Information Obesity: The web site

Resources for chapter 10: Information obesity and romantic understanding

10.1 An example of "Sat Nav Teaching" [pages 159-160]

I offer this purely as an anecdote. There is no intention to claim that the experience is a generalised one. But I can fairly confidently state that this was one of the worst educational experiences I have ever had. I think this stemmed directly from the teaching techniques used and not through any problems with either the subject matter nor, I should add, the other two people who, as students, shared this experience with me.

In late 2006 I attended a training course in Flash. The reason for this was that, because of the unexpected departure of one of my colleagues, I had in an emergency to take over the teaching of a course in early 2007 that had previously involved students engaging in some simple development work with Flash. This was, however, a tool with which I had no prior experience. The Flash work was only a small part of the course, the rest of which I felt comfortable teaching, so I decided that if I went on a professional training course I would hopefully pick up enough skills to then go on and explore the tool for myself, alongside my students. I did not feel I needed to become an "expert", as this was not something which would have fitted into my personal pedagogy in any case - but I did want enough knowledge about how the tool worked to at least start students off, and address certain basic problems when they arose. In other words I had self-reflected on my professional practice and as a result identified a training need.

I looked around at what was available and the university agreed to fund me to the tune of about £600 to attend a 2-day course run by a provider who shall remain nameless. So the cost was considerable. I then spent two days in the company of two other students (both school teachers who wanted to improve their ability to create multimedia materials for their classrooms) and a trainer whose entire demeanour was straight out of the army. We were provided with instructional guides that were written as "orders" that we had to follow; sequences of events defined very precisely. Let me quote:

Applying a gradient to the background graphic

  1. Select the background layer to make it active. Right click the layer and choose Lock others from the context menu
  2. Select the graphic on the background layer.
  3. Expand the Color Mixer panel.
  4. To apply a gradient to the background graphic, click the Type drop down menu in the Color Mixer and change the fill type to Linear.
  5. Select the left gradient control and type #FF1900 in the hex field.
  6. Select the right gradient control and type #990000 in the hex field.

And so on. Now admittedly what I am quoting from here is a "walkthrough", an exercise at the end of a chapter designed to get the learner applying methods. But there is little in the main chapters which is different from this - there is no why being addressed here, and no way in which the learner is encouraged to explore their creativity - and in any case, what the teacher on this course did was just, well, walk through the walkthroughs.

I remember the very first exercise where I thought, well, I don't want a black background to this Flash movie (this being a thought developed through my understanding of web page accessibility - white or very pale pastel backgrounds are always best for readability, not black or bright colours). I experimented momentarily with a kind of very pale sky blue and then heard a command barked from the back of the room, "Drew! That's supposed to be black!" That was the last time I did not simply follow the orders. Why was it taught like this? I suspect because it meant our work could be assessed on the spot. We proved our "competency" with the tool by submitting our ongoing "project" to an electronic marking tool which simply checked whether we had each done precisely the same work as we were being ordered to do.

Actually, at the time (and I have checked my personal diary to confirm this), I did not think the experience had been that bad. The final projects we created looked quite impressive, being interactive advertisements for a restaurant, complete with good-looking images, masks (through which clicking on the screen causes a previously-unseen block of text to appear), attractive graphic design and so on. It was only later that I realised the consequences of the teaching method employed. Like the driver who uses a satellite navigation system to lead him/her along a complex route from A to B, I had successfully reached a pre-determined destination: but I had acquired no knowledge at all of how I had got there. The following week I sat down, pretty enthused, to start creating both my own simple Flash movies and to start drafting teaching materials for my students based partly on the ones I had used in the training course and partly on my own subsequent exploration. Instead what happened was a frustrating 2 or 3 days of pointless work where I realised that though I could easily recreate the restaurant project - or similar work based almost exactly on it (e.g. I could change things like colours, and the images in use, as long as I kept the basic architecture and timeline of the movie) - I lacked any understanding of how Flash really worked and how I could adapt it to my own particular needs.

Very quickly I gave up and in the end had to employ a contract teacher to teach the practical parts of that course. The university's investment of £600 in the training was utterly wasted. I know no more about Flash now than I did in 2006 and have never subsequently used it. But I could probably recreate a half-decent restaurant advert if I had the instruction book to hand.

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10.2 Further resources for chapter 10

I think that YooDoo is an astonishingly good site. Run on behalf of - and then co-constructed by - young people in the London borough of Southwark, this is a perfect example of a learner-generated context. It is "citizen journalism", addressing subjects which are of great concern such as knife crime, drugs and gangs - but doing so from the perspective of young people who really face these problems on a daily basis, not those in government or the media who can disparage the reality of these situations, safe in an environment which means they never really have to face them. But it's not all doom and gloom, as there are many other films on YooDoo which are funny, intelligent, entertaining and so on. This whole site is a credit to its creators and sponsors and should be required viewing for anybody tempted to disparage the contribution of teenagers (particularly poor and urban ones) to the public sphere.

On a more personal note, here is a link to Reffell & Whitworth Information Fluency: critically examining IT education and the 'Who Wants to Learn Web Design Anyway?' which was originally published in ITALICS. See also this extract from the ACOM handbook suggesting how the narrative form of teaching can be subtly incorporated into ICT education.

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