3/22/2010 @ 3:00PM
A year ago The New York Times presented a multimedia, packaged gift to school librarians everywhere. With its profile of Brooklyn, N.Y., school librarian Stephanie Rosalia, at long last, a major newspaper had chronicled the 21st century school librarians role as Web curator and information literacy specialist.
The article made the Times “most e-mailed” list for days and was featured on more than 100 blogs, as educators and parents everywhere recognized the need for media specialists to guide students. In a School Library Journal article that deemed Rosalia “The New Poster Girl for School Libraries,” Rosalia said she was “awestruck at how this article has struck a nerve all over the country with people who are not librarians.” Yet she was also surprised by a school board director who was “absolutely clueless” about how important school librarians are to student success.
Cut to the present, and librarian blogs tell a different story. Many absolutely clueless administrators still believe that a search engine is an adequate substitute for a trained research teacher. With the nation’s schools budget-strapped, librarians–and even libraries–are being cut from coast to coast. Even President Obama, whose creation of a National Information Literacy Awareness Month suggests he should know better, left additional funding for school libraries out of his FY 2011 budget proposal.
In the libraries of old, the Dewey Decimal System got you started on research. But there is no card catalog 2.0. To use the Internet as a library you need new research skills: the ability to pick out reliable sources from an overwhelming heap of misinformation, to find relevant material amid an infinite array of options, to navigate the shifting ethics of creative commons and intellectual property rights and to present conclusions in a manner that engages modern audiences.
As a former corporate lawyer, I owe much of my success to effective research skills that evolved, with the help of skilled trainers, as new tools came along. As a former executive officer at a company that had 1,200 employees in 29 countries worldwide, I know that without adequate media literacy training, kids will not succeed in a 21st-century workplace. The “old school” ways of communicating wont cut it; Ive mastered those, and yet now spend each day re-learning how to communicate effectively in this new world order. And as the founder of a company whose mission is to teach the effective use of the Internet, I have pored through dozens of studies, and recently oversaw one myself, that all came to the same conclusion: Students do not know how to find or evaluate the information they need on the Internet.
In a recent study of fifth grade students in the Netherlands, most never questioned the credibility of a Web site, even though they had just completed a course on information literacy. When my company asked 300 school students how they searched, nearly half answered: “I type a question.” When we asked how students knew if a site was credible, the most common answers were “if it sounds good” or “if it has the information I need.” Equally dismal was their widespread failure to check a sources date, author or citations.
The issue extends beyond homework. The Internet defines the way that young people learn, communicate, and create. A recent report by the Youth and Media Policy Working Group Initiative at Harvards Berkman Center stated that “[m]edia literacy skills overlap with safety skills.” In addition to learning how to phrase a search query, students need to learn how to protect themselves online, and how to share their work through wikis, videos, and other interactive media. Without a dedicated guide, they end up, in the words of professor Henry Jenkins, as “feral children of the Internet raised by the Web 2.0 wolves.”
While not every school librarian is yet adapting to the new reality of what is demanded of the role, thousands of other dedicated librarians I have met are turning their school media centers into “learning commons” where students seamlessly use state-of-the-art Web tools to consume and produce content. Students at many elite schools are learning critical 21st century skills while librarians are eliminated from budget-stressed school districts. The result? What a University College of London study called a “new divide,” with students who have access to librarians “taking the prize of better grades” while those who dont have access to school librarians showing up at college beyond hope, having “already developed an ingrained coping behaviour: they have learned to ‘get by’ with Google .” This new divide is only going to widen and leave many students hopelessly lost in the past, while others fully embrace the future. Already Tufts University has begun to accept student-produced Web videos as a supplement to admissions applications.
Some officials have started to catch on. Kentucky, in becoming the first state to adopt the Common Core State Standards Initiative, recognized the importance of new technology and research expectations, and it cited school librarians as a key part of its future initiatives.
Before parents accept the wisdom of a school board to cut school librarians, they should ask: Will my child graduate with a 21st century resume, or a 19th century transcript? Can he use collaborative technology, such as wikis? When a search engine returns 105 million results, can the student find the five that will set her paper apart? With the Web evolving by the minute, can classroom teachers alone, stressed by assessment testing and ever-growing paperwork burdens, help students figure this all out? As the information landscape becomes ever more complex, why does a school district want to abandon its professional guides to it?
Mark Moran is CEO of Dulcinea Media, a Web publisher that offers free content and tools that teach students how to use the Web effectively.