Make Students Info Literate

5/22/2008 5:00:00 AM

from Technology & Learning

There remains a larger challenge for schools: how to develop a new generation of knowledgeable digital citizens who can operate in the unregulated online world.

info literate graphic

Remember typewritten card catalogs, multi-volume print encyclopedias, and dusty library shelves with outdated topics and material for classroom research? Today's students don't. Why resort to such antiquated methods when almost any subject will be found on Wikipedia or by googling it?

Educators know that answer. Many students cannot discriminate between posts that are accurate and attributable and those that are undocumented and misleading. This fact leads teachers to limit online research to subscription services like netTrekker or Web directories like Awesome Library. While sites like these certainly play an important role in the classroom, there remains a larger challenge for schools: how to develop a new generation of knowledgeable digital citizens who can operate in the unregulated online world.

Call it information literacy, media literacy, or network literacy, the ability to access, evaluate, synthesize, and build upon information and media are crucial skills. The following suggestions can help give your students the basic skills to be both technology-proficient and info-savvy.

Teach them to search

Researchers at the British Library recently confirmed what most teachers understand: Young people, while perfectly comfortable using computers and the Internet, are not naturally adept at search strategies. Left to their own devices, students will depend on natural language to search rather than analyze keywords that would be more effective. They also tend to rely entirely on a single search tool such as Yahoo or Google for obtaining information.

Challenge students to search using a variety of strategies and tools (see "21st-Century Literary Terms and Definitions") and report back on the most and least effective search approaches. As students prepare for a major research project, require them to include a number of keywords and search options they used along with their traditional, footnoted attributions.

Get meta about it

Much attention is paid to inaccuracies found in the Wikipedia Web site and other collaboratively created online sources, prompting certain educational organizations to ban their use for research. Why not treat the site itself as a subject of study? Recent analysis reports Wikipedia's accuracy to be comparable to that of Britannica's and Encarta's. Have students do their own accuracy analysis as they explore a topic with which they are particularly knowledgeable—their home community, for example, or a favorite sport or hobby. Do they find any misleading, inaccurate, or missing information in Wikipedia? How does it compare to overviews they find elsewhere?

Also encourage students to responsibly edit Wikipedia articles. Go over the site's own policies and guidelines. Discuss what makes a reliable source and what makes a piece of information verifiable. Also, read together the "discussion" section of Wikipedia, where editors pose questions, raise concerns, and explain why they think certain items should be added, deleted, or modified.

What makes a source viable?

Another interesting learning opportunity for users of Wikipedia is the site's explanation of what it is not—a dictionary, a blog, a Web directory, a vanity press, an online newspaper, a soapbox for opinion-sharing, or a publisher of original work. Analyzing such a list and getting students to define for themselves what makes an encyclopedia, a newspaper, and various other sources is a useful exercise. Such conversations might also involve a look at the advantages and disadvantages of various resources—not only with regard to the accuracy issues discussed earlier but also in terms of the fluidity and speed at which information is updated.

Students' use of the Internet for scholarship has moved beyond browsing. Bookmarks no longer suffice as the sole organizational tool needed to manage and organize information. Forward-thinking teachers are encouraging students to explore the new generation of options designed to connect them with digital media as well as with other human beings—tools such as (for organizing and sharing links with others), Flickr (for photo sharing), or aggregators such as Bloglines (for consolidating information based on RSS tags). Such tools help support an important National Council of Teachers of English literacy recommendation: the need for students to learn to manage "multiple streams of simultaneous information." (See sidebar).

Being aware of different media and their effectiveness at conveying information is another important component of 21st-century literacy. Is a picture really worth a thousand words? Are there times when video or music—or simple text, even—would be more effective? Having students compare diverse treatments of a single subject and critique the effectiveness of the media used is one way of exploring such issues. Encouraging them to experiment with more than one way of presenting their own research or ideas is another.

Who owns the words?

Copyright is a huge topic that goes beyond the scope of this article, but it is important for students living and interacting online to have a clear understanding of the legal issues involved in copying and redistributing the work of others. Some key concepts worth reiterating here include:

  • The creator of an original work—whether a student or a professional artist—automatically owns all rights to its use, with certain exceptions, including the exception for "fair use."
  • Fair use allows people to use copyrighted materials, without paying or getting special permission, if they are using the materials for the purpose of education, review, satire, or journalism, and are taking into consideration the following criteria:
    • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
    • the nature of the copyrighted work;
    • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
    • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
  • Barring some drastic redefinition or legal precedent, fair use does not apply to educational materials posted on the public Internet for others to access and redistribute at will.
  • The copyright holder can always choose to grant to others some or all rights to their work.
Learning to share

Creative Commons provides a powerful tool for students and teachers in today's digital universe. CC licenses allow authors to specify which rights they are granting the general public—such as the right to copy, make derivative works, distribute the work, or make money from it—and how they want to be credited for it. An understanding of Creative Commons not only allows students to determine the conditions under which they want to share their own work but also gives them an understanding of the legal and ethical issues involved in reusing the work of others in situations that do not qualify as fair use. It transforms copyright from an abstract concept, or one that is seen as protecting big commercial producers, to a set of less restrictive rules that allow for the free sharing of creative content and ideas online.

While digital materials circulated via e-mail or posted at sites such as YouTube frequently lack adequate information about the copyright holder, CC licensing—with the attribution requirement that typically accompanies it—is raising new awareness about the importance of identifying and citing one's sources. Fortunately, a number of media sharing tools, including Flickr and the Creative Commons music site, ccMixter, now offer easy options for posting and tracking authorship and giving credit.

The ease by which we all cut and paste these days raises many questions about the definition of the word "plagiarism." But by expecting students to provide attribution to the best of their ability, and discussing the challenges they encounter as they try to do this, the education world can help redefine what it means to be an ethical and active participant in collaborative authoring ventures.

"Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups," writes the NCTE Executive Committee. "As society and technology change, so does literacy." While there's no telling what next year's technologies will bring in the way of literacy opportunities and challenges, today's educators can lay the groundwork for whatever is to come by preparing students to be critical thinkers, savvy researchers, and ethical contributors to the Participation Age.

Judy Salpeter, former editor in chief of Technology & Learning, now serves as program director for T&L's Tech Forum conferences and works as a freelance writer and consultant.

21st-Century Literacy Terms and Definitions

Information Literacy
Being able to recognize when information is needed and to have the ability to locate, evaluate, and to use effectively the needed information.
Source: American Library Association

Media Literacy
The process of analyzing, accessing, managing, integrating, evaluation, and creating information in a variety of forms and media.
Source: Partnership for 21st Century Skills

ICT Literacy (also known as Digital Literacy)
Using digital technology, communication tools, and networks appropriately to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge economy.
Source: Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Network Literacy
Linking to what other people have written and inviting comments from others; understanding writing as a social, collaborative process; and learning how to write with an awareness that anyone may read it.
Adapted from Jill Walker's blog,

NCTE's Recommendations for 21st-Century Literacy

In February 2008, the National Council of Teachers of English adopted a new definition of 21st-century literacies. According to the NCTE Executive Committee, "The 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable."

More specifically, NCTE believes that 21st-century readers and writers need to:

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology;
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.


Learn More

For additional information about digital literacy and copyright issues check out the below Web-based resources.

Creative Commons


Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future

Information Literacy


Landmarks for Schools

Media Awareness Network

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