Make Students Info Literate

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.

Remember typewritten card catalogs, multi-volume print encyclopedias, and dusty library shelves with outdated topics and material for classroom research?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:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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