Grazing the Net:Raising a Generation of Free Range Students - Part One

by Jamie McKenzie

Copyright 1994 by Jamie McKenzie
A single copy may be downloaded and read but not printed or distributed in any manner without express written permission.


The student sits at a classroom computer grazing Internet - a global network linking the student with vast databases, innumerable bulletin boards and millions of users. The potential is amazing. The information harvest could be impressive. Schools that can afford it are rushing to install WANs (wide area networks), LANs (local area networks) and Internet nodes so that all classrooms might sit down to sample the electronic feast. Access becomes priority - for some it becomes obsession. But shouldn't we be asking some important questions about this miracle? If highways are a mixed blessing - carrying some to grandmother's house for dinner but crashing others who have celebrated to the extreme - then what are the risks associated with the Net and how might we minimize them? How might we take advantage of the Net to raise a generation of free range students?

Students as Infotectives

The rich information resources to be found in cyberspace (the Internet) are both a blessing and a curse. Unless students have a toolkit of thinking and problem-solving skills which match the feasts of information so readily available, they may emerge from their meals bloated with techno-garbage, information junk food or info-fat. We must teach students to graze and digest the offerings thoughtfully in order to achieve insight.

We must guide our students to become infotectives. What is an infotective? . . . a student thinker capable of asking great questions about data (with analysis) in order to convert the data into information (data organized so as to reveal patterns and relationships) and eventually into insight (information that may suggest action or strategy of some kind). An infotective solves information puzzles and riddles using all kinds of clues and new technologies. The problem-solving that often follows the detective work then requires synthesis (invention) and evaluation (careful choices from lists of options). An infotective is a skilled thinker, researcher and inventor.

Infotective is a term designed for education in an Age of Information. In the smokestack school, teachers imparted meanings for students to digest, memorize and regurgitate. In Information Age schools, students make the meaning. They puzzle their way through piles of fragments - sorting, sifting, weighing and arranging them until a picture emerges. (Power Learning, McKenzie, Corwin Press, 1993)

Unless we are connecting with Internet for edutainment, student questioning must be intense before, during and after visiting cyberspace. We must teach students to start with what Sizer calls "essential questions" - the kinds of probing inquiries which might extend over a month or a lifetime - questions worth asking, which touch upon basic human issues - investigations which might make a difference in the quality of life - studies which might cast light in dark corners, illuminating basic truths. And then we must teach them how to conduct a thorough research study. Questioning persists throughout all stages of such a study.

Sample Research Question (Secondary)

"Imagine that you and your partners are consultants hired by the states ofWashington and Oregon to recommend new policies to stem the decline of the fish harvests in the region during the past decade. Use Internet to identify all useful practices already tested around the globe and then determine the applicability of these practices to the particular conditions and needs of the Northwest. Create a multimedia report for the two governors sharing specific action recommendations as well as the evidence sustaining your proposals."

Unfortunately, schools have traditionally neglected the development of student questioning. According to Hyman (1980), for every 38 teacher questions in a typical classroom there is but one student question. Schoolhouse research, sadly, has too often fallen into the "go find out about" category. Topical research (Go find out about Dolly Madison) requires little more than information gathering. We must move beyond this traditional search for answers to simple questions. Instead of asking elementary students to find out all they can about a particular state or nation, for example, we should be asking them to compare and contrast several states or cities for a purpose - sifting, sorting and weighing the information to gain insight, to make a decision or to solve a problem.

Sample Research Question (Elementary)

"Imagine that your parents have been given job offers in each of the three following cities: New Orleans, Seattle and Chicago. Knowing of your access to Internet, they have asked you to help them decide which city will be the best for the family to select. Before gathering your information, discuss and identify with them the criteria for selecting a home city. Create a LinkWay or HyperCard stack showing the strengths and weaknesses of each city on the criteria your family considers important."

Conducting topical research on the Internet is a bit like pedaling a tricycle on the Interstate. To mix metaphors, classic school research projects (finding out about a particular state) are too much like shooting at sitting ducks.

Creating Constructivist Classrooms

Marty and Jacqueline Brooks' 1993 ASCD publication In Search of understanding: the Case for Constructivist Classrooms makes a great primer for those who would like to develop classrooms which would fully entertainthe potential of grazing the Net.

The title of one chapter, "Coming to Know One's World," seems such an aptway of thinking about exploring the Net. The guiding principles of constructivism match the themes of this article:

(Page 33)

A list of descriptors portrays constructivist teachers as ideal partners to student Internet explorers:

(pp. 103-117)

This excellent book should sit right alongside your copy of the Dummy'sGuide to the Internet. It makes little sense to set students free to graze cyberspace if classrooms do not nurture the kinds of thinking and learning described by the Brooks.

Eisenberg's Big Six Skills - Information Problem-Solving

Unfortunately, the K-12 literature on a district-wide approaches to research by students is thin. It has long been dominated by discipline-specific models (from social studies, science, etc.) which do not always dovetail with each other, and these usually fail to address the kind of research which will be possible with the Net. In developing district plans to exploit the full potential of cyberspace, we must come to agreement on core research skills.

Eisenberg's Big Six is one promising model for school research, one frequently cited on the Library-Media bulletin board on Internet.

Eisenberg's Big Six:

1. Task Definition
1.1 Define the problem
1.2 Identify the information requirements of the problem

2. Information Seeking Strategies
2.1 Determine the range of possible sources
2.2 Evaluate the different possible sources to determine priorities

3. Location and Access
3.1 Locate sources (intellectually and physically)
3.2 Find information within sources

4. Use of Information
4.1 Engage (e.g., read, hear, view) the information in a source
4.2 Extract information from a source

5. Synthesis
5.1 Organize information from multiple sources
5.2 Present information

6. Evaluation
6.1 Judge the product (effectiveness)
6.2 Judge the information problem-solving process (efficiency)

(Page 35)

Michael B. Eisenberg and Robert Berkowitz, Information Problem-Solving: The Big Six Skills Approach to Library and Information Skills Instruction (1990, Abblex Publishing, Norwood, NJ)

Unfortunately, this model, while intended to promote higher level thinking, can too easily be used to perpetuate the information-gathering and topical research patterns warned against in the previous section. A careful reading of the full text of Eisenberg's model raises the following issues:

1) Information is not the same as knowledge or insight.We are overwhelmed suddenly with information. What we needis insight. Insight answers the "So what?" question. Insight helps to guide decision-making. Eisenberg's model tells us too little about the path from information to insight.

2) Information problem-solving is not the same as problem -solving.

Classic problem-solving models call for repeated information gathering all along throughout the process, but the gathering of information is usually in the service of synthesis (invention) and evaluation (decision). Eisenberg's section on Synthesis (Step Five) devotes too little attention to the thought process required by a fifth grader or a team of eleventh graders who have collected 455 pages of text and data tables on the Internet. How do they take those fragments, weigh them, assess the irreliability and validity and then apply them to the questions at hand to achieve some new understandings?

This is one of the biggest challenges facing teachers guiding students into (and out of) cyberspace. "What do I do with all the stuff once I have it? How do I screen out the garbage, know what is propaganda and what is distorted? How do I guard against what Toffler calls 'info-tactics?'" And Eisenberg's section on evaluation relates primarily to considering whether the research has been conducted in a thorough and effective manner. He does not develop either synthesis or evaluation in terms of general problem-solving and decision-making such as the one employed by Human Synergistics.

3) Students may not understand the problem well enough to define it.

Eisenberg properly warns that too little attention is usually devoted to the problem and task identification stage, but premature attention to either task may skew the research toward inappropriate or biased data sources. In the case of the fisheries simulation outlined above, students might be wise to start with several hours of grazing Internet to develop entry level awareness of key issues and aspects of the problem being studied.

4) Students may not know what they don't know.

It is difficult for students to plan investigations into complex and essential questions because they are often exploring virgin territory or regions which are quite foreign to their experience. It is one thing to collect the opinions of literary critics about Lord of the Flies and summarize their views - quite another to read them, digest them, weigh the work itself and come to a fresh synthesis which includes the researcher's own views. It is easier to follow Eisenberg's steps when collecting information to match clear targets thanwhen muddling through truly challenging questions.

5) Information seeking to solve real problems is recursive.

Eisenberg makes it abundantly clear in his book that one may keep circling and cycling back through the six steps of his model, but that section of the book can all too easily drop away in school translations which are printed up on charts to guide students. The importance of refreshing questions throughout the investigation can be forgotten in the rush toward answers.

6) Internet supports information cultivation as well as harvest. The Big Six steps relate most appropriately to existing information, butInternet allows students and classes of students to form information collaboratives designing and implementing research on issues like acid rain.

The Big Six are a wonderful platform for a district discussion of researchskills, but they require revision and adaptation to match the potential ofthe Net.

Preparing Students for cyberspace - Internet Competencies

Internet poses a difficult challenge . . .

How will the voyager know when they have found truth? Answers will be a dime a dozen. Insight, on the other hand, may be rare. Without some grounding in epistemology (a theory of the nature of knowledge), we may raise a generation rich in data, facts and information but lacking in wisdom.

Success in cyberspace will require many of the following skills:

* Framing essential questions

Already outlined earlier in this article, various publications of the Coalition of Essential Schools do an excellent job of describing what this skill entails and includes. Both Ted Sizer and Grant Wiggins have published good work on this topic.

* Identifying subsidiary questions

Great questions spawn countless related questions which shouldthen begin to suggest an Internet path for the researching team. Question-webbing is a powerful mapping tool to guide Internet voyages. Each voyage will probably suggest new questions as the unknowns becomebetter known.

* Planning a cyberspace voyage

The charm and power of Internet is often found in its surprises. A goodrule of thumb is to expect that 80 per cent of the wisdom collected will result from information sources unknown at the commencement of the voyage. The best plan, then, may be a flexible one concentrating on bold strokeslike "I think I'll start with Veronica and plug in some keywords to see what comes up."

* Learning on the run

Like any good detective, the infotective keeps looking for clues and newsources even as the information begins scrolling past. Because softwar eallows for hundreds of pages to be downloaded at amazing speed for readinglater, the voyager can hop, skip and jump through the sources trying to pickup new possibilities. It is a good idea to remember that one is not tryingto find answers yet. It is a search for possibilities. Cast the net far out.

* Changing course

The journey will lead up blind canyons and sometimes prove frustrating. Effective exploration may require the energy and flexibility of a pin ball jumping and bouncing around at incredible speed.

* Exploiting serendipity

Even though our culture often conspires to protect us from surprise, much of the power of Internet is to help us escape the boxes within which we live. We have carefully screened out information most of our lives. We are too often the prisoners of our cultures, our educational experiences and our biases. Internet can set us free.

* Asking for help

Ranging through dozens of different information sources the searcher often encounters conflicting and often confusing command structures. To prevent gridlock and wasted time, it makes sense to browse the help menu of these sources early in the game. "You mean I could have saved that file? If onlyI had known!"

* Asking for directions

According to popular stereotypes, men never ask for directions when they are lost. It makes sense to have several Internet guides at the ready and a friend to call when lost. Commentators claim that Internet is often "arcane." That simply means it may be easy to get lost.

* Screening and compacting garbage

TQM has not reached the Net. There is little quality control. Bulletin boards overflow with loquacious pedantry and bias masquerading as informed opinion. In smokestack schools students were sometimes urged to reach out toward big page numbers. A good report was a long report. Now it is so easy to download and then cut and paste hundreds of pages of text into a report that it becomes important to cull the essential, meaningful and reliable data. The garbage is set aside, compacted and discarded. The student establishes criteria for reliability and applies them to separate wheat from chaff. Key action verbs: choose, pick, select, separate, sift, and single out.

* Sorting data

In the process of collecting data, which may arrive in graphic form, as text or as numerical data, students must begin organizing and re-organizing the data in order to find patterns and relationships. This process is the foundation for analysis and synthesis. Key action verbs: align, arrange,array, assort, catalog, categorize, class, classify, cluster, compile, file, grade, group, layout, line up, list, order, organize, outline, pigeonhole, place, position, prioritize, program, rank, stack, tabulate. Associated tasks: bracket, collate, compare, contrast, correlate, equate, liken, match, relate.

* Analyzing data

As the data is collected, screened and sorted, the student keeps questioning in order to convert the data into insight. The student approaches understanding - "the big picture" - by undertaking many of the following actions: clarify, interpret, construe, deduce, derive, educe, gather, glean, infer, interpret, surmise, examine, probe, and unravel.

* Navigating in the dark

It is no accident that many boat chartering companies refuse to allow their customers to navigate in the dark. Darkness shifts perception and creates confusing illusions. A vast percentage of the visual cues upon which the casual sailor relies to guide the vessel are eliminated and replaced by a much more challenging system of lights. At times, the Net provides rich cues to guide one through the shallows and shoals. At other times, it seems like sailing in the dark. Ironically, most essential questions bring us into contact with darkness and the unknown. We often seek illumination in aspects of our lives which are the most frustrating. The simple answers, the conventional wisdom and the easily accessible recipes are often poor substitutes for the insights that emerge from night sailing. The best navigators learn to sail by the stars.

* Navigating in the mud

What sailor has never mis-timed the ebbing tide to find the boat wedged in mud? Who has never misread a chart and felt the sudden dragging warning along the keel of soft, sucking mud? The Internet offers its own information mudflats, vast expanses of soft data and opinion which can bog us down and slow our search for truth. Students must learn to skirt the shoals unless they are seeking shellfish buried within.

* Scanning from the crow's nest

Maintaining perspective is paramount. While conducting research we can be trapped in the day-to-day survival activities going on at the deck level. We are too close to the action to see the patterns in it. "Climbing the mast" means stepping outside and above the activities to see them with some distance and perspective. The crow's nest allows one to look beyond the ship to ask questions about the challenges and goals which lie ahead. It means keeping the big picture and the essential questions in mind.

Continued "Grazing the Net - PartTwo" -

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