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K12 Schools Must Fill Need For Digital Media Skills

A recent report out of Northwestern University, "Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content," finds college students take for granted online information, pointing to the need for public schools to teach these skills.

A weak economy paired with a national push to improve reading and math as well as other core subjects has left an important skill behind in K12 classrooms—digital media literacy.

A report released this past July out of Northwestern University, "Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content," reveals that college students are not so media savvy when it comes to discriminating between credible sources online. The study includes information from more than 1,000 first-year students in an urban public research university in 2007. The students were asked how to to perform certain tasks. One example was: "You have a strong opinion about an issue and a friend recommends that you write an e-mail to the chair of the House Judiciary Committee. Where do you send the message?"

Eszter Hargittai, a researcher in the study and an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern, says the study results reveal that "a lot of people, especially a lot of students, take for granted a lot of what they see online." She observes that the study shows that "search engines and especially Google, hold a lot of influence," to the extent that students seem to trust them as the gateway to information. She found the students' "level of trust in search engines a bit alarming."

"To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step," the report states in its results. "When using a search engine, many students clicked on the first search result," the report states, and which Hargittai says is not necessarily credible.

Indeed, more than 25 percent of the students mentioned they chose a Web site because the search engine listed it as the first result, suggesting to the student there was considerable trust in the search engine results. The researcher asked one social science major, "What is this Web site?" She replied, "Oh, I don't know. The first thing that came up." According to the report, this exchange implies that in some cases, the students regarded the search engine as the most trustworthy, rather than the Web site that contained the information.

Many students did not even investigate the author of those search engine results. The students even thought (mistakenly) that Web sites ending with .org were considered more credible than sites ending with .com, Hargittai says.

Although considerable research has been done to evaluate online content credibility, the report states, it has barely considered the context of how users get to a Web site when they evaluate the content they find.

The skills that students used in the study are part of the new literacies, which include online reading comprehension and learning skills, (or also known as 21st-century skills), required by the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs), including understanding content found on wikis, blogs, video sites, audio sites, and in e-mail. They require the ability not just to "read" but also to navigate the Internet, locate information, evaluate it critically, synthesize it and communicate it—all skills that are becoming vital to success in this century's economy.

Action for K12 Administrators

The results of the report suggest that public school districts need to start training their teachers to teach digital media skills to K12 students, according to Hargittai and Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. "In a case that an administrator says it's [knowing digital media skills] not important, that administrator is not looking at the world today and how youths [do research]", says Knezek, who calls the skills "new century literacies." The study is "an excellent indicator for pre-K12 education and a reality check for higher ed and postsecondary training."

But some districts are not focusing on the new literacies, in part due to the economy. The accountability system that is in place forces states and districts to pay attention to "a narrow band of the curriculum" and what needs to be measured and tested, Knezek says. The federal government has focused on reading and math skills, without offering huge resources or much encouragement to stress new literacies, he adds. "Even with the Obama administration, they are still talking about traditional literacies," Knezek says. "They have not yet admitted that the skills needed in this study are equally important."

ISTE recently updated its NETS-S, or National Education Technology Standards for Students, specifically in the research and information fluency arm, which covers digital language, evaluation and use of information. Knezek says that others have encouraged the teaching of the new literacies in K12, including the American Association of School Librarians and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. He suggests that the nation adopt common core standards in new literacies. Teachers have contacted him via e-mail, phone, and at conferences, saying they want to learn how they can teach pre-K12 students about the new literacies.

Hargittai adds that some new literacy skills are always morphing, such as how information is spread. Twitter and other social media did not exist a few years ago, she says, so teachers will have to be updated often on the changes.

Learning these skills is important for the future, says Hargittai. "First of all, a lot of kids don't go beyond K12 education, so this is their only chance to learn it," she says. "And those who do go on to higher education, they will be disadvantaged and not prepared to do the kind of research that is required in the classroom. Some of it is scholarly and some of it is just life issues in general." If, she adds, students are getting false information on health issues, they could endanger their health.