The Machine as Cognition Enhancer
Christopher Dede (1989) discusses how evolving information technologies are transforming the nature of work and in turn can positively affect the design and content of the school curriculum. We are beginning to experience “cognition enhancers” that combine “complimentary strengths of a person and an information technology” (p. 23). One category of a cognition enhancer is the empowering environment in which the machine handles the routine mechanics of a task, while the person is immersed in its higher-order meanings. The following example will serve to illustrate the point. The author’s wife wanted to play the guitar, but found the task of tuning a guitar beyond her. She bought an electronic tuner which provided visual feedback when the guitar was properly tuned. She was soon playing regularly in a Sunday church service. The word processor with spelling and grammar checker, thesaurus and graphics capabilities provides other good examples. Students should have access to these tools.
Hypermedia, another cognition enhancer, is not yet an integral part of any of the current commercial instructional systems. This computer software program, is “a framework for creating an interconnected, web-like representation of symbols (text, graphics, images, software codes). . . (Dede, p. 24)”. Imagine a series of transparent cards. Attached to each of these cards is a button. Each of these buttons can activate an educational resource or information provider. This could be a video segment, a textbook or an encyclopedia. Increasingly it could also be a telecommunications connection to such computer networked resources as electronically stored texts, graphics, sound and video as well as other students and teachers. The user would then be linked to any information, person or place desired. “Hypermedia is the scholar’s and the scientist’s dream (Lemke, 1993)”.
The emerging hypermedia capabilities of networked computers are already dramatically altering learning paradigms. The Internet as the world’s largest computer network, connects educational, government and commercial institutions in thirty-five countries.
It (the Internet) is the 21st century version of an 18th century French project born of the optimism of the Age of Enlightenment: to create a single encyclopaedia of everything known by mankind. The French were defeated by the sheer growth of information and by the lack of technology to store and access it. As we approach the 21st century, however, the Internet could be that encyclopedia – and much more (Highways for Learning, 1995, p. 3).
The British Columbia Ministries of Education and Skills, Training and Labour have committed to link every school, college, institute and university in the province to this resource.
Libraries and computer centers will integrate their functions. There will be seamless connections of local-area networks and wide-area ones, so that we will as readily use this medium to share instructional materials with our students (as they will share their projects with us) as to share professional work with our colleagues. And this in turn will revolutionize the paradigm of education and learning itself . . . (Lemke, 1993)
While commercial ILS system marketing representatives have expressed curiosity and interest in offering connections to the Internet, none of the systems reviewed by Thomas & Buck (1994) do so. One site visited does offer this capability to its students. A college ABE program in the interior of British Columbia, that did not have the resources to purchase a commercial ILS, was able to acquire the hardware and software necessary to connect student workstations to one-another through the world-wide network called the Internet. The instructor has then structured his own curriculum along the lines Lemke suggested above. While this program was outside the parameters of the Thomas & Buck analysis, it was intriguing to see what a classroom instructor could do given the appropriate technological support and access to a network of other learners and instructors.
What is the Internet (Net), the largest of all computer networks? According to the winning entry in a BBC competition to describe the Internet,
The Net is possibly the largest store of information on this planet. Everybody can be part of it; it is one of the few places where race, creed, colour, gender, sexual preference do not prejudice people against others. All this through the magic of modern technology. Communication is the key. People talking to people. The Net isn’t computers. That’s just the way we access it. The Net is people helping each other in a world-wide community. (Simon Cooke, physics student, quoted in the World Wide Web document titled Highways for Learning published in paper and on the Net at http://ncet.csv.warwick.ac.uk/WWW/randd/highways/index.html)
In mid-1995 the Internet is composed of 30,000 smaller computer networks operated by universities, colleges, research centres, government agencies, non-profit and commercial organizations connecting 30 million people. It is estimated there could be a 125 million users world-wide within two years. Net connections range in price from free, for may faculty and students, to less than two dollars an hour for a connection to a commercial Internet provider site in the world. Once a personal computer has been connected to the Internet any information stored at virtually any site anywhere in the world is available free of charge.
What was once the playground of an academic, American male, computing elite, now offers something for everyone. Each person sees it differently: for one it may be the largest library on the planet to browse and contribute materials to; for another the fastest and most reliable postal service in the world; for still others it is a way to meet friends, to discuss politics and music, to share views and to exchange help and support (Highways for Learning, 1995, p. 3).
In a world of cognition enhancers, the global marketplace is altering the workplace. The impact on instructional practice, and curriculum content and design will be profound. Facilitated by the Internet, Dede claims the emergence of:
- a new definition of human intelligence; a partnership between human strengths and the computer’s cognition enhancing capabilities,
- a greater emphasis on collaborative learning as combined computer and telecommunications technologies allow individuals and communities in a variety of places and circumstances to interact,
- improved methods of assessing individual learning needs,
- lifelong “learning-while-doing”, thanks to these same telecomputing networking capabilities,
- a curricular shift from presenting data to evaluating and synthesizing ideas, and
- a focus on solving real-world problems using concepts and skills from multiple subject areas (Dede, 1989, pp. 25-26).
The innovations that supports the objectives outlined above by Dede is called “informatics – computers linked to electronic communication systems” (Knappler, 1988, p. 92). While some of the electronic instructional systems that Thomas & Buck examined attempted to meet at least some of these goals, these commercial systems have so far failed to provide an informatics curriculum; that is “fundamental skills for the new hypermedia literacy (Lemke, 1993).” These skills include database exploration, information search and retrieval and other user skills, as well as authoring skills. With the world’s information base becoming broader and deeper at an exponential rate, database exploration will be a critical skill in an environment where “. . . students will frequently be expected to change from one area of work to another and quickly ‘catch up’ with its problems and issues (Lemke).” Beyond awareness of the wealth of information available on the Internet are the electronic/Internet skills necessary to locate and retrieve a specific, identified, bit of information. Once information is retrieved the learner will need hypermedia navigation skills. Just as the printing press brought about the demand for a new range of skills, so too will hypermedia.
Convergence is one of the factors driving these changes. All of the world’s information sources are being converted into, and converging to, one digital format. This digitized information can then be delivered via an interconnected series of computer networks called the Internet. These information sources include the traditional media of print, graphics, audio, video and film. Every medium of instruction used in the classroom can now be delivered beyond the four walls of the physical classroom through network tools like email and the World Wide Web (see Appendix A for information on gopher and listservs). Every information source known to humans can be expressed in a digital form stored on computers connected through this world wide network. Once put into a digital format, information stored on the Net can be readily transmitted at the speed of light through a rapidly growing number of global connections.
The World Wide Web
The World Wide Web (Web) has become the easiest and most effective way to interact with information on the Internet. Not only is it possible to electronically receive text, like this document, but a properly equipped multimedia personal computer can receive graphics, video, audio and indeed any information in binary form. By the year 2000, according to a keynote speaker at the University of British Columbia’s WRITE conference, ninety-five percent of the world’s information will be digitized. The World Wide Web is rapidly becoming the Internet’s principal means of electronically publishing and distributing this information.
Every ten weeks the number of computers providing information on the World Wide Web doubles. You can use the Web to visit museums, art galleries, libraries and exhibitions, even the White House and soon concerts, all for the cost of a local phone call. You can access the Library of Congress, science resources, journals, book reviews, business statistics, geological survey maps, United Nations papers, music, French language press reviews, software archives, sport databases, magazine archives. You can obtain weather details for most of the globe, images of outerspace; the bible is there, all the novels of Mark Twain, the plays of Shakespeare, the scripts of Blackadder. You can drop in on peoples’ lives and homes. The pictures, text data, video and audio files can be copied and saved for your own use (subject to copyright) (Highways for Learning, 1995, p. 4).
Educators are beginning to see the potential in the Web for delivering instructional modules to learners in a time and space independent manner (Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour, 1995).
The Internet is changing the concept of publishing and new computer systems are being supplied with this in mind. Products like Microsoft’s Windows NT server allow users quickly and easily to set up an Internet (Web) server: you can publish your own information – whether prospectus, article, poem, music or thesis – at low cost. . . Just as there was an explosion of books after the invention of the printing press, we can expect an explosion of digital books on the Net; the low cost and huge audience prove irresistible to anyone with something to say (Highways to Learning, 1995, p. 4).
In addition to a Windows NT Web server, faculty and students need a computer which can be connected to the server via telephone and modem, or direct network cable. The server, connected to the Internet, can in turn provide network connections to any machine attached to it.
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML)
One very important feature of the Web is HTML, the language that allows for the electronic publishing of documents containing text, animation, graphics, video, and audio. In the last few months Web or HTML electronic documents have become even easier to create thanks to a free add-on product offered by all of the major word processing software developers. Now anyone who can create and manipulate word processed documents can, with those same skills, create and manipulate hypermedia Web documents. An author who uses HTML to create World Wide Web pages is called a web weaver. Appendix A contains a document which outlines some basic Internet concepts and capabilities. It was retrieved over the Internet from the Web home page, or electronically published document, of the British Columbia Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour’s Standing Committee on Educational Technology (SCOET). If this document had been electronically published on the Web, a mouse click on the following underlined word, SCOET would connect the reader to a Camosun College address ( http://ccins.camosun.bc.ca:80/scoet/contact/p5.html) where the electronic pages are kept and regularly updated. HTML permits, in addition to text, the electronic publishing of any multimedia event the web weaver has connected to this Web home page. For example, in a Web-based document the reader could use the computer mouse to click on an icon or picture of a speaker. In turn they could hear the author’s voice played through the computer’s sound card and speakers. As the Internet’s bandwidth (capability of carrying data) increases, student Web users will also be to interactively video conference with their instructors. Thus the Web offers some intriguing possibilities for structuring information in ways that prove useful to students.
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