It's all there on the net, if you can find it

Young people have the world at their fingertips but they need to know how to phrase their questions, says Ian McCracken

Banging her head against a brick wall" was how a colleague in England described her experiences when she tried to get pupils to use the internet to conduct a topic-related search. In no time at all, the online forum to which she had posted her frustration was bombarded with agreement, confirmation and many dramatic examples from librarians and teachers across the UK.

There were a lot of common factors in people's observations which do not square with some commonly held beliefs about pupils and the net. While it is undoubtedly true that pupils enjoy using computers, the type of usage that they enjoy is usually associated with exciting, interactive games. It is quite a jump to assert that this means they will equally enjoy learning.

Pupils are also expected to have learnt a number of ICT skills that they can use in class, though it is often unclear what these skills actually are. A recent HMI document, Using ICT in Learning and Teaching, mentions these skills frequently, but never once defines what they actually are.

We have brought together examples and illustrations from all over in order to "codify" them and then given them the name "assumption skills". Some of them are:

* The assumption that there will be material at an appropriate level for pupils (just because the words are on a screen doesn't change the level of reading ability required to comprehend them).

* That the material will be interesting and engaging (but will it ever match pupil expectations bred from exposure to games and similar sites?).

* That pupils can identify, utilise and manipulate keywords - and can do this for any subject in the curriculum - in order to actually find this material (has a teacher verified this first?).

* That pupils know how to use a search engine to find appropriate sites - many pupils will either type in the entire question, or will use a single word.

* That pupils know how to "refine" a search - the Learning and Teaching Scotland site is one that tries to address this issue through two worksheets, but has introduced a whole range of concepts, such as "narrowing" and "widening" a search without explaining them properly, or even giving example.

* That when pupils do find a relevant website they will be able to navigate it properly - one look at the BBC Homepage, for example, shows the need for very advanced e-literacy abilities since the information cannot be read in a right to left manner, nor from top to bottom - pupils require not just traditional literacy skills, but much more besides.

* That when (or indeed if) the desired information is actually found, the pupil will be able to extract relevant facts and put them into their own words, not just "copy and paste".

Some parts of the country are beginning to recognise that this whole range of skills - what one might call e-literacy or information literacy skills - have been missed from the equation.

However, all the steps that are currently being taken are local and piecemeal. While even experienced practitioners throughout the UK are baffled when pupils, even after study skills courses, apparently ignore all they have been taught and just type single words into Google, no one (as far I know) has done any serious research into why this is continuing to happen.

My own theories, for what they are worth, are either that pupils think it takes less mental effort to look through hits than to think of keywords, or that they simply cannot contextualise the whole keyword notion.

What is needed is an overview and a co-ordinated approach through the country. Such an approach would ensure that all staff (from those in teacher education institutions to headteachers) were fully informed of all the issues. It would also ensure that any material nationally produced had been checked for any assumptions and that it all followed clear guidelines.

Information skills would thus be embedded throughout the curriculum in an easily identifiable and coherent manner and, above all, the whole situation would allow all research, all examples of good practice and all difficulties encountered to be shared. This is not such an idealistic notion as one might suppose. There is already an organisation, JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee), that does much of this (and more) for colleges at a Scottish and UK level.

Such an overview is not just crucial because it is integral to the whole notion of lifelong learning, but because reports such as that from the curriculum review group are stressing that pupils must become successful learners. Without a full understanding of and ability to use information literacy and all its associated skills this is an impossible challenge.

Ian McCracken is learning resource manager at Govan High in Glasgow.

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