Monthly Archives: September 2011

Expanding the Concept of Literacy for New Millennium Learning

by Hap Aziz

In their article “Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy in the 21st Century,” authors Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan (2006) make the assertion that prior to the 21st century, literacy was largely defined by a person’s ability to read and write (separating the educated from the uneducated), while the rapid introduction of new technologies has changed society such that literacy itself is in the process of developing new meanings that cover the effects of these new technologies.  This understanding that literacy is effected by a society’s level of technology is not new.  Sinatra stated in 1986 that technology and its associated mass media defines the predominant form of literacy in a society (Stokes, 2001).  Clearly, the implication is that as technology changes and becomes more sophisticated, the forms of literacy meant to support our technological endeavors will, by necessity, become able to support that complexity—and it must do so in an efficient way.  Technology turnover means that society no longer has the luxury of lingering on artifacts for years, let alone generations.

There is no dispute or question regarding the pre-21st century definition of literacy.  Stokes cites several definitions from the literature (2001), and a Google search on the term “definition of visual literacy” returns 106,000 hits, with many of the definitions offered on the first few pages corroborating the literature survey performed by Stokes.  I find my thoughts returning to Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan who offer the commentary that the concept of literacy itself must be expanded to beyond that of simply reading and writing in order to properly conceptualize this era of new technologies.  While this reasoning seems appropriate, it certainly begs the question, “why?”  That is, why must the concept of literacy be expanded?  What has happened to society that renders our long-standing definition of literacy inadequate?

There are several key points that can be considered the “game changers” as far as our concept of literacy is concerned.  (It is important to note that when discussing “literacy,” I am specifically speaking of the mechanism to provide education across all subject areas rather than a specific literacy required for a particular subject or topic area; i.e., “gender issues literacy.”)

  • Literacy must be considered a coping mechanism by which we are able to make sense of the current state of civilization, and ultimately thrive within our particular rule set.

What I’m saying here is that literacy is one of the key ways that people are able to understand the world around them and then function successfully in it.  So, for example, in a world heavily reliant on print information, literacy can be thought of as primarily print literacy, which takes us back to a more traditional definition.  This works well up to the point of the early 20th century when much of life resembled what happened in previous generations—and the change elements were easily absorbed by print or one-on-one apprenticeship or tutoring situations.  (The actual shift came with the onset of the Industrial Age, but the industrial advances were not an onslaught of overwhelming changes to lifestyle, simultaneously and from multiple sources.)

  • Literacy is both dependent upon and defined by the current state of communications technology in a society.

Throughout history as populations have grown and societies have become more complex in structure, the methods of bringing youth into adulthood have resulted in changes in literacy mechanisms, though over vast amounts of time.  First there was the oral tradition of literacy where people relied on memory and recitation.  After the invention of the alphabet, literacy largely became dependent upon a person’s ability to code and then decode verbal communications into symbolic-written communications.

In this modern age, people regularly supplement their communications with photographic and videographic materials.  Icons, pictographs, and even more complex video clips are included in lines of communication to convey meaning.  If we look at the explosive growth of electronic communications media such as Facebook and YouTube, it becomes apparent that text-only literacy is insufficient for the information density that is being communicated.  When “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it is exceedingly difficult to tell a story or otherwise convey meaning in short bursts of text without pictorial supplementation.

  • As a result of points 1 and 2 above, literacy has a functional window of opportunity during which time information regarding the surrounding world can be conveyed and must be understood in order to be considered effective.

A key point to consider in any discussion of the transformation of literacy needs into visual literacy needs is that of the amount of information that must be “digested” by a population over a finite span of time.  When societal change was slow (as driven by significant technological changes in the world), the process of information encoding (writing) and information decoding (reading) was not a hindrance to covering the ground that needed to be covered in the allotted amount of time—whether it was a class period or the span of an education career, K-20.  But as technology changes basic operational aspects within society now many times in a single generation, coding and decoding though an alphabet is not adequate—both in regards to available time as well as in regards to complexity of the topic or process being addressed.  Imagine assembling any Lego model through text instructional alone.

Briefly, let’s revisit the idea of the alphabet and its impact on communications, knowledge transfer, and, ultimately, literacy.  The interesting connection here is the alphabet’s connection to and reliance upon available technology.

Prior to the abstract symbols of the alphabet characters, pictograms were used to convey meaning in written format (think of Egyptian hieroglyphs).  These pictographs were time-consuming to produce, and there was not any widespread formal training or universal agreement regarding meaning—being able to read was an artifact of the elite class in a society.  Over time, hieroglyphs gave way to alphabet symbols, and with the advent of the printing press, reading became accessible to those not a part of society’s elite class.

The interesting thing to note is that well before the development of the alphabet—and even before the development of pictorial images dating back to cave paintings—the process of learning was a multimedia activity, largely reliant upon visual literacy.  How does the father teach the son what animal had passed through their path?  It is done by visually recognizing the signs on the trail, the foot prints on the ground, etc.  It certainly wasn’t done by handing the young hunter a book, instructing him how to read, then saying that there would be a test at the end of the week, for example.  In fact, the original methods of teaching and learning have more in common with modern multimedia and visual literacy than they do traditional text literacy.

I would close here with the statement that visual literacy as a component of education is a natural evolution that actually brings us back closer to our natural method of learning.  The invention of the alphabet was an accident of technology that removed us from our multisensory learning style, necessitating a transformation of people into coding-decoding machines.  With the reintroduction of visual (and other!) media back into the educational mix, we will ultimately find that the creation, acquisition, and transfer of knowledge will become easier—more natural—for a wider range of people… not those already predisposed to learning well through reading and writing.


Jone-Kavalier, Barbara R., and Suzanne L. Flannigan. “Stokes, Suzanne. “Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning:.” Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education 1.1. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. .” EDUCAUSE Quarterly 2 (2006). Print.

Stokes, Suzanne. “Visual Literacy in Teaching and Learning:.” Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education 1.1. Web. 27 Oct. 2009. <>.

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Mapping the Academic Journey: Where is My EPS?

by Hap Aziz

As the educational community has learned over the past several decades, technology applied to a process often transforms that process in revolutionary ways.  We have seen this happen often enough now that we can reliably anticipate revolution, even if we cannot always predict it.  Some of us even make plans on riding the revolutionary wave as opposed to simply reacting as the tide comes in.  Terry O’Banion has written

Even if there were no revolution in learning, the ubiquitous application of information technology to every facet of the educational enterprise will create monumental change that gives the appearance of a revolution.

The conceptualization, development, and eventual implementation of an Education Positioning System (EPS) is, potentially, just such an application of information technology: an industry-wide integration of technology tools as well as business processes (even across geographical boundaries) that allows learners, faculty, and staff to interact through “information transactions” through consumer devices in order to enhance the learning process, serving academic and career development.  Backing up a cycle in the development process of IT tools in higher education, we see that the idea of an EPS is a logical outgrowth of another, more basic technology-applied-to-process application commonly known as the Learning Management System (LMS).  (It is interesting to note that the LMS itself is an outgrowth of the application of information technology to a process almost completely lacking in IT services prior to the 1960s.  One might consider the EPS a second-generation revolutionary application.)

However, while an LMS is focused primarily on the processes involved in admitting, maintaining accounts and data, and ultimately graduating or matriculating students through an institution, the role of an EPS should be much broader and much more personalized.  In addition to providing these services on demand directly to the learner, an EPS would expand the process into an “environmental manager” intended to enable learner self-sufficiency in a much larger context than had been previously considered. Once we are able to act on the realization that learning is effected by elements outside of the academic environment, we are philosophically prepared to provide the tools and solutions that allow learners to minimize distractions and interruptions to the learning process.

This realization is triggered by observations of the consumer technology realm: we see the effects of networked technologies that facilitate communication and data-sharing across geographical as well as technology-standards boundaries. We see the adoption of social networking behaviors that are enabled by the proliferation of smart devices in consumer hands. We see that opportunities and potential for meaningful collaborative activities built around consumer game technologies such as the Xbox, the Playstation, and the Wii, along with their respective network environments. The acceptance and integration of these technologies into the fabric of the consumer lifestyle has laid the foundation for the acceptance of the EPS model.

Certainly, the concept of an EPS is interesting in the abstract, but we still need to pose the question: What happens next?  Let us articulate what might happen from the learner’s standpoint, and see if that provides a hint of direction.

Information and data particular to a learner can “follow” that learner from department to department seamlessly within an institution.  Much information (transcripts, for example) may even be compared and transported across institutions in order to answer questions or provide the learner with some additional decision making capability (“does it make sense for me to enroll here given that only so many credits will transfer with me?”)  What if the information and data held by institutions that can follow a learner across institutions was held directly by the learner instead? Not as some metadata standard to pass student information across various learning management systems; but rather as tokens that belong to and reside with the leaner at all times?

We begin to see the potential of connecting learning environment pockets at individual institutions within the education landscape into an institutional-neutral enterprise.  Imagine that the investment a learner makes in developing an academic and career plan at a community college is not lost when that learner matriculates to a four-year university, for example, or to any institution anywhere in the world.  Certainly the plan may be expanded, edited, tweaked, altered, and otherwise modified as desired by the learner and the learner’s institution.  However, those academic and career goals suddenly become truly global from the learner’s standpoint rather than remaining relative to the learner’s current institution.

As more and more institutions of higher learning develop and implement education positioning systems, educational technologists will create the black box technology necessary for these systems to communicate across institutions. This technology would have a natural home positioned atop current and emerging smart device and consumer video game technology. Learners will be able to carry their own customized “learning environment” with them on their smart devices as they move from one place of learning to the next, not needing to relearn the learning landscape or redevelop their learning plan with each transition.

In dealing with discrete information bits for learners, we adopted the term Learning Management System: LMS.  Shifting our emphasis to the learning process and developing systems to enhance the process as well as individual learning we arrive at Education Positioning System: EPS.  One might reason that we are still focused on learning, but we will apply a system to manage the individual EPS communications protocols universally across institutions. Like a GPS, the data provided to the user is relative to the user’s position in the world, and all directions take the user from where he or she is to where he or she wants to be.

Whatever name we attach to the future amalgamation of technology and process planning, the result should be a system that encompasses the whole academic experience, weaving that experience into the learner’s daily life in significant and meaningful ways.  That, undoubtedly, will be a monumental change ushering in the next revolution in the process of learning.


Filed under education, Educational Positioning System

Practicing 18th Century Education in the 21st Century Classroom

by Hap Aziz

Advances in modern medicine are really quite amazing, especially when one considers how far medical technology has come in the past few hundred years. What is significant is the level of integration and the significance of the impact of medical technology on the health industry of today. There are fundamental differences in the way medicine is practiced now compared to generations past, and these differences have resulted in obvious, dramatic, and verifiable improvements in health outcomes from the eradication of many diseases to the increase in the human life span.

In looking at the state of education, we don’t see the same degree of changes in the process, and we certainly do not see such increases or significant improvements in learning outcomes. While education has become more available across broad socio-economic groups here in the United States, for example, the argument cannot be made that students learn more quickly or more effectively than did students of generations past.

Consider the advances in medical diagnostic technologies over the centuries; back when the United States was just a collection of colonies, one might have been treated by a barber rather than a highly trained physician. Now, in the early 21st century, we have a multitude of different and impressive ways to examine the operation of the human body, determining the state of health and recommending or performing corrective measures if necessary to achieve optimal health.

Of course, the state of the medical profession wasn’t always like this, and our diagnostic tools and techniques were primarily dependent upon outputs. In other words, to know what was going on inside the body, we could only examine what came out of the body: blood, urine, hair, etc. By examining these outputs, early medical practitioners would come to some conclusions about what was going on inside the body, and then treatment would follow. While examining outputs is still an important technique in the diagnostic arsenal, the medical profession now has the tools to directly examine the functioning of the body itself, down to the component level in many areas. We can view in real-time the organs inside the body, such as the heart, the liver, lungs, and so on. There are even ways to image the brain in action.

So, about the brain in action. When it comes to diagnosing the operation of the brain in the area of learning and cognition, we are still very much in the era of original 13 colonies, figuratively speaking. To measure how an individual is learning or has learned particular content, educators examine the outputs: performance on tests, recitations of material, the composition of thoughts in written or oral form. These are the things that come out of the brain, but they give us little true indication whether or not the mind is functioning optimally. Even more so, we have little in the way of objective measures on what optimal performance is.

Some work, however, does exist, and it is driven primarily by high-stakes pragmatic needs. NASA, for example, has done research on the usefulness of neurofeedback (biofeedback) in facilitating greater focus levels for pilots (see here). Rather than examining the output of the brain in the form of pilot performance, NASA took a direct measure of brain activity and had the pilots work on modifying that activity in order to obtain the desired outcomes. This begs the question: can we actually influence brain activity to obtain better learning results?

In the interest of answering that question, NASA went further with the work. Researchers from NASA’s Langley Research Center and the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Virginia conducted a study to measure the effectiveness of traditional biofeedback techniques as well as biofeedback techniques as applied to video game play. The findings were that both uses of biofeedback resulted in significant improvements in “everyday brain-wave patterns, as well as in tests measuring attention span, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.” I discuss the topic briefly here. Of great interest, however, is the fact that motivation was much greater among the video game playing test group. Plainly speaking, students would be more likely to participate and follow through with this type of training if it is associated with video game play. That should come as no great surprise.

Let us jump back to the state of education today. As educators, we examine outputs for evidence of learning, but we both lack the ability to directly measure brain operation, and we are unable to provide prescriptive instruction on how to improve brain operation. Nowhere is this demonstrated more keenly to me than when I work with my daughter on her homework. “Focus!” I’ll remind her. And all I have as indicators are the signs of distraction: where her eyes dart, how she sits, the cadence of her voice as she answers questions. So what does “focus” mean to her when I ask her to look at her paper and not dog running past the window? Do I have any assurance that she is optimally focused if she is looking at her paper, sitting up straight, and answering questions promptly? NASA’s research is very exciting in this area, and the findings can be applied to all learners, not just those with varying degrees of learning disabilities.

In his book The Society of Mind (Simon & Schuster, Inc, 1985), MIT Artificial Intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky writes about learning, the mind, thought, and intelligence in a series of essays, often using the field of AI to set up useful comparisons for the respective human attributes. This passage from the essay “Genius” (p. 80) is especially insightful and instructive:

I suspect that genius needs one thing more in order to accumulate outstanding qualities, one needs unusually effective ways to learn. It’s not enough to learn a lot, one also has to manage what one learns. Those masters have, beneath the surface of their mastery, some special knacks of “higher-order” expertise, which help them organize and apply the things they learn. It is those hidden tricks of mental management that produce the systems that create those works of genius. Why do certain people learn so many more and better skills? These all-important differences could begin with early accidents. One child works out clever ways to arrange some blocks in rows and stacks; a second child plays at rearranging how it thinks. Everyone can praise the first child’s castles and towers, but no one can see what the second child has done, and one may even get the false impression of a lack of industry. But if the second child persists in seeking better ways to learn, this can lead to silent growth in which some better ways to learn may lead to better ways to learn to learn. Then, later, we’ll observe an awesome, qualitative change, with no apparent cause–and give to it some empty names like talent, aptitude, or gift.

Consider what Minsky writes. As a foundation to mastery, there are some “special knacks” of expertise. There are “hidden tricks” that produce the systems leading to genius. The differences in learning could be attributed to “early accidents.” Knacks, tricks, and accidents are not words to indicate any real understanding of the learning process. After all, we are looking at outputs (castles and towers), but we have no systematic way in which to measure the silent growth that could ultimately lead to learning better ways to learn to learn. At least not yet.

Consider the amount of time students spend in school in the attempt to master a wide variety of subject areas. Now consider the amount of time our educational system spends in helping students prepare to be in the proper frame of mind for learning, as well as instruction on how to improve their learning strategies. If we are to believe Minsky (as I am inclined to do), we don’t even understand the internal mechanisms of how the brain learns to learn. We educators are the doctors of the 18th century. The path forward will include the development of better diagnostic tools to evaluate the operation and to provide accurate direction for the mind. Biofeedback techniques combined with video game technology is a small step in the right direction of developing a systematic method to improve the way we learn, but we still have a long way to go.


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For-Profit College Offers Employers $2000 to Hire Graduates

by Hap Aziz

Here’s an interesting piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The LA Times is reporting that University of Antelope Valley is offering (for this month only) employers that hire there graduates for work in their field of study a payment of $2,000. While the actual article does not much in the way of details or analysis, the comments section is worth the read. Here are few of the questions around which the discussion is framed:

  • Does this offer imply that the for-profit institution’s graduates are less qualified for enrollment?
  • Does this constitute a “bribe” to hire graduates, or can this be considered a “signing bonus” for the employer?
  • What would the conversation be if a public institution were to try an initiative like this?
  • Are employers that engage the Antelope in this offer necessarily hiring unqualified graduates?
  • How does this compare to the federal tax credits for hiring as proposed by President Obama in his recent jobs speech?

As a bonus, take a look at the comments by Dr. Arthur Frederick Ide. He raises another discussion point entirely where is states, ” I have never seen an ‘online’ degree that was worth the electricity it took to run the computer.” It appears he is making that statement as an implication of the quality of Antelope’s programs; however, what does it say about the other public and not-for-profit institutions that run online programs (not to mention state virtual high schools)? Perhaps that’s a topic for another discussion!

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Celebrating Life on 9/11

by Hap Aziz

Ten years ago today, as the planes were striking the World Trade Center towers, my wife was giving birth to our daughter, Emma Grace. We think of Emma as a reminder from God that even on the darkest of days, life is reaffirmed, and there is joy to be experienced. In the days and weeks that followed the horrific events of 9/11, our family was not drawn down the path of experiencing both anger and loss. Rather, we had a new born baby to take care of, with all the challenges and excitement that accompany the responsibility.

Every year, though, as we celebrate the anniversary of Emma’s birth, we remember the other news of 9/11, and we are thankful that our little family was not personally affected by the events of the day. To us, Emma signifies how the goodness in the world can wipe away the aftershocks of tragedy. So while we will never forget the loss of life and sacrifice of so many on September 11, 2001, our own thoughts are much lighter, and there is always laughter in our house on that day, especially.

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Compelling Content

by Hap Aziz

Imagine if instructional content were as hotly anticipated as the latest blockbuster game title for the Playstation, Xbox, or Wii. Of course, in a few hours I’ll be awake again, and where will that thought have gone? The disconnect is in how instructional content is developed; there is little that learners find compelling in the materials presented to them. So the $64k question is, how to make instructional content compelling enough that learners are drawn to it consistently.

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Watch the Skies

by Hap Aziz

Things are not as they appear to be. Often, they do not appear to be what they are perceived to be. And sometimes, there is nothing there at all. The same holds true for play and for learning. They are both different sides of the same coin, yet sometimes one (usually play) is left alone when it comes to the education process. Bringing the two together will ultimately have the results which are consistently sought. Keep watching this space for further explorations.

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