The spin of a disc

18th October 1996 at 01:00
A CD-Rom in the average class without adequate preparation is anti-learning, says Jack Kenny.

At a lecture recently, someone presented a graph illustrating the proposition that as the amount of teaching went up, the amount of learning went down. The argument was that most learning comes out of collaboration, hands-on. Apparently the poorest learning environment was the formal talk to an audience.

The graph was, of course, out of date. There is one way of learning that is even poorer: using a CD-Rom in the average classroom.

There they are, gleaming knowledge, strewn across the table, silver CD-Roms in attractive boxes containing so much, promising even more, delivering so little. Why? Geography thrives on data and these discs are full of it: graphical, numerical and verbal. What is the problem? The whole trouble, as Richard Millwood of Ultralab at Anglia University said recently, is not with the technology but with us. We don't really understand learning and we have not for centuries.

Let's look not at best practice but average practice. It goes like this. Child wants some information. Instead of going to a teacher they now go to the CD-Rom. The distracted librarian lets them on to the machine and they find the section on the Amazon basin. Slowly they print it out before carrying it away like a trophy to put directly into their folder. Full stop. End of story. Teacher, bamboozled by all the IT hype, feels that at least they have done some IT even if they have done little geography. Pupil feels successful because they have completed the task that was set.

In national curriculum IT terms and geography terms, they have done nothing. Putting a CD-Rom in the average library or the average classroom without adequate preparation is anti-learning. Sure, the children will use it. We all know the cliche of how much better the children are at IT than the teachers. What nonsense! Children can make superficial use of CD-Roms but so can any teacher if they give five minutes of their time to it. The teacher should be a manager of learning. The whole skill is in making use of the information.

This is what librarians have talked about for years: we need information skills. Everyone needs information skills. We can't walk away from it and those who try should be brought back. In this information world, these skills are as vital as reading or writing.

So what does the geography teacher need to know? The geographer needs to know everything that the English, science or history teacher needs to know and some things in addition: how best to frame a research question; which sources to use - and, just as important, which to reject; how to read appropriately either scanning or reading the whole text; how to read purposefully; how to store the information; how to combine the information with material that has previously been acquired; how to incorporate the material into the current assignment; how to make appropriate notes; how to use a variety of styles for their final presentation.

Particularly important for the teacher is the skill of task-setting. An important first step is to be dictatorial: ban the use of the printer at least for a time. Anything copied from a CD-Rom should be put onto a disc. In this electronic form information is malleable. You can take the information and edit it, interact with it. Above all, it means that students have to read it.

In this way, information from CD-Rom is raw material, not a finished product, the start of a learning process that will involve us users in deepening our understanding.

To do this, a teacher and pupil need some basic IT skills, such as: how do you take a piece of text from a disc? How do you cut and paste? How do you save a whole article? How do you incorporate what you have discovered into a word processor on another machine on the other side of the school? How do you use the Print Screen facility?

You can do a great deal with software that is already in the school. The word processor and the spreadsheet are there to help you work with text and graphics and numbers. Authoring programmes are useful, too: Hyperstudio is particularly good. With this you can take text, graphics, video clips, sounds and link them together in a combination that will look like a CD-Rom.

But this CD-Rom will be your teaching group's work: they will have worked together, they will have discussed the structure, they will feel proprietorial about the information. They and you can select from the enormous number of resources on the CD-Roms that you probably possess.

A recently released piece of software is called Internet Odyssey. Don't be put off by Internet in the title, this program deals with all electronic data. Cheaper than an authoring program and easier to use, it is a way of re-ordering material to make a simple presentation or learning package. Like the authoring program, it ensures that students have to think about the quality of the material that they are finding.

CD-Roms are there for us to use. They do not in themselves confer any learning gains unless we intervene to get the best out of them. Shortage of data is not now the problem; we are marooned in a swampland of data. The role of information technology is to help geographers turn data into information and eventually into intelligence.

Hyperstudio (Pounds 99.95 + VAT) From TAG Developments, Tel: 01474 357350 Internet Odyssey (Pounds 19.99) From YITM, tel: 0113 246 1528

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