In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student used the personal website of a professor at Northwestern University, Arthur Butz, as justification for writing a history paper called “The Historic Myth of Concentration Camps.”
That student, who we will call Zack, had been encouraged to use the internet for research, but he had not been taught to decode the meaning of the characters in a web address. When he read the web address, http://pubweb.northwestern.edu/~abutz/di/intro.html, he assumed that the domain name “northwestern.edu” automatically meant it was a credible source. He did not understand that the “~” character, inserted after the domain name, should be read as a personal web page and not an official document of the university. As with any media, punctuation counts.
Without web literacy, Zack believed Butz’s explanation. Zack read about how the Nazis were fighting typhus, a disease carried by head lice. He went on to read that the pesticide Zyklon was used to kill the head lice—not the prisoners in the gas chambers. Without basic knowledge of web punctuation or the skills necessary to validate internet content, Zack was at a disadvantage to think critically about what he was reading. He had been taught to read paper, but he had not been taught to read the web. Zack was illiterate in what undoubtedly has become the dominant media of our society. At the time, Zack’s teachers also were illiterate about the web.
It turns out that validating content is not rocket science. Even a first-grade student can begin to understand the organization of information on the web. It seemed obvious at the time that understanding the grammar, punctuation, and syntax of the internet was so basic to being literate in our web-based society that schools immediately would begin to teach all children web literacy. Yet, that hasn’t been the case in most schools.
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It is our sense that two forces have worked in historic tandem to create the conditions where most of our schools do not teach our children basic web literacy. One is NCLB, which—even though it included funding for technology and staff development—we believe has had a chilling effect on introducing any innovation to the U.S. curriculum. The second is that web filtering became the de facto policy for keeping children “safe” online.
Instead of taking the high moral ground to teach students how to deal with odious content and the ethics and critical thinking skills that go along with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, too many schools simply block these sites. As a point of information, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) does not require schools to block social media sites (see “FCC opens access to social media sites for e-Rate users“).
To this day, when we visit schools and give students various research problems to solve, it is the very unusual student—who is usually self-taught—who understands how to decode content on the internet. We know many librarians and individual teachers who creatively include web literacy in their curriculum. Colleagues such as Joyce Valenza will tell you this is not enough. As we did with books, we need every teacher to be web literate and to be designing assignments that require students to learn how to research and decode across grade levels and subject areas.