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Subject: AEJ 97 HarpD CTP Using the Web to teach media literacy skills
From: Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 14 Sep 1997 12:37:09 EDT

TEXT/PLAIN (570 lines)

Conceptualizing Objectivity Online:
Using the Web to Teach Media Literacy Skills
Dustin Harp
Amy Reynolds[1]
Stephen D. Reese
submitted to the Comm Tech and Policy Division,
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
April 1, 1997
Please send inquiries and responses to both Dustin Harp and Amy Reynolds:
Dustin Harp
3543 Greystone Dr. #2008
Austin, Texas 78731
Ph. (512) 418-9132
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
Amy Reynolds
6200-A Laurel Valley Drive
Austin, Texas 78731
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
[1]     The first two authors wish to note that the order of authorship is
alphabetical because of their equal, collaborative efforts on this paper.  Both
authors are students and wish to thank Stephen Reese for his contributions to
this paper and his supervision of the ongoing media literacy web project
detailed in this paper.
  Conceptualizing Objectivity Online:
  Using the Web to Teach Media Literacy Skills
  Because of a slipping of public confidence in media institutions, the
  merger of media conglomerates and the blurring of boundaries between
  entertainment and news, it is more important than ever that the public
  posses media literacy skills. This paper outlines one component of a
  media literacy web site project designed for use in high school
  classrooms. The site bridges theoretical and practical discussions
  about journalistic objectivity in an effort to create a more
  media-savvy public.
        More than ever before, it is essential that journalistic performance be held
accountable to the highest standards appropriate to a democratic society.  The
mergers of media conglomerates, the steady slipping of public confidence in
media institutions, the erosion of newspaper circulation and the blurring of
boundaries between tabloid and serious journalism make it clear that issues of
news and press performance are fundamental and will continue to grow in
importance.  Effective evaluation of press performance requires basic media
literacy among the public.  It also requires access to tools and resources for
media analysis.
        This paper will detail a resource - a media literacy Web site project -
designed to specifically accelerate a discussion of press performance by
students, the general public, media consumers and professional journalists.  It
will, most importantly, teach basic media literacy skills to high school
students - a necessary early step in the creation of a more informed,
media-savvy public.
        "Journalism and Objectivity" is one aspect of this ongoing project housed at
the University of Texas Department of Journalism Web site - ultimately, other
components will be added to this site (some of which are briefly detailed in our
conclusion).  This component's title is self-explanatory:  it focuses on
critically examining one of the central tenets of modern-day journalism.  Our
goal is to combine professional, academic and public input and resources at one
location so that students in classrooms can have meaningful discussions about
key concepts in the field of journalism.  In this case, we begin with
        Ultimately, we hope this media literacy site will become a public sphere where
a variety of groups of people or individuals can benefit from an exchange of
views and ideas about press performance in today's changing world.  Given the
objectives of communication and journalism departments at colleges and
universities and the needs of society at large in understanding and responding
effectively to news media performance, we need to find ways to create a forum
for meaningful media criticism.  In both secondary and higher education in
general, teachers and professors are directing more attention to experiential,
collaborative and active learning.  The "Journalism and Objectivity" component
of our media literacy Web site has great potential in applying these educational
methods to the field of media sociology through the use of modern technology.
Conceptualizing Objectivity Online:  Using the Web to Teach Media Literacy
Skills, pg.
        This paper is divided into three main parts.  Before specifically detailing the
"Journalism and Objectivity" component of this Web site and offering feedback
from undergraduate students who participated in a qualitative pilot test of the
component's effectiveness, we will provide some background about press criticism
and media literacy efforts as well as explain why the World Wide Web is the most
appropriate and useful way to foster critical thinking about the media,
especially in an educational context.  We will conclude with a discussion of
planned additions to both the "Journalism and Objectivity" component and to the
media literacy Web site as a whole.
Why the Focus on Media Literacy?
        The criticism of the news media has become a growth industry.  Media watchdog
organizations have proliferated, making it their task to hold the press
accountable for societal coverage.  These groups range from the partisan
organizations from the right (Accuracy in Media) and left (Fairness & Accuracy
in Reporting) to conservative religious organizations and their frequent
opponents, such as People for the American Way.  Others approach press criticism
on an anti-stereotyping or discrimination basis, such as the Anti-Defamation
League and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
        The problem with the expanded growth of media watchdog groups is that many have
become so politicized that their credibility is suspect.  Recently, for example,
the Siebens Foundation of Dallas awarded $50,000 to Baylor University
researchers to study issues relating to journalists.  The Foundation, however,
also contributes to the Western Journalism Center - a "watchdog" group that has
worked to spread the Vince Foster suicide theory, on the fringe of the
"Whitewater" investigation in Washington.  The Baylor researchers ultimately
returned the money, suggesting how controversial some of the "watchdogs" have
        Another approach is taken by the broader and generally non-partisan centers for
media study:  The Freedom Forum for Media Studies, the Joan Schorenstein Center
for the Press and Public Policy at Harvard University, the Center for Media and
Values and the Poynter Institute.  These organizations disseminate their
materials to a broad audience that largely includes scholars and professionals
as well as the general public.
        Despite the efforts of organizations like the Freedom Forum and the Poynter
Institute, we think the need for an eclectic and theoretically-based approach to
the study of press performance still exists.  Such an approach needs to combine
the thoughts of media practitioners and scholars to provide a balance of
information; it needs to foster critical thinking about the media; it needs to
stand outside the growing trend of watchdog groups tied to partisan backing,
advertising, professional allegiance or industry sponsorship; and, most
importantly, it needs to reach a younger audience that has traditionally been
excluded from conversations about the way the media function and why.  Such an
approach is central to the "Journalism and Objectivity" component of our media
literacy Web site and is why we have chosen the high school classroom as our
primary outlet.
Learning and the World Wide Web
        More than two decades ago, the computer revolutionized education.  These days,
it's not uncommon to find a plethora of computers in elementary schools across
the country.  As computer technology continues to expand, so does the way that
education can utilize it to help students learn.  The World Wide Web is the
latest branch growing from the learning and technology tree.
        As Odvard Egil Dyrli (1995) writes in a recent Technology and Learning article:
     The vast riches of the World Wide Web provide teachers and
     students with unparalleled educational opportunities, and free them
     from the limitations of using only the instructional materials
     available in the school.  ... Hyperlinked information is also a po
     werful force for individualizing learning.  Learners decide which
     links to follow and when, and can even follow several thoughts
     simultaneously.  The
     World Wide Web has the potential to change the nature of
     teaching and learning significantly.
        As Dyrli notes, one of the strengths of the Web is that it can help foster
individualized learning.  Kuzma and Johnston (1991) acknowledge this, observing
that "the computer's processing capability can be used to create procedural
systems in which information provided by the user determines what happens next."
        Such an individualized approach can change the role of the instructor in the
learning process.  At a lecture at Northwestern University a few years ago
(cited in Menges, 1994), Branson (1991) argued that this shift away from the
professor as the center of the classroom is part of a new paradigm for
education.  In this paradigm, the new center is occupied by a collective,
"accumulated knowledge" to which the students (as well as the professor) have
direct access.  Students learn through interaction with peers, with professors
and through the use of new technology.
        More specifically, in Texas, recognizing the importance of technology and media
in both the economy and the culture, the state education guidelines now specify
desired skill and knowledge levels for students.  The current, proposed Texas
Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) guidelines require that students in grades
9-12 understand the differences between media, the various functions of media
and to be able to distinguish between entertainment, information, education and
advertising/persuasion programming.  Students are also expected to evaluate the
effects of media on the individual, the impact of media in a democratic society
and on culture and barriers to communication (Texas Education Association,
        In addition, the Texas Education Commissioner recently appointed the Texas Task
Force on Educational Technologies - a group "composed of teachers, technology
experts in schools and regional education service centers, the private sector,
other state agency representatives, legislative staff and parents" who have
already identified four areas critical for integrating technology into
education.  The top area is "teaching and learning," and the task force
recommended "the adoption and implementation of (TEKS) that integrate technology
into teaching and learning and the establishment of technology proficiency
expectations for students and educators." The task force also proposed a "state
technology system" that has voice, video and data capabilities by the year 2002
(Texas Education Association Long-Range Plan for Technology, 1997b).
        In Texas, like most other states across the U.S., technology is high on the
curricular reform agenda.  As schools become more technologically advanced, they
open their doors to new avenues of learning for their students.
An Example of Active Internet Learning - English Language Study in Mexico
        Using the Internet to interact with peers in English-speaking countries has
helped Mexican high school students learn the English language better.  In 1995,
the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) installed fiber optic
Internet connections in all 14 of Mexico City's high schools and designed a
model for teaching foreign languages "based on international culture and
scientific exchanges via computer networks" (Meagher, 1995).  The university's
research on these schools showed that the interaction between the Mexican
students and students living in the countries where the language is spoken
improved the Mexican students' work.  They made significantly more progress than
students in a control group who studied English traditionally, with a textbook.
        Meagher concludes that "the technology unites students with their own
communities as well as with peers in other nations, and gives them access to
international libraries, databases, and museums.  The opportunities are
virtually unlimited."
        As Kuzma and Johnston (1991) note, "with technology, students are moving away
from the passive reception of information to active engagement in the
construction of knowledge."   Often called experiential learning, the focus of
this approach moves away from the use of traditional instructional tools like
textbooks.  Rather, "the role of textbooks and other instructional media shifts
from one which seeks to maximize the communication of fixed content and/or
skills to one in which students engage in the knowledge construction process:
construct interpretations, appreciate multiple perspectives, develop and defend
their own positions while recognizing other views, and become aware of and able
to manipulate the knowledge construction process itself" (Cunninghan, Duffy and
Knuth, 1993, p. 21).
        The newer, experiential and active approach to learning is helpful in other
ways as well - specifically, it can help teachers deal with different student
learning styles and ability levels.  Through experimentation, Ayersman and
Minden (1995) found that certain aspects of "hypermedia" are particularly suited
to accommodating varying individual learning differences - specifically, "the
ability to deliver information in contextually meaningful sequences, at a
variable pace controlled by the learner, and through multiple sensory
modalities" (p. 17).
        Theirs is one of the few studies that looks at individual differences and what
they call "hypermedia."  In an earlier study, Sheingold and Hadley (1990)
reported that in schools that had computers available at twice that of the
national average (at that time), only one teacher per school actually integrated
the technology in his or her teaching.  This is part of the reason that the
education field is just starting to generate a body of research on the
effectiveness of technology as a teaching tool in the classroom.
        And, just as the scholarly literature is catching up, so are teachers
themselves.  They are beginning to understand that computers "can facilitate the
achievement of valued learning goals in higher education, but their role is not
a simple one.  It is not enough to buy the right computer and software, set the
student down in front of it, and have the computer work its magic.  The benefits
of computing derive from a complex interaction between computer software,
student abilities, curricular goals and instructional environment.  With more
experience we will come to better understand each of these variables and their
interrelationships, and we will be able to design better computer software,
teaching techniques and instructional environments" (Kuzma and Johnston, 1991).
        The "Journalism and Objectivity" component of the media literacy site was
created with the ideas just discussed in this paper in mind.  It is an attempt
to create a new approach to press criticism and media literacy that takes
advantage of the new understanding of how technology can foster learning.  It
also supports the drive to make technology available to all secondary school
classrooms in the United States by the year 2000.
        In order for the technology to be of use, content must be developed to support
the strengths of using the Internet and the World Wide Web for learning.  We
contend that the Web site component we will outline next provides for flexible,
individual navigation through media literacy information; gives students the
opportunity to see connections between professional and scholarly applications
of a concept central to mainstream journalism; allows for quick, collaborative
comparison of current media products; and serves as a nonlinear resource for
teachers who endorse both the use of technology in the classroom and the
theories behind experiential learning.
The "Journalism and Objectivity" Web Site
        The journalistic objectivity site is the first component of a Web site
developed at the University of Texas at Austin's Department of  Journalism to
teach high school students media literacy skills.  The site, divided into seven
main parts, defines and discusses objectivity, offers teachers information on
how to use it in a classroom setting, and provides exercises in critical
thinking for high school-aged students.  Not only is the objective of the site
to teach concepts of media literacy, but to offer ways in which students can
learn and educators can teach Web navigation and computer skills.
        "Journalistic objectivity" was selected as the site's first media literacy
component for two primary reasons.  The first is because of the pervasive manner
in which the concept is referred to as a standard or routine of the news media.
But, objectivity is also highlighted because of the many, and often conflicting,
viewpoints that arise when discussing the concept.  As the newly developed site
indicates, much debate exists between and within both the professional and
academic realms of journalism.  By offering such varied, and sometimes
conflicting, perspectives to students, the concept of journalistic objectivity
inspires critical thinking within the classroom.  Students, after learning in
the classroom about the relationship between objectivity and news routines, can
apply this knowledge to their readings of media texts in everyday life.  By
offering perspectives of both professional journalists and scholars, the site
bridges the theoretical and practical aspects of journalistic objectivity.  The
site contains seven main components that include:
        y A discussion that raises questions and ultimately asks "What is
        y Professional journalists' opinions on objectivity;
        y Scholars' views on objectivity;
        y Student exercises;
        y Information for teachers;
        y Summaries of written materials on objectivity;
        y Links to related sites.
        The objectivity component's home page1 simply welcomes computer users to the
site, offers a brief summary of it and provides links to the various aspects
listed above (A printout of the objectivity home page appears on the next page).
Design of the site was kept simple in order to be both reader-friendly and to
accommodate the various levels of technology currently within high school
        The first of the links on the home page sends users to a page that addresses
"What is objectivity?" and then poses additional questions, including "Is
objectivity possible?"  E-mail addresses of the two authors of the project are
at the bottom of the initial page, giving users an opportunity to respond to the
site with questions and comments.  Also, at the bottom of each page, is a
"button bar" that allows users easier navigation through the site.
        Under the home page's heading of "What is objectivity?" are links to pages that
present Austin, Texas, journalists' and journalism scholars'  viewpoints of the
concept.  Seven newspaper and television journalists from the Austin area -
including reporters, editors, photographers and anchors - were interviewed and
included on the site.3  Photographs and information about the journalists' jobs
are accompanied by interviews which provide insight into the varied viewpoints
of the concept within the profession.  (For an example of one of the Austin
journalist interviews, see the next page.)
        These pages provide insight into the concept of journalistic objectivity and
its varied perspectives within the news making profession.  Answering the
question "What is the most often heard complaint from readers?" one editor
highlights the importance of the conceptual focus of this Web site when she
says, "That we're not objective."  The seven interviews include varying
viewpoints and show that each journalist has a somewhat different way of
defining the concept.
        The pages which provide viewpoints from five University communications scholars
are similar to the journalists' pages.  Included in this aspect of the site are
interviews with Bob Hackett of Simon Fraser University, British Columbia,
Canada, Communication Department; G. Cleveland Wilhoit, Indiana University
School of Journalism; Dana Cloud, University of Texas at Austin, Speech
Communications Department; Steve Reese, University of Texas at Austin Journalism
Department; and S. Griffin Singer, University of Texas at Austin Journalism
Department.     Because of the more complicated language and concepts used by the
scholars, these pages seem most appropriate for educators who may want to
understand journalistic objectivity better before presenting the material in a
classroom setting.  However, students or members of the general public who might
visit the site have the opportunity to browse these pages if they have interest
in them.
        Among the student exercises component of the Web site, which is also accessible
from the home page, are four activities.  The first ties the site together.  It
poses questions relating to the overall concept of journalistic objectivity,
asking students to discuss or write short essays about the various viewpoints
found within the site.
        The second of these exercises, which appears on the next two pages, provides
students with four news articles addressing "race-neutral" college admissions
policies in the context of the 1996 "Hopwood" case.4  Students are asked to read
various versions of a news story, three from Texas mainstream dailies and one
transcript from National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."  After reading
the articles, students are directed to discuss a set of questions in class or
write short essays. Among the questions are: "What main differences do you
notice in the four stories?" and "Did you think any or all of these stories were
objective? Why?"
        A third exercise includes two news features on the storms and flooding which
affected Arkansas and Kentucky during March.  Again, students are directed
toward discussion/short essay questions which require them to think critically
about the news media's coverage of the events and the concept of journalistic
objectivity. Providing questions that can either be discussed in class or
answered in short essay form allows educators to use the site to inspire
classroom discussion or as a component of a writing exercise.
        The fourth student exercise requires students to apply the concept of
journalistic objectivity, which they have now learned from the Web site, to
their reading of newspaper articles outside of the classroom.  They are told to
choose a front page newspaper article and, based on what they have learned at
the site, asked to evaluate the story in a short essay.  Students are reminded
here to be sure to look at the headlines, the people quoted and the writing
        Linked to the home page is also a page meant specifically for teachers.  This
page clarifies how the Web site can be used in the classroom and also points to
areas within the site which may prove especially useful to educators -
specifically, the interviews with scholars and a section that summarizes
scholastic articles and books pertaining to journalistic objectivity.  These
book and article summaries, separated into four categories (historical analysis;
journalistic objectivity as a routinized newsmaking procedure; philosophical
debates; and scholastic evaluations) are tagged as "Further reading" on the home
page.  Among the summarized readings are works by Michael Schudson, Gaye Tuchman
and Theodore Glasser.
        Finally, the "Journalism and Objectivity" site offers links to related Web
sites.  These related sites include Austin and Texas media, national major
dailies and television stations, magazines, media watchdog groups and
professional journalism organizations.  By providing students with these links,
the site offers students a way onto the Internet and an opportunity to
experience the wealth of press criticism and media outlets available to them
through the Web.
        While this description of the "Journalism and Objectivity" site follows the
home page down in a linear direction, the site is not set up to be followed in
any particular order.  However, a suggestion is made that users of the site may
best understand it and find it most useful if they begin by linking to the page
that simply address the question "What is objectivity?"  From there, however,
the page offers a nonlinear approach to learning about journalistic objectivity.
The Qualitative Pilot Study
        Before making the site available to the public, we decided that conducting a
qualitative pilot study would be beneficial.  Students in an undergraduate
communications theory course in the College of Communication at the University
of Texas at Austin volunteered for extra credit.  A total of 24 students (all
between the ages of 20 and 22 except for one who was 28-years-old) either
navigated through the site and/or evaluated the student exercises.  The
objectives of the pilot study were to learn several things from students who
were closer in age to high school students:
        y If the material seems appropriate;
        y If the site proves educational;
        y How the site would be used;
        y What its strengths and weaknesses are;
        y Where errors in the site may occur.
        Sixteen of the undergraduates searched the site (tracking their routes) and
then completed a questionnaire asking simple questions about the site's content
as well as design and use.  The remaining volunteers read either the news
stories about the "race-neutral" college admissions policies or the news
features about the storms and offered feedback concerning the student exercises.
Of those participants that examined the site, a majority said they most liked
the Austin journalists pages, explaining in various ways that the section "gives
the site credibility" by offering "opinions from the professionals" and "a real
person" perspective.  One student explained, "I also think that the different
interviews with their definitions of objectivity should result in some
interesting discussions."  Another 22-year-old student said she found the
journalists interviews particularly useful because "They gave a good feel for
what it's like.  Also they were a credible source.  I tended to respect what
they had to say because they have the hands on experience."
        Participants' responses to the question of whether they learned anything from
the site offered encouraging results.  A 22-year-old student who graduated from
high school in 1993 explained,
     I learned that many people think objectivity is fulfilled if the
     reporter presents both sides of the issue, but that is not really the
     case. The eight second sound bite that they give on both sides [of a
     television news story], I did not know either.
        Another 22-year-old student responded by writing "I learned that objectivity
does not mean not exploring your own opinions, but just giving the whole story."
And, a 21-year-old university senior answered that she had learned "That there
isn't really one true definition for objectivity that is acceptable to or
applied by all journalists."  Another 22-year-old college senior wrote, "I
learned a more in-depth definition of journalistic objectivity.  I also got
first hand information from people who are really in the field.  I think that is
        Pilot study participants also provided valuable feedback about the site's
student exercises.  Asked whether the exercises were appropriate, a 22-year-old
college senior said "Yes, because [they] will help [students] understand
objectivity in relation to writing hard news and soft news stories dealing with
sensitive issues."  Asked, "Would a high school student learn anything from
reading these stories and completing these exercises, in your opinion?  Explain
your answers," another 22-year-old student said she believed an educator's input
would be a crucial element for facilitating classroom conversation.  She
explained, "With some intervention from the teacher, I think [students] are
capable of understanding concepts they could not think of themselves."  A
21-year-old participant of the pilot test said "answering the questions would
make the different writing styles/bias more apparent and help [students] to
think critically by beginning to identify such techniques."
        A number of participants in the pilot study also suggested adding more
photographs to the site in order to improve the design.  Most, agreed, however,
that the "Journalism and Objectivity" site was well organized and easy to
The qualitative pilot study conducted using undergraduate students at the
University of Texas at Austin is only the first in a serious of pilot studies
aimed at improving the "Journalism and Objectivity" Web site.  Additional pilot
tests are planned for high school classrooms.  Testing the site on high school
students and teachers should prove even more beneficial in providing feedback
about how well the site will serve as an educational tool in teaching media
        As we noted at the start of this paper, our broad goal in creating this site
was to apply an eclectic and theoretically-based approach to the study of press
performance with the hope of reaching a younger audience that has traditionally
been excluded from conversations about the way the media function and why.  This
is why we have chosen the high school classroom as our primary outlet and the
World Wide Web as our instructional tool.  But, we are also excited about the
prospect of providing professional and academic resources in an organized way to
foster media literacy skills for interested members of the general public.
        The "Journalism and Objectivity" component of our media literacy Web site is a
jumping off point.  In the months to come we anticipate several additions to the
site that include - but are not limited to - an examination of how the minority
press functions in a community; a look at attempts to legally control media
responsibility and ethics (with a focus on the Food Lion/ABC (PrimeTime Live)
case); an analysis of how international news varies depending on the
cultural/national perspectives of journalists; and, a hands-on, experimental
look at how the digital manipulation of images has changed the field of
        We also plan to continue to improve the journalism objectivity component.  As
our own abilities to manage technology improve, we would like to add a monitored
"chat room" that would allow for cross-classroom (and we hope cross-cultural)
conversations about journalism and objectivity; expand the content of the site
to include articles that deal with national issues and national journalists'
comments for a broader (not just Texas-oriented) application of our site; and,
encourage the general media-consuming public (or, in scholarly terms the
"audience") to give us their thoughts on objectivity so that an additional
perspective is added to our online forum.
        As the Web continues to offer new avenues to provide information, and as
classrooms become equipped to utilize the information available on the Web,
communication scholars have a better chance of contributing to the public's
knowledge of media sociology issues.  It is no longer necessary to think in
simple, linear terms when it comes to teaching concepts.  We think the continued
advances in technology have created an educational environment that has the
potential to profoundly affect the kind of information we can provide to people.
The "Journalism and Objectivity" component of our Web site is our first step in
trying to create alternative ways to effectively evaluate press performance,
teach basic media literacy skills to young people and provide access to the
tools and resources needed for critical media analysis.
1.  The "Journalism and Objectivity" component of the University of Texas at
Austin Department of Journalism's Web site is in the process of being posted on
the Internet and, therefore, does not yet have an available address.
2.  In designing this Web site we took into consideration the varied
technologies that exist within high schools.  Because of both the high cost of
equipping high schools with computer technology and the fast pace in which new
computer technologies arise, we felt we could not presume that high school
students would have access to high speed computers and modems that would quickly
transmit complicated images, sounds and video.  Therefore, a decision was made
to not use broadcast news coverage and, instead, to rely only on written news
3.  Since, for now, we primarily plan to promote this site to Austin and Texas
high schools, a decision was made to use only Austin, Texas, journalists.  The
decision was made because we believed students would feel a certain connection
to professionals from an area where they lived and therefore might find them
particularly interesting.  The authors of the project were also sensitive to
providing a diverse group of journalists.
4.  The Hopwood case is named after lead plaintiff Cheryl Hopwood, one of four
white students who recently challenged the Constitutionality of affirmative
action after not being admitted into the University of Texas law school.  The
5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last year held that the law
school's race-based admissions policy was unconstitutional, resulting in the
"race-neutral" university admissions policy announced recently by Texas Attorney
General Dan Morales.  In 1996, the Supreme Court refused to hear the Hopwood
Case, so the 5th Circuit ruling is the standard applied currently in Texas.
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Texas Education Association (1997b).  [Online].  Long range plan for technology,
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