Using the Web to Empower a Child's Independent Learning

Terry Tyrell and Dr. Simon Polovina
Centre for Mathematics Education
School of Computing, Information Systems and Mathematics
South Bank University
London SE1 OAA, UK

Abstract

It is emerging that today's children can adapt and respond far more rapidly to the dynamics of the information age than their parents or tutors. Consequentially educationalists are encouraging independent learning, where the child's own explorations are facilitated, rather than constrained, by the outpaced knowledge of the tutor. The Web's rich tapestry empowers this process, as it inherently offers a vast learning arena for these children to embark upon their search for knowledge.

As part of our ongoing series of investigations, a study was conducted using a standard Web set up involving a particularly representative computer literate child. By browsing the Web and email, the child independently augmented a task set in her class on the topic of the European Union and its member states. The child was thereby empowered, unlike the other children, to find out more about the task rather than being restricted to relying on the teacher's knowledge alone, or in one or two books, or on CD-ROM.

The study did not get beyond its trial stage. Apart from the child identifying the Web's present technical barriers, and despite her continuing enthusiasm for this media, the child complained about the sources' structure, complexity, relevance and commercial bias. In the event the child added little other than untargeted data, odd snippets of information and `brilliant graphics'.

Although we propose that further such studies are needed to establish its precise nature, our existing insight from the above careful study illuminates that, when popularising the Web as an independent learning resource amongst children, we guard against rapidly frustrating these users, or turn them merely into passive victims who browse the Web without intellectual motivation.

Keywords

Information Society, Empowerment, Child's Independent Learning, Learning Webs, Computer Mediated Communications, Web Popularisation, Passive Victims.

Introduction

The `Information Society' is visualised as being an essential requirement, yet "life is short and information endless; nobody has time for everything" (Huxley, 1995). Similarly the Rt. Hon. Michael Heseltine, the British Deputy Prime Minister, declared that "the information revolution is about people, not machines", that it will "add value - cultural, moral and commercial - to our people through education and training that must form the foundations on which we build social cohesion and competitive success", and "that it is not enough simply to connect schools with broad band communications, we must have proper training, material and technical support and teachers who should face up to reality by acknowledging the inexorable advance of new technology" (Heseltine, 1995).

Clearly, therefore, information itself is not synonymous with education or knowledge. Furthermore today's children can adapt and respond far more rapidly to the dynamics of the information age than their parents or tutors (Ultralab, 1993). Educationalists therefore are encouraging independent learning, where the child's own flexible, creative and critical thinking is facilitated by, rather than constrained by the outpaced knowledge of, the tutor (Tyrell, 1996).

From the network learning concepts of Schon (1971) and the `learning webs' of Ilich (1973), it is reasonable to suggest that the Web will be a natural progression by which independent learning can take place. Nonetheless, this suggestion remains to be evaluated. Therefore, as part of our ongoing investigations, we conducted the following study.

Study Task

As part of our ongoing studies into the use of information and technology as a learning resource, we facilitated a computer literate school child to obtain information from the world's data repositories, employing the Web. The present study task involved the child using the Web to augment a typical school project. The project, set for her entire class, was about the European Union and its member states. Our objectives from this study were the anticipated learning, intellectual and engagement issues prior to mass popularisation of the Web. The detail of the study is as follows

The School

The school was situated in a small village in suburban Kent, South East England, and provided education for children aged from four to eleven years. Two hundred children attend the school, with an average of thirty children per class. The school is highly sought after by parents and children for its traditional educational quality.

Access to computer equipment at the school has been limited to five low performance PC's, however, recently two new multimedia Pentium® based machines have been purchased by the Parents-Teachers Association (PTA). At present these new machines are not fully functional due to the teachers' inexperience in the use and deployment of computer based activities (Tyrell, 1996) and thus typifies UK Primary schools, where teachers inexperience with information technology is commonplace (Heseltine, 1995).

The Class

Within the school the class consisted of thirty ability-streamed junior school children aged ten to eleven. They were set a project that constituted part of their normal progression within the British State Education's National Curriculum on the topic of the European Union and its member states. They had already started work on their project via the use of reference books and teacher hand-outs, and so knew the boundaries of the project, the method of constructing their topic books for displaying their findings and other additional ideas for each country. Different groups of children were given a country within the union and then each group worked within a small group or individually, to produce the researched information and facts, to be displayed in their topic books.

Study Child - `Amanda'

The study child, Amanda, a ten-year old child in the above class, was also the subject of study in our previous work (Tyrell, 1996). There Amanda demonstrated her skills in genre (Kress, 1994) and computer mediated communication (CMC) tasks very effectively. Amanda's academic standing in the class was within the top twenty percent and, surprisingly, was one of the very few children in her class who employed computers to support and supplement their learning. From the above CMC study, it became evident that Amanda would rapidly be able to browse the Web constructively and appreciate its potential. Although making her somewhat distinct at present, Amanda could nonetheless be considered as particularly representative of future children who would be educated with a sound awareness of telematics concepts (EU, 1994).

Experimental Design of the Study

In line with the technique adopted by Tyrell (1996), Amanda was both observed and facilitated by Terry Tyrell, one of the authors of this paper. The observer and facilitator roles were nevertheless kept separate, and Amanda was facilitated and not directly assisted in her ventures into cyberspace. This experimental design also echoed the approach in Tyrell (1996).

Training Event Prior to Actual Study

One week before the study itself, Amanda was demonstrated the Web. She visited the `Walt Disney' site (http://www.disney.com/), and navigated to the on-line pictures of `Pocahontas'. These were then saved on local disk in a way still accessible by the Netscape browser. From these saved results Amanda subsequently, in turn, demonstrated her findings to three class colleagues, and her five year old sister, using Amanda's computer at home. This happened during the intervening week. After half an hour into the training event itself, Amanda, as expected, satisfied the purpose of this session by learning how to browse the Web.

The use of a training event was an essential part of this study, as it removed the novelty and potential fear factors of The Web. From this interaction Amanda would have a properly constructed idea in how the Web would serve both her current school project and future task ventures.

Actual Study

As explained earlier, the appropriate computer and associated technical resources were not yet available at Amanda's school. The study was instead conducted in the Library at Mid-Kent College, Horsted Campus, in Kent with a direct ethernet connection on a Windows® based 486 DXII-66 computer, running Netscape® 1.1.

Amanda was given a previously recorded URL (http://www.cec.lu/) from which she accessed the Web for three hours. She had been instructed to access information that would aid her project and then to explore further avenues of interest to extend her knowledge of the subject area. Her primary objective was to search for her choice of selected member states and from there, to explore and retrieve facts for reference and inclusion into her own work.

She achieved the above by intuitively clicking on links, the forward and back buttons, and the history and bookmark menus. Where necessary, guidance and direction was exercised by the facilitator to help the child develop her skills and interaction, with helpful clues being administered to prompt for other avenues to search for, or why the data she had found was relevant to the project.

The next stage of the task was the use of a search engine to locate information. This stage was prompted by the limited educational value of from the current findings using the above techniques alone. The standard Netscape search feature, `Net Search' was used as the starting point, as this was the most obvious place that users would first try given Netscape's popularity and that `Net Search' is part of Netscape's main toolbar. Once the list of site matches were displayed, Amanda tried to interpret the associated short descriptions for relevance to her task. By clicking on the more promising sites, she further investigated the findings and returned back to the site matches for further investigations, to conduct fresh searches. Whilst engaged in the search and review mode, Amanda recorded bookmarks or saved the page as a HTML file, if she valued the information found. From this cyclic process, Amanda found some information of relevance to the class topic, although again she found the results were of limited educational value.

Summary Findings

The study demonstrated that Amanda's ability to interact with the Web browser was not an issue. She quickly adapted to the environment, due to her prior knowledge from Tyrell (1996) and the previously discussed demonstration at the Walt Disney site. She quickly negotiated the hypertext links and valued the Web's dynamics, its breadth of information and, in her words, the Web's `brilliant graphics'. The actual interface therefore presented no difficulties for Amanda, and enabled the summary findings to be extracted without reference to any inabilities of the Netscape browser, the Web's novelty, or fear of the computer task itself.

Amanda did find many interesting graphical images, including detailed maps, country flags and vast quantities of untargeted and statistical data for France and Germany from the CIA World Factbook. Other than this Amanda, quickly became frustrated at the inabilities to find good targeted information she could understand and at retrieval speed which was acceptable to her.

The data and bookmarks she did find were collected on disk for transfer to her home computer. When she went to use the findings, many of the graphical images and hypertext links would not work, unless she was re-connected to the Web. Given the expense of dial-up connection in the UK, and the Internet's retrieval speed limitations, when presently using the Web, losing links would be a further avenue of frustration that might undermine such users interest in using the Web in the long term.

Even allowing for the above difficulty, Amanda found the quality of the information she retrieved was complex. Amanda was thus forced to assimilate information beyond her scope, to extract the knowledge relevant for her topic book. One of her most successful achievement, as indicated earlier, was her ability to produce and reproduce graphical images of flags, country maps and other topical images. This enabled the project work to be a collection of multiple objects, gathered from a truly global environment and, therefore, met some of the objectives for a visual composition as described by Kress (1994) and that of the underlying concepts from Tyrell (1996).

The information retrieved, in printed form, was very welcomed by her teacher who, we later discovered, had asked Amanda if she `could borrow the CD-ROM'. This remark typified the general misperception of the child's tutors about new media, exacerbated by the teacher's Web awareness being set by extreme claims and the current commercial hype.

Email Activity

An email task was excluded at the time of the study, due to the frustrations Amanda experienced at the time, and the study's primary objective becoming too difficult to fulfil. An email was nonetheless written and sent by Amanda a week later, allowing for reflection of her findings, with a brief of the her project and directed towards the EUROPA European Commission, <"Maruja.GUTIERREZ DIAZ"@DG10.cec.be> the re-directed contact address on the European Union home page. It took about two weeks to gain a reply from the London office. The reply admitted that they could offer no further assistance, were themselves seeking help, and asked, should Amanda be successful, they would be grateful to know her findings.

Reflection and Concluding Remarks

Whilst engaged on the project, it became clear that the Web was not the enlightened vision for Amanda that it first seemed. Within a short space of time she complained insistently about the access speed, the sources' structure, complexity, relevance and commercial bias and the inability to find exactly what she really wanted. She was released from the study to complete her project just like the rest of her class, albeit with some additional facts and graphical images to add to her project, and an extended insight in to the power of global communications.

From Amanda's correctly understood views of the Web as a window to the World's information sources, she rapidly unearthed its restrictions and limitations. Amanda continues to be highly interested in global communications strategies and the Web, and she still requests access to the Web for extra materials for class topic work and discussions.

Discussion

Given the above events, our study did not progress beyond the trial stage. Our concerns thereby re-address the passive and time consuming modes of engagement with the Web, and the overall educational value derived from the information located.

A parallel with our small yet illuminating study can be seen elsewhere. Recent research within commercial organisations found that respondents admitted spending an average of four hours a week hunting for basic business information (Computing, 1995). This in itself contributes to the described passivity, reinforced by the key business person Beales (1995), who believes that commercial users require a more structured approach to the Web rather than just searching and filtering tools.

Returning to education, Freire (1975) was worried that learning would end up merely pouring untargeted information into the "empty vessel" of the learner's mind. Heppell's technology-based studies in education (Ultralab, 1993) similarly demonstrated a concern for the "passive victim". Thus when popularising the Web as an independent learning resource amongst children, we should avoid turning them merely into `couch potatoes' who browse the Web without intellectual motivation.

We therefore encourage further research to investigate these preliminary findings, to also prevent the Web from becoming the described `highway to hell' (EU,1994) and a dividing entity in our societies (Handy, 1994).

Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge the significant contributions made to our study by Christina Preston and Dr. Harvey Mellar, Directors, Project Miranda, The Institute of Education, London University.

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