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Category — Multimedia Content

The Enormous Technological Challenges Facing Education

Advances in technology continue to change how adults view and interact with the world. Of course, those same advances are available to teachers and the youngsters who populate their classrooms.

These developments are leading to enormous challenges for teachers regarding the role digital devices can and should play in the learning process. For some educators, the view is that technology should only be utilized as a tool to help facilitate student understanding and mastery of the current curriculum. For other educators, technology is as fundamental to learning as reading and writing and therefore must become a separate segment of the school curriculum.

To get a sense of the differences in these viewpoints, we turn to the 2011 Horizon Report (pdf), the eighth in the ongoing annual series of reports from Educause focused on emerging technology in higher education. As in the past, the current Horizon Report seeks to highlight the six emerging technologies or practices that are likely to enter mainstream use within three adoption horizons: near-term (those technologies that will see adoption over the next twelve months), mid-term (those that will be adopted over a 12-36 month period), and far-term (those that will be pursued over the 36-60 month time frame).

The 2011 report identified the following specific areas as technologies to watch:

– Near-term: mobile computing and open content.
– Mid-term: electronic books and simple augmented reality.
– Far-term: gesture-based computing and visual data analysis.

Most educators are no doubt very familiar with the first three elements noted in the Horizon report. These topics have garnered a lot of press over the last couple of years and their use is becoming more common in Pre K-12 classrooms.

The last three, on the other hand, are not generally seeing much if any time in the current learning environment. But if tomorrow’s workers are going to be ready to take advantage of the incredible technological progress available to them, teachers will need to become more knowledgeable of these incredible new options.

In that regard, one of the critical findings of the report centers on the issue of digital media literacy and the subsequent challenges that literacy creates for educators. The report reveals the significance of digital media literacy in every discipline and profession but that formal training in digital literacy skills and techniques is rarely found in teacher education programs. Worse yet, the Horizon report reveals that formal training is virtually non-existent in higher education.

While many educators are working on the topic in an informal manner, the fact remains that literacy is deemed to be “less about tools and more about thinking.” Therefore, a systems approach to digital literacy is necessary if we are to ensure that teachers are ready and able to lead students down this ever-evolving path.

Below we examine the six areas briefly and the challenges facing educators in implementing these short-term, mid-term, and far-term technologies. For greater depth, readers may simply turn to the Horizon’s 2011 detailed report (pdf – 40 pages).

1. Mobile Technology

Today, we have a wealth of options for staying connected while on the go. While many equate the idea of mobile technology with the cell phone, the term mobile device is used to categorize everything from smart phones to netbooks.

Today, not only are there many devices (smart phones, netbooks, laptops and the like) to choose from, each of these options is capable of performing multiple functions. Whatever the choice, the ability to access the Internet and personal data from anywhere in the world is becoming ever more important especially as technology becomes cloud-based.

Ultimately, this online data storage is creating a totally new view of IT support. It also creates the requirement that our information be accessible to us no matter what our choice of device or our location.

The result is that more and more people are looking to mobiles as their device of choice. Furthermore, they are generally seen as cheaper and easier to use than desktop or laptop computers.

While many have long espoused the potential of mobile devices to revolutionize learning, educators continue to have concerns with the privacy and classroom management issues that come with student use of such devices. But clearly the digital world is headed firmly in this direction and education must follow suit.

2. Open Content

Open content appears to carry fewer concerns for educators and is generally seen as critical to addressing the ever-rising costs of higher education. Perhaps even more importantly, open content has the ability to provide the level of flexibility today’s students are beginning to demand.

Providing individual choice as to when and how to learn, open content is already becoming a critical format for colleges and universities. As traditional lines of learning get further blurred by the needs of adults to constantly upgrade skills to remain competitive in the workplace, education must follow suit.

The ability to learn informally, without constant direction and supervision, is a skill that we must increasingly begin to utilize in the classrooms of tomorrow. And whereas education used to center on a just-in-case format (becoming knowledgeable in a wide variety of topics to ensure future flexibility) the easy access to information requires a switch to “just-in-time” and “found” learning. Both of these formats will ensure that learning is far more timely and efficient.

This demands a new educational perspective where knowledge is not held by a select few and shared only upon demand but instead is collective in nature and sharable. This will continue to push teachers towards a new model where they focus on guiding and coaching students on methods for accessing and evaluating the volume of information available.

3. Electronic Books

While the Horizon report notes that “electronic books have been available in some form for nearly four decades,” the last twelve months “have seen a dramatic upswing in their acceptance and use.” Add to the mix the various assortment of electronic reading devices now available and it is easy to see why “electronic books are appearing on campuses with increasing frequency.”

For the student with the overweight backpack, the idea of being able to carry an entire library in their book bag is enormously appealing. On the college campus, electronic books are not only proving to be a cost-effective and portable alternative to heavy textbooks, these devices are able to store all syllabi and supplemental reading selections for even the most intense courses.

The latest e-book readers not only rival the experience of reading a paper book, they offer the ability to easily mark up and highlight text when desired, annotations that can be easily exported and shared with fellow students. Perhaps even more importantly, electronic readers offer keyword searching and instant dictionary lookups, two elements that can greatly enhance the learning possibilities for students.

Today we see the list of available titles is growing rapidly and with that development, the new format’s convenience will also yield even greater cost-effectiveness over time. Throw the fact that our wireless devices enable individuals to purchase materials from nearly anywhere on the planet means that entire libraries are now available to both teachers and students without ever leaving their home or the walls of their respective classroom.

4. Simple Augmented Reality

The ability to combine the real world with virtual information is the fundamental tenet of what is referred to as augmented reality. It involves the blending of virtual data, the information available to users via technology, with live action and what we see in the real world.

According to the Horizon report, AR dates back to the late 1960s and 1970 though it was not until the 1990s that major companies put the technology to use for visualization and training purposes. Those applications once required headsets that kept users tethered to their desktop computers but now the camera and screen embedded in smart phones and other mobile devices (our basic GPS system) can serve as the tools to blend the real world with virtual data.

Augmented reality applications exist in two basic formats: marker-based, whereby a “camera must perceive a specific visual cue in order for the software to call up the correct information,’ and markerless, whereby “positional data, such as a mobile’s GPS and compass is compared against a library of images to find a match.”

For education, the major focus could well be on augmented reality gaming. Such games would be based on real world situations that are then augmented with networked data, bringing incredible life to the study of both history and geography.

For the extremely futuristic minded, there is also the development of augmented reality books. Though the books are printed normally, they are made so as to include AR elements. After purchase, special software installed on a webcam allows the camera to interact with the book to create three dimensional visualizations.

5. Gesture Based Computing

Gesture-based computing gives rise to truly transformative technology where devices are created “that react to us instead of requiring us to learn to work with them.” Therefore, instead of teaching children how to use a mouse and keyboard, we would instead teach them to use natural movements to engage their technology.

Most of us are familiar with the iPhone or the Nintendo Wii, gesture-based systems that accept input in the form of taps, swipes, motion, pressure, and the number of fingers touching the devices. Incorporating the potential for more kinesthetic classroom would also take away one of the current fears associated with computers and those popular video games, the sedentary lifestyle that often accompanies those activities.

In addition, yet another one of the most important elements would be the collaborative nature gesture-based computing would offer teachers. By removing the need to share a keyboard and mouse, gestural interfaces would allow multiple users to potentially interact with a single computer simultaneously.

More than simply making technology easier to engage, gesture-based computing has been shown to enhance fine motor skills. One such study revealed that surgeons-in-training who warmed up with the Wii scored an average of 48% higher on tool tests and simulated surgical procedures than those who did not.

6. Visual Data Analysis

Visual data analysis is a new field that blends highly advanced computational methods with sophisticated graphic generating tools. These computer enhancements make it possible for almost anyone to see any existing patterns and/or structure in even the most complex of data settings.

Data collection and compilation has long been seen as a tedious process. While computers removed some of the manual challenges of this process, analyzing, interpreting, and displaying data was largely a field only statisticians and engineers fully grasped.

Most people see these tools as being useful when studying scientific topics such as climate change and global warming trends. But if we can make “it possible for anyone to sift through, display, and understand complex concepts and relationships,” then visual data representation will soon lead to applications in the social sciences and humanities.

As for the implications for educators, the field is deemed to be more consistent with the pattern matching skills that seem to be hard-wired into the human brain. But the greatest impact could well be the concept’s ability to enable educational researchers to finally isolate the specific variables that truly impact learning and identify the most effective educational practices to employ in the classroom.

February 22, 2011   3 Comments

Media Literacy – “Common Sense Media” a Great Online Resource

Have you been wondering if the latest Fockers movie is something your youngster should see?

Thinking about a Wii or Kinect Box so as to get your child out from behind the computer and up and moving?

Or have you been wondering just what steps you should be taking to ensure your child is safe online?

Better yet, have you wondered why Doritos, Oreo’s and M&Ms have such significant levels of brand equity among 8-12-year-olds?

Digital Generation

We cannot kid ourselves. When it comes to digital media, our children are hooked.

Today, our children spend more time interacting with digital media than they do with their own families. They also spend more time daily with digital media than they spend in school.

But thankfully, parents as well as educators have an excellent resource to assess all things digital: Common Sense Media.
Under the leadership of CEO and founder James Steyer, Common Sense Media seeks to provide trustworthy information that can help families make educated decisions regarding the media their children will consume.

First and foremost, Common Sense Media recognizes that our children are smitten by all the digital opportunities being provided today. Therefore, the organization’s core beliefs set aside any notion of censorship and replace it with sound advice that allows for effective decision-making.

Among their ten belief statements, two in particular make clear the philosophical stance from which the organization operates:

  • We believe in teaching our kids to be savvy, respectful and responsible media interpreters, creators, and communicators. We can’t cover their eyes but we can teach them to see.
  • We believe that the price for free and open media is a bit of extra homework for families. Parents need to know about the media their kids use and need to teach responsible, ethical behavior as well as manage overall media use.

Family Resources

On the web site families will find links to exemplars: Best Movies, Best Video Games, Best Apps, Best Websites, Best TV, Best Books, and Best Music. In addition to those best lists, the site offers parents interested in a particular movie, game, web site, book, or television that did not make the best lists hundreds of additional reviews on the site.

As but one example as to the insight available, video game reviews feature a 1-5 rating system on each of the following basic categories: ease of play, educational value, online interaction and role models. Furthermore, parents will find a second set of basic assessments on items that frequently cause concern: messages provided, level of violence, sex, language, consumerism and drinking, drugs, & smoking.

In addition, parents will find Common Sense Media’s suggested age for which the game is appropriate and one of three overall basic ratings: on, iffy, or off. But also included on the site is feedback from users, parents, educators, and of course, kids.

For parents wanting to promote a more active lifestyle, the site offers a number of links to games that help everyone in the family stay active. Recommendations are set forth for the new hands-free active gaming with Microsoft’s Kinect as well as Best PlayStation Move Games, Best Wii Games, and Best Wii Balance Board Games.

A multitude of other resources are available and grouped by grade level, topic, and type of digital media. Once registered parents can participate in community based discussions regarding a topic or question of their own concern.

Educational Resources

In addition to helping provide parents insight about specific digital products, the site offers a number of educational related links. The idea is to help provide resources for both parents and educators around the issue of new media.

Thus parents will find a number of instructional videos on such topics as Tuning Out Junk Food Ads, Setting TV Time Limits, Talking About Advertising, Cartoon Violence, Setting Internet Filters, All About Avatars, Staying Safe Online, Checking Browser History and The Truth About “Sexting.” Links to additional resources for educators can be found on the site including grade level appropriate learning materials to help provide youngsters digital lessons in Safety and Security, Digital Citizenship and Research and Info Literacy.

If there is a question to be had regarding media and children, Common Sense Media addresses it or provides visitors a forum space to seek an answer.

January 6, 2011   1 Comment

Media Literacy – A Topic for All Ages

We have noted previously the need for modern schools to begin to include media literacy in their respective curricula. It is a subject of growing importance as we move into a world where savvy business and advertising professionals consistently seek to take advantage of an undereducated and naïve public citizenry.

Two recent reports reveal how media is impacting our lives. The first involves a recent survey by Harris Interactive called the Youth EquiTrends Study. The second involves a poll conducted by, based at the University of Maryland, and Knowledge Networks on the recent election and the disappointing level of misinformed voters.

EquiTrends Study

The Harris Interactive survey consisted of polling more than five thousand 8- to 24-year-olds last August. The researchers sought to identify what has been dubbed “brand equity” amongst our young people.

iStock_000012962995XSmallBrand equity is a term used to express a brand’s overall strength based upon three factors: familiarity, quality, and purchase consideration. To get at the youngster’s view of specific product names, those polled were asked to rate between 98 and 125 popular brands of goods. The research sample was drawn online for 13- to 24-year-olds and by way of parents for 8- to 12-year-olds.

The 8- to 12-year-old top ten went like this:

1. Nintendo Wii
2. Doritos
3. Oreo’s
4. M&Ms
5. Disney Channel
6. Nickelodeon
7. Nintendo DS
8. McDonald’s
9. Toys R Us
10. Cartoon Network

It was somewhat nice to see Nintendo holding the top spot since the Wii incorporates exercise into the gaming experience. But in an era where children are suffering from premature obesity so much is revealed by what we see in slots 2, 3, 4 and 8.

And while television appears prominently in the top ten, no mention is made of the one television program, Sesame Street, that might mix the viewing pleasure with some learning.

If we move on to 13- to 17-year-olds the level of junk food and the extreme calorie intake moves just a tad further:

1. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
2. iPod
3. Google
4. M&Ms
5. Oreo’s
6. Subway
7. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate
8. Target
9. Sprite
10. Microsoft

On the positive site, there is a noteworthy drop here in television-related items and the move towards media that is at least interactive (Google and Microsoft).

Finally for the oldest group , 18- to 24-year-olds, we see some modest changes:

1. Google
2. Facebook
3. iPod
4. Gatorade
5. Target
6. Subway
7. Apple
8. iTunes
9. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

It is clearly nice to see those food items fall down and off the list. But this list speaks volumes for educators especially given the brand familiarity of Google and Facebook to this age group. Those wanting to implement these tools in the education setting clearly have a captive audience that is already familiar with their use.

Of course, this also conjures up that age-old challenge for educators: distractibility. While these tools can be put to use in the learning environment, their ability to be utilized so easily in an off-task manner continues to leave educators concerned about their implementation.

Finally, if ages are not broken out we see the following list:

1. M&Ms
2. Google
3. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
4. Oreo’s
5. iPod
6. Target
7. Subway
8. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate
9. Doritos
10. Pixar

Uninformed Public Voter

iStock_000005620177XSmall The second report on the impact of media and the need to be aware of its effects parallels one of our more recent concerns regarding uniformed voters. The World Public Opinion poll reported that 9 in 10 voters indicated they had encountered information they believed was misleading or false during the 2010 election. The report further noted that 56% of respondents indicated they thought this had occurred frequently with a nearly like number (54%) believing this misinformation was more frequent than usual.

But the most interesting development was that voters in total had in fact been misinformed on some very basic issues but did not realize they were unaware of the truth. For example, though the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created somewhere between 2.0-5.2 million jobs, only 8% of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Perhaps most astonishingly, 20% even believed that it resulted in job losses.

As but one more example, though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform would increase the deficit.

Because misinformed viewers actually reported watching different news channels, the failure to be properly informed could not be attributable to one specific news source. Perhaps most importantly, those who had greater exposure to news sources were generally better informed.

But the report did reveal a number of cases where greater exposure to a news source increased misinformation on a specific issue. The report also noted that those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to be misled.

Some examples with direct quotes from the study:

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).

As for the final nail in the Fox coffin, the effect was not deemed a function of partisan bias. Even those Fox watchers who voted Democratic were more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch that specific network.

Media Literacy

In our world today, we are bombarded with imagery designed to sell us on specific products. Our media consumption involves exposure via two traditional outlets, television and print media, as well as all the new forms that accompany the explosion of technology and the Internet.

It is important for all of us to understand that those candy makers and the folks at Doritos know how to get their message across. As we move towards epidemic levels of obesity in our country, it is imperative we look at the messages being provided to children on a daily basis.

But we adults are just as easily manipulated. How else could those who watch a certain network that calls itself “fair and balanced” not realize they are not receiving factually accurate information.

Collectively, the two studies reveal the importance of being able to realistically and properly assess brands. The results are alarming.

First, and foremost, we can clearly see that the ability to assess is not something the general public can do. And that of course leads to the ultimate issue, that brand equity transfers over time into brand loyalty.

December 19, 2010   1 Comment

Comics in the Classroom – Technology Allows Students to Create their Own Characters and Strips

New comic strip site moves into the education market with BitStripsforSchools

It has been almost two years since we did our four-part feature on the use of comic books in the classroom. At that time we discussed the comics movement in light of the increased emphasis in the educational setting on student engagement and enhanced learning, two elements that spoke directly to the issue of teachers capturing the attention of their students.

Specifically, when it came to struggling young readers, it was clear that one way hook and thus engage students was to turn to the world of comics. While the initial reaction of some was that teachers were lowering their educational standards and reinforcing lazy reading habits, many others, understanding that teaching begins with getting student attention, decided to give comics a try.

For those educators still on the fence, we followed our initial post with an excellent interview with Chris Wilson of The Graphic Classroom. Most importantly, Chris clearly articulated how the graphic format could be used to enhance any reading program, not just those who struggled with the reading process.

Making Comic Strips

Teachers already using such the comics format no doubt understand how the creation of comic strips by students can become a teaching tool for reluctant writers as well.

Given what we had learned, we were extremely intrigued with a new web site called Just as one might expect, it is computer software that allows students to create their own comic book characters and story lines or strips.

JacobAtWork-CandidLike Chris who grew up with an interest in graphic novels, Jacob Blackstock, the CEO of BitStrips Inc., always had an interest in drawing his own comics.

In fact, Jacob acknowledges that on the one hand he often got into trouble for drawing comics instead of paying attention while in class, but that on the other would get high marks for handing in comics as schoolwork.

With his site BitStrips, Jacob appears to have resolved this longstanding paradox. Having started, and stopped the university academic scene a number of times, Jacob had to teach himself classical animation, a step that helped him create his own 14-minute cartoon.

But the process of drawing the same character over 15,000 times (3 years worth of work) had him thinking of easier ways to repeat a creative process that could become tedious at times. With the help of David Kennedy, Shahan Panth, Jesse Brown, Dorian Baldwin and Tom Smahel, the group would create Bitstrips and offer just such a path for other would-be cartoonists.

Over the past ten days we posed a number of questions to the CEO of Bitstrips Inc. Below, as is our practice at OpenEducation, we offer his Q & A verbatim for our readers.

Can you give our readers a brief history of how Bitstrips came to be?

Bitstrips Inc. is a six-man team from Toronto, most of whom have been friends since high school. Collectively, we’ve been making comics, cartoons, and interactive games all our lives. After years of drawing the same things over and over again (animation and illustration can be tedious work), we found ourselves looking for a way to speed up the creation process – to minimize the time it takes to bring an idea to life in a shareable form. This quest led to the development of our Comic Builder, which we strived to make the easiest, most fun, and fastest way to make great-looking comics using a computer. As we reached this goal, we realized that the Comic Builder had a greater purpose than just speeding up the process:

Now anyone could make their own comics, regardless of their drawing ability. The uniquely evocative language of comics had always been reserved for a select few who possessed the skills and the patience to create them; now this language could be used by everyone, and could perhaps even become a new mode of everyday communication, like online video, blogs and twitter. Seeing this potential, we set out to build a new kind of website – and after about two years of toil, paid for out of our own pockets, was born.

In March of 2008 was launched at the SXSW interactive festival in Austin, Texas, where it was the hit of the show. We suddenly found ourselves fostering a rapidly growing, incredibly creative community of dedicated users, churning out massive quantities of comics on a daily basis. And to our surprise, we discovered that many of our users were educators, who were using the site as a teaching tool. This, in conjunction with recent studies that point to comics as a solution for developing student literacy, led us to consider the development of a new educational version of Bitstrips, tailored for use in the classroom.

We approached the Ontario Ministry of Education with a demo version of BitstripsforSchools, and they agreed to help us run a pilot program in a handful of classrooms. The pilot was a huge success, with teachers excited by the educational power of comic creation, and students inspired by the sheer fun of it all. We licensed the service to the Ministry for use across the province, and just about a month ago it finally launched – not just in Ontario, but also available anywhere in the world via an online self-serve option.

Since then the response has been overwhelming, with increasingly phenomenal usage. In our first month, we’ve had over 50,000 student accounts created. Currently the students are producing more than 6000 comics every day, and this number is increasing rapidly. And, most importantly, the teachers are thrilled to see just how engaged their students are while using Bitstrips.

Can you explain the differences between the two sites, particularly the attributes that are unique to the BitstripsforSchools site?

bitstrips one contains all the technology from, but with added security and administration features designed specifically for the school setting. Unlike, which is an entertainment site open to the public, BitstripsforSchools enables teachers to create virtual classrooms, which are essentially walled gardens that have no links to the wider web. These classrooms are just for students, and the teacher is in control. Administrative functionality allows teachers to monitor all activity within the class, and moderate content before it’s shared with the class.

Another unique aspect of BitstripsforSchools is that it gives teachers the ability to create specialized activities, and even share them with other teachers. This makes the site much more versatile and applicable to specific curricula. For example, if the class is reading a certain book, the teacher can create an activity that involves adapting a scene from the book into comic form. Any subject, from language to social studies to science, can be turned into an engaging comic-creation activity. And, as these activities are shared between teachers via the Activity Library, BitstripsforSchools will become exponentially more useful – teachers can search for activities by grade and subject, and add comments or ratings to assist other teachers in finding what they need.

Can you talk a little bit about the creativity available to students on the site – while basic character traits are available, it appears that students can customize each of their characters? And what attributes are available should they try to ‘cartoon’ themselves?

bitstrips 5One of the key ideas behind Bitstrips is that it’s not just about making comics – it’s about making comics that star YOU and your friends. This makes the experience more personal, fun and engaging. So, when developing the character builder, we tried to make it as flexible as possible, so that it’s easy to create an appealing, recognizable caricature of yourself or anyone you know.

There is currently a wide selection of facial features to choose from – eyes, ears, noses, hairstyles, etc… with regular updates planned throughout the year. But it’s not just about choosing the right set of eyes – you can also re-size them and move them around on the head – and we’ve found that it’s this fine-tuning of proportions that can really help capture the likeness of the person you’re recreating.

One of the special features we’ve added to BitstripsforSchools is a class picture that lives on your homepage. As each student creates his or her character (also known as avatars), it automatically appears in the group shot. So, when a teacher creates a Bitstrips classroom, they get to watch this scene fill itself up with cartoon versions of the whole class, which is a lot of fun for everyone.

Can you describe the types of emotions and actions available for characters? Is this fairly limited at this time?

One of the best things about building characters on Bitstrips is that there’s so much you can do with them. These characters are not just simple designs, they’re actually very expressive little puppets that can convey a lot of nuanced information without even using a word balloon.

We’ve got eight basic emotions to choose from, but those can be altered with independent eyelid, mouth and pupil controls, to generate a nearly infinite range of expressions. The body is also very adjustable, with a wide selection of poses in various categories (talking, walking, sitting, etc). And, even though it’s a two-dimensional design, you can rotate the character to view it from multiple angles.

So, from a single character design, there are truly endless possibilities when it comes to facial expressions and body language – which plays a big part in the unique way that comics can visually communicate thoughts and feelings.

How about the strips – is there a limit to the number of frames available or can a student create a story length cartoon?

A comic can have up to eight rows, with as many panels per row as the action will allow (usually no more than four). Generally this seems to be more than sufficient – though, for those students with more epic inclinations, they can build longer stories by creating multiple chapters. On we’ve had users create ongoing series with hundreds of episodes.

Talk a little bit about the art library currently available (characters, scenes and props). And what is in the works for expanding this library?

In addition to the characters, there is an art library containing a growing selection of props, furniture, backgrounds, and special effects. We like to think of the items in the library not as clip art, but rather as ‘smart art’ – that is, any given object may have multiple viewing angles as well as different states. For example, we have a banana that can be peeled, drawers that open and close, and water that transforms from a drop to a puddle. Discovering these extra states (and finding uses for them) has proven to be a fun part of exploring the library for our users.

The art library also contains full scenes, which combine backgrounds, props and furniture to make it faster and easier to create your comic. We’re working on new batches of artwork and plan on releasing regular updates throughout the year. We get lots of requests for specific items to be added to the library, and we try to make sure that the most commonly requested bits go to the top of our list of new things to design. Currently we’re working on some major updates that should really add to the fun – new clothing, animals, musical instruments, and more…

Your site notes that students can email their comics home, print them out, or paste them into other applications. What are some of the other common applications students can use?

For those who want to work beyond the confines of the comic strip format, graphics from Bitstrips can be copied and pasted into other image editing programs such as Adobe Photoshop. We’ve seen people copying their characters into posters, calendars, Powerpoint presentations, profile pics for blogs and Twitter accounts – you name it. Some industrious folks have even created flipbook animations on Youtube by exporting individual panels as frames. We’re constantly amazed to see Bitstrips art pop up in the least expected places.

What are some of the not so obvious, indirect learnings that Bitstrips can offer students?

bitstrips 3There’s been a huge amount of emphasis lately on the power of comics as a tool for enhancing student engagement and literacy. We’ve also seen teachers use it for other subjects – art, social studies, even math.

Meanwhile, whatever the subject being studied, there is always the underlying fact that BitstripsforSchools is a social media application, and I think learning to use social media in a constructive way is very important for today’s students. While using Bitstrips, students will find themselves indirectly learning about appropriate online behavior, digital collaboration, and other essential skills for navigating the increasingly complex world of the web.

One real key aspect of comics is its ability to help students who are English as Second Language Learners. Are there other languages currently available for teachers?

BitstripsforSchools is currently available in English and French (we are a Canadian company, after all). It is very likely that in the near future we will add more versions of the site in different languages. We’ve already got users in every corner of the globe, and since the teachers write the activities and their students write the comics, there’s really nothing stopping anyone from using the tools in any language. But, as demand increases, we will certainly add more support (ie properly translated interface, activities and documentation) for other languages.

Educators are always concerned with Internet safety – talk a little bit about what filters/precautions you have in place?

bitstrips fourWhile developing the site, we were very aware that safety would be a prime concern for teachers, and thus it’s been a major factor in how we set things up. Our guiding principle is that the teacher is in control. When a teacher opens an account, they create a ‘virtual classroom’ that is essentially a walled garden with no links to the wider internet. Students can still access this classroom from their home computers, but there’s no way for anyone outside the class to access it, and no way for the students to stumble upon any content that hasn’t been reviewed by their teacher.

We have a number of moderation controls, designed to help teachers track and deal with all the activity within the class. They can choose to have all comics sent to them for review before approving them to be shared with the other students. Students can flag comics or comments as inappropriate, at which point they are rendered invisible to the rest of the class and brought to the teacher’s attention. Comics containing profanities are flagged automatically.

Can you briefly go over the pricing structure and what comes with each pricing level? Can teachers sign off and on easily (so as to have access for one, two or three month periods should they choose)? And do you foresee a time when there might be a very basic option available to schools for free?

We offer subscriptions on either a monthly or annual basis. For a single-classroom account, which supports up to 40 students, it’s $9.95 per month, or $87 for a full year. Teachers with more than one class can also get a multi-classroom account, which supports up to 6 classrooms, for $29.95 per month or $265 for a year. All accounts come with free updates and upgrades, and unlimited comics and activities.

We also offer volume discount rates for school accounts and district accounts, such as our license for the Ontario Ministry of Education. School reps can easily get in touch with us via the site to determine the pricing.

It’s possible that some day we might be able to figure out a more basic version that could be freely available – but we still have a lot of work to do before we can afford to develop something like that. In the meantime, any teacher can try the full-featured service for free by signing up for a 14-day trial account. All paid accounts also include the free trial for the first two weeks.

Can you provide teachers a couple of contacts that are currently using BitstripsforSchools should new potential users want to pursue specific questions about the site and its application?

For a contact outside our company, I’d point people to the blog of Doug Peterson, who is a Computers in the Classroom Consultant here in Ontario, and is also part of the OSAPAC committee that recommended the license to the Ministry. He’s been a great evangelist for Bitstrips, and has posted some great articles on his blog, like this one.

Meanwhile, any potential users with specific questions should feel free to get in touch with us directly anytime by emailing us at We’re always very happy to talk with educators about the service – direct communication with teachers has been a huge part of the site’s development since day one.

November 3, 2009   2 Comments

Film Contest for the Creative – Can You Sell Science?

ScienceCopenhagen, the YouTube channel offering that snappy and yes, sexy video that promoted the study of science recently announced The Moving Science 2010 Film Contest. The Videoer fra Det Naturvidenskabelige Fakultet (the Faculty of Science) at the University of Copenhagen gained a large web presence with the release of “The Power to Create.”

From its creativity and wondrously apt music to its brevity, every aspect of that little gem caught folks attention. Yet, to traditional academics, the ones who believe the world thrives way too much on packaging, the idea of using a hip video to sell the study of science has to be seen as an enormous step in the wrong direction.

In fact, two of the other posts on the YouTube channel, likely appealed only to, well the generation that just might be heading off to college in the near future. But they reveal a creative flair that has to appeal to the young man or woman who has previously been thinking that majoring in science represents the uncoolest of possible choices.

Indeed, in what appears to be a direct push to change that view, there is the classic beer bottle domino line called Cafeen Domino as well as another clever little video that features a young woman (with another wondrous track of music) using a urinal. We would have to think those did not sit well with the traditionalists either.

Moving Science 2010 Competition

To compete for a significant number of prizes, movie producers must produce a video shorter than five minutes. In fact, the recommendation is for a length of 10 to 120 seconds. Prizes are gift certificates for IT, music or video related equipment, with the top prize being 15,000 DKK or about $3,000.

To enter, you must produce a film about one of three things: why one should study science or what science can lead to in later life or the most specific, the studying of science at the University of Copenhagen. The competition is open to anyone, students as well as non-students, and virtually any movie format is acceptable.

It can be an advert, a sketch, a song, a documentary or even viral film. Movies can be shot on a cell phone, webcam or regular video camera and may of course include a killer soundtrack as long as copyright is properly dealt with.

Seven different subject categories are available: a free form category as well as videos that would feature topics related to the Department of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematical Sciences, Geography and Geology, Computer Science and Exercise and Sports Sciences.

And as for inspiration, the site offers the three gems we have already noted plus these other ingenious little YouTube stalwarts.

For more on the deadlines, specific prizes and submission details, visit The Moving Science 2010 Movie Competition and click on the various sub links noted.

October 26, 2009   No Comments

Internet Safety – When Adults Let Kids Down

Children Largely Surf the Web Unsupervised.

Ofcom recently published an interim report on media use by UK children. The details include some very interesting results that we would suspect mirror that of American children.

The report takes an in-depth look at the various media used by children ages 5-15 (computers, game consoles, cell phones, etc.), where and how frequently they use the media, and the e-safety measures imposed by parents. The results are then broken out in various tables according to age, sex and household income.

New Picture (13)The first critical general trend to note is that access to media, be it via television, the internet or other sources, continues to increase. While actual use varies, the two other most noteworthy trends include children using the internet at ever-younger ages but that their preference for television drops off with age.

The first somewhat troubling result is that more than a third of 12-15 year-olds now have internet access in their bedrooms. Yet, just under half of the parents have implemented internet filtering or parental controls, leaving nearly 60% of youngsters in the 12-15 age group to use the internet unsupervised.

A second troubling trend is that one in six users aged 5-7 are also mostly left to use the internet unsupervised as well. According to the survey results, most parents “say that they trust [their] child to use the internet safely.”

iStock_000009669392XSmallAs for utilizing parental filters for cable television or the internet, a significant number of parents (one in eight) did not know how to set such controls or were unaware that such controls existed.

While there continues to be strong advice for a different set of expectations, one that features televisions, computers and game consoles located in the family room, it would seem parents are giving in and allowing these media to migrate to their child’s bedroom.

Such results likely reinforce the notion that schools must do more in the way of educating children and their parents regarding media literacy, especially basic internet safety measures. In fact, the report may well indicate that parental education may well be the greater priority.

The full report can be found online (PDF) along with an annex (PDF) of the top fifty sites visited by UK children.

October 19, 2009   1 Comment

The Future of Books (and Authors) in the Digital Age

The release of the latest version of the Kindle has many waxing poetic on the future of books in the digital age.

While books seem to gather the most interest, perhaps a more important and certainly more sophisticated notion is to examine what it will mean to be called a writer/author in the age of new media.

Current Status

Tim O’Reilly of describes the idea of putting a book on an electronic device as analogous to “pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie.”

While that might have been the initial thrust of Hollywood, O’Reilly points out that the “tools of production and consumption actually changed the format of what was produced and consumed. Camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects: all these innovations make the movies (and television) of today very different from the earliest movies.”

Amazon.comLikewise, we are in the early stages of a new world, one that is shifting to an online medium featuring greater and greater portability. The question thus arises, how will books change in the digital age?

To get a sense of the basics, we turn back to the latest version of the Kindle. The device features the ability to display a wealth of different document styles and formats. As one would expect, the Kindle 2 provides access to and readily displays books, newspapers, and magazines. However, the latest version also displays a vast array of other document formats: Microsoft Word, PDF, HTML, TXT, JPEG, GIF, PNG, BMP, PRC and MOBI files. Therefore the Kindle now has the potential to be a document repository and full-fledged library.

Perhaps an even more exciting option, albeit still in its infancy as a polished product, is that the Kindle 2 can turn a traditional book into an audiobook. There is still much work to be done before the device can be considered a perfect swap for the audio created by a soothing and polished human voice, but the device offers an amazing step forward in the overall reading process.

As proponents tout, one can use the Kindle as an ebook reader on a train or airplane just as you could pull out a book to read. But then later, the earbuds can be connected and you can continue to read (as in listen to the audio production) as you walk through the station or airport.

Amazon.comOf course, the new ereader means that no book has to be printed and therefore there is no such thing as a truly finished product. The ereader concept certainly makes nonfiction works more practical as updates can be easily uploaded to ensure that the book available for purchase always represents the latest edition.

Mixing Platforms

Of course, one of the beauties of the internet and thus the Kindle is the ability to provide documents that then hyperlink immediately to provide a relevant citation or reference. Perhaps even more importantly, nonfiction works can consist of fewer collected chapters as some of the text that would normally be incorporated to build upon or explain certain concepts can instead be simply linked to.

Readers without expertise can peruse the linked material at their leisure while those who have a grasp may forgo those links and delve directly into the new material.

According to O’Reilly, such a concept likely means we will need to develop useful modular formats. In such cases, many books could become more of a collection of loosely-related pages allowing for greater depth and breadth of issue exploration.

Therein comes the real challenge: how does one actually write material for the potential to cross platforms? How can the author ensure her book translates well to an ereader or iPhone application?

As but one example, what happens if a writer uses hyperlinks instead of footnotes but the reader doesn’t have internet access? And even when the reader does have such access, how can writers ensure such cross-referencing links are still active and reliable at the the time the reader examines the link?

Scott Meyers, an independent author and consultant, examines the notion of cross-platforming in “Authoring Challenges in a Multiplatform World.” To the right we present a visual of one of his slides that depicts some of the existing challenges (click to enlarge).

Currently, the conventional manuscript from an author is often designed for the traditional book format. Later, that document is translated where it is viewed on a computer or laptop, an ereader, or PDA or listened to on one of those same devices.

While most everything that works in printed form will work on these devices, simply translating existing documents fails to take advantage of the new technology available. As Meyer notes, text, diagrams, tables, photographs, etc. all work with new media, they just might not work as well.

At the same time, new media offers so much more: color, video/animations and audio are what make the newer platforms so enticing. It is truly as O’Reilly notes, the stage when movies were simply still films of stage plays.

Author Issues

Meyer notes that effective multi-platform publication will require greater author cooperation. It will also mean that writers may well need to develop additional skills if they are to ensure the portability of their work to different platforms.

As it is currently constructed, the idea of designing and writing for traditional print formats then attempting to translate or port that work to other new media platforms makes little sense. Instead, according to Meyer, we will soon see the adoption of new expository and software tools that allow for the construction of documents that are easily ported among devices.

It will also demand new writing skills and that authors understand two relatively new concepts: how to properly express capability-dependent content (eg., displaying a table on devices that have limited viewing screen sizes) and how to apply capability-dependent formatting (eg. including colors when such an option is available, falling back to black and white when color is not present). And as we noted, there will need to be careful consideration for how cross-references and links are utilized, especially given that documents and web sites will not remain static over time.

Teachers are fond of saying that we are educating students for jobs that do not even exist today. Thanks to ereaders and other portable electronic devices, one of the world’s greatest inventions, the book, is undergoing a major review.

At the same time, the notion of what it means to be a writer or author is also undergoing a thorough look. Perhaps it will give rise to a new descriptor or title.

And to a wealth of new career options, much as we saw with the development of the movie industry.

May 29, 2009   No Comments

Intelligence and IQ – It Is More than Just the Genes

When it comes to intelligence, there has always been one fundamental question:

Is it a function of nature? Is it simply encoded in a child’s genes?

Or is it a function of nurture? Is it more about the environment that a child grows up in?

NisbettRichard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, addresses the topic in fundamental detail in his new book, “Intelligence and How to Get It.” And thank goodness for teachers, Nisbett insists that nurture is in fact paramount to intellectual development.

In fact, his message matches almost verbatim what we have discussed previously on our site:

  • Praise the effort, not the achievement
  • Teach the concept of delayed gratification
  • Limit reprimands and use praise to stimulate curiosity.

The Nature versus Nurture Question

Nisbett takes exception to the notion that IQ is 75 to 85 percent inherited. Instead, he sees the gene implications at something less than 50 percent.

Nicholas D. Kristoff recently took a look at the nature versus nurture question and came away with enormous support of Nisbett’s book. The NY Times columnist notes the work of Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia who has conducted research that indicates IQ is minimally the result of genetics.

Kristof further cites studies that indicate that “when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their IQ’s rise by 12 points to 18 points.”

As for the importance of school, Kristof also notes that “children’s IQ’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).”

Professor NisbettIn Nisbett’s book, there is a strong push for early childhood education. Here again, Kristof offers support of Professor Nisbett by taking a look at the “Milwaukee Project.”

Assigning African-American children considered at risk for mental retardation randomly to two groups, the project offers enormous support for early childhood education. The mothers of the infants selected all had IQ’s below 80 and in many cases the fathers were absent.

The children were assigned either to a control group that received no additional support or to a group that enjoyed day care and educational programming from 6 months of age until the children were to enter first grade.

By the age of six the children experimental group had an IQ average of 120.7 as compared to the control group’s 87.2

Quality Pre-School for All

We previously noted the enormous educational success of Finland. Kati Tuurala, Microsoft’s education manager in Finland, indicates that the majority of Finland’s educational success can be traced to major reforms implemented in the 1970s.

One of those reforms centered upon an emphasis on primary education for every single child in the country. In Finland, students do not begin formal schooling until at age seven, two years after most American children begin school.

However, prior to entering school, all children have participated in a high-quality government funded preschool program. Interestingly, instead of focusing on getting a jump academically, Finland’s early-childhood program focuses on self-reflection and social behavior.

The early focus on self-reflection is seen as a key component for developing a level of personal responsibility towards learning. It is a focus more in line with the original theory of kindergarten set forth in 1837 by German Educator Friedrich Froebel. His kindergarten, literally meaning a “children’s garden,” was envisioned as a place and time where children could learn through play opportunities.

Ultimately, Finland appears to focus on the nurturing process during the preschool years and that appears to be the first step to eliminating socioeconomic differences within the school setting within the country.

Presidential Support

When it comes to the question of nature versus nurture, the data clearly indicates that the latter is indeed more than 50% of the equation. That is good news for educators, but even better news for society as a whole.

Fortunately, President Obama has come out in strong support of early childhood education, particularly for those children most at risk of school failure. Investing in quality pre-school opportunities clearly helps give children from poverty-stricken areas the chance at a stronger start in school and in life.

If we are serious about helping our children succeed in school, if we are truly interested in “Leaving No Child Behind,” we will take a hard look at this compelling data and begin investing greater sums at the early childhood level.

April 23, 2009   2 Comments

Creating Classroom Visuals – Four Great Sites for Teachers

Without a doubt, visuals are critical for kids when it comes to the learning process.

Thanks to some great “Techy Tips for not so Techy Teachers” we were recently reminded of four tech tools (web sites) that can help teachers create some very interesting visuals for their classroom, with the key being that one need not be a techy to put these sites into action.

Subject Specific Word Clouds

The use of tags and word clouds is becoming a web staple and a great way to introduce the concept to students is a web site that will generate “word clouds” from any text supplied by a teacher. With Wordle, teachers have access to a free web site to generate relevant word clouds for any learning task they are about to undertake.

Because word clouds give greater prominence to the words that appear most often in the supplied text, these clouds create a great learning visual for students by prominently displaying the most used terms. These clouds can be made into posters at the younger levels or used as a cover sheet to a course syllabus for older students.

With Wordle, the user can also modify aspects of the cloud through the use of different fonts, layouts, and color schemes for the letters and the background. Because the site is web-based, a user can save their creation to the Wordle gallery and access it from another internet connection.

And of course, with a little pre-teaching, students can have at it, creating their own word clouds for assignments and projects.

Turning Your Creation into a Poster

Once you have created a document or photo for classroom display, you may want to blow it up so as to make a large size poster for the room. Such a task is extremely easy as there are a couple of different web sites where you can easily rasterbate any creation to make a powerful, large image.

Rasterbating is the phrase used to describe the computer program printing feature called tiled printing. It is a process that enables the user to print extremely large images, those larger than a standard size sheet of paper. The computer program creates tiles, each equal to a standard size sheet of paper, and prints a section of the image on each sheet according to predetermined specifications. The individual pages can then be taped together or stapled to a bulletin board to create a large and powerful image.

BlockPosters.comAt either BlockPosters or Rasterbators, teachers can create such tiled wall posters of any size. Totally free, each site allows you to upload an image where the user can then crop the image and choose how many sheets of traditional-size paper to use in creating the poster.

While the word cloud would make a great option, an even better one, especially at the elementary level, would be the periodic action classroom shot of the students involved in a learning activity. The sheer joy students experience upon seeing themselves in photos could only be enhanced by a large classroom poster of them in action within the classroom.

With older students, the visuals they can create could also greatly enhance an individual project or presentation. Blockposters offers some excellent samples of prior work including student project creations.

If you decide to turn some of this over to students, you may want to use another term other than rasterbate. We are not sure how either age group would do with such a risky-sounding term.

Glogging in the Classroom

Instead of just using the written word to create a blog, teachers can have students create some pretty amazing visual mash ups at (be sure with the younger kids you hit the edu site!).

Glogster again allows for the creation of posters, but in this case, creativity remains supreme. With Glogster you can mix all forms of expression: graphics, photos, videos, music and traditional text.

Not only a fun way to enhance learning and foster creativity, glogging is a perfect tool for visual learners who may struggle with traditional text-oriented classroom setting. Glogging also gets students using the power of technology and collaborating with one another on potential creations.

You will need a few more in the way of tech skills for Glogster than for our other suggestions (especially, if you want to download movies and images) manageable with even a modest effort. But as with our sites featured, Glogster is also a free resource, so you can familiarize yourself with the concept on your own terms.

Photos taken from, and

March 25, 2009   No Comments

In the Midst of the Information Age, Why Are We So Uninformed?

One has to go back to Sir Francis Bacon in 1597 for the origins of the quote, “Knowledge is power.”

Because of its capacity to control and influence, knowledge was once hoarded by those in position of authority. Today, however, knowledge is readily available to anyone who wants it.

According to the folks at the Davinci Institute, there are:

  • More than 3.5 million songs available on iTunes.
  • More than 4 million books available on Amazon alone.
  • More than 60 million blogs available online.
  • More than 4 million entries on Wikipedia.
  • More than 6 million videos on YouTube.

World Economic ForumYet, in a Pew research poll from last August, while 58 percent of Americans claimed they followed “international affairs,” only 28% could name the British prime minister. And while two out of every three respondents said they followed “political figures and events in Washington,” only 43 percent could name the American Secretary of State at that time.

Given that we are in the midst of an information age, the fact that so many of us are uninformed has experts scratching their heads. Is the failure one of effort or a result of the pace of our society? Is it a lack of intellectual prowess that prevents the assimilation of all the available information or an overall malaise that overcomes even the most well-intentioned of efforts?

Information Overload

While access is now less limited, the sheer volume of material available has many contending that the issue is simply one of information overload. A Washington Post editorial by Dusty Horwitt, “If Everyone’s Talking, Who Will Listen?” recently made such a claim.

Horwitt asserted that TMI (too much information) was the root cause of many societal issues today. Readers will find that he even went so far as to assert that the volume of information available had the potential to undermine our democracy.

MichaelMarlattWhile it is a frequent assertion, it is interesting to note that Tim Stahmer at Assorted Stuff isn’t buying the notion of Horwitt’s suggestions as to how to better handle information moving forward. Stahmer is suspect of such a message, one that contends the volume of information available “is burying us in extraneous data” and preventing “important facts and knowledge from reaching a broad audience,” especially since it is coming from someone who works in the now-failing, traditional media market.

Writes Stahmer:

“Maybe his concern is that fewer people are reading big media publications like the Post.”

Stahmer then adds the words of Ben Stein to the mix, yet another of those who has at times insisted society would be far better off with a more limited flow of information. As one might expect, the blogger has a different take.

He does not favor a return to “a few traditional filters of …. information (like the Post, the Times, and Ben Stein)” being “the ones telling us what’s important.” Instead, Stahmer insists, “I’d rather learn to sift through the flow of data myself.”

It is a strong message, one that insinuates that big media simply wants to return itself to its former position of power, i.e., the aforementioned situation where once upon a time knowledge was held by a select few.

Columbia Journalism Review

Bree Nordenson offers some additional insight into the matter in “Overload! Journalism’s Battle for Relevance in an Age of Too Much Information.” Given that the piece is on the Columbia Journalism Review site and the recent revelations that the school is in fact rethinking its journalism program, we probably should attach the same healthy skepticism to Nordenson’s piece as Stahmer attaches to the Post writer.

But still, buried within the article, is some very helpful information. First, there is a great synopsis of the change in available information.

“The information age is defined by output: we produce far more information than we can possibly manage, let alone absorb. Before the digital era, information was limited by our means to contain it.

Will Lion
“Publishing was restricted by paper and delivery costs; broadcasting was circumscribed by available frequencies and airtime. The Internet, on the other hand, has unlimited capacity at near-zero cost.”

While Clay Shirky would take exception to the notion that the new information is defined by output only (we tend to agree that the new age is more defined by interaction), there is truly more information available today than any of us can completely manage. And the increase in production is obtained without the prior costs associated with distributing and storing information online.

As to why more people are not better informed about world affairs, despite the increased output, Nordenson notes that there can be a “tendency to become passive in the face of too much information.”

While that is definitely true, it is likely far more attributable to the vast array of choices now available to internet users, choices that also offer greater control and personalization. She quotes Delli Carpini and Markus Prior who offer simple explanations as to why more people are not up on key public-affairs issues.

“As choice goes up, people who are motivated to be politically informed take advantage of these choices, but people who are not move away from politics,” states Carpini. Prior adds, “Political information in the current media environment comes mostly to those who want it.”

Unlike Horwitt, Nordenson sees the new trends as having potential benefit for our democracy. She writes, “Our access to digital information, as well as our ability to instantly publish, share, and improve upon it at negligible cost, hold extraordinary promise for realizing the democratic ideals of journalism.”

But she does note, “As information proliferates, … people inevitably become more specialized both in their careers and their interests. Personalized home pages, newsfeeds, and e-mail alerts, as well as special-interest publications lead us to create what sociologist Todd Gitlin disparagingly referred to as ‘my news, my world.’ ”

Explanatory Journalism

To produce more savvy readers, there is a move away from the traditional news format to one Nordenson calls explanatory journalism. Such journalism goes beyond reporting a specific news event and the facts related to it.

Will LionExplanatory journalism attempts to supply depth and context to what is being reported and even adds a touch of information filter. While many news outlets are struggling to retain readers, she notes that the publication “The Week,” has actually seen a circulation growth.

The magazine seeks to determine the top news stories and then synthesize them for readers. The editor of “The Week” notes the fundamental purpose of the magazine is “not to tell people the news but to make sense of the news for people.” Therefore, almost like the teachers of yesteryear, “The Week” seeks to be the sage on the stage, a news outlet that does the sifting and the filtering that busy Americans do not have time for.

The model has also taken shape at the BBC News web site. A major news story on the BBC page has several links prominently displayed in a sidebar that offer numerous additional articles that explain and add context to the feature story.

Ironically, the concept that appears to work best is one that does move from the gatekeeper mentality, the knowledge is power model, to one that guides readers towards additional information that then allows them to gain the necessary insight to wrap their arms completely around an issue.

At the same time, what is most telling is that explanatory journalism does not necessarily involve reducing the amount of information available to readers.

Technology Is the Issue

Ironically, nearly 20 years ago, Neil Postman delivered a rather extraordinary and prophetic speech at a meeting of the German Informatics Society (Gesellschaft fuer Informatik) in Stuttgart. “Informing Ourselves To Death” offered many pearls including the notion that school teachers as we know them will disappear in the technological age.

“School teachers, for example, will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television,” offered Postman, “as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile, as balladeers were made obsolete by the printing press.”

In regards to the information issue, Postman insisted that the public was not so uninformed as it was unable to place ideas in context. He spoke of a little research he had done, albeit not so rigorous or traditional in its ability to control variables, but extremely telling nonetheless.

Postman would select an unsuspecting victim, a colleague who appeared not to be in possession of the morning newspaper. He would begin

just.Luc“Did you read The Times this morning?”

If the colleague were to answer yes, he would end his experiment for that person that day. But if the person said no, he would begin to make up some far-fetched story.

“You ought to look at Page 23,” he would state. “There’s a fascinating article about a study done at _______ University.” When an inviting reply came, one that matched the traditional response of a colleague, something like “Really? What’s it about?” Postman would let loose with something outlandish.

An example he used in his speech was one he often tried on peers he knew to be health-conscious:

“I think you’ll want to know about this,” he would go on. “The neuro-physiologists at the University of Stuttgart have uncovered a connection between jogging and reduced intelligence. They tested more than 1200 people over a period of five years, and found that as the number of hours people jogged increased, there was a corresponding decrease in their intelligence. They don’t know exactly why but there it is.”

Postman summarized the results of his informal study thus: “Unless this is the second or third time I’ve tried this on the same person, most people will believe or at least not disbelieve what I have told them. Sometimes they say: ‘Really? Is that possible?’ Sometimes they do a double-take, and reply, ‘Where’d you say that study was done?’ And sometimes they say, ‘You know, I’ve heard something like that.'”

Still, Postman railed of too much information before others began to make the assertion. In fact, twenty years ago, Postman noted that information came “indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness.”

He went on to add, “we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

But for Postman, the fact that we do not know what to do with or how to handle this information came from a whole different perspective. He adds a touch of the spiritual in his first reason:

“First, we no longer have a coherent conception of ourselves, and our universe, and our relation to one another and our world. We no longer know, as the Middle Ages did, where we come from, and where we are going, or why. That is, we don’t know what information is relevant, and what information is irrelevant to our lives.”

He then headed off to construct the place where others believe we are today:

“Second, we have directed all of our energies and intelligence to inventing machinery that does nothing but increase the supply of information. As a consequence, our defenses against information glut have broken down; our information immune system is inoperable. We don’t know how to filter it out; we don’t know how to reduce it; we don’t know to use it.”

Postman also managed to express one of the possible reasons as to why in the face of a great deal of information so many people feel overwhelmed. The simple fact of the matter is that the information “cannot answer any of the fundamental questions we need to address to make our lives more meaningful and humane.”

Will LionOur technology cannot “provide an organizing moral framework” and “it cannot tell us what questions are worth asking” offered Postman. Instead, “The computer is, in a sense, a magnificent toy that distracts us from facing what we most needed to confront — spiritual emptiness, knowledge of ourselves, usable conceptions of the past and future.”

And so, in simplest terms, for Postman, it was the unmet promises of technology that formed the ultimate issue.

“Through the computer, the heralds say, we will make education better,” stated Postman, “religion better, politics better, our minds better — best of all, ourselves better. This is, of course, nonsense.”

A Golden Age

If knowledge is truly power, then we should be entering a golden age, one where everyone has unlimited access to the authority once held only by the elite in society.

The fact that we seem to be far from such a place does beg several questions.

And the biggest one befalls education – many have written that the next phase of schooling must move towards a focus that places the information age at its core for the next generation of learners. In fact, it would seem that the words of Postman are most prescient – twenty years ago he noted the volume of information that was being produced and the issues that it would present.

But education changed little over those 20 years. So we now have a large group of citizens unable to emotionally and intellectually handle the breadth of information available to them.

The answer is certainly not to limit information. The answer is in creating an educational system that helps individuals understand how to best make use of the knowledge.

The power that today’s information-rich society has available is truly unprecedented. As always, education is the great equalizer, but now we must turn our attention towards helping our young people learn how to filter, reduce and use the knowledge that is accessible to them.

Flickr photos courtesy of World Economic Forum, Michael Marlatt, Will Lion, Will Lion, just.Luc and Will Lion.

March 15, 2009   3 Comments