From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 28, 2000*: at the click of a mouse button

Just what using the internet in an education setting means is open to debate. Numerous models for integrating various aspects of the internet into the learning process exist, each with its own emphasis and orientation. One thing, however, seems quite clear. All of these models include some amount of searching for source material and/or answers via the internet. In other words, the internet is often viewed as a vast library, and the various search tools available to the pupil on the internet are seen as the equivalent of a card catalogue. According to this model, if, when using a library, we expect our pupils to learn to use the catalogue in order to find information relevant to what they're studying, we must also help them learn to use the different search tools to find information on the internet.

Teaching pupils to use these tools effectively can be a rather difficult task, though not because the skills being taught are that difficult to acquire. It's more a case of the intersection of two more or less independent elements. On the one hand, acquiring the basic skills needed to conduct searches is a very easy, even simple task. And if all that you really have to learn is to click on the proper link, pupils encounter difficulty understanding why it is that we expect more of them - that we want them to go beyond the search engine equivalent of hunt and peck in order to actually be effective searchers. On the other, it's not only the pupils who don't understand what we want from them. The vast majority of teachers also have only a minimal understanding of the process of searching for information via the internet, and when they try to impart this knowledge to pupils who aren't particularly interested in finding what the teachers want them to look for, it's a rather clear-cut case of the blind leading the blind.

I've encountered these difficulties, both with pupils and teachers, numerous times. But what interests me in this particular column is the possibility that these tools are on the verge of becoming so easy to use that there won't really be anything left for us to teach (about searching for information). That possibility raises some intriguing questions about the learning process in general.

Just how easy is easy? As things stand today, these are actually very simple skills to acquire, and if one actually practices using them, they're even easy to master. But the focus of this column isn't the amount of effort (or lack of it) that my students are willing to put into learning these skills, but rather the fact that in the not so distant future they may not even need these rather simple skills in order to find the information they need. Computers are supposedly becoming easier and easier to use. (In a previous column I even admitted that my mother has learned to use one.) One of the reasons that this is happening is because they have a large amount of knowledge built into them. This built-in knowledge (we might call it distributed knowledge, or distributed intelligence) is something that our ancestors may have had to learn the hard way by themselves, but which is now incorporated into the tools our society uses every day. Thus we no longer have to acquire this knowledge, but instead only utilize it effectively and efficiently.

But traditional education clings to the idea learning is something that takes place through effort, even an outrightly physical effort, and that if we don't make this effort, we don't learn. If it comes easy, either we didn't really learn it, or it wasn't worth learning. Finding a source in a library consists of numerous skills, many of which are only used in that particular setting: among other skills one has to know the order of the alphabet, the way the cards in the card catalogue are organized, what the numbers in the Dewey system mean, and where to find a particular number on the shelves. Further skills would include knowing in advance what shelves have the best chance of having the books we need. (Knowing where the photocopy machine is located, and how to use it, is also a useful skill.)

These are skills that can, and often have to, be taught. But a good case can also be made for a much simpler strategy: smiling politely to the librarian. Someone who can convince the librarian to find what he or she needs for him or her won't have to learn to use the library. Or more accurately, someone who can do this will be using the built-in intelligence of the library structure (which includes the librarian) to his or her advantage. Internet tools are getting closer and closer to the stage at which they'll be "ask the librarian" buttons: we'll be able to define what it is that we're looking for in natural language, and the search tool/librarian will do the footwork for us (and organize the results in a functional manner), while we relax. Our part of the searching will be restricted to saying out loud what it is we're looking for, and it's doubtful that teachers are going to have to teach that to their pupils.

So what happens then? Do we reach a point at which the skills that the schools teach will be self-evident, and no longer require instruction? Dictaphones have been around for a long time, but (depending on who you ask) never seemed to really catch on. Digital technologies may be giving the idea new life, and at the same time shutting the door on basic writing courses. After all, if we'll be able to speak our term papers into a microphone and have them come out of the printer word for word and attractively formatted (undoubtedly they'll also undergo automatic spelling and grammar checks), why spend time in school learning writing skills? Many school still teach "home economics" courses in which (still primarily) girls learn to cook. But when cooking means nothing more than taking a frozen meal out of the freezer, pushing a button on the microwave and bringing the cooked meal to the table, the demand for courses such as this is sure to decline. Until now schools have thrived because we need them as a means to acquire complex skills. If our lives won't require complex skills, we may not need school.

Many years ago, when I first began my teaching career, the only use of computers that I was aware of was as testing machines. Neither complex nor simple, I suppose that this particular use of computers might be best described as simply not very interesting. Yet around the same time a truly interesting and heated debate was taking place around the use of pocket calculators in the classroom. The question was a simple one, though it seems veritably pre-historic today: should the use of these calculators be allowed. The argument against their use was a very simple one: schools teach mathematics, whereas children who use pocket calculators don't learn mathematics, but rather how to manipulate numbers in order to get the right answer. Thus, using a calculator would be like cheating on a test - getting the right answer without doing the necessary hard work. In addition to this line of argument came the claim that schools train children to become adults, and that one of the defining skills of adults was a mastery of the primary arithmetic functions. Somewhere along the lines, however, it became obvious that most adults don't rely on their mastery of these arithmetic functions, but rather on the machines that perform them. And when this became clear, there was no longer any justification for keeping the calculators out. Ultimately this led to a burst of creativity in which educators sought out ways of using the calculators as tools that could whet or mathematical appetites. I don't have a direct analogy to the teaching of internet-based search techniques in the classroom, but a good place to start would be letting our search bots take care of the searching, allowing the rest of us, pupil and teacher alike, to concentrate on what to do with information it gets found.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh