11/xi: We're concerned with how to educate for complexity, and need to be clear about the (a) skills and (b) knowledge base required...An undated fragment from maybe late October, product of trying to reconstruct the important bits of a lost note-to-myself:
What could motivate students to be as reflective as we think they should be? Or as creatively adventurous and curious? [answer: our clear and present example, that's what...]
Their lives regularly move at a speed that ours at similar ages only occasionally achieved...
We don't understand or appreciate what they think, or how they think, or what they think about...
What things [elements of technology] are really important, and what are transitory epiphenomena?
[what we're all about is contriving the means to] support the exploration and development of effective ways to integrate communication technologies into teaching and learning...Today: Curiosity is an important basic issue, intimately linked with 'technology' in multiple ways. The main one I'll explore here has to do with the array of tools for pursuit of curiosities that we have on our desktops, and the desirability of finding the means to inject practical exploratory experience into the classroom.
we speak of teaching and learning as activities of instructors and students...
normative environments: those where objectives and assessment criteria are statements in terms of should
We anticipate that individual professors will seek assistance and support in realizing innovative ideas for instruction, and that the evangelizing efforts of Media Center and Library staff will interest others in skills development and curricular experimentation...
I spend a considerable part of each day chasing curiosities, some because of questions that come to me in my official capacity and others because it's my lifelong habit to find out more about things, one after the other. I enjoy the luxury of (practically) boundless resources, but the same can be said of anybody at W&L. And I have (in the Web) someplace to put what I find, and a technology that facilitates the elaboration and cross-linking of domains of knowledge that attract my interest. Years ago I carried out the same basic activity on paper (though much less extensively and indefatigably), but the Web environment offers the great advantages of distributability and mappability and (potentially) indexability. So for me the Web is the solution to the interlinked problems of composition, organization, retrieval, and audience. And of course the Web is also the source to which I turn to follow curiosities. The skills I have are the product of a lot of practise and reflective exploration of resources, and it's those skills that I'd like to encourage others to develop in themselves. I write more, read more, explore a vastly broader information landscape, and have occasion to work at integrating more than I did before a networked computer took over my intellectual life.
Now, what's the environment conducive to such a development? Clearly for me it's centered in a place (my office) and on a machine (my workstation), but is supplemented by access to the print resources of the library and, needless to say, makes constant reference to the infinitude of the Web, via search engines, indexes, online periodicals, and e-mail communication. Any faculty member can enjoy equivalent adventures... but students are more constrained: their own desktops are probably located in dormitories and apartments, though they can reach the same environment in labs and other quasi-public spaces on the campus. Their actual uses of the connectivity they enjoy are something of a mystery, but are surely only secondarily 'academic'.
If it was really practical to carry out an electronic life without the necessity to (literally) plug in to the network, it might be that laptop culture would suddenly bloom at W&L. That might be a good thing, but the physical possibility of wireless networking alone wouldn't make it so... there need to be actual uses for which the computer is actually better than no computer, and the whole thing needs to be robust enough to reduce the ambient level of frustration with the technology. And there has to be a substantial buy-in by faculty, who see (and practise) practical advantages in the pedagogical uses of computers. That's asking a lot, and at the moment it's considerably in advance of practical technology (bandwidth of wireless is limited, laptops are awkward, and it's not clear that a large-scale wireless network is anything like as dependable as the campus wired system). Still, there are experiments that need to be made in the instructional use of computers, to develop the base of solved-problems and tenable paths that will help to support eventual ubiquity.
Ubiquity is already a fact (nearly 7,500 hits in AltaVista for 'ubiquitous computing'), and we need to get good at it, whatever it is.
A Perennial Problem: how to get 'em to play?
This conundrum is certainly a poser in relation to students, but scarcely less so with grownup colleagues. It's certainly helpful for me to write this stuff, to make all these pages chronicling my thoughts and discoveries, but it's not all that often that I can be sure they are read by their nominal audiences. It's a strange form of communication, somewhere between the epistolary (where you can be pretty sure that the intended recipient will read the words) and the daybook or log (which is usually thought of as a personal and private document). I don't know of many other perpetrators in the medium, but there must be others who have been as strongly affected by the potentials of the medium as I have, who in effect live their lives onto the Web. In fact, the most likely readers are those who stumble onto the page because of some word or phrase contained within that they happen to have searched... who find it by accident.
Teaching in an age of burgeoning "electronic textuality"
This morning I attended a meeting to discuss NetLibrary, an experimental provider of online access to e-books. We'll soon have 500-odd titles available via Annie links to a remote server, and the idea is that the trial will help us determine whether it's sensible to invest in more titles. But this seems to me a waste of the medium, certainly as the service is configured. A lot of evolution needs to happen before it will be sensible to choose to read books on-screen --paper has all sorts of advantages.
Articles, now... electronic access has some notable advantages, especially in searching. But most users probably prefer to print an article to read it, and to have it... so (far from contributing to the demise of paper) laser printers have become personal printing presses.
The 'electronic texts' that are changing how we handle information are not usually books, and not particularly journal articles: they are other forms of communication like e-mail and Web pages.
The easier parts of Information Fluency are those inherited directly from the model of Bibliographic Instruction that dominated library outreach a decade ago. BI taught the navigation of libbrary systems: card catalogs, subject headings, reference books, specialized indexes for disciplinary periodical literatures, and the niceties of citation formats --basic intellectual tools, adapted for the peculiarities of specific disciplines, but essentially paper-based and more curatorial than analytic, more descriptive than investigative.
The basic comprehension of hierarchical classification and subject mapping remains important, but the search interfaces that the desktop metaphor delivered in the 1990s have changed what we actually teach under the new rubric of Information Fluency. The Big Red Books of LCSH and the print versions of Index Medicus and of Science Citation Index are relics of a former reality, but it wasn't long ago that reference librarians could be heard doubting the significance (and organization and reliability) of information found on the WWW.
Something funny happened on the way to the Millennium, as information resources located in cyberspace became more and more salient, the books and periodicals within library walls ceased to be the court of first resort, and library users relied more on the catch of search engines than on the careful steps of the research process taught as a part of BI. In effect, the world of print information has migrated more and more to the computer monitor, and the computer has become indispensable as the means to locate print resources, in both paper and electronic forms.
But there's another side to this electronic revolution, one that's no so easily accomodated by a repackaging of BI as Information Fluency. The move to the electronic world brought libraries into closer proximity to the vast proliferation of other forms of digital information, increased the salience of interconnections between worlds of text and data, and opened the floodgates of multimedia. The Information with which we expect students to become Fluent is no longer solely print information, but extends to whatever forms of information are relevant for the particular discipline a student is learning to work in. Thus, a journalism student may need to draw on digital sound and video archives, may need to convert census or economic data into maps, may need to search archived text... and a biology student may need to consult a genomic databank or make extracts from a relational database or reconstruct the influence of an article published 30 years ago. An English student may want to attempt literary forensics, an art historian may work with image archives or a music student with digital sound... Each of these tasks is an information challenge, and falls (more or less) within the mandate of the library as an Information Center.
It's pretty clear that librarians will assume much of the responsibility for building the interfaces that connect users with data, curating the increasingly diverse and progressively interlinked collections of information, and teaching the Fluency skills needed to navigate the resulting complexities.
It's not clear how information skills are to be fitted into existing course structures. We assume that incoming freshmen have basic computer skills, and that they'll quickly pick up others they need (and indeed a substantial number are very sophisticated computer users), but we are less sanguine about the general level of information skills, and especially about students' judgement in choosing among the smörgåsbord available through the Web. We have fairly efficient methods for teaching the requisites of disciplinary knowledge in history and biology and political science, but only the most scattershot possibilities for any general instruction in the use of information resources.
The prophesied "Global Information [Infra]Structure" exists; it is imperfectly linked and poorly understood, and growing very rapidly. The digital means to access, interrogate, and retrieve from this treasure house are on dersktops everywhere, and the proceeds are already transforming education. The skills to make efficient use of today's resources are very sparsely distributed, and the skills for tomorrow's possibilities are just being imagined.
A lot of low-level access skills are already being handled by 'bots (semi-intelligent agents with associative memories and database-mining capabilities, "collaborative filtering" applications) in a number of informational settings (amazon.com is a case in point), and a number of journals and indexes have added 'Related articles' algorithms to their results screens...
But some of the Skills rest permanantly in the wetware of the end user, and can't be delegated to (increasingly intelligent) software agents: human learners have top process and integrate by reading and thinking and talking and writing, and they need to develop those capabilities by practising them in real time and real life. The fact that they can (and, increasingly, must) carry out many of these processes in electronic environments certainly changes the context in which the skills are to be taught...
I continue to be curious about the prospects of computers in classrooms, and somewhat discouraged by what I see as I explore that frontier. Electronic tools are increasingly relevant to personal learning, and increasingly necessary in the world for which we are preparing students, but they are finding their way into teaching slowly and (with some notable exceptions) not very adventurously. Certainly the high cost of quickly-obsolete hardware and limited support for course development are impediments to experimentation, but faculty and administration skepticism are potent retardants as well.
Our view of time is notoriously foreshortened: we tend to think of the future as likely to be pretty much like the present, and to lose sight of how rapidly things change. A decade ago W&L had no OPAC, no campus network, no Internet connectivity for most faculty and students, and of course no WWW. The information landscape of a decade hence will surely enjoy much greater bandwidth, portability, and ubiquity in electronic access, and may well center on metaphors that are still beyond the horizon.
We are participant-observers on the jobsite of a global digital library, spectators who work at day-to-day tasks as construction proceeds around us. Some parts of the edifice are up and running and serve the needs of the users well; other features are incomplete and sometimes frustrating to users (but will be complete Real Soon Now); some are functional but so complex that they are understood only by specialists; still others are Hard Hat Areas and not yet accessible to users; and an indeterminate number are concepts still in the blueprint stage. The grand design is open-ended, has no completion date, and is beyond oversight or budgetary control by any coherent body. The essence is that the construction is distributed and virtual --there are collections of hardware and interstitial cabling and control rooms that can be located in space, but what's really important is the information that flows through the conduits and reaches vast numbers of users.