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Purple arrow (1137 bytes)Paper Training Sparky the Dog

REFERENCE: D'Ignazio, F. (1994-5). Multimedia Sandbox: Paper Training Sparky the Dog. The Computing Teacher, 22(4), 52-54. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.

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With Power to Spare?

The other day I attended a speech given by a nationally renowned demographer. At the end of the speech I had the opportunity to talk with the demographer for a few minutes. I introduced myself as a technology writer, and the demographer nodded, saying he used a computer every day. His profession, he said, tracked large groups of people -- their movements, their aging, and their behavior -- and he considered the computer to be his single most valuable tool. On the other hand, he was alarmed by the pace at which new, more powerful computer chips were being introduced. "All I need," he said, "is enough power to crunch my numbers and store and manipulate some data. And I'm a demographer. Who could possibly need more computer power than me?"

As a multimedia enthusiast and computer educator I was stunned. It took me a few minutes to summon enough courage to respond to his challenge. "Excuse, me, sir," I finally said. "If you get in my car I could drive you down the road to a local elementary school and show you some fifth graders doing a multimedia history project for our college museum, and they're desperate for more computer power."

"What could they possibly be doing?" the demographer asked.

"They're part of a multimedia detectives project which gathers nontraditional resources to research historical mysteries. As part of their research on the civil war they're digitizing recorded voices from civil war soldiers and ex-slaves. They're scanning in photographs passed down over generations by their families. They're videotaping live reenactments of dramatic events and personalities from the war. They're orally narrating eyewitness accounts of the war written by women, blacks, Southerners, and soldiers. They're digitizing artifacts from the war uncovered in family attics. They're interviewing local historians and pulling in pictures and sounds from libraries on the Internet. They're .... "

"Enough!" said the demographer, smiling. "You made your point. Maybe I should come see what these fifth graders are up to."

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Multimedia Cuisinarts

We adults, like the demographer, live in a world of text (numbers and letters), and we are tickled pink with the way the computer zips along shuffling our words, sentences, and columns of numbers. But we are almost unaware that a new age of knowledge is dawning in which computers will be required to push around digitized movies, voices, beautiful paintings, and symphonies as well as words and numbers. Knowledge processors of the future will have to be multimedia cuisinarts that take images, sounds, and numbers and slice them, dice them, blend them, and puree them. To do this in real time they will have to be far more powerful than the wimpy little word processors most adults are using today.

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A Narrow Trickle of Text and Talk

In my multimedia speeches and demonstrations I spend just as much time running up and down the auditorium aisles, Geraldo style, as I do pressing buttons and switches up on stage. Since I am probably 75-percent clown it seems natural in my speeches to turn my body into a comic, visual metaphor.

"It's so hard," I tell audiences, "for us adults to see things through the eyes of our children. "We grown-ups are hooked on words. And, as the older and presumably wiser human beings in any room, we're great at frontal lecturing. We stand in front of young people and become a fountain of words, a stream of words, spoken one at a time, dribble, dribble, dribble, pointed at their young ears.

"We assume that if enough young faces are pointed back at us the stream of words is flowing between their ears into their brains, and we conclude that learning has taken place. But we're fooling ourselves. As good teachers already know, teaching isn't talking, and learning isn't listening --especially when your learners are all fish."

That's the point when I jump off the auditorium stage and go running up and down the aisles, arched forward, my hands folded together like the prow of a ship. "Our children," I say as I run, "are fish swimming through a sea of electronic media. This is their world of knowledge, their habitat. And then each morning they are tossed through their classroom door into our world of words. No wonder they thrash and struggle! They can't breathe! They are like fish beached on a dry, arid shore. We try to help them, but all we can offer is this narrow trickle of text and talk."

(I point my "ship" down a new aisle and run even faster, my hands pointed forward.) "Text and talk," I say, weaving back and forth, "text and talk. We think we are nourishing our children, and all the while they are suffocating."

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Cultural Blindness

We are not doing this on purpose. Most of us adults are not naturally mean, despite what many kids think. We really are people of good will. But we may be terminally blind.

As with any cultural transformation, the inhabitants of the old culture (the world of printed words) can't see the new culture coming. And the inhabitants of the new culture (electronic media) can't understand why most of their world is so foreign to the older persons they see everywhere around them.

Let's face it, we big people love books. We have spent our lives in the company of books. If you added up all the books we've stuck our noses into, you'd be amazed. Even worse, add up all the inches of text we've followed, line after line, page after page, as we've read books over twenty, thirty, or more years! We've spent our lives in "book school" learning this simple equation: KNOWLEDGE = BOOKS. And school is the center of this theory of knowledge. The specialists of book-centered knowledge teach in the schools. Their methodology is straightforward: If you want to know something, find it in a book.

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Enter Sparky the Dog

And what are books made of? Paper!

This is where I whip out a newspaper and throw it onto the floor. I fall to the floor and begin happily sniffing the newspaper, nuzzling it and talking to it in dog language. It's clear that I really love this newspaper!

As I'm scurrying around on the newspaper I continue talking. "I'm an author," I say between barks and snorts. "That means I love words. I adore paper. In fact, you might say I'm paper trained."

At this point I act as if I'm being led away from my paper on a leash. I resist the leash and gaze back longingly at the newspaper. I whimper and yip pathetically as I am dragged away from my paper. "I can't stand being away from paper," I say between growls and moans. "If I have to leave the world of paper I get anxious and uncomfortable, like Linus being separated from his beloved security blanket."

I pretend I yank my head so hard that the leash snaps. I am now twenty feet away from my newspaper on the other side of the auditorium stage. Joyously I scamper on all fours back to the paper. I plop down on the paper and wag my tail against the paper. "Ahhhh," I say with a big doggy grin on my face. "Paper ... mmmmm ... I am so relieved."

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I Am So Confused!

I jump up. I'm a human again. "I may be the silliest Sparky the dog in the room," I say, looking around the auditorium. "But I'll bet I'm not the only one who is paper trained. And this paper training is shaping up to be a serious disability in the world of the future, as knowledge is packaged in new nonpaper formats. We book lovers may feel very strange in a world where knowledge no longer comes on paper, neatly and politely, one word at a time, but instead is crammed inside a shiny silver platter or whizzes onto our TV sets and computer screens from libraries and databases around the world, under the seas, or from outer space. This is a brave new world for Sparky the dog!"

Then I show a video from the MCI Corporation which talks about the Internet and hypermedia libraries of the near future. An actor dressed as a Renaissance scholar lights a candle and enters into the darkened library while classical music plays in the background. He wants to look up information about Columbus's voyage to explore a new world. A modern woman, the librarian, tries vainly to help him, talking about hypertext and multimedia archives stored in "infinite digital preservation in real-time." But the poor man shakes his head, bewildered, and says he'd love to understand the new scheme for knowledge, but he fears he will be in his grave before he learns to navigate through this new world.

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Esther Williams or Arnold Schwarzenegger?

We are this old man. All our paper training has left us quite unprepared for the new ways in which knowledge will be packaged, dished up, and devoured. We have to decide really soon whether we are really in love with books (the comfortable old "wrapper") or with the ideas, the life stories, the treasures found inside.

But there is hope. The trick is to take the first baby step into this brave new world of our children. Or is it really a "step?"

I ask the audience if they have heard their parents or grandparents talk about the great Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams. I tell them about my challenge by a Florida educational TV producer, Jane Matheny, to transform my "paper" metaphor of children swimming through a sea of media into a physical real-world metaphor.

One spring morning with Jane and her camera person at a Florida poolside, I stripped off my clothes to my swim trunks and revealed my not-so-Schwarzenegger torso underneath. While I was disrobing I talked about the sea of media which represents the world of knowledge in the future.

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"Do-It-the-Hard Way Fred"

While I was spouting words I was in my medium. But now I had a problem: I was supposed to keep talking and ALSO jump into the pool! (Kind of like walking AND chewing gum). This is not a hard problem for many people, but for a person nicknamed "Do-It-the-Hard-Way Fred," it was a fearful challenge.

Seventeen film "takes" later and after nine painful bellyflops the producer said she'd had enough. With some skillful editing the video segment eventually aired on Florida public TV. The shoot at poolside was only supposed to take half an hour, but the producer hadn't counted on all the times I would get water up my nose while I was pretending to be a "child swimming through a sea of electronic media." Choking and coughing I would rise from the water like a whale breeching, and we'd have to do the whole thing all over again, starting with another belly flop.

It was almost the end of me! But the piece was a success. In it I asked teachers to come with me and "jump into this new sea of electronic knowledge." We may almost drown, I said, and we may have to leave our paper high and dry on the shore, but the time has come for us to decide. In the multimedia world of the future, who will be our role model? Will it be Willy the whale who leaps to freedom, or good old Sparky the dog?


Other articles on the NCIP Web site by Fred D'Ignazio:
The Student as Sherlock Holmes and Upside Down TV

Fred D'Ignazio, Multi-Media Classrooms, Inc., 1773 Walnut Heights Drive, East Lansing, MI  48823-2945 Email:   Multi-Media Classrooms Web site,

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP), located at Education Development Center, Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.  NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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