On Digital Information in Schools

Schools have always been places where information is consumed and created. For most of the history of schools, that information was created as physical artifacts (works written on paper, images drawn on paper, songs recorded on tapes, and similar creations). Once physical or analog media is created, it must be copied on to bits of matter (paper and ink, vinyl, or plastic) and those physical things (books, tapes, compact discs) are protected from the elements and physically moved to disseminate the information. Obtaining a new science textbook (for example) requires one be written, copies be printed, and the copies be shipped to the students to carry and read. While making notes in the margins may be helpful to one reader, it is usually considered vandalism and may result in a student receiving a bill for destroying a resource that must be replaced. The arrival of computers in school was accompanied by the arrival of digital information; since then, teachers and students have created, copied, stored, and transported information in fundamentally different ways than did previous generations. 

Digital electronic information is created as physical actions (such as keystrokes or speech with gestures) are converted into electronic signals. These are stored temporarily in the random access memory (RAM) of a computer, and then stored more permanently as signals on read only memory (ROM) disks or in flash memory. When stored in RAM, information is very easy to manipulate and transport. A few keystrokes or mouse clicks can change the contents of a file or make a perfect copy of the information, and a few more can send those changes anywhere on the globe through the telecommunications network. In schools and beyond, vast amounts of information stored in public spaces, so infinite information is now available to teachers and students.

A few generations ago, the information available to a classroom full of students might include one copy of a textbook for each student, library of (perhaps) 50 volumes of references books the teacher had collected for his or her classroom, a school library with a several thousand books, subscriptions to a few score periodicals, and comparable collections of videos and references books. Today, students and teachers have access to all of the resource previously available, as well as online references, full text databases that index thousands of periodicals, infinite online video, and the web resources maintained by credible government, media, and professional organizations, as well as academics and other credible individuals. All of these sources place vastly greater amounts of information into the curriculum than was possible with physical information. 

In addition to infinite amounts of information, networked computers provide teachers and students with tools to easily and quickly search information.  Given the vast information, effective methods of searching are necessary. Very rapid comparison of the contents of files to search terms permits efficient indexing, so relevant text can be identified in digital documents. Users can add tags to information sources so they participate in identifying relevant aspects of documents and make those searchable. In addition, researchers are developing search tools that can accurately interpret ambiguous search terms composed by users. All of these tools are necessary for navigate and identify useful information in in the digital landscape.