Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

Navigating a New Information Landscape 


Charlie Fitzpatrick

The dawn of the 21st century is ushering in an unprecedented explosion of information. There is more new data being generated each day, and more ways to integrate it, than ever before. Moreover, the rate of evolution in information technology is unparalleled in history. This offers a supernova in opportunities for today’s learners.

The challenge facing our students seems Herculean: how does one confront this expanding galaxy of information and build an adequate infrastructure for navigating and operating in the new millennium? Formidable as the task facing students may be, it is surpassed by that facing the adults who aim to help them. Raised in the world of the computer and Internet, students with their young and nimble minds readily adapt. Raised in a world of newspapers, books, and television, many of today’s teachers—and not least those involved in social studies—still find foreign the world of dynamic data and rapidly evolving understanding. The greatest challenge of the new millennium is therefore not the one facing students, but the one facing teachers as they work to help fresh young minds grow toward their fullest potential.

This dual challenge presents a huge opportunity for revitalizing education and emphasizing the importance of social studies. If we seize this opportunity, we can make great strides toward a more powerful educational experience for all students. If we miss the chance, we may abet the forces fragmenting education and society as a whole. The “haves” and “have nots” of the next millennium willl be those who possess or lack the ability to discover, process, and act upon exploding volumes of data—moving reams of data into functional information structures, combining diverse information into systemic knowledge, and converting this knowledge into operational wisdom.


The Information Technologies

Our skies today contain satellites capable of sending to earth each day data measured in terabytes. [One terabyte (TB) = one thousand gigabytes (GB) = one million megabytes (MB) or 700,000 standard 3.5-inch, 1.44-MB floppy disks or over 1600 full CDs.] Such data will catalog the nature of our physical and human environment with a precision scarcely dreamed of a few decades ago. With detectors in both the visible and invisible spectra, we will be able to document even subtle shifts in the state of the landscape anywhere.

The commonly accepted figure for the rise in “computer power” (measured by speed, price, and capacity) is that it has doubled every 18 months for several decades. That means the 1990s saw better than a 64-fold increase, and the next decade will bring another 64 times on top of that. This explosion of raw processing capability means that typical U.S. middle school students have processing capacities today that were not available to the average graduate student in the mid-80s.

Existing channels of communication are also being leapfrogged by advances in wireless communication. At a local level, people are able to gather and transmit “focused” data faster through automated means. For example, transportation managers are able to track the progress of fleets of vehicles in “real time,” whether these are delivery vehicles, school buses, or police cars.

Even something as mundane as data storage undergoes enormous change in short order. A decade ago, CDs for storage were rare and expensive. Now they are common—even junk mail in the U.S. Meanwhile, the shift in lasers from infrared to red wavelengths has permitted the jump from CDs holding 650 MB to DVDs holding up to 17 GB. Moving to blue wavelengths will expand that capacity even more.

Increased data collection, improved processing, expanded storage. The potential for exploration in the years ahead multiplies with each innovation, and is limited only by our imagination and social structures. Patterns that lay hidden within the convoluted fabric of our society will become more apparent as the volumes of data rise, and questions heretofore unconsidered will be asked.

Societal benefits from these technical advances are already huge. Aircraft are being designed, tested, and refined digitally before they first see light of day, and pilots are logging many hours in simulators that reduce their actual in-air training time yet move their skills beyond what is possible with actual flight. On the ground, farmers can monitor their fields with pinpoint precision, applying varied amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticide, with minimum cost and environmental impact but maximum yield. In the medical research lab, the growth of understanding has meant new hope for countless victims of a vast range of conditions. In the community, police can adjust patrol patterns to meet shifting needs, and schools can arrange attendance zones to moderate the impact of population change.


The Students

To navigate this new information landscape, a student must be able to find information, sift out the relevant material, process it, identify patterns, and come up with meaning. She or he must know how to seek out and identify the “kernels of wheat” and discard the vast volumes of chaff (however interesting they may be). She or he must know how to look for
patterns within the data. In the digital universe, old constructs may not be appropriate, and she or he must be willing to explore paths that represent departures from the past.

This is no small order. But day after day, students are already proving themselves able to deal with it. Kids are voracious learners, constantly asking questions (even if quietly), sharing what they know (even if not with parents), looking and listening, and learning at a dizzying pace.

The difference between a 4-year old and a 14-year old is physically modest, but the mental capacities of each are staggeringly different. A teenager may focus for hours on the workings of a rocket, the intricacies of people’s lives, how stones and glass interact, or how to smack a ball just so. These young minds absorb visual information at prodigious rates—far faster than do most adults, in our experience—allowing them to solve puzzles in new and unanticipated ways.

Even very young children who have played video games for only a short time can describe a game’s digital geography, rules, and strategy. Parents who work in the information technology arena report that “normal kids” even as young as two are able to power up a home computer, engage a paint program, and draw digital pictures. Kids in pre-school also have the know-how to e-mail their artwork to traveling parents. “Typical kids” as young as first grade have solved challenging spatial puzzles using a geographic information system (GIS) after only a few minutes of introduction.

Some enterprising kids are moving into the adult realm before leaving childhood. Or course, there have always been child prodigies and eager entrepreneurs. But the digital realm provides new opportunities to learn, create, interact, and handle puzzles. More and more students are acquiring information technology-based jobs after school, on weekends, over the summer, and (for good or ill) even instead of school.


The Teachers

Faced with this onslaught of information, on top of demands to fill ever more needs of today’s youth, teachers may yearn for a simpler time. But those days are gone. Information technology is driving today’s global society.

Although new challenges face teachers today, the basic mission remains the same: to help students acquire information and to learn how to process it into an organized framework of knowledge and understandings. In addition, teachers guide students toward participating actively in society, working effectively with others, and becoming lifelong learners.

Many of today’s teachers can recall their early ventures into a public library. What a staggering collection of books, in all shapes and sizes and colors and formats. Books over here, books over there, books from the floor down here way up to the ceiling. “Gosh, what a lot of stuff!” many of us thought. Yet, to our parents, teachers, and older siblings who introduced us to this galaxy of information, there was order. By grasping the nature of this order, we quickly became comfortable too. As readers, we could explore with a purpose, or at random, and always find something of interest.

Many teachers today are facing a similarly unfathomable assault of information. Gone are the days when a single textbook, or even a school or public library, would suffice for presenting the story of the world to our students. No static source can today present all the relevant information and ensure that it is constantly up-to-date. This time, our mentors are not our parents and teachers and siblings but, sometimes, our students as they forge ahead in computer skills. On the other hand, teachers have no less important a role to play as they instruct students in how to think and evaluate information.

Teachers are trained to be cautious about accepting information simply because it appears in print. The skills of critical thinking which they teach students are all the more important with regard to digital information, since anyone can publish data on the Web without paying attention to rules of scholarship. Right now, digital data can be used with ease—and misused with even greater ease, just as a screwdriver can turn a screw, spread peanut butter, or break a window.

The good news is that producers of digital information are beginning to understand the value of “metadata,” or information about the data they present. This is the gold mine of the digital landscape—searchable information describing the nature of available data, preferably including how it was generated, and perhaps even noting how it might be used. The card catalog of yesterday is the metadata warehouse and search engine of tomorrow.

As digital data formats evolve, they may acquire “properties” that influence or even control their use. Right now, however, only human wisdom can help people understand when it makes sense to use particular data to solve a particular problem, and what methods should or shouldn’t be applied in a given circumstance. The best “steering whee#148; available to students is a skilled teacher, one who understands the “learning landscape.”

In the new millennium—just as before—teachers who work collaboratively with students will learn from them while also imparting crucial understandings about knowledge. Teachers who take advantage of the natural inquisitiveness of youth will help students construct broad frameworks of understanding based on firm foundations. Teachers who visibly model lifelong learners will help their students to become this as well. Teachers who do all these things will help create the most valuable resource a country can have—a well-educated citizenry.


Charlie Fitzpatrick is in charge of K-12 educational programs in the Schools & Libraries division, Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), St. Paul, Minnesota.