Why more schools aren’t teaching web literacy—and how they can start

Retooling the research process

The web has grown exponentially during the past 15 years, and new concepts such as search engine personalization have emerged in this time. To learn how everyday search behavior can lead unwittingly to a more narrow view of the world, read Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble, or see the story “New web-search formulas have huge implications for students and society.” While their access to these sites might be blocked in school, our students are accessing vast amounts of information every day when they leave school via unfiltered search engines and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

This reality should be a warning to all educators that we must prepare our students to make meaning from the overwhelming amount of information at their fingertips, and we must guide their ability to create and publish new information worldwide. To do this effectively, we must return to the basics of what it means to be a good researcher—but at the same time, we must look at the new tools our students have access to.

In our original 1998 article “Teaching Zack to Think,” we focused on teaching students techniques that would allow them to search with more purpose. This skill, while still important, is only one of three pillars we believe are now essential to be web literate. These three pillars are…

  1. Purposeful search: Using advanced search techniques to narrow the scope and raise the quality of information found on the web.
  2. Effective organization and collaboration: Being able to organize all of this information into a comprehensive and growing library of personal knowledge.
  3. Sharing and making sense of information: Sharing what we find and what we learn with the world, and using the knowledge of others to help us make more sense of it all.

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If you follow the dictate that we teach what we test, it’s understandable why schools haven’t spent more time preparing students to be web literate since NCLB was passed. However, the Common Core State Standards that 46 states have agreed to follow does require that students be able to manage web-based information. David Coleman, contributing author of the Common Core State Standards, says that students must be able to “…read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”

The learning progressions articulated in the Common Core State Standards are structured to support students as they develop competency in discovering meaning, analyzing content, comparing information, synthesizing, and applying and sharing their understanding. Without foundational and working knowledge of information and web literacy, students will not be able to exhibit the range of functional and critical thinking skills required to conduct even the simplest research tasks.

Effective organization and collaboration

We’ll focus on the first of the three pillars of web literacy, purposeful search, in a subsequent article. As for the second pillar, assuming that Zack learns how to find high-quality information online, he’ll still need to develop organizational methods that enable him to make effective use of this information as he creates new content by himself and with others around the world.

A logical starting point to teach students how to be organized and to collaborate in their search experience is to teach them how to use Diigo. Diigo, a social bookmarking tool, allows a researcher to organize sites and images from the web, as well as personal notes, using keywords called “tags.” These tags are set up by individual users and can relate to subjects, content areas, individual projects, and more. In addition, all of these collected resources can be annotated and enhanced through embedded sticky notes. To learn more about the basics of Diigo, watch this online overview.

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