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Researchers find kids need better online academic skills

by Beth Krane - November 13, 2006

When researchers in the Neag School of Education asked 25 seventh-graders from middle schools across the state to review a web site devoted to a fictitious endangered species, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, the results troubled them:

  • All 25 students fell for the Internet hoax;
  • All but one of the 25 rated the site as "very credible;"
  • Most struggled when asked to produce proof - or even clues - that the web site was false, even after the UConn researchers told them it was; and
  • Some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus really exists.

The students - identified as their schools' most proficient online readers - are taking part in a federal research project, funded by a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The project is currently underway in six Connecticut middle schools.

"These results are cause for serious concern," says the project's lead researcher, Don Leu, who holds the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology at UConn, "because anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today's students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there."

Leu also co-directs the New Literacies Research Lab, the only academic research center of its kind nationwide.

He established it when he arrived at UConn five years ago.

"At the New Literacies Research Lab, we see the Internet as this generation's defining technology for information, communication, and learning," says Leu.

But, he adds, classroom instruction in online reading and other "new literacies" is "woefully lacking."

Douglas Hartman, professor of education, and Julie Coiro, assistant research professor of education, are the lab's other co-directors.

The lab's full research team, which includes a past president of the National Reading Conference and the editor of the Journal of Literacy Research , comprises four professors, six doctoral students, three undergraduate students, and a project coordinator.

Members of the team say that reading comprehension on the Internet requires more complex skills than simply reading a book.

Reading search engine results; critically evaluating the veracity of online information; synthesizing information from various hyperlinks; and communicating clearly via e-mail, are among the many new reading and writing skills required online.

The aim of the federal study, conducted in collaboration with researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina, is to refine and pilot a model for teaching these new online skills to adolescent students living in poverty, who are at risk of dropping out and may not have access to the latest technology at home.

"We believe proficiency in online reading has the potential to boost gains not only in English, but also in math and the sciences, and to reduce school drop-out rates," Hartman says.

However, most schools have not had the time or resources to integrate effective online literacy skills into their curriculum, he adds.

And they don't have the incentive: There's not a single state in the country that formally evaluates students' online skills or literacies the way they assess traditional book reading, says Leu.

In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act has forced troubled school districts in particular to focus their energies on traditional reading instruction.

Professor Don Leu, the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology, with his research team.
Professor Don Leu, the John and Maria Neag Chair in Literacy and Technology, with his research team.
Photo by Alan Grant

In a separate study, conducted at Mabelle B. Avery Middle School in Somers, Conn., Leu and his colleagues used reading comprehension assessments they've developed themselves to measure students' online literacy.

The assessments evaluate students' ability to complete specific online research tasks, incorporating tools like blogging and instant messaging.

They have found that some of the state's weakest readers as determined by standard reading assessments - including some students who have been labeled as learning disabled - turn out to be some of the best readers using new online literacy assessments.

For the federal research project, the researchers are working with seventh-graders at six urban middle schools in five districts in Connecticut (East Hartford, New London, Norwich, Putnam, and Windham), while the South Carolina researchers work with seventh-graders in rural schools.

During the 2005-2006 school year - the first year of the grant - the team surveyed hundreds of students about their Internet usage and online reading habits.

In Connecticut, more than half the students at each school site said they are instructed to use the Internet for homework assignments less than once a week, despite their frequent use of the Internet outside of school.

In addition, only 1 percent to 10 percent of students, depending on the school, said they always check the accuracy of information they read online.

The team also worked intensively with the 25 seventh-graders in each state they identified as their respective schools' most proficient online readers.

They used video recording software to observe how the students navigate the Internet, and asked them to use a model called Internet Reciprocal Teaching, developed by the New Literacies Research Lab, to speak aloud as they completed each online task, so others can understand the skills and strategies they're using as they surf.

"We wanted to get inside these students' heads to understand how they use the Internet and why," Coiro says.

This school year, the researchers are exploring different ways of teaching seventh-grade students in two classrooms in Connecticut and three in South Carolina.

They are doing so by co-teaching in those classrooms, which have new wireless laptops labs courtesy of the grant.

In the grant's third and final year, the researchers will pilot their Internet Reciprocal Teaching model with the study's full student population and evaluate gains from the use of the model.

Leu says Connecticut is in the bottom one third of states when it comes to integrating Internet into classroom instruction, lagging behind such states as Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.

He blames the state's "If it's not broken, don't fix it" mentality, citing the fact that Connecticut almost always tops the nation when it comes to measures of traditional literacy.

Adds Leu, "I'm concerned other states and other countries that are faster to embrace new technologies and skills for teaching new forms of literacy are going to leap frog right over us before long."

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