
If you want to know about life in New Zealand who better to ask than a real live person who has first hand experience? This could be face-to-face or via email we concluded. First hand sources of information will always be better and it was a lesson this group of children had learned that morning.
The Net is the answer to what?
There are many myths surrounding the World Wide Web and the Internet. It is a seductive medium that masquerades at times as the "fount of all knowledge." As teachers we are well aware that quantity does not equate to quality and more is not necessarily better.
The Net is not the answer to our students information needs, particularly when they do not even know what it is they want to know. They may be looking for information about the marine world but do they know what they want to know about that world? More importantly how much ownership will they have over deciding what they might want to find out about the marine world? I find out things when they are really interesting to me, when I need to know. However I do need to know exactly what I want to know about. What is critical is how I will refine my information search.
What motivates us to find out about something? I need to know for myself. I got sick last year and was told the facts of the situation by a series of doctors. This was not sufficient for me, I wanted to know more so that I had control over the kinds of decisions I was being asked to make. While I was being given options, they were always couched in such a way that I felt pressured to choose the option that the specialist recommended. I wanted to decide for myself. I went home and wrote a list of the things I felt uninformed about. Obviously my best source of information were people who had experienced the same difficulty. If you have ever shared conversations with other people in hospital you will know exactly what I am talking about. We can be experts about ourselves so I began my search for others in the same situation. I checked out the phone book to see if there was an appropriate organisation. I phoned the local Public Relations Office and perused the community newspaper. These actions proved to be of little assistance in my urgent quest for information.
Going back to my list of questions I clarified some keywords and began my search online. Not only did I get some information from reputable medical centres but I was also able to locate some support networks. Late into the night I 'talked' online with new friends who could help me become more informed. I was feeling really good about the information I was assembling because it was meaningful and answering the questions I had been able to establish for myself. I had ownership of the information process. I knew what I wanted to know about. I knew how I might find it. Finally I was able to question and then do something with the information I had found. When I went on my next visit to the doctor I was armed with a sheaf of papers that astounded him. Fortunately he did not allow himself to feel threatened by my actions and soon we were both delving through them. We were beginning to work together and I could make the kinds of decisions that I needed to make. First hand information from reliable sources gave me the power and confidence to feel in control of what was happening for me.
The information I got was pertinent, meaningful and reliable. It had come from members of a community called the Internet. I had been able to discern what was useful and discard the bits that I could not authenticate or did not directly relate to what I was looking for, however interesting they may have been.
The BIG question:
How useful are online sources of information? The simple answer
is that online sources of information are as useful as we want
to make them.
If I want a quick cut and paste job then, sure, the WWW will
do that but I cannot claim any ownership of this information.
If I want an in depth study of a particular topic I should be
able to find something or someone online who has shared my own
interest. I can join the online community and borrow from it the
bits I want while considering what they mean for me. I can share
with others this new perception that I have about anything that
interests me from large grey mammals in marine worlds to eight
years old children who have low vision.
Online resources are more useful when I take responsibility for
my own interaction with the material.
To return to Jane:
Now my conversation with Jane about being online has taken a
number of turns as I guided her through the path I had taken in
my own quests for information. She had many questions both about
the process and the outcomes. I asked her again, "Jane, why might
you want to be online?" There was a moment of silence and then
I heard the gem. "Well, Nola, I might not need to be online but
there are times when it could really allow us to find out things
that we cannot find out in any other way."
We continued to talk about the aspects of being online that were
relevant to her situation:
- How can this happen most effectively and efficiently?
- How much time should be spent online?
- How can she help the children to sort out what represents reliable
and less valid sources of information?
- When should she discourage use of the online resources so other
primary sources of information were seen as more relevant?
If being online is about good information literacy then I am
a strong advocate. If the medium is the message then I will strongly
oppose such actions. We have all heard about being in an information
society and we cannot escape the media attention that drives us
toward such notions of excellence. Online sources of information
are great when we know how to use them, we are in charge of what
is happening. We need to consider why we might want to go on any
online journey, remembering where we have been, where we are now
and where we might want to go.