Today, librarians and library media specialists’ roles are more important than ever before. Let me explain why.
A research report from Adobe Education notes that, “In today’s world, a proficient employee needs to be computer literate, visually literate, information literate, media literate, and digitally literate.” Yet, a recent study from Stanford School of Education proves a shocking reality: the majority of middle school through college students are digitally illiterate. With so much emphasis on educating students to be good readers, how can we explain this disconnect?
We live in an age where instead of a traditional textbook, the world has become the curriculum and it can be easily accessed anytime. This reality has a significant impact on teaching practices, and since this shift challenges a comfortable and safe status quo, the future of many classrooms is for the most part stuck in the past.
Century after century and decade after decade, the American public school curriculum has adapted to meet the needs of a constantly evolving society. The Information Age began in the late 20th Century with the birth of the internet, putting new demands for a new skillset among graduates. Today, shifts in the global economy plus the increasing sophistication of technology and the shift from Web 1.0 to 2.0, then 3.0 and 4.0 have opened doors to the Conceptual Age. This very fast change has put strains in an education system that has been slow to adapt. In their book Teacher as Architect, Smith, Chavez and Seaman conclude that this inevitable change “...will require an upgrade to our curriculum, new instructional methods and materials, a new profile of a global graduate, and an open mind.”
The difference between deep learning and passing a standardized test is a fundamental change in pedagogy that creates a relevant, rigorous experience. Leilani Cauthen from The Learning Counsel explains, “...nearly every industry is moving into the Experience Economy while the education sector has largely been left behind. It has instead been filled with new requirements for endless testing and accommodations while not being reinvented to discard some of the earlier, now non-relevant things.” (The Consumerization of Learning, Book 1, Chapter 4)
The definition of literacy has changed in the Conceptual Age and Experience Economy. Traditionally, literacy has been defined as the combination of reading, writing, speaking and listening -a skillset that is taught throughout the curriculum and across grade levels, and that state requirements and accountability measures put much emphasis on. Yet, these skills do not transfer from print to online format. Teaching reading using digital content requires a shift in thinking about what we call literacy as well as a change in pedagogy.
Digital literacy—which many equate to media literacy, web literacy, information fluency, information literacy, or transliteracy—is constantly evolving as technology continues to change and the demands of society continue to increase.
The digital world is where students spend a great deal of time looking up and sharing information, creating content, and interacting with others. Educators must understand the impact of this media on students’ identity and behavior, and help them become literate in the chaotic and confusing web of information. In his Myths and Opportunities: Technology in the Classroom video, Alan November reminds us that one of the myths about technology in education is that the web provides diverse ideas from around the world resulting in a generally better educated society, when in reality, this can only be accomplished when users know how to validate and interpret information in order to make informed decisions.
If you are curious about how digitally literate your students are, try one of these experiments. Take your elementary students to TheDogIsland.com and practice main idea and details, context clues, cause and effect, and other reading comprehension skills. Then ask them, Would you take your dog to Dog Island? Why or why not? Observe their reasoning and the conclusions they draw. How many of them realize that the information is completely false? And if they do, how can they tell?
If you work with secondary students, ask when is it best to search for information using Google, Wolfram Alpha, Wayback Machine, subscription-based digital collections, or Twitter. Chances are, this may be confusing. Students may not realize that the quality, credibility, audience, and purpose of the information may vary drastically in each of these sources.
Digital literacy is not defined as the knowledge of using technology tools and applications; it is a combination of competencies and skills that are constantly evolving. According to Dr. Renee Hobbs, University of Rhode Island professor and founder of the Media Education Lab, “digital and media literacy closes the gap between the classroom and the culture because it capitalizes on the idea of making information relevant. Relevance ignites intellectual curiosity, and intellectual curiosity fuels lifelong learning.”
On the other hand, educational researcher Doug Belshaw discusses eight essential elements of digital literacy in his TEDx talk: cognitive, constructive, communicative, civic, critical, creative, confident, and cultural—which add another layer of complexity and depth to the modern definition of literacy. Belshaw concludes, “Digital literacies allow ideas to be amplified, to spread quickly, to be remixed.”
Just like reading online is different from reading on paper, so is writing. When students get ready to write online, there should be a prior conversation on what to write, where to publish it, for what purpose, for whose benefit, and how to use good judgment to engage in civil dialogue, should it become necessary.
Current state standards fall short of deepening student understanding of the intricacies of the digital world. Research projects using digital resources are often planned at the end of the school year—once standardized testing is over—and new literacy skills are often covered superficially. In addition, teacher preparation and professional development opportunities very rarely include digital literacy.
Current data from surveys nationwide indicate that 72% of teachers never ask their students to use online tools like Twitter or news feeds to acquire information, and 60% of teachers never or rarely ask their students to conduct research projects using digital resources (BrightBytes, January 2017). Why does this matter? Professor Renee Hobbs says that, “To take advantage of online educational opportunities, people need to have a good understanding of how knowledge is constructed, and how it represents reality and articulates one point of view” (Hobbs, 2010). More than one point of view is needed to draw conclusions and make informed decisions.
The ISTE standards for students 2016 cover digital literacy, and can guide educators in weaving new literacies across the curriculum fabric. State technology standards, on the other hand, may not reflect the most current digital literacy competencies and skills. Consequently, we must create opportunities for students -and adults alike- to be prepared to meet the demands of a constantly changing society, distinguish facts from alternative news, and engage in civil discourse.
As Alan November mentions in his Mission Critical: How Educators Can Help Save Democracy article (December 2016), conditions that keep schools from teaching digital literacy include:
- Teaching that often focuses on what is tested, and does not foster enough intellectual inquiry or academic exploration;
- The omission of digital literacy in the core curriculum and standardized assessments;
- Restrictive web filters that block teachable moments and give a false sense of security instead of promoting digital citizenship and critical thinking;
- Limited knowledge of search strategies and how to validate online information;
- Research skills that are taught superficially, late in the school year, in secondary grades only, or as a one-time introduction at the library.
The following are additional contributing factors:
- Schools requiring teachers to follow a scripted curriculum versus allowing them to be creative and responsive to their students’ interests and cultural backgrounds;
- The use of digital devices for supplemental programs or remedial courses, thus limiting access to tools for inquiry and creative work;
- The misunderstanding that research equates to looking up information, with no analysis or synthesis involved in the process;
- A perception that technology-related activities are separate from core instruction and therefore non-essential;
- The fear that technology will eventually replace classroom teachers;
- Teaching practices that are no longer current and do not harness the power of digital tools. In other words, why ask questions that students can google?
- A lack of certified library media specialists at each campus; and
- A lack of awareness of the implications of digital illiteracy.
So what can schools do to ensure that students are good navigators of the digital world? A lot, actually. Here are some considerations:
- Identify opportunities to use technology beyond the stage of consumption or substitution of traditional schoolwork, and redesign instruction to allow for student collaboration and creation of content;
- Equip students with the necessary skills to validate information online and make informed decisions;
- Allow students to be curious and question the validity of information they are exposed to, challenge assumptions and engage in high levels of inquiry and civil discourse;
- Provide opportunities for students to apply complex thinking to identify and create solutions to predictable and unpredictable problems in their community and beyond;
- Empower students to think about their own thinking, and tap into their personal interests and passions;
- Allow students to take control of their own learning;
- Expose students to different social media channels, identify look fors, and develop a deeper understanding of how information is constructed and shared;
- Implement a digital citizenship program with fidelity and establish a culture of safe, ethical and responsible use of technology;
- Provide access to a quality collection of subscription-based digital resources that are reliable and trustworthy, and promote their use;
- Involve school librarians and library media specialists throughout the process.
Why are school librarians and library media specialists so critical in this mission? For one, librarians are experienced classroom teachers with a Master’s degree in library and information science, and certification. Second, they are the information experts on campus for both digital and print materials. And, third, they are also computer literate.
Librarians support teachers in helping students build literacy skills—including digital literacy—by teaching students to distinguish legitimate sources from untrustworthy ones, make sense of the information they are exposed to and put it into the right context, so they can make informed, responsible decisions. The library is the largest classroom on campus -a place where curiosity leads to discovery. Librarians provide resources and strategies to promote and implement innovative learning opportunities for students. In addition, they partner with teachers “to design and implement curricula and assessments that integrate elements of deeper learning, critical thinking, information literacy, digital citizenship, creativity, innovation and the active use of technology.” (see futureready.org).
Some of the most exemplary lessons I have observed are the ones co-designed by teams of teachers, librarians and instructional technologists. Some of the best student projects I have seen were supported by a great school librarian.
Schools have the responsibility to teach students and educators alike how to navigate today’s messy and chaotic digital world responsibly and with confidence. We invite you to be open minded about the ideas listed above, remove any barriers or limiting thoughts, and envision the benefits of a digitally literate community at your school. And if it ever feels too overwhelming, remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s words: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Article originally published in EdCircuit