As a school librarian and technology specialist, Caitlin McLemore took particular interest in a 2016 study that showed that 80% of middle school students couldn’t tell the difference between news content and a paid ad on a website’s homepage.
The study, conducted by the Stanford History Education Group, was the inspiration for McLemore’s dissertation for her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. McLemore, who works at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Florida, put together a seven-day unit for a middle school social studies class to teach students how to evaluate the validity of online information as part of their classroom work. Assessments taken before and after the unit showed that students made significant strides in their information literacy skills.
“You still hear the term ‘digital native’ a lot,” McLemore said. “And I think that there's some misconceptions with that term because just because you’re inundated with technology doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to use it to find information. … Students are not necessarily adept at handling information and media and thinking about ways that media can be manipulated.”
McLemore says there a lot of ways to teach information literacy. Her dissertation describes her method as “a discipline-based, gamified instructional unit with teacher-librarian collaboration.” It integrate information literacy instruction with content knowledge. The librarian and classroom teacher team up to teach the material and gamify some of the learning activities.
Tie information literacy to content
What McLemore found was that content integration and the librarian’s participation had the biggest impacts while the effects of gamification were unclear.
McLemore says information literacy education sometimes falls to librarians who offer stand-alone instruction on evaluating information sources. What she wanted to do was connect that instruction with the content students were studying.
“Information literacy needs to be included in the curriculum in all classes,” she said. “It can't just be a one-off lesson in the library. It’s something that really needs to be integrated. And that integration needs to occur as a partnership among all stakeholders – the classroom teachers, librarians and technology specialists. It doesn't just fall to one person or one class to teach. And it's really something that impacts almost every subject.”
As part of the unit, the students completed the Checkology online information literacy program, which is a paid curriculum. They also completed a research project on an American historical figure with sources they found themselves as well as sources vetted by the librarian.
While the students chose good sources, they had a hard time explaining why the source was valid, McLemore said.
“I think that really illustrates that there are so many different facets to information and news and media literacy,” she said. “Evaluating a source, choosing the source, explaining why you chose the source and then actually using it, those are all different skills.”
Librarians can demonstrate media literacy in practice
The librarian’s presence in the classroom was important, McLemore said. The librarian was able to demonstrate good practices and lead discussions.
“It allows the teacher to be the content expert. The librarian can come in as the information expert or the research expert, and then they're complementing each other as far as what they're helping students with,” she said.
McLemore included gamification to encourage student engagement. Students could earn badges and points for completing lessons and activities, and there was a leaderboard showing how different groups were doing.
“Some of the students said they paid attention to the points and wanted to get all the badges, but a lot of them didn’t even mention it. So, it wasn’t clear what impact gamification had,” she said.
With her dissertation behind her, McLemore can see there’s still a lot to be done in teaching information literacy.
“There’s still a long way to go because it’s such a large facet of our lives,” she said. “And the adults don’t necessarily have the skills either, so it’s really going to take a lot of work.”
Jerry Fingal is a freelance blogger who explores how technology can improve learning.