Tag Archives: Wikipedia

Watching learners with laptops – what’s really going on?

Jonathan Martin is the principal of a 1:1 laptop school school in Arizona. In a recent issue of Connected Principals he reports on his experience with observing students at work by Standing in the Back, Watching the Screens.

This article raises all sorts of  issues – including what (if any) internet filtering schools should implement. But what really interested me was his observation that students changed what they were doing on their laptops depending on what else was happening in the classroom:

When the topics appeared relevant to students, the note-taking pages appeared; when the topics veered to the arcane and irrelevant, the screens veered to facebook, gaming sites, and other distractions…

When [the] teacher moved towards more discussion, though, asking questions to facilitate conversation… Nearly half of the screens veered away from both note-taking pages and distractions; appearing instead were google, wikipedia, and other information source sites.

This seems very positive – students appeared to be responding to classroom discussion activities to maximise their own ability to contribute. However, the report does raise a few issues:

  • In my experience, students don’t always know what is relevant information and what is ‘arcane and irrelevant’. So there is a risk that a student with little prior knowledge will assume something is irrelevant when it is not.
  • Discussion is not always about ‘finding the right answer’, so searching the web is not always a good strategy. For example, a teacher may want to explore learners’ prior knowledge in order to help them acquire new learning – a sound constructivist learning strategy. If learners immediately turn to an external information source rather than reflect on their own understanding and experience this would tend to undermine the effectiveness of the activity.

I’m not arguing here that students should not be in charge of their own learning. But teachers do need to take a proactive role in guiding the learning process. Both issues suggest that making the learning process explicit is important:

  • If something is likely to seem irrelevant to students, point out why it is in fact important. And if it really isn’t important and relevant, drop it!
  • Make it clear that not all learning is about ‘finding the right answers’ from an external source. Discuss why making prior knowledge explicit is an important stage in the learning process.

What do you think?

Britannica online free to web authors

Encyclopedia Britannica is providing free access for web publishers, including blog authors, to its online articles. I took advantage of the offer and signed up, thinking to explore how it might provide useful content to include in my writing. Some impressions:

Britannica vs Wikipedia

Britannica has a much more multimedia feel to it than Wikipedia, with things like auto-zooming thumbnails where Wikipedia just has images. But I had a few problems with Britannica’s interface in Firefox such as scroll bars wandering around. Overall, I much prefer the Wikipedia approach, only as high-tech as it needs to be.

Britannica has a Store section which offers you the chance to buy things like a cd-rom on the topic being currently viewed. I don’t miss that on Wikipedia.

Britannica has more in-depth articles on some topics, especially those with some historical background. For example, searching for ‘programmed instruction’ took me to an in-depth article on the topic with lots of links to other articles. The same article in Wikipedia was very short and lacked depth and breadth.

Wikipedia has articles on recently emerging or localised topics and concepts where Britannica often has nothing. For example, searching for learning design in Britannica yielded nothing, in Wikipedia it redirected to instructional design. Searching for flexible learning (a term popular here in Australasia) yielded nothing in Britannica but a short article in Wikipedia with links to related concepts.

In summary, I’d have to say that Britannica provided more substantial content for some concepts which I’d characterise as ‘historical’ and ‘mainstream’. Wikipedia provided more substantial content for concepts I’d characterise as ’emerging’ and less mainstream. However, these are only initial impressions and are not based on a rigorous evaluation of the relative validity of the information provided.

As expected, Britannica and Wikipedia provided complementary information, which in itself is useful. Each had gaps and each had strengths. If Britannica makes its online version free to all (as some have predicted), it may be too late to compete with Wikipedia’s mass appeal but should allow it to retain a niche in the market.