Attention, educators: training high school students early in digital research, partnering them with a school librarian, and providing time to practice skills can instill a high level of confidence during college. This triple play of digital literacy education was affirmed by preliminary observations of a study underway by EBSCO Information Services, an online database provider.
“The seeds for researching and training for informational literacy are planted in grade nine,” says Kate Lawrence, EBSCO’s senior director of user research, who is running the study. “There appears to be a relationship between what students were calling research boot camp in grade nine and the confidence they feel in conducting research at a college level.”
Lawrence and her team have run 22 user sessions, interviewing high school, college, and graduate students from the San Francisco Bay Area to Massachusetts, where EBSCO is based, to get a full sense of the literacy training college students receive. EBSCO launched the study to refine its products aimed at college students and make them better dovetail with how students conduct research. Lawrence instead discovered that the training students receive before college can be more crucial than what happens during their university years.
Being prepared as early as their high school freshman year had a positive impact on the higher education experience.When training happened in a partnership with a teacher and a school librarian, the impact was even greater. Sending students to the library to ask their media specialist questions wasn’t as effective as having teachers and librarians working together to instill research skills.
The results of this three-way training are “powerful,” says Lawrence. When the training was repeated, so students could practice their skills, the results were even better.
“You don’t learn how to run the day of a race. You have practice,” says Lawrence. Similarly, “There’s something about learning research skills through a series of exercise and drills… before you apply them to a particular assignment.”
However, a deep seeding of literacy skills in high school won’t necessarily shake students’ reliance on Google. The search giant shapes how high schoolers seek information, even those who’ve had digital research training, Lawrence says, as well as students’ expectations of online research. She adds that kids won’t click to the second page of Google results because they expect the algorithm to place what they need up top.
“Google is their oxygen,” she says. “It’s such a fundamental part of their lives that when we ask what their top five sites are, they don’t even mention Google.”
Students often appear to apply their Google experience to other sources, particularly school library websites. Libraries frequently highlight all their research avenues on the front page: online databases, catalogues, publication finders. But this rich stew of information can confound students who are accustomed to Google’s clean interface.
“They’re overwhelmed by the maze of the library website,” says Lawrence. “They figure out what works. That becomes their pathway and what they will do in the future.”
What can shake this status quo in student research? Having a mentor or teacher whom a student wants to impress, or a subject they’re passionate about, can make them realize that Google isn’t robust enough to serve their needs. Lawrence hopes the study’s findings will lead her research team to craft search products that students can use intuitively.
“We will educate customers about our findings and best practices,” she says. In addition, “We can help students who are on the road to becoming ‘informivores,’ but aren’t quite there.”