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Digital literacy: Julie Coiro educates the fact-checkers of tomorrow

Published 10/17/2012 12:00 AM

A few Iranian news agencies made headlines in the U.S. earlier this month, when they plagiarized a story by the satirical newspaper The Onion and ran it as fact.

The New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC News had a field day. But political and linguistic implications aside, the incident raised important questions about how information is transmitted online and how we verify the source and accuracy of what we read there.

Online literacy is a teachable skill, argues Quaker Hill resident and award-winning University of Rhode Island professor Julie Coiro. But we need to start students young.

Coiro was the 2012 recipient of URI's Early Career Faculty Research Excellence Award in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. She studies "new literacies" or how students comprehend information on the Internet. She also investigates and designs teaching tools for digital literacy.

Coiro began her career 25 years ago in middle school special education in Windsor, Conn. She observed time and time again that behavioral and emotional difficulties often went hand in hand with an inability to read.

"It became a big interest of mine to figure out why these students couldn't read; what might entice them to pick up a book; what we might do to help them feel better about it," Coiro said.

As computer labs started to take hold in schools across the country during the 1990s, Coiro observed her fellow teachers struggling with expectations. They had the equipment, there were educational resoures online, but integrated sources of information and professional development were scarce.

Her brother bought her "a big introductory book" about the Internet, for her birthday, which she devoured in a week. "That was it," she said. She built a website that coordinated educational resources and began to look for other ways to pair technology and education.

Strangely, Coiro describes herself as "not a techie."

"I can barely use a cell phone and I can't figure out the answering machine," she laughed. "But I'm big on having access to quick information. I would think, 'why am I not afraid of this stuff?' And it's because I just equated everything on the Internet with reading. I just see the Internet as this place to get all kinds of information about any topic, any different perspective, and now — from anywhere in the world."

She turned her attention to the disconnect between what students were learning in the computer lab and what was happening in the classroom.

"Kids were being taught typing — the Internet was not in most schools," she explained.

"And schools were struggling to figure out how to filter inappropriate content, but still get some useful content. The kids were not seeing any relationship between how they might be a good reader of a book, and how they might be a good information-gatherer on the computer," she said.

Traditional thinking holds that literacy and good research skills start with printed books. So kids who struggle with reading comprehension will struggle with online research, right?

Think again. Coiro's doctoral research — completed under Don Leu at the University of Connecticut — yielded surprising results.

Students who enjoyed playing video and online games performed well on information gathering, she explained, because they responded to the format — an Internet search being like a treasure hunt. And a student with low reading comprehension could "read up" on a subject by locating and watching a video. This is a perfectly valid skill set, for the world we're living in, she said.

"It doesn't make sense to talk about new literacies as computer skills anymore. They are communication and information skills, new ways of reading and writing and thinking."

What defines digital literacy, Coiro explained, is whether students know how to properly use the Internet to answer their questions; whether they know how to locate information, and evaluate it for accuracy, relevancy, reliability and stance (bias). Digital literacy also deals with how well students are able to synthesize and communicate their findings.

"Am I going to summarize it in text? Construct a visual presentation? Make a movie? 'How do I make sense of all this in a way that answers my question?' From an educational perspective, that's what we're concerned with," she explained.

To effectively educate students growing up in the digital age, there needs to be a mindset shift among older generations, she said.

Instead of avoiding or minimizing the use of technology, adults can model problem-solving and adaptive thinking.

"We call it 'cognitive flexibility,'" she said. "Say a teacher puts a website into a lesson plan. And the next day, the site looks completely different. You can model for students, 'OK, we're in this new environment. What do we know about the old environment that might help?'"

Her recent work has focused on a five-year, federally funded study — the Online Reading Comprehension Assessment (ORCA) Project — which was designed to furnish a single vision of what a statewide standard for online reading assessment would look like. The roughly 1600 middle schoolers in Connecticut and Maine who took part were asked to use the Internet to solve problems — like whether energy drinks should be available in their cafeteria. ORCA gathered data on whether students were able to identify advertising (sponsored sites), the author of the web site and determine the author's credibility. They were also asked to identify whether the author was endorsing a particular perspective or agenda. Results also showed how effectively students could communicate their findings to the appropriate school official.

Part of Coiro's job involved compiling the data and returning it to teachers to identify class strengths and weaknesses. If a class performed better on locating information and not so well on critically evaluating it, Coiro recommended a targeted lesson plan.

"For me, reading is actively constructing meaning," she said. "Actively making sense of stuff for your own purposes."