School Libraries Cultivate Digital Literacy

In Georgia and other places across the country, library staff members work with teachers to mix digital literacy into curriculum so students can thrive in the Digital Age.

by Tanya Roscorla / January 4, 2011 0
technology camera At David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens, Ga., media specialist Andy Plemmons works with two students to learn how to use the technology they need for the Barrow Oral History Project. | Photo courtesy of Andy Plemmons.

As school libraries lose funding and staff, they're looking for ways to help people understand what they do and how it impacts student learning.

And in an age where digital literacy and information access skills reign, the librarian plays an important role, said Mary Barbee, coordinator of media services and technology training at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, Ga. Each school in the district has certified librarians and paraprofessionals in the media center.

“We are fortunate to be in a district that values media centers and media programs and the role of a professional educator as a media specialist,” she said.

In Georgia, library staff members work with teachers to mix digital literacy into the curriculum.

Digital literacy skills

But librarians struggle to define digital literacy.

In the white paper Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action, professor Renee Hobbs from Temple University mentions skills that show digital and media literacy, including accessing information, solving problems, working collaboratively, communicating effectively, and analyzing data and evidence.

When the American Library Association asked public libraries what kinds of digital literacy training they provided, the survey answers varied greatly, said Marijke Visser, assistant director of the Office for Information Technology Policy within the association.

“So that is telling us that in the library community, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what digital literacy means,” she said.

Librarians want to help students and the general public become information literate so they can evaluate resources, she said.

5 digital literacy challenges (and how to overcome them)

But before they can teach students how to evaluate information, libraries have to overcome these five challenges.

1. Access to technology

The technology landscape changes rapidly, and Gwinnett County Public Schools wants to be on the forefront of technology adoption to keep pace with its students, Barbee said. But at the same time, district staff have to make responsible technology decisions that correlate to instructional gain.

“In our district, we make all decisions related to digital literacy and to technology very carefully because our core business is teaching and learning, and the technology is a tool that gets us there.”

At David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens, Ga., a lab of 24 computers serves 400 students. Frequently, students complete skill-based reading comprehension and math lessons on computer software in the lab. That limits the time that classes can do digital projects.

Media specialist Andy Plemmons tackles this challenge by building a case for why the school needs various technology from the Clarke County School District. His wish list includes another computer lab where classes can work on projects.

Students from David C. Barrow Elementary School in Athens, Ga., interview a former Barrow student during the Barrow Oral History Project. | Photo courtesy of Andy Plemmons

He's also writing grants. With grant funding, he purchased a set of 12 digital cameras and three flip cameras. Previously, the school had two digital cameras for teachers, but none for students.  

"I feel very strongly about students being able to be creators of information rather than just receiving information," Plemmons said. "And so, part of being able to create information is to be able to use all of these technologies to be creative."

Through the Barrow Oral History project, students used the cameras to capture interviews with former Barrow Elementary students from the 1920s to recent times. After the interview, they edited audio clips, loaded them onto TeacherTube and embedded them in a Web page.

Plemmons worked with fifth-grade teachers on the project, which supported multiple standards and incorporated digital literacy.

2. Filtering

Fighting for access to blocked websites is an uphill battle, Plemmons said.

"It’s like building a court case for each website, and then it just kind of gets tabled and not ever discussed, and it’s time consuming to push and push for something that you feel like nobody’s listening to.”

Without access to sites such as Facebook, YouTube and blogs, it's more challenging to teach students how to use and evaluate those tools in context, said Buffy Hamilton, media specialist and teacher-librarian at Creekview High School in Canton, Ga. But her district has overcome that challenge.

Cherokee County School District administrators are open to reviewing their initial filtering decision, and when they don't overturn the decision, that doesn't always mean "no" forever. The next time, Hamilton approaches her request differently or explains her plan better.

If the tool is approved, she keeps administrators posted on how she uses it with students in The Unquiet Library.

Even though some sites have positive educational uses, they have negative uses that harm students, so Gwinnett County Public Schools blocks them, Barbee said. When teachers want  access to a blocked site, they request a site evaluation, which district staff do within the next day or two.

The district is considering a more roles-based filtering system that will allow teachers to show students a site or parts of a site without giving them broad-range access. But with educational alternatives to sites such as YouTube, educators have options to teach specific content.

“I don’t think that it’s as big of a challenge as some people might feel like it is because I think we have become very adept at finding good alternatives,” she said. 

3. Sharing the importance of digital literacy

Another challenge involves helping everyone understand that digital literacy isn't optional anymore, Hamilton said.

Media specialist and teacher-librarian Buffy Hamilton helps a student at Creekview High School in Canton, Ga., work on a Media 21 project. | Photo from The Unquiet Library's flickr photostream

Through collaboration, school librarians and teachers fold digital literacy skills seamlessly into information tasks, she said. While we say students are digital natives, digital natives don't exist.

“A lot of times adults are saying that young people know more than what they really do," Hamilton said.

Her district supports and expects collaboration between teachers and libraries, which helps facilitate learning experiences and conversations that improve digital literacy.

In 2009, Hamilton formed a rich collaborative partnership with 10th-grade English teacher Susan Lester. Together, they started the Media 21 project to help students learn through social media and cloud computing. As a result, research, content creation and multiple literacies became part of students' daily learning experiences.

4. Instructional time

We need to teach digital literacy, but don't have formal curriculum for it, Barbee said. That's why Gwinnett County Public Schools relies on librarians, technology coordinators and classroom teachers to collaborate and infuse digital literacy into content areas.

Teaching curriculum and preparing students for high-stakes overwhelms classroom teachers. But because of the district's commitment to the media program, teachers have someone who can come alongside them, she said.

5. Teaching young children

At Barrow Elementary, Plemmons works with students from ages 4 to 11. And at that early age, it's hard to teach them how to find reliable information.

“I know that is a challenge elementary, middle and high school," Plemmons said. "But especially in the littler kids, they believe everything that you tell them, and they believe everything that they see.”

He attacks that challenge by teaching them to be good searchers for information online and in print. If he can teach them to be good searchers, then he can teach them to evaluate the information.

Digital literacy instruction

He's taught his fourth- and fifth-grade students to find images through Creative Commons that they can attribute. And he's helped them understand that when you buy a song online, you're buying the rights for personal listening use, not to use the entire song in a digital project.

Plemmons starts these conversations, and the students continue them.

“Once we get to the creation stage and they’re in the lab, they start discovering things and teaching each other things that even I didn’t realize when we started,” Plemmons said.

At these three libraries in Georgia — and in libraries across the country — library staff overcome challenges to teach students the digital literacy skills they need.

“At the end of the day, our emphasis is on learning and providing learning experiences and access to information in as many formats as possible," Hamilton said. "We’re not just the book literacy anymore.”