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Learning and the children of the information age

Stephen Heppell
ULTRALAB, Anglia University, England

Ten years on from today, in 2004, when we look back at the 1990s we will see clearly that there was a technological tidal wave sweeping through our society during this final decade of the millennium. It will have left in its wake a few structurally declining industries and real change in our social or working lives. A number of entirely new sectors will have emerged; some old and familiar 'faces' in our economic landscape will have metamorphosed, others will have begun a process of irreversible decline. And, as history has taught us, in the many of the places where we currently anticipate real and dramatic change, nothing will have happened at all.

Education, of course, is one of those 'old and familiar faces'. What might its future be? Might it change dramatically, or is this the beginning of a structural decline for institutionalised learning? Will it show no sign of change at all? At ULTRALAB we have backed the scenario of dramatic change. Not content to wait and see if we backed the right horse, we are busy trying to make change happen. It is not a straightforward task and there are many components of change to harness.

History might actually offer us the confidence to predict a 'no change, business as usual' scenario. Education has traditionally been reluctant to change. A black and white photograph of children learning in school is notoriously difficult to place accurately in the last 50 years without the additional signifiers offered by fashions, hairstyles or pupil artefacts. Our institutional learning environments are still, typically, synchronous, located, didactic and characterised by ritual and habit that spans generations. The one place in our society where our great grandparents might still recognise familiar landmarks and behaviour is education. We cannot say the same of transport, food, entertainment or health for example. This is not necessarily failure. Education has 'seen off' more than its fair share of daft ideas; teachers, parents and students have all shown considerable wisdom in deflecting or subverting inappropriate change.

ULTRALAB houses the UK's National Archive of Educational Computing. The Archive serves as a monument to the triumph of experience over hope and it does seem that educational technology is a natural home for wild promises and lost dreams. Why do these wild promises offered by educational technology fail so often? What is different about 1990 Why should we think that this time, it will be different.

There are two significant factors that suggest the possibility of real change:

Technological advances are legion, but it is worth enumerating a few of them: However, it's not all good news yet; much of this technological advance is held back a little by the aim and inconvenience of current computers, by sluggish processor speeds and the constant worry shout memory availability, but we can see an end to "wait states" and memory famine clearly laid out for us in current microprocessor research and it is impossible not to notice already the reduction in physical size of computers to the point where we really can leave them in the wrong coat pocket. Paradoxically it is the lack of size that remains the biggest technological barrier to computers in education. Full frontal teaching still has an important place in classrooms, as does peer presentation. The huge flat screens that we need to be able to do this unobtrusively (and cheaply) look like being frustratingly the last component to fall into place. Nevertheless the technological advances of recent years has taken away a major barrier to change.

Looking back on staff development courses ten years ago it is remarkable how much of the content was focussed on simply making the technology work. Those hard won skills (how to fix the line feeds on the printer, how to share a hard disc around a network) are now past their 'sell by' dates and at last courses can offer space to debate educational issues (what difference does word processing make to writing, how do you mark multimedia, what do we mean by finished?). Technological progress has freed us to wonder what we might do rather than wrestle with what we can do. Pedagogic rather than programming skills are back in fashion in the classroom; education was always short of programming skills and progress was slow; pedagogy on the other hand is meat and drink to the profession. Progress will be swifter.

However, as technology has leapt ahead it has been too easy to focus on the computer right in front of us and assume that the whole revolution of the Information Age is right there. To do so would be almost entirely wrong. Our children, the Children of the Information Age, have changed, and changed rapidly. We all present anecdotal evidence to this effect almost daily: children who can fix the computer that confounded the adults, children who at their first attempt play computer games to levels that experienced adults were unaware even existed, children who enjoy their music through a frenetic mix of video, audio, graphics and text that parents can't oven watch. When we have finally chosen to notice these manifestations of real change we have looked for bad news and assembled a mixture of 'great urban myths', and further anecdotal evidence too, claiming that children are being damaged by this easy relationship with information. Concentration thresholds are supposedly lower, violence transfers from screen to playground and a multitude of disasters from truancy to epilepsy are laid at the door of children's relationships with new media. This eagerness to dwell on the negative (our grandparents have seen it all before with first cinema and then television) masks the reality and complexity of children's emergent capabilities.

On the same day in Europe (in December 1993) that daily papers were carrying news of yet another poor piece of pseudo research relying heavily on the usual uncontrolled self reported evidence (suggesting that children, new media and addictive behaviour went hand in hand), a much more revealing story was also reported. The story involved prisons and children's views of appropriate deterrent conditions in prisons. Several children were quoted offering views on prison conditions; one girl offered the view that conditions would be just about as harsh as possible if "they were given black and white television and no way to change channels". This is a very revealing quote. The small girl is showing clearly for us that both the quality of her media and her autonomy/control over it are fundamentally important to her. To be deprived of either technical media quality or the TV controller is an unthinkable punishment!

We should of course draw some comfort from this. Children a decade or two before would sit quite happily in front of the TV set and broadcasting companies knew that winning the early evening viewers would guarantee the same viewers stayed tuned throughout the evening. Children now channel hop with such rapidity that they seem capable of keeping track of several programs simultaneously. What were couch potatoes are now autonomous viewers. The implications for educational broadcasting are dramatic. At ULTRALAB we don't believe that children have lost their concentration thresholds. We believe that they are hungry to express their information autonomy through choice of viewing. But the inevitable result is that educational broadcasting can no longer rely on the acquiescence of 30 children as passive viewers of the am channel. They want control. They are active viewers and where that leaves traditional narrative forms of information is anyone's guess.

We should dwell on this emergent capability and consider computer games and home computer use for a moment. In the past two years at ULTRALAB we have interviewed children, videoed them playing games, listened to their collaboration, interviewed them in computer games shops, asked for their contributions as software designers and we've played games ourselves. We have everything from tiny hand held games and 'toy' computers through to a full arcade cabinet. It's amazing that we get any work done at all!

What happens when children play games? At ULTRALAB, our work has led us to hypothesise that children have evolved new learning skills, broader forms of literacy and new media grammars which they bring as real assets into their learning environment. Rather than seeing the learner as passive "victim", we see a parallel in the process of the individualised reading of a literary text which highlights the act of reading as one of active cognitive processing. The 'dialogue' between information author and reader/viewer has grammar, ground rules, aural and visual cues and clues, which are used to signify meaning, to indicate generic structure, and to reference the information web. In terms of information processing, the reader/viewer re-creates meaning not by a mechanistic linear output - input model, but by bringing their own experience as reader/viewer to the process. By an individual interpretation of the information the reader/viewer comes to truly 'own' the interpretation and is an active participant in the process. Furthermore the development of this relationship with information and information processing creates a climate of expectation in children. The result of their computing experiences, especially games, is that children expect their relationship with screen based information to be participative, to be challenging, to be often collaborative, to require complex processing, and problem solving strategies and, most important of all, to be genuinely and in the exact definition of the word, 'delightful'.

In identifying these new information interpretation skills (if our hypothesis continues to prove to he correct), we are clearly a long way from the deficiency model of children that underpins much popular and research interpretation of their game playing behaviour. We are postulating a view of children as sophisticated and autonomous managers of complex information forms.

This paper began by asking why this time education might witness real change happening when before change had been, generally successfully and often appropriately, resisted. There are two threads running here; we have new kit and new kids on the block. Together they may prove an irresistible force for change.

What then should our software and learning environments look like? What issues lie unresolved? What could the classroom of tomorrow look like? As part of the Apple sponsored Renaissance Project, a large collaborative project with a number of higher education institutions, ULTRALAB has just (December 1993) published a CD Insights for teachers and parents, which attempts to make concrete some of our answers to these questions. We make a clear distinction between narrative, interactive and participative software (as Tom Smith comments on the CD, "In Pizza terms narrative is like reading the menu, interactive is eating out and participative is cooking for yourself"). Children's learning, when it is successful, always and everywhere includes participative elements. They look at pictures and paint, they read books and develop their own stories - with computer based learning, especially with multimedia, they need this level of participation. In our Les Carnaval des Animaux software on the Insights CD, we deliberately support the child as learner, creator, explorer, presenter. Children create ,multimedia objects' that represent their selection and interpretation of Saint-Saens' music. They author presentations and assemble their own collections of multimedia objects. The software uses metaphors drawn from the 'normal' classroom - they store their collections in boxes for example - and shows how current learning organisation can be extended into the multimedia environment giving children the autonomy they expect, giving a framework for collaboration and presentation and giving it with the minimum of technological imposition. Of course developing the interfaces that enable all this is not trivial. The Carnival interface relies on 'drag and drop', offers local cultural versioning in potentially over 100 languages (we shipped it with Bulgarian, Catalan, Spanish and English) and was the result of a long iterative design process. In the evolution of the software, however, one factor was constant; the software met children's expectations of both challenge and delight. They liked it. It acknowledged their new capabilities and we consider it indicative of the new software forms that education will need if the changes in learning are to occur in schools and not elsewhere.

This delight and challenge is also found in a much simpler piece of software on the Insights CD called X (pronounced as Times). We took an extremely simple learning outcome - learning the multiplication tables - and talked to children, parents and teachers about what it would need to work well (ie, to teach tables quickly and painlessly). Children made very aware software design consultants. They asked for pressure ("to keep us on task"), excitement, good animation, humour, tables of high scores ("to see that we are getting better") and especially wanted nothing that got in the way of their efforts. They rejected any 'texty' help or advice and their expectation was clearly that if the signs and signifiers in the interface design were right they would know exactly what to do. We were helped in the design process by looking at their games environments. Teachers' experiences were also key inputs and because ULTRALAB is a learning centre we were able to bring some cognitive theory to the design too, but fundamentally what resulted from this design process was software that works. Children seem to learn their tables very fast with it, they are attracted to it and delighted by it. Both Carnaval and X are examples suggesting that involving children as active, creative participants, responding to their particular and cultural needs, and building on their emergent capability to offer them familiar learning organisation will be successful. This is unsurprising, but as a litmus test of successful multimedia software very little current work passes the test.

Learning environments

It is also likely that technology will support unfamiliar learning environments too. In the diagram above education has made relatively little progress in the Distributed Asynchronous quadrant but it is likely that with telecommunications set to dominate technological progress for the remainder of the decade that this is where new progress will be made.

Again, interface design and metaphor are crucial in enabling learning. Children on our Insights CD responding to the question "What will the classroom of the future look like?" came up with ambitious ideas like "It will have classmates all round the world", but we know how hard this has been to achieve with electronic mail. Successful learning requires need and intention. For extended remote collaboration to succeed it will need to demonstrate that it can meet a need and will need to be sufficiently seductive to fuel intention.

Finally, if we do begin to see real change in the way that we teach and learn what are the key issues that will emerge for teachers to address? Firstly our teachers will need to be aware of, and recognise, the emergent capabilities that these Children of the Information Age have developed. This requires better quality research, including longitudinal research to take us beyond anecdotal evidence. Secondly, but most importantly, as change begins to happen we need teachers to do what they are good at - make educational judgments and apply their experience to the pragmatic, but essential, debate about learning. Questions like "How do I mark multimedia?", "Where is the line now, with electronic text, between plagiarism and research?", "How do we support process outcomes on computer screens that mainly present product focussed outcomes?", "What do we mean by finished, when children are working with electronic copy?". Teachers are well equipped by experience to answer these questions for themselves but it is necessary that they are involved in the debate from an early stage.

The elements for change are all in place: good enough technology, different and more capable children, experienced and wise teachers. ULTRALAB's optimism that change will take place is based is built on this foundation.

Please join us in helping to make that challenge happen.

Author: Professor Stephen Heppell
Director, ULTRALAB, Anglia University, UK

Please cite as: Heppell, S. (1994). Learning and the children of the information age. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 200-203. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/hj/heppell.html

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