Three tips for developing digital learners

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We all want to develop digital learners, right? Over the last twenty years, the explosion in online content and the ability to quickly find the answers to key questions has been nothing short of revolutionary. As teachers, we seek to prepare our students to make the most of these advances. But what is the best way to do this?

On answer is to ditch elements of the traditional curriculum. If you can look up facts quickly then why commit them to memory? Instead, we should ensure that students gain plenty of experience of using digital resources so that they develop the skills of digital literacy. Some have even argued that we should change the way we assess students and perhaps allow them to access the internet or to collaborate in exams. Yet this ideas may be misconceived.

1. Grow those crystals

A new piece of research sheds some light on the issue. In a set of two studies, a group of researchers from Germany examined how successful different people were at finding information from the internet – a measure of digital literacy. For instance, participants were given a list of symptoms and asked to identify the disease. However, the researchers also measured a number of other characteristics of the participants. So they were able to see how well these other things correlated to digital literacy. This kind of research cannot definitively identify whether one thing causes another but the findings are consistent with a large body of work on reading comprehension.

Two of the attributes that they measured were fluid and crystallised intelligence. Participants who had higher levels of these kinds of intelligence scored better on digital literacy. Unfortunately, fluid intelligence is essentially raw processing power and it turns out that there’s not much that we can do to improve this, despite the claims made by advocates of brain training.

On the other hand, there is loads that we can do to increase crystallised intelligence and teachers are well-placed to do this. Crystallised intelligence is simply knowledge of the world. In the study, the researchers used a test of crystallised intelligence that asked participants general knowledge questions such as, “What is the definition of gross national product (GNP)?” There were 28 science questions and 36 from across the humanities and social studies.

Given that this is a correlation, we need a plausible theory for why crystallised intelligence might help with digital literacy, otherwise they might both be caused by something else such as fluid intelligence. Again, we can return to research on reading comprehension. Greater world knowledge enables greater reading comprehension because it allows us to make mental models and understand vocabulary. In other words, crystallised intelligence enables us to make sense of what we find when we search the web and helps us relate it to what we already know.

2. Become a domain expert

The researchers also found that students who did best on the test of digital literacy were the ones who knew most about health sciences, the knowledge area from which the digital literacy test questions were taken. Again, this makes sense in terms of students being able to understand and interpret results of searches.

This has a clear implication for teachers. If we want to make use of internet research within a school context then we should ensure that students have plenty of relevant knowledge before they begin. For instance, a science research task on renewable energy resources should be preceded by teaching the students a lot of content knowledge on renewable resources. It might also be worth assessing that students have reached a level of mastery with this content before moving on to the research task, perhaps through a quick quiz. Students are then likely to find the research richer and more rewarding.

3. No need to panic about exposing kids to tech

The researchers also made another interesting finding. The amount of everyday computer use by the participants did not relate to performance on the digital literacy test.

We might expect that in order to do well on the internet search task, participants would need to practice this skill and so those who had a greater level of computer usage would perform better. There is a clear directive in many states, districts and schools that requires the embedding of technology into lessons in order to adequately prepare students for the future. Yet this study seems to suggest that knowledge is far more important and that the additional skills required to successfully use computers are relatively trivial in comparison, at least for tasks such as internet-based research.

There is no need to strip our classrooms of technology but we can probably all relax a little more about it and use it only when and if we think it supports our learning goals. By building knowledge, even if we are using just a paper and pen, we can rest assured that we are growing our students’ digital literacy.

There is an excellent American Educator article that explores this issue and that is just as relevant today as it was when it was published in 2000.


4 thoughts on “Three tips for developing digital learners

  1. Re: “if we want to make use of Internet research within school context, we should ensure that students have plenty of relevant knowledge before they begin.” My experiences strongly support this claim. As a former Grade 7 and 8 Science teacher, I learned through my mistakes that sending kids to search for information and use it to create a project of some sort, caused a lot of problems when the content had not been sufficiently addressed by me ahead of time. It was okay, however, to send them on small searches to find specific info and bring it back to class to discuss, during which time I could help them understand it ( I.e. As a way to help them build content knowledge). I also learned how important it was to teach them the literacy skills required to read and make sense of complex, non-fiction information. For example, I taught teacher-directed lessons on using 2-column note taking to note facts on one side and pose questions, and/or respond in words and/or graphics with their own thinking/comprehending on the right side. (Thanks to Harvey and Goudvis, and Marzano, among others for those strategies) . I also had to teach how to attribute information to the source, and avoid plagiarism by writing in their own words. Once those skills and processes and relevant content knowledge were in place, the students were better equipped to use the Internet to find answers to questions they posed, often related to Science issues in the world around them, and to create and share multi media projects that demonstrated their learning. The internet transformed my teaching for the better in many ways, but I absolutely had to learn how to use it selectively and effectively.

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