John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
Even though the World-Wide-Web is only a few years old, geoscientists used to traveling many millennia back in time may find interest in the July 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly: there they will find the prophetic vision of Vannevar Bush anticipating what Tim Berners-Lee managed to make manifest some 47 years later. The rest is history: whereas the arcane world of computers was once all but restricted to those with a taste for the technological, the millions of computers linked in a global network of networks in the Internet are now regularly accessed every day by millions of people whose skills are limited to mere "point and click".
The World-Wide-Web (WWW: but "WWW" takes longer to say than World-Wide-Web...) enables users to move effortlessly across the world -- literally at the click of a mouse -- there to feast on the seemingly infinite array of information to be found in a plethora of documents, images, maps, movies news, reports, books, to say nothing of software and data. Prior to its opening up to the world in general the WWW was almost exclusively the sole preserve of the academic and research groups. As the clientele become more inexorably more diverse, so too did the content of material posted and sought. What was once simple text and numbers has been left in the virtual dust by multimedia plug-ins affording access to the world of virtual reality, pdf readers mirroring exactly the typographical sophistication of modern publications, video conferencing, and numerous other examples of a burgeoning technology.
Quick to follow the trails of researchers and the academics have been students and others interested in the educational potential of this seemingly infinite mass of available information. And here lies the problem: a mass of information.
Think of WWW and the concept of chaos may come to mind. WWW has also been called the digital equivalent of the other WW: the Wild West of the American frontiers: a few nuggets of gold, but a lot of cowboys.
But perhaps we need adopt a broader outlook if we are to understand the problem. The expansion that followed the big-bang of communications technology has been reflected in the other groves of academe.
The first of these was probably the proliferation of sub-disciplines. There used to be two types of chemistry: organic and inorganic; two fields of geography (human, physical). Now it's virtually impossible to keep track of the new fields, nor the concomitant increase in the number of journals nor even identifications of a consensual boundary between one discipline and another. Its certainly an irremediable prospect ever to now hope to keep up with the literature. The last genuine universal scholar was probably Leibnitz and you can count on the facets of a crystal the number of polymaths in our midst.
So the fact that the extent of knowledge has long since surpassed the capacity of a single mind to apprehend it should give us some clues about how best to deal with the sheer volume of information on the Web. Once we get that right we will then be in a better position to consider how best to establish a pedagogical imperative or two. If knowledge is power, then the WWW has the ostensible capacity to reduce us to a state of feeble impotence.
Librarians use a system that many academics once favored, even prized, but which has perhaps since become a victim of postmodernity: structure classification and systematic. The WWW does not have any inherent structure; it the veritable antithesis of linearity, as reflected in the full array of hierarchically nested components of networks / computers / HTML documents and hypertext objects and the near infinite number of links between each. For some, it is a deconstructionist's dream, for others a nightmare. So what to do?
Encountering junk mail, and the electronic equivalent of the spam on e-mail, is an occupational hazard. But it is also a dynamic process over which we have no apparent control (no matter how tempting it may be to wreak revenge on these snake-oil sales-teams by programming our email systems to reply at ten-minute intervals by forwarding a 25 Gigabyte satellite image we just happen to have handy...)
But suffocating though it might be, the WWW is inert in the sense that the information just sits there... until we take an active step and follow the link to retrieve it. But that's part of the problem: mirrored links and links to links often resemble a freeway-motorway system with no exits or even sufficient navigation signs. You just know there's one out there somewhere, but ...
Geoscientists will have no problem identifying with the problem: most of the world can't navigate in two dimensions, let alone three.
Some semblance of order is needed and, thankfully, academics are now starting to assert themselves. For too long we have been led by the nose by techies who have unleashed technical monsters in our midst while the rest of us stood powerless to resist. There is much that is pedagogically desirable on WWW: up-to-date information from remote logging stations can be posted within minutes; video-camcorders situated in the lava tubes of volcanic islands provide virtual field-trips; lecture notes can be downloaded from virtual universities as can well-written multiple choice questions; simulations and models can be launched directly from the WWW and access to on-line courses.
But if the best use is to made of such a resource we have to improve its usability. No-matter what one's paradigmatic affiliation or theoretical orientation might be, this invariably entails establishing some form of control. Academics of the world unite: you have nothing to lose. Except control.
So it is now timely to agree a consensus as to our needs and push for the techies to take our wishes on board. Many a nerd would probably jump at the opportunity for human contact.
Since March 15, 1997
Return to ANON Columns