Creating New Wisdom Tools

by Susan Moke

Imagine a textbook that interactively engages its reader in research and problem solving strategies. Imagine a textbook that is a hypermedia information environment that combines course content and instruction with diverse and powerful support utilities and does so in a problem-centered, on-demand, educational delivery system. Most of us think of textbooks as two-dimensional overviews of particular subjects. These textual overviews provide us with discipline-specific information in a linear, organized fashion. But the two dimensional textbook may eventually become an outdated learning tool, says Marty Siegel, director of the Laboratory for Research and Development in Teaching and Learning at the Center for Excellence in Education, and a professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University Bloomington.

Siegel contends that content-centered instruction delivered in a linear fashion does not effectively prepare students to access and use information, nor does it necessarily provide them with the problem-solving strategies they will need to succeed in twenty-first-century workplace environments. Since he joined the School of Education faculty in 1991, Siegel has been the motivating force behind a research and development project called Wisdom Tools. First with a former colleague, Gerald Sousa, and currently with a team of graduate students and staff from a variety of areas, Siegel has been developing virtual textbooks.

What would a virtual textbook look like? you may be wondering. In terms of the hardware, Siegel describes it as a laptop computer with a long-term power supply and lots of memory. The computer would need audio/video input and output so that it could respond to voice commands and facilitate distance-learning opportunities. "What I am describing," Siegel says, "actually exists in the research laboratory, but it is currently too expensive. In less than five years, it should be available for $500 to $1,000."

The virtual textbook would begin lessons with problems rather than with a linear presentation of information. For example, a civics teacher might start off an introductory lesson with the question, Why do we need government? Within traditional, content-centered instructional paradigms, the students would open the textbook and read the answer to that question. Within Siegel's problem-centered learning paradigm, the virtual textbook would present a list of resources to be investigated. These could include things like an excerpt from the book or the movie version of Lord of the Flies, in which a group of lost boys must make rules to govern themselves. It might also include, for instance, the governing documents drawn up by the Mayflower pilgrims or the rules of conduct established by some American Indian nations. "Then out of this rich soup of information," Siegel says with contagious enthusiasm, "the students would begin to formulate some problems or questions for themselves that they could explore in small groups by accessing Internet-based information. In the course of exploring these problems, they would encounter things they didn't know and that they need to learn. That's where the basic skills come in."

Using the virtual textbook "would fundamentally change the way content is delivered," Siegel contends, because in this learning process the student would become an active collector and processor of information rather than a passive recipient of it. The teacher would become a coach who models the process of inquiry and assesses the students' learning through a portfolio system or a kind of learning inventory. Curriculum and learning objectives would include large concepts that the students could "fill in" as they accessed the information they needed.

Siegel observes that we tell our students they should spend the requisite number of years in school so that they can solve the problems they will encounter in the workplace, yet our content-centered instructional models do not facilitate the development of problem-solving skills and strategies. He believes the traditional instructional model has been outdated by recent technological advances in information delivery systems. Referring to the topic of one of his favorite books, Information Anxiety by Richard Saul Wurman, Siegel points out that "in the not too-distant future, we will be able to walk around with the Library of Congress in our pockets on a chip. The challenge won't be in accessing information, but in what we can do with it."

Siegel keeps an interesting sign in his highly organized campus office. The sign reminds him, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." Clearly, for Siegel, the main thing is to prepare students to thrive in the multidisciplinary, problem-oriented, information-saturated world where they will live and work. Problem-centered instruction is one of the main things for learning to live in the information age.

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