My own introduction to the notion of “information literacy,” in the broadest sense, came from my appreciation of nature writers and nature writing. When reading Roderick Nash’s (1982) Wilderness and the American Mind for the first time, I was struck by his conceptual description of human cognitive development as it corresponded to the perception of moving through changing physical environments with a primitive mind. This was, of course, a description of the broad forces that shape human history, much like the ever-popular writing of Jared Diamond. The passage that struck me and has continued to fascinate me for years:

We might begin with the anthropological axiom that until roughly twenty million years ago our prehuman ancestors dwelt in an arboreal environment … At this distant point in time, as noted above, there was no dichotomy between prehumans and wild country. But about fifteen million years ago it appears that climatic changes and fire began to reduce the area of forest in central Africa and other seedbeds of man. Prehumans gradually left the shrinking arboreal habitat and began to adapt to life on the plains and grasslands. (preface, Nash)

First, the notion that at a certain point in time “there was no dichotomy between prehumans” and the wild landscape is a key notion. Certainly, we have since changed this in radical ways. We live and work now, for example, in virtual worlds and with thousands of tools assembled great distances from our immediate environment. But in inchoate forms of the earliest human histories, we were living completely in the environment, certainly solving problems like other animals do, but solving problems only within the confines of the environment near-hand, with tools derivative primarily of the surroundings in which we lived.

Shifts in landscape, shifts in perspective -photo: Damian Koshnick

Second, we do not often think that the literal changing of a landscape directly impacts our physiology and therefore our cognitive functions. Climatic changes led to a change in our immediate landscape, pushed us from the forest to the plains and, as a result, was a primary factor in changing the kinds of thinking required for survival. As Nash continued:

In the open, spacious environments vision assumed an importance it lacked in the dense, dark wilderness. Adapting, prehumans developed remarkable visual ability. In part this compensated for the superior sense of smell and hearing and the speed, size, and strength of other animals. Good vision was early man’s competitive edge. Coupled with a developing brain, it enabled humans to plan ahead. A lion a mile away across open country, for example, was a solvable problem; one hidden in dense cover (classic wilderness) often meant death. With their eyes prehumans bought time to think. Sight, height, and openness meant security. What came to be known as wilderness was scary. … It followed that for millions of years our distant ancestors preferred open environments, where the eye and the brain could function, to the dark primeval forest. Once early man left the thickets he was loath to return to an environment that neutralized his visual advantages. Indeed, when he could he burned forests in order to convert them to open grassland. Edges of clearing and heights of land became favored living and hunting locales. (preface, Nash)

New distances to a horizon, and our changing ability to perceive it fundamentally, therefore, changed our identity as nascent humans. Presumably, the visual cortex became an even stronger component of the neural circuits that guided our thinking. Planning became possible; it was the direct result of our ability to see to a horizon. Our new environment -with distances- allowed us to scan for danger and opportunities, and to plan our routes to avoid, or find them. Beyond developmental sciences which certainly tell a more intricate and complex history of this, I am always -personally- intrigued when I can consciously recognize lived moments that incorporate the most primitive aspects of my brain. This happens frequently to me when I am hiking in the woods, and I am simultaneously startled and comforted by the sharp smell of wood smoke. I know, consciously, why this must be such an energizing and pleasing experience. Wood smoke brings the awareness that there are other humans nearby with warmth and safety. It brings the assumption that they are probably preparing to cook food. The smell of wood smoke has to be one of the most direct paths to decision-making processes that have kept us alive over centuries. The same seems true, to me, of those opportunities to stand at a vantage point, to look out over the ocean, or the valley, or a great plain. Very little, in my view, biologically satisfies a person as much as those moments when we gain critical perspectives on the environments in which we stand. Sure, the Grand Canyon is pretty, but this to me is the real, primitive reason we are drawn to it by the millions every year.

What of our current situation then? With this question, I have two scenarios in mind. What of global warming and the way it will steadily change our environments? Certainly we are very good now at adapting, but there is something about storms, large storms in particular, that still surprise us. Storms narrow down our fields’-of-vision (electricity goes out for example), push us back -despite our cognitive and technological advances- back into the immediate just like heavily forested-environments required of us. Our attention shifts perceptively from planning, and anticipating, to reacting. But, more appropriate to my professional interests in the teaching of writing, I am thinking of the other constantly encroaching environments -primarily virtual- in which we now work –and plan. What sort of visual and therefore planning advantages are we afforded with technology on a daily basis?

As a teacher, I am often most interested in this question as it corresponds directly to the classroom. Conceptually, and pedagogically, the work across “information literacies,” and particularly “literacy landscapes” are currently key, motivating concepts in the teaching and learning of writing. Between them, we try to capture and take advantage of our deepest orienting perspectives biologically and socially through technology. Biology and social orientations and habits change, but change slowly. And it is important to remember that these orientations and habits often do not convincingly correspond to the technological and virtual worlds in which we now write, plan, and organize our lives.

I am struck by the idea that we are approaching the technological-interface equation from the opposite direction that we have interactions with natural settings. With the natural setting, in prehuman history, we were intractably a part of our environment. Our steady evolutionary shift was to conceptually, and physically, separate ourselves from it. With technology and virtual worlds, it is the other way around. We went from a situation where we were not an intimate part of those “platforms” to a scenario where we are increasingly a part of them (or they are us). A great reminder of this is to watch some of Steve Jobs first -now humorously clumsy- launches of the Mac from the 1980’s. The crowd was enthralled with fonts appearing on a screen and a digital voice that was able to read it aloud [http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=762035792437485705]. With his pioneering work, and others like him, we have come a long way. How much of our day is spent now, not looking to the horizon to plan, but looking to our ipads, our iphones, or laptops, our blackberries?

Certainly I am not the first here to wonder, or ask –what does this mean? But, set against Nash’s description, I think this takes on a thrilling, more intimate and immediate hue. Despite the fact that we are talking about virtual platforms, there is, inevitably a real-world impact both biologically and in the physical environment. No matter how virtual we become, it is always the immediate environment –physical and social– that determines the value of a technology. This, to me, explains why however brilliant a virtual platform, or technology, now matter how much personal, professional, or social advantage it gives us, we may never have the technological-degree of deep satisfaction that comes from looking out over a valley from above, or the Grand Canyon, or smelling wood smoke in the woods. Will we?

If –information visualization– is the, “the use of computer-supported, interactive, visual representations of abstract data to amplify cognition” (Card, p. 7, 1999), then the visualization technology must be able to a) read the data, and b) amplify it in a manner that aids the learners’ focus and purposes. Within this human-computer interaction, there exists the “gap” –that data is lost in the “telescoping” process, between the contextualized, embodied-knowledge goals of the learner, and the data transforming  work of a visualization technology.

As a teacher, even something as basic as “brainstorming” or “concept-mapping” can be surprisingly difficult (and time-consuming) to effectively and convincingly recreate on a virtual platform for a wide-variety of students. This is especially true for classrooms with 20+ students, each with varying degrees of access to and familiarity with computer systems and software.

The problem? –how can a visualization program meet and “amplify” the complex tasks and socially embedded practices of a student? From my perspective as a teacher, and based upon my frustration as a –finder of, and reviewer of free information visualization software, I have concluded that for a virtual platform to help/work in a class, (with even something as simple as “concept mapping”) this requires:

-low-end implementation requirements; there must not be too much training involved, or the program will likely seem superfluous (an added burden)

-flexibility, since all classes enact a wide-range of tasks, the program(s) utilized must be  either numerous, or very flexible (this will reduce the acuity, but increase the conditions for usability and application)

-readily translatable data transfer, the program must be able to utilize data from applications that are common, accessible to students and faculty such as word, excel, etc. or they must be user-enhancing and user-friendly to produce (or reproduce) within the applications’ platform (Google Sketchup as one example)

I have had varied success introducing “concept mapping” options within Excel, in simple and familiar applications like Word, and with somewhat more advanced (and less familiar) programs like VUE. So much potential exists with far more complex software. If the goal of a course in writing is to amplify perception and understanding, we have to keep pushing these boundaries, but as a –teacher– we are often the realists that confront the inevitable obstacles. If we want to amplify our students’ thinking and learning, technology is one of the most promising ways to accomplish this, and yet it is never as easy as it should be, or as it may appear it should be to those working outside the classroom.

Too often, the software which appears ready to use from the language on the supporting website, is not easily manipulated, downloaded, or readily interactive. Most information visualization software that is currently available on the web is the stuff of engineers, or created specifically by and for scientists within specific research institutions. It is clear, as a teacher, that most “free” visualization software, and indeed, most all software requires considerable amount of time and energy to access and utilize. In the end, it may be just as useful to manually “re”present data and other resources to que students’ into the complexities of their “literacy landscapes” until these kinds of virtual technologies will be more context-responsive and individualizable.

My primary conclusion for the moment is that more grants must be made available to support teachers to buy, introduce, and adapt technology into classrooms in realistic and sustainable ways.

Some software under review:

1. Info Vis Wiki: http://www.infovis-wiki.net/index.php?title=Main_Page

2. Google Visualization API: http://code.google.com/apis/visualization/documentation/gallery.html.

This gallery lists JavaScript visualizations built on the Google Visualization API. Some of these have been written by Google, and some have been written by third parties. Links below point to instructions for and demonstrations of each visualization. Including (potentially, though less immediately applicably) Google Sketchup: http://sketchup.google.com/ which is software that you can use to create 3D models of anything you like. Most people get rolling with SketchUp in just a few minutes.

3. This Google Visualization also includes (bought in 2007) GapMinder, specifically, “Trendalyzer”: http://www.gapminder.org/about-gapminder/.

Within GoogleMaps exists one of the most interesting visualization options particularly with respect to teaching. This tool allows anyone to chart and mark a “journey” within or along a journey. At GoogleMaps http://maps.google.com/, click on “My Maps”. For a sample, type in “Chris Mccandless”. Google maps incorporates place markers, lines attaching locations, with the ability to post photos and notes at each location. Within this tool exists some fascinating options particularly for teaching.

4. There is also a Text Content Analysis Tool: http://www.usingenglish.com/resources/text-statistics.php. Which is similar to: TagCloud: http://www.tagcrowd.com/ and Wordle: http://www.wordle.net/. And a free Concordance analysis website: http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/text_concord/.

5. There are other sites that function much like what can be done with Excel, such as “ManyEyes” which performs: scatterplots, bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, with the additional functionality of word trees, and what is widely known as http://manyeyes.alphaworks.ibm.com/manyeyes/. Another problem with this site for education is that it requires that all uploaded data, results are publicly viewable.

6. This site, which is interesting, but I have not downloaded the software: http://nwb.slis.indiana.edu/index.html which is a, “Workbench for network scientists”. This software can be used to map knowledge domains and seems to have a functionality that exceeds excel, and word clouds, tags, etc. Though I have not tested its ease of use, nor its functionality (nor the data sets it accepts) –it does have many interesting samples online that are intriguing at the outset.

7. And these sites with which I am interested, but have had less luck for the moment: visualizing data as a city: http://www.inf.unisi.ch/phd/wettel/codecity.html; Moose -Analysis Technology: http://moose.unibe.ch/tools?_s=xdc6Q8T7zS07ybSe&_k=0YIUk9KD&_n&14; Leyesdorff: http://users.fmg.uva.nl/lleydesdorff/software.htm; the SSEC Visualization Project: http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/~billh/vis.html.

8. InfoZoom: http://www.softlakesolutions.com/index.php/products-a-services/infozoom/architecture.

You can “feed” InfoZoom virtually any data, provided it is in a structured form. From ASCII, TXT, CSV and Excel files via databases up to and including complex ERP systems – as a customer once remarked, InfoZoom accesses anything that doesn‘t resist.”

9. Visualizations for Education: http://www.edcenter.sdsu.edu/visualize-education/index.html.

This site includes a considerable list of sites that incorporates “visualization for Education”. Many of these links are “galleries” and not software for producing visual displays. But it is worth some time (depending upon intention, focus and purposes). At the end of this site is a list of visualization “Software, Hardware, and Organizations”.

10. The Science/Engineering Visualization Challenge: http://www.sciencemag.org/vis2008/.

Of course the variety and number of such options are nearly limitless and depend largely on the class, the goals, etc. of a given assignment and writing course. As a teacher, I am often frustrated by the seeming potential and the gap between teaching, classroom, student access, and technological realities.

References

Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. Yale University Press: Binghamton, N.Y., 1982.

Stuart Card, J.D. Mackinlay, and Ben Shneiderman (1999). “Readings in Information Visualization: Using Vision to Think”. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Francisco

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