Do you know how compelling and information rich digital content can be? I am not sure I really understood the potential of digital content until I read the multimedia feature in the New York Times about the avalanche at Tunnel Creek. The article tells of a fatal avalanche in Washington and the background stories of many of the victims and survivors. This multi-part feature blends at least the following modes of presenting information: video interviews with participants, audio files of 911 calls, weather videos, a slide show of the Stevens Pass ski area, animated graphic demonstrations of accumulating snow, historic photographs, diagrams showing paths of various skiers, animated graphics superimposed on aerial photographs, aerial flyover videos, and color photos of both victims and survivors. Oh yes, and extensive text.
This sort of presentation on any topic in any content area has great potential to deliver information in a way that is both accessible and engaging for students. The rich content makes such things as the difference between a ski area and backcountry skiing clear to someone like myself who has never skied and has limited knowledge of mountain terrain in the winter. It has tremendous potential for students with limited background knowledge. Consider the avalanche article from the point of view of science rather than human interest. How many students faced with a text-based article would not have the background knowledge of mountain snow to really visualize and understand the dynamics of an avalanche or the varying conditions that make snow unstable? Presenting text articles with embedded multimedia content can close the background knowledge and vocabulary gap for students with deficits.
It’s interesting to think of this kind of cutting edge digital content in terms of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).
The emphasis in the CCSS is on text complexity and on academic vocabulary which are the hallmarks of a traditional, “old school,” model of acquiring knowledge only through text. To understand that characterizing the CCSS in English Language Arts as an “old school” approach is accurate, you need only consider at the traditional canon that is affirmed in the suggested texts in the Appendix and the cursory treatment of technology throughout the standards. The first issue to consider is that text supported by rich multimedia materials need not be as complex as a text with the same purpose but without the supports. If I can show you the relative position of various skiers as they went down the mountain or if I can show you how snow accumulates in an unstable fashion over time in a graphic, then I don’t have to rely as heavily on a complicated text based description. Even if I provide that description, it is supported and enhanced by the graphic material.
The second issue is time. As I worked through the Tunnel Creek feature, perhaps, a little over half of my time was spent engaged with the text and the rest was spent engaged with the associated media. In schools time is always an issue. If I want students to be engaged in complex texts then I need to provide or assign that time and to the degree that I am using digital content then I need to increase that amount of time to allow for accessing multimedia materials. Compounding this time issue is the fact that as I engage with digital content, I am often toggling between reading and accessing other material. If we consider extended engagement with complex texts as important to developing career and college ready students—and I think we all do—then we must consider the various challenges posed by delivering that content digitally.