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2001 Gwen Gawith: Digitised Cinderellas

2001 Cathy de Moll: The Internet and September 11 disaster

2001 Mark Treadwell: Cognitive and conceptual development

2001 Gillian Eadie: ICT directions

2001 Rob Green: Integrating ICT into the secondary curriculum: PD for teachers

2001 Gwen Gawith: Garbage detection is a key component of information literacy

2000 Ron Johnston: Knowledge is abundant, but the ability to use it is scarce

2000 Stuart Hale: The last communication revolution.

1999 Pete Sommerville: Virtual field trips.

1999 Gwen Gawith: An open letter to Bill Gates.

1999 Gwen Gawith: Hype, hope or information literacy.

1998 Mark Treadwell: The emperor's new computer.

1998 Nola Campbell: A conversation about being online.

1998 Gwen Gawith: Intelligent technologies: Teaching for information literacy.

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and ODL: Rent an information literate luddite!

1997 Gwen Gawith: Technology and learning.

1996 Gwen Gawith: IT: charms or challenges.

1994 Gwen Gawith: new technologies: new skills for information literacy.

information literacy:
ICT & learning online

Hype or hope or information literacy

Notes for keynote address, Toshiba SNAP Conference 1999

Gwen Gawith

One of the supreme ironies of the age of globalism is that the more global we get, technologically, politically, economically, educationally, the more difficult it becomes for the average punter to think vertically instead of horizontally.

I see global thinking as horizontal - trying to see and apply global issues to parochial concerns.

I see vertical thinking as thinking of the present in relation to the past and the future.

I think this type of thinking, the ability to relate issues, global and parochial, past and present to future, is the price we're paying for technologically-induced globalism. We can see the results of horizontal thinking in the effects of 'reforming' our electricity supply, 'reforming' our schools to the point where we are so bogged down with the burdens of being self-managing but centrally over-regulated and over bureaucratised that we can only think horizontally, and it's becoming harder and harder to think vertically. We talk about a knowledge society, but knowledge is forged from information when it is applied vertically, through thought and analysis, in relation to past and future implications, not just in terms of the immediate present.

Like it or not, technology has created the information society. The information society is not going to go away. Nor is technology. And there is no room for schools and teachers who pay lipservice to technology. Educators have all got to be in there doing it, not as the victims of hype, but as the explorers of the possibility that it might offer as yet untapped educational potential.

I have a simple claim, which is backed by substantial research, and that is that, not just in education, but in society at large, we will only learn to harness the phenomenal power of information technology if we learn to make better use of what comes free on all humanoid platforms, that is cognitive technology. And if schools focus on installing computers, not programming humanoid cognitive technology by teaching people how to learn and how to use the information technology purveys with intelligence and critical discrimination, we deserve to be out of a job, or with three grades of employment - clerks, babysitters or computer technicians working 8 hr days and with 3 weeks' annual holiday.

I think that, in order to make sense of the vexed question of how we can harness technology to enhance learning and teaching and schooling, we HAVE to look broadly - vertically as well as horizontally - at the whole social context of education, at the broader picture. Horizontal thinking will always restrict us to looking for what I call panaceatemols - instant quick technological fixes to the inevitable consequences of technology-driven changes - a classic hair of the dog.

Do you agree with me that our constant frenetic searching for new 'how to' recipes is ultimately less satisfying, more stressful and less professionally productive than taking time to wrap our minds round deep ideas, wrestle them to the ground and sit on them triumphantly grounding them in experience and understanding?

If so, could it be true, too, of the students we teach - that the fractured kaleidoscopic nature of the school day and their media-saturated screen-dominated post-school lives is the single biggest enemy of learning for them - and us?

Curriculum explosion and curriculum fragmentation haven't helped. I don't have any problem with the new Curriculum Statements individually. Collectively they are overwhelming, especially in the assumption I'm encountering among more and more teachers that ERO expects every single curriculum objective to be covered. As a country we haven't acknowledged the extent of the problem. In short, if you teach for breadth it will be at the expense of depth. The extent to which ALL the Curriculum Statements now suggest the use of inquiry, problem-solving, resource-based learning methods implies that these methods are quick and easy and you can run five or six projects in tandem in different curriculum areas.

This is bizarre. Could you do five or six PhDs simultaneously. This is, at their level, what we are asking them to do. No wonder kids skate over the surface of information, seldom engaging with and wrestling with ideas long enough to translate information into knowledge. This is not just what I think. It is clearly documented as an emerging phenomenon in the NEMP 1998 information skills research. We are teaching for breadth, not depth, and reading for ideas will never happen unless there is TIME to read deeply, from page or screen, it's the depth that counts. Whether it is reading deeply for the ideas that drive a powerful story, or reading deeply for the ideas that make a topic interesting, complex, fascinating, reading takes TIME, and it takes skills, and the skills need to be applied flexibly and strategically. A 1998 MOE report, Adult Literacy in New Zealand claims that nearly half the New Zealand workforce cannot read well enough to work effectively in a modern economy.

One of the current media commentators, Douglas Rushkoff, whose book, Playing the future; how kids' culture can teach us to thrive in an age of chaos introduced the neat term 'screenagers' uses the metaphor of surfing to describe how highly visually screenagers literally surf through life and the net on their skateboards, snowboards, remotes and computer keyboards. I said in Term 1 Good Teacher that I like his notion of the postlinear grammar of modern media requiring different and more sophisticated skills. He says:

But the skills we need to develop in order to become adept at surfing channels (and computer networks, online services, the world wide web, even our own e-mail messages for that matter are the very opposite of what we traditionally valued in a good TV viewer. We are coming to understand that ... the viewing style of our children is actually the more adult.. . the ability to piece together meaning from a discontinuous set of images is the act of a higher intellect, not a lower one."

How do you reconcile his view of these highly visually literate kids who can piece together meaning by surfing channels, websites, whatever with the MOE claim that half of our workforce is below a functional level of workplace literacy. Rushkoff supplied the answer. Unlike most adults who confuse kids' confidence with pushing buttons - their superficial level of technological literacy - he recognises that the surfing metaphor aptly describes how they skate over the surface of information - visual or textual - and he emphasises the role of the teacher in helping them to engage with material in depth. he says:

teachers must discover what they can offer that a computer cannot...

Unlike a computer a human teacher can be a partner in learning and dedicate himself to giving his pupils the necessary criteria to judge their data's integrity, make connections between different facts and formulate opinions and arguments of their own. The best teachers will instil in their pupils the confidence and enthusiasm to express themselves as widely and articulately as possible.

I call this information literacy. You can call it what you like, but the challenge Rushkoff gives us is real - he is saying is that screenagers have developed a broader attention range but have a shorter attention span. So how do we capitalize on these sophisticated surfing skills, their ability to range broadly, but, it appears, not deeply. Do we, in how we approach ICT teaching, mimic the fractured fragmented multi-dimensional asynchronous images that shaped their superficial surfing, or do we deliberately provide the antidote in giving them the time and the modelled experience of wrestling deeply with ideas, meanings, word-based images and experiences? I'm pleading for the latter. Let's do as Rushkoff suggests - look for what they can't do with print OR with ICT, and do it for and with students with power and passion.

Tim Wynne-Jones (1997) said:

The world is distracting, fragmented. There is no escaping it. No immunity. No safe houses. The so-called Age of Information is quite willing to bring 'the shapeless avalanche of events' right into your parlour. .. The infobahn is essentially endless with more road signs than rest stops... The electronic media, all lumped together is, to my mind, a cybertower of Babel with an infinite number of storeys, but little in the way of Story. Informative, beguiling, but - finally - pathless. It may very well reach all the way to Heaven, but, for most users, it is a place to loiter. A place in which to lose oneself.

Because I think we are being asked to do the impossible, we need help, and this is what one would like to think a Ministry of Education might provide. Now this is not for one minute knocking what Carol Moffatt is doing with the first decent MOE project we have had. Carol and I are friends who first met 12 years ago when we were both IT-based pioneering distance learning and our ONLY source of support was Laurence Zwimpfer, then with Telecom. I think it is an excellent idea to allow schools to design their own ITPD, to allow schools to develop a range of different approaches and 'solutions' and make these available to other schools. We've always been innovative; we've always been good at no.8 fencing wire. This is all necessary.

But what hasn't been done in any way shape or form is to look at what has been happening elsewhere and to strip out, with critical discrimination, using vertical and horizontal thinking and the skills I see as essential for survival in an Information Age, information literacy skills, and come up with clear directions and recommendations for schools. It is inevitable that busy teachers and principals will think horizontally. It is not essential for everyone to reinvent the wheel. Overseas knowledge becomes global information. What's wrong with a few highly information literate educators stripping, gutting and analysing it for the many, not to dictate to them, but to provide them with synthesised information to ground their practical developments.

Is this happening? No it is not. Tertiary institutions are so busy competing and marketing themselves, and even the Ministry's own mouthpiece, the Education Gazette is now a taxpayer-funded advertiser-subsidised magazine with bland articles written by journalists. I see, this is the knowledge age where educational knowledge is created by journalists? Get real. It summarises, for me the paradox of marketplace education and the inevitable mediocritisation that results from forcing services to compete which previously delivered diversity co-operatively.

As a practising teacher who is also an academic, one-time graphic artist and journalist, and currently independent educational publisher, I have done a substantial amount of serious academic research into the context we are providing for meaningful learning in our schools, and how IT can enhance student learning. The news is not good.

Apart from motivation and enjoyment, which may, arguably, be conditions for learning, but are NOT synonyms for learning, there is, to date, little concrete evidence of any significant IT-related increase in quantity and quality of learning anywhere in the world.

There's a brilliant book, published in 1998, by Jane Healy called Failure to connect: How computers affect our children's minds - for better or worse. She is that rare thing, an academic who writes interestingly and accessibly. She has surveyed the literature and literally visited a huge number of schools, academics, parents, students, and has come up with two categories which I really like, hype and hope.

My own research relegated at least 90% of what was written to the hype pile. Not all of it was tripe, but much of it was unsubstantiated wishful thinking, what I think might be possible with these wonderful machines - and I include the early writings of people like Seymour Papert in this pile. What I'm going to summarise briefly is the remaining 10% which splits roughly, just for argument into four lots of 2.5%

1. Firstly there is a small body of responsible, well structured academic studies and meta-analyses which do provide evidence of some positive benefits of enhanced learning from CAI, ILS and other systems where the learner is largely taught by the software will little teacher mediation.. There is clear evidence that computer-based learning is effective for students with learning and language difficulties. It affords them a high-status and motivational opportunity to practise the skills they lack and they feel as if they are in control of the learning. To a certain extent this is true of all students, even high ability students enjoy practising routine skills and there is no reason why they shouldn't. They all NEED repetition and rote learning although we tend to forget it in our curriculum-driven quest for endless problem-solving, enquiry, etc approaches. The evidence for the increase in motivation for learning is true of almost all children, though it is also true to say that in IT-immersion environments children reach a boredom threshold beyond which, however glitzy, IT lacks the ability to motivate. In other words, if you eat too much chocolate you get sick!

2. The next 2.5% represent anecdotal accounts based on real classroom practice. While these are not 'research' in the sense of being academically controlled and generalisable, or valid and verifiable, they do represent a growing body of solid documentation that lends support to the current MOE initiative, and prove that good teachers with training and technology can design and implement exciting, innovative online learning which they and their students enjoy and see as beneficial even if it is very hard to quantify the learning or compare it to what results from other learning/teaching methods. Computers in NZ Schools, provides consistently good documentation of such studies, and several other recent publications have contributed in this way. Many of these studies are technology-driven in the sense that the start with someone plugging in a piece of technology or software into a classroom programme and reporting on what happens. Inevitably the criterion for success is "It worked and the kids loved it". Goody goody.

3. The next 2.5% represents good, long-term well-funded, well designed, well monitored and evaluated studies. Numerically they are fewer than a dozen but they have generated a lot of good writing and analysis. This is where I have concentrated my efforts for my own research. The findings are emerging with amazing clarity and consistency. In short they say that, irrespective of the technology or software, success results when teachers are well trained over a long term, when the focus is on learning and integrating the ICT into the classroom programme, when teachers are provided with adequate technical support and classroom help, when it is school-driven with principal enthusiasm and involvement and when it is introduced in an atmosphere in which teachers do not feel threatened and intimidated. Beyond the honeymoon, 'Hawthorn' phase, it is long-term strategic planning within the school, school climate, principal's vision, teacher training and infrastructural support which determines success. Interestingly, there is some evidence emerging that learning-focused teachers achieve better longterm success than technology-focused teachers, and the better the teacher (in terms of being able to teach students how to think and learn with the technology) the better the result.

4. The next 2.5% representing a proliferating body of populist books and articles emanating from people who are not luddites - from people like Nicholas Negroponte, Clifford Stoll, Neil Postman, Sven Birkerts, Douglas Rushkoff, Jane Healy, who have themselves been at the forefront of pioneering IT in education. They aren't negative. They are just extremely cautious about the damaging effects of over-selling the product. Increasingly, they are seeing the key factor in success as the much-maligned teacher; computers don't teach, but they can help people to learn, given conditions for learning. The work done by people like David Jonassen suggests that creating technology-enhanced learning environment in which teachers and learners are players with different roles and skills can create optimum learning. Plugging teacher-free kids into computers to become self-directed learners is still supported, I believe, by the Hon. Maurice Williamson, but most of the real computer fundis and analysts don't have much faith that surfing the Net aimlessly teaches anyone very much about anything.

So the amount of concrete evidence is limited. Read Healy if you don't believe me. (Or, closer to home, read one of the best publications of its kind I have come across. It's called Educating children for a global information society: A framework for action., a report written by Beth Lee for the Australian Parents Council and Australian Council of State Schools Organisations).

Jane Healy is concerned about the hype and the false expectations it creates. Parents, politicians, policy makers, even teachers, WANT a panaceatemol solution to the many problems that beset education. IT is a ready candidate, and many embrace these totally irresponsible 'plug-them-in-and-their-cognitive-motherboards-light-up' claims. Jane Healy says, "Today's children are the subject of a vast and optimistic experiment' and she goes on to talk about "exaggerated hopes and unmet promises."

My comment is that we DO need to look closely at the limited number of positive studies. What they say clearly is that kids like to be taught. They like programmes with structures, scaffolds, boundaries, lots of self-monitoring options, lots of repetition, and the very things we see as pariahs, opportunities for rote and recall learning. Instead of sneering at the American-ness of integrated learning systems we should look at what is the success behind the computer-based literacy and maths coaching systems. they embed a lot of what is missing from many Kiwi classrooms - real teaching, not facilitation, and a lot of what is called cognitive coaching - training, by rehearsal and repetition where needed, kids to use their cognitive software.

This research might be limited but it has clear messages. If we ignore these messages it is at our peril. We have embraced a facilitation model of teaching to the point that most teacher education graduates claim to be facilitators, not teachers. Political correctness and hegemonic hilarity gone bananas.

What we need to take from this is that brains don't train themselves. The computer that sits on top of the occipital joint needs to be programmed. It needs to be TAUGHT how to learn, TAUGHT how to think and TAUGHT how to select, reject, analyse, synthesise and interpret information. We wouldn't dream of buying computers without buying software, but we go from year to year assuming that someone, somewhere, somehow has programmed students' cognitive software - taught them how to think, taught them how to learn, taught them how to use and process and produce information with critical discrimination.

There is also evidence from reputable international research that when students are working independently or co-operatively in what is known as knowledge construction environments - basically well designed and clearly guided technology-based projects or enquiry learning with a problem-solving focus, they reach extraordinarily high levels of perseverance and academic achievement - but I stress again that this is proportional to the quality of the guidance and coaching provided by the teacher and/ or the software.

There is no such thing as good IT or bad IT. It's a question of what you do with it.It comes down to the simple recognition that kids, people, who are taught to think and learn, with or without technology, will make better use of computers than people who get through school never having learnt how to learn because they are taught by people who offer excuses, not solutions.

Computers have raised busy work to an art form in some schools, especially in primary schools where 50,000-fonted wordprocessed headings have replaced meticulously hand-printed headings, and downloaded slabs of Encarta have replaced hand-copied slabs of the World Book projects. Am I exaggerating? NEMP suggests I'm not. Effective use of IT to support and enhance learning is not guaranteed by merely installing it.

IT-based learning needs to be designed, coached and monitored carefully if it is to be cognitively enhancing, not cognitively-bypassing!