Quarterly for Education and Technology: Winning with Information Literacy

Winning with Information Literacy

Jamie McKenzie


SCENARIO ONE — HIGH SCHOOL OF THE FUTURE The visitors to the high school are shown lab after lab with shining new computers. They peek into other classrooms and note six more computers at the back of each room. This school is wired! Every computer is networked to the World Wide Web.

But something is missing. Something troubles the visitors.

School of the future it may be, but most of the teachers and most of the students are carrying on with business as usual, and few of the computers on proud display are actually being used. The labs are pretty much empty. The classroom computers are glowing with brilliant screensavers.

“It’s right before exam week,” the tour guide explains. “You’d normally see much heavier usage, but they’re buried in review sessions.”


Early adopting school districts are learning that equipment and networking by themselves do not work miracles and are not educational panaceas. They have discovered that classroom practice does not shift automatically once rooms are networked. They have seen a disappointing share of their teachers making frequent integrated use of these new technologies. And they note little real impact on student achievement.

It is growing apparent that installation of networks without a substantial investment in program development and professional development is not likely to make much difference in the life of students or teachers.

The good news is that a clear focus upon information literacy as a program goal, combined with a major emphasis on professional development, can translate into frequent use of the network as well as improved student performance. Skeptics and reluctants become advocates and frequent users.


Data reported in Education Week’s Technology Counts ’99 show that teachers are not making widespread use of their networks now that many more schools and classrooms are wired. They also found that most teachers reported that they were not well prepared to use new technologies (http://www.edweek.org/ sreports/tc99/tables/us-tl.htm).

Studies conducted by University of California Irvine professor Henry Jay Becker indicate that “traditional” teachers (the majority) are much less likely to allow computer Internet use than are “constructivist” teachers (See “Internet Use by Teachers,” 2/12/99, http://www.crito.uci.edu/TLC/FINDINGS/ internet-use/startpage.htm). Becker found that many of these teachers blame state standards for their reluctance. They find teaching to the standards so time consuming that efficiency concerns prevail. Because constructivist strategies are seen as inefficient, they are avoided.

In a related study, Louisiana researchers (Rakes, et. al., 1999) found that few teachers in their study applied constructivist approaches to their classrooms or made much use of the Internet (See the December 1999 issue of the International Journal of Educational Technology, http://www.outreach.uiuc.edu/ijet/vln2/rakes/index.html).

We are seeing evidence that the majority of teachers are not inclined to use the new technologies and report feeling ill prepared to do so. In any attempt to involve a broader group of teachers in the frequent use of networks, we must address both of these dimensions: inclination as well as preparation.


Literacy may be the unifying theme most capable of enlisting broad-based support for the use of new technologies in schools. Literacy refers to the cluster of skills required to make meaning of one’s world across a mix of media — everything from text, graphics, and art to numbers, body language, and cultural cues.

The reason literacy can prove unifying is its dramatic relevance to many of the most challenging portions of the new state curriculum standards. Students possessing powerful information literacy skills are more likely to perform well on tasks requiring inference and interpretation, on items where the answer must be built rather than found.

Take, for example, the following item for eighth graders from the May 1998 MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] (http://www.doe.mass.edu/mcas/may98/).

After reading the poem “Caged Bird,” students are asked five questions, all of which call for some level of interpretation. The first four are multiple choice; the fifth calls for an open-ended response:

5. What conditions of the human spirit do the “caged bird” and the “free bird” represent? Explain your answer using detailed evidence from the poem.

Related Learning Standard for Question 5

Students will identify, analyze, and apply knowledge of the structure, elements, and theme of poetry and provide evidence from the text to support their understanding.

The answer is not simply waiting in the passage. This is no treasure hunt. Here, the skills of trivial pursuit pay few dividends. Students need the same kind of thinking that Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew used. They must build a hypothesis and then search through the clues to solve the mystery. These are the same skills required for information literacy.

Information literacy asks students to move through three stages when trying to solve a problem or make a decision:

Prospecting [right arrow] Interpreting [right arrow] Creating good new ideas

1) Prospecting — locating pertinent information that will help cast light on the challenging question. In the past, students were mainly involved in gathering information for topical research. With the advent of electronic information sources, they suffer from information abundance.

While there is a surfeit of information, much of it is unreliable and irrelevant. Pertinence and credibility have taken on much more importance. As a result, all students must learn effective search logic and strategies to sort through the info-glut. They must also learn discernment w the ability to select the most useful and credible information.

2) Interpreting — being able to find meaning in the data or information gathered. It does little good to amass huge data sets or gather dozens of photographs if one cannot “crunch” the numbers to determine relationships between variables or cannot find evidence of social and economic conditions contained within the photographs. In the oldfashioned school research paper, a premium was placed upon collection of information. The new research requires thought and invention.

3) Creating good new ideas — being able to fashion answers to essential questions, invent solutions to challenging problems, or develop well-considered choices for difficult decisions.

While the skills to perform well on these demanding state tests can be developed using classical information technologies such as books, networks are especially powerful ways of enhancing those skills while preparing students for the kinds of electronic reading and problem solving they will be doing as adults.

Many teachers are skeptical about networks and the Internet because they see apparently frivolous multimedia reports and surfing as distractions from their “real work.” They are already concerned about time pressures to cover the immense curriculum content demanded by most state standards while teaching higher-level thinking skills. They are reluctant to divert time away from what are increasingly viewed as survival activities to technology activities that are seen as diversionary and peripheral.

But standards-based technology units are quite another matter. When teachers see a direct payoff for their efforts, they are far more likely to embrace the activity. (See the November 1999 issue of From Now On, which provides a full description of how this strategy works along with a number of examples: “Teaching to the Standards,” http://fno.org/nov99/standards.html.)

When teachers apply these strategies to classroom units, we sometimes see startling transformations.


Sarah Walters is known in her Massachusetts community as a highly effective, veteran social studies teacher. Her middle school classes are well organized, lively, and rigorous. She is viewed as demanding but fair.

For two decades, Sarah had been reluctant to climb aboard the technology bandwagon. She had remained unconvinced that computers would add much of value to her already crowded agenda.

But she changed her mind when she was shown some standards-based, technology-rich lessons that were designed for efficiency and high impact. Another social studies teacher sat down at the computer with her and introduced her to several examples at http://questioning.org.

One of these examples was right on the money for Sarah: Called What Childhood? (http://questioning.org/module/ child, html), the unit takes students to the Kids Count Web site to decide which states are hardest on young people.

This single-period activity, well structured and demanding, directly addresses one of the Massachusetts Social Studies Standards (see “Learning Standard 3,” p.30).

Learning Standard 3: Research, Evidence, & Point of View

Students will acquire the ability to frame questions that can be answered by historical study and research; to collect, evaluate, and employ information from primary and secondary sources, and to apply it in oral and written presentations. They will understand the many kinds and uses of evidence; and by comparing competing historical narratives, they will differentiate historical fact from historical interpretation and from fiction.

Sarah was excited by the possibility of using computers in this way but nervous about the chances that something would go wrong with the equipment. Her own technology skills were quite good, as she had learned to use a computer at home to do research and plan lessons, but she was uncertain regarding her role as teacher with a room full of students on computers.

Fortunately, Sarah’s district had invested in “technology coaches” to provide support for just such occasions. The same teacher who showed Sarah the lesson in the first place had been assigned full time for one year to assist other teachers with their use of the network. Delighted by Sarah’s enthusiasm, she rolled up her sleeves and partnered with Sarah so the lesson could be tried out with little risk.

Students were assigned to teams and prepped for the activity the day before their time in the computer lab. When the lab period arrived, both teachers were impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the teams located, saved, and then analyzed the data. Motivation was high, time on task was excellent, and the level of thinking was very much in accord with the state standard.

Sarah was quick to concede that the network had added a whole new dimension to her class by making such rich data resources readily available. “This is something I could not have done before,” she admitted. “And it was no big deal!”


One aspect of these units that wins over reluctant, late-adopting teachers is the structure provided by heavily scaffolded lessons. Scaffolding is a way of building lessons that provides clear directions, clarifies purpose, keeps students on task, offers assessment to clarify expectations, and points students to worthy sources (see “Examples of Scaffolding,” below). In addition, scaffolding reduces uncertainty, surprise, and disappointment; delivers efficiency; and creates momentum. (To learn more, consult the December 1999 issue of From Now On: “Scaffolding for Success,” http://fno.org/dec99/scaffold.html.)


Perhaps the greatest failing of the recent push to network schools has been the lack of attention devoted to the preparation of teachers to change their daily practice in ways that might take full advantage of the new tools and resources.

Schools have offered too little in the way of technology-related professional development, and what they have offered has rarely addressed the true needs of teachers considering a whole new array of tools.

After two decades of emphasizing software and applications training, it is time to consider alternative strategies more likely to reach a broader population of teachers. While the predominant training model across the land is hours and hours of training in programs such as PowerPoint and Netscape, this approach fails to address the most important aspects of integrating new technologies into the daily life of classrooms and ignores the special needs of reluctant, late-adopting teachers. We can enlist the active support of more teachers by investing in adult learning and invention.

An overemphasis upon software training is based on (at least) ten myths (see “The 10 Myths Behind the Software Trap,” p. 31).

If we shift from training to adult learning, we can involve colleagues in activities that match each person’s interests, needs, style, and developmental readiness. We can also focus more on teaching and learning issues that are critically important to them. We make curriculum their starting point. We show them how to maximize student results. We use professional development as a persuasive tool (see “Adult Learning Possibilities for Literacy and Technology”).

Activities might include everything from workplace visits, technology coaches, and study groups to invention teams and curriculum development projects. The choices are tailored to match local conditions and resources.

The design of adult learning is based upon several fundamental beliefs.

1) Learners make choices from a rich and varied menu of learning experiences so as to improve the match between the style and the readiness of the learner with the activity offered.

2) Learners take lots of responsibility for planning, acting, and growing.

3) Adults learn best when they feel ownership and control.

As we shift school cultures to support adult learning, professional development is experienced as a personal journey of growth and discovery that engages the learner on a daily basis. One learns by doing and exploring … by trying, by failing, by changing and adapting strategies, and by overcoming obstacles after many trials. Teachers often find themselves learning in teams with lots of support and encouragement. Much of their time is devoted to the construction of classroom units and lessons.

School cultures have not traditionally honored the principles of adult learning. (These principles are fully outlined in Adult Learning Theory: A Resource Guide, by Teresa Crafton, http:/ /odin.indstate.edu/levell.dir/adultlrn.html. Many of the adult learning strategies for technology and literacy were described in a series on professional development published by eSchool News during the past two years and have now been republished as a collection in How Teachers Learn Technology Best, McKenzie, 1999, at http://staffdevelop.org/howlearn.html.) One of these strategies — the use of curriculum invention teams to develop the kinds of technology-rich, scaffolded lessons mentioned earlier — is described here. Most of the units listed as examples of scaffolding were created by the kinds of teacher teams described in the accompanying chart.



workplace visits

school visits

peer coaching

“just-in-time learning”

literacy challenges on adult issues

“just-in-time support”

technology planning cadre

conferences (technology related)

conferences (farther afield)

project based learning

role reversals


summer internships

buddy system

professional library/manuals

maintenance free hardware

student tech aides

external mentors

technology coaches

study groups

invention teams

curriculum development


informal tutors

help lines

laptops at home

online Web-based learning

summer reading

listservs & bulletin boards

user groups

personal projects

expert task list

expert list

online tutorials




free subscriptions

Because teachers often complain that they have little time to translate new possibilities into actual lesson plans and classroom activities, it pays to devote half of the professional development budget to the funding of just such unit plan construction.

Remarkable growth can occur when teams gather for the purpose of creating research modules and scaffolded lessons. An especially encouraging outcome of such teams can be the convergence between early- and late-adopting teachers when they are united for such useful work. Even more importantly, there is a much greater likelihood that teachers will turn around and actually use these technology units than would usually be tree.

How does Invention work? The team sits down with state standards, sample test items, and the local curriculum to determine which learning activities might offer the greatest return on their investment of time and energy. Within a few hours, they are prospecting for good Web sites and forming the careful directions that will speed their students along the desired path.

Why does Invention work?

1. Invention promotes understanding. The invention process requires teachers to analyze learning experiences in great depth, breaking them down into components and noting how they relate to each other before re-assembling them into a new version appropriate for their own classrooms.

2. Invention improves match. Unlike packaged programs and imported programs, inventions are developed with particular classrooms in mind. They are customized to match the needs, interests, and abilities of those who will enjoy them.

3. Invention increases ownership. Teachers who construct their own units end up caring about their success. These plans, strategies, and tools become part of their teaching repertoires. These lessons are unlikely to sit on any shelves because there has been too great an investment of energy and self for them to languish unused.

4. Invention breeds familiarity. Invention provides a sense of comfort and calm. Having lived with the nuts and bolts of the unit during its birth process, the inventors know every detail. Unlike so many packaged technology programs brought into schools, homemade programs can still fears and quiet anxieties.

(For a complete description of this technique, see “Invention as Learning,” eSchool News, October 1998, at http://fno.org/ eschool/invent.html.)


The rule of thumb generally applied to the funding of program and professional development is to set aside at least 25 percent of the project budget for these activities. Failure to fund at such a healthy level condemns the district and its schools to slim, sporadically offered programs unlikely to extend network usage much beyond 20 to 30 percent of the staff.

Technology in Education 1999, a report from Market Data Retrieval sharing survey responses from school districts (program administrators responding), at http:// www.schooldata.com/publications3.html, claims that districts are devoting 14 percent of their total technology budgets to professional development, but this self-reported district data seems inflated. The same report states that 22 percent of the teacher survey respondents claimed no technology-related professional development at all, while 39 percent reported one to five hours.

Funding these projects is a daunting challenge, especially when the hardware and software companies have worked out a 30-month obsolescence cycle that forces schools to keep spending more and more on equipment. So it turns out that one can ill afford to purchase the equipment without continual professional development. In this case, strategic deployment of fewer computers makes better sense. Fewer computers used by enthusiastic, well-prepared teachers will provide more true access to students than twice their number unsupported by professional development programs.

While it might seem unnecessary to repeat this point, here it is again: Schools are better off with half as many computers being used four times as often. They would be wise to invest in learning for literacy and use rather than to put all their eggs into the hardware and infrastructure basket.


Explorers’ Homeport — Fifth-grade social studies


Planetary Adventure- Fifth-grade science (Planets)


Grand Prairie, Texas, Research modules


Baltimore County Research modules


Module Maker — Offers a step-by-step method for the construction of online research modules with an emphasis upon scaffolding.


WebQuests — Offers pages describing a step-by-step method for the creation of WebQuests with an emphasis upon scaffolding.


Victorian WebQuests


Blue Web’n


New South Wales Research modules



Myth 1 — Knowledge of software translates into the delivery of technology-rich lessons. Additional hours of software training translate into additional hours of classroom usage.

Myth 2 –Teachers respond best to instructors who are super skilled in the application.

Myth 3 — Classes are the most productive adult learning system.

Myth 4 –Teachers cannot teach themselves software.

Myth 5 — Skills are primary, and feelings are secondary.

Myth 6 –This is about technology, not teaching and learning.

Myth 7 — One size fits all: learning styles, pacing, and developmental differences do not matter.

Myth 8 — Learning is most productive when experienced out of context.

Myth 9 –Teachers cannot consider classroom issues unless they are first firmly grounded in all of the software programs.

Myth 10 — There are no other options.

First published in the July 1999 issue of eSchool News

Jamie McKenzie is editor of From Now On — The Educational Technology Journal, a Web-based “zine” which has been published since 1991 (http://fno.org). From 1993-97, he was Director of Libraries, Media, and Technology for the Bellingham (WA) Public Schools. He now supports technology planning and professional development for school districts across North America and in places like Australia and New Zealand. McKenzie has published and spoken extensively on the introduction of new technologies to schools. His most recent book is Beyond Technology: Questioning, Research and the Information Literate School (FNO Press 2000).

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