New Literacies and Education: The Tree Octopus Legacy
Ever heard of the Pacific Northwest tree octopus? Neither had a group of Connecticut seventh graders who, when presented with a convincing website detailing the habits of this extraordinary creature, concluded that the site was “credible” and that such an animal existed. Of course, there’s no such thing as a tree octopus. A team of experts in reading comprehension from the University of Connecticut was using an Internet hoax website to test whether students could identify bogus online material.
The now classic University of Connecticut New Literacies Lab experiment not only prompted calls for stepping up efforts to teach online literacy (“new literacies” is the preferred term), but also triggered dismay among commentators who were already uneasy with the increased role of the Internet in education. They argued that schools were producing kids who didn’t have a “broad base of knowledge about how the world works,” in the words of one Time blogger.
Educating Students to Discern Credible Content
Experts in the field of new literacies agree that students need guidance to gauge the veracity of online content. But building content knowledge and learning to navigate the Internet are inseparably linked in their minds. “Students need content knowledge to know if a site is credible, and the Internet allows them to build that content knowledge more easily than they ever could in the past,” says Mary McMackin, former professor in the Language and Literacy programs, and now professor emerita.
The Internet has expanded children's opportunities beyond textbooks and encyclopedias, giving them access to primary source material that was once the sole province of specialists. Learning content through the Internet is more of a discovery process, as they access materials to inform an understanding of the arts, history, politics, current events, and developments in health, science, and technology. The Web presents content through a variety of formats, rather than through the single format of the printed page.
Still, the message of the New Literacies Lab experiment is: You can’t believe everything you read online, says McMackin, and this lesson should be taught early and often, certainly by the time students begin to do online research.
In the lower grades, teachers can steer students toward reputable sites, and as students progress into middle school they should be trained to apply an ever more discerning eye. McMackin says that students should be taught to answer a number of questions, including “Who is the author? What organization created the website? Is it a for-profit or nonprofit organization? Does it publish paid content? How old is this information?"
The Difference Between Print and Online Text
New literacies also involve an understanding of the difference between reading a printed book and reading text online. People read books in a linear fashion, while they are more likely to quickly scan onscreen material and navigate through hyperlinks to discover additional content. Book readers are typically guided by the author’s organization, while readers of online text chart their own course, encountering multiple authors and viewpoints as they go. As Donald Leu, who heads the New Literacies project, describes it, when people read online they construct their own text.
Creating a personal “text” can be very liberating, but it does pose challenges in using the Internet, especially for schoolchildren. “Most of the time, when kids do a Google search, they only look at the first page of results,” says McMackin. “Google doesn’t always show the absolute best resources on the first page; a better resource might be buried on page 2 or 3,” she says. Teachers can set guidelines and encourage students to go deeper and not just click on the first link they find. The sheer number of websites can also be daunting to children. “Kids need their teacher’s help in getting a grip on how all the pieces fit together.”
To fit the pieces together, teachers can use inquiry-based learning. Instead of giving children an assignment to write a report on bears, teachers might start with a big-picture question, such as “What does a bear need to survive?” According to McMackin, “The inquiry-based assignment gives children a framework for the facts they gather from online research." In this case, children might look at habitat, predators, prey, climate, and breeding habits. “In answering the question about what bears need to survive, the little facts become more important because they are placed in a context.”
This contextual knowledge is also transferable, she says. If you assign the child to research another animal, say a fox, they will be able to draw connections between bear and fox habitats, for example, and make comparisons. Through such inquiry-based teaching methods, students retain more facts to build their contextual knowledge.
The Internet continues to enrich children’s educational experiences in ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago. “Kids are naturals with technology,” says McMackin. “If teachers can tap that facility, give it focus and context, they will succeed in delivering content in meaningful ways that benefit students.” As students add to their storehouse of knowledge and context, they are less likely to be hoodwinked by websites like the one about that imaginary, tree-dwelling, Pacific Northwest cephalopod.