Monday, 27 October 2014

Information and Research in a Digital World

Preparing students for academic research that goes beyond Google.
Cathy Kennedy, Library Manager and Teacher with Library Responsibility, St Andrew's College


Recently the School Library Association made available a unit of work for librarians to use entitled Tertiary Transition. This unit is intended for Year 13 students and to prepare them for the world of academic research. Universities and Polytechnics are telling us that students are arriving with skills ranging from none to some to getting there! This is a great unit and it is fantastic that SLANZA have made this available but I can help a niggle in the back of my mind that such a unit shouldn't be needed – surely we have had these students for the last 8 years in primary school and 5 years in Secondary school to prepare them for tertiary information seeking? I have no doubt that we have all seen this lack of skill in our students, an over reliance on 'googling' and a research mentality that lacks depth in their variety of sources or an inability to identify a credible source or evaluate a source with confidence. Why has this come about and what can we do about this 'google' generation who think everything they need is just one quick search away and will appear in the first three results on the first page of the search? (By the way, don't think I don't love Google – it makes my life easy and I'm a big fan but there is a 'time and place' for using a general purpose search engine when embarking on research for open and complex questions.)


Here's my unscientific take on it and below some of things we are doing to try and turn the tide! None of this is earth shattering or new – just my current journey which still has a long way to go.
WHY? They think they know – They don't think we know – We think they know    

They think they know
Just because our students are confident in a digital world it does not mean they are competent. They have grown up surrounded by the digital landscape and are assuming that they are carrying out research competently – their own confidence and comfort in the world of 'google' (or general purpose search engines) means they don't think that there is anything else - but you don't know what you don't know. They are confusing finding popular information with finding academic information and that they way to do each of these is the same (see graphic from Massey University). Students are confident in their approach to research and if they can't find what they need, they assume it's not there to be found! Their very confidence (but lack of competence) in searching is their very downfall. We need to ensure that we explicitly teach how to carry out academic research (appropriate for the level) and all the critical evaluation, note-taking and synthesising skills that go along with it from the early school years.

They don't think we know
I have come across resistance in students who believe all they need is Google and Wikipedia and they are set. I've been openly challenged (all be it politely) on what would I know? "You didn't grow up with the internet, Mam!" Once again, their digital confidence (and in some cases, arrogance) can be barrier to learning new digital searching skills. Convincing students that even though we are 'old', we do actually know how to navigate the world of digital, academic information. I find it only takes one to two demonstrations and the appearance of just what they need for their research to convince students that there really is a 'deep web' out there that they can tap into.

We think they know (we could list many sayings about assumptions here…) I think this is one that is now changing but some of this came about from the 'digital native' tag. I know I was guilty of this one for a time assuming that these creatures of the digital age could navigate the world of digital information with more knowledge and competence than me and I was working on the assumption that students were accessing everything they needed. Feeding this was probably my own steep learning curve as the information revolution took hold. Of course, this digital ability by some kind of osmosis or courtesy of the year of your birthday is ridiculous. At the end of the day, information literacy skills have not changed - reading, critical thinking, evaluating sources, note-taking, creating citations are all the same but the places and way we search and the tools we use have changed dramatically. As I began working with students many told me that teachers always told them to make sure they had a variety of sources, "don't just google it!" but they had no idea where else to search – googling was their one and only default position. Don't assume our students are good at any of these information literacy skills (digital or otherwise) or that they will carry them over from year to year or even from topic to topic – they are complex and require explicit teaching and practice across all curriculum areas and all year levels.


Here are some 'stream of consciousness' thoughts about ways I've begun to fight the 'I'll-just-google-it' generation.
  • Start with the teachers. Giving teachers the understanding of the 'deep web' and how to access academic databases is very powerful. For two years I ran a Professional Learning Group covering our own library catalogue and the secrets it could reveal, research databases, New Zealand Sources, our online Encyclopaedia, evaluating sources, how to 'google' better, note-taking, creating bibliographies and citations and the overall information literacy cycle. 
  • Working with classes and target year groups – no brainer. Working with the Year 9's we have created a unit of work with the social studies teachers to work through the research steps and explore digital sources beyond a general purpose search engine. These were not 'one off' lessons but my input was part of a complete unit of work requiring a research component. These sessions included using our catalogue, accessing databases (via EPIC), how to 'google' better (Power Searching with Google), using a variety of search engines and evaluating sources.
  • As above, I have worked with students from Years 6 to 13 when they are about to embark on an inquiry or an internal assessment with a research component. Reminding and demonstrating to students where these sources are and how to find them. Don't hesitate to show students again and again or give quick reminders. One of our history teachers noted that the students used a variety of sources very well in one internal but didn't transfer any of that learning (as expected) to the next internal! They do need reminding not to fall into the 'just google' habit. I know many students are probably sick of this mad library lady! 
  • However, having said the above – teach them how to 'google' better. To hone my own search skills in Google I worked through the Power Searching with Google tutorial. This is an informative, self-guided and paced tutorial which gave me some key content to then share with students – would highly recommend this for anyone with an interest in information literacy.
  • Make finding the 'deep web' easier to find and create a 'one stop shop'. Our Library Homepage has become the launch pad to a variety of sources with all the necessary password information that students need. If it's too hard to find or too many clicks away they will give up. I tell students that they don't need to remember all the different places I teach them to search - just remember the library homepage and that will lead them on from there.
  • Provide a good online Encyclopaedia and digital library. We have subscribed to World Book Online and other World Book digital libraries. This provides a digital, credible and reliable source and a great starting point for a topic. When you don't know much about a topic, searching effectively or critically can be difficult. A simple overview of a topic can lead to the formulation of effective keywords and the ability to identify valuable information. Wikipedia can fill this role nicely as does Encyclopaedia Britannica which comes free as part of the Epic databases available to all schools.
  • Start young! I begin teaching our Preparatory children as early as Year 4 about digital sources and start with our World Book Online. We use language like credible and reliable as early as possible and are showing our younger students what a 'variety of sources' truly means – not just lots of different websites they found on google!
  • Teach how to critically evaluate a source. I have done this with classes from all levels and found it is best done as part of their inquiry, assignment or internal. There are many acronyms out there to help students think about sources. For many years I resisted using CRAAP but it's clear and students remember it!
  • Start all talking the same language. In our Preparatory School, I have been involved in the team re-working our Inquiry model. At times we might think we are re-inventing the wheel but it means that students will year after year, hear the same language and messages around research from teachers – it's all about teachers being on the same page which impacts on student learning.


Where to from here – lots, lots more to do. Working even more alongside classes and teachers and formalizing programmes of work that ensure these skills are taught and practised is the big challenge for me. We've only begun this journey and there will be many of you out there who have got some great initiatives running in your schools in order to create students who are information literate in this digital world – I'd love to hear your stories!


1 comment:

  1. Fantastic post! Heaps of ideas to take away both got isn learning and for using with students. Thanks heaps for sharing your experiences:-)
    Ginni Orr. AGHS. Chch