Note: The following is the first in a series of posts I wrote for my Masters in Library and Information Science program.
My last year of teaching, I taught a unit on academic research to a room full of high school seniors. It came at the end of the year, and by that time, I had wholly disassociated myself from teaching in a formal setting. Still, it was something I was particularly excited to teach. I had developed a passion for research in college, and it grew as I entered grad school and then the workforce. This would be the lesson I’d thrive in. This would be the lesson that might revive my love of teaching.
Unfortunately, it fell flat.
I could go on about the reasons why my students didn’t truly appreciate this unit. That I wasn’t given enough time to fully explore the lesson; that my students’ previous teachers didn’t care enough to explore the intricacies of academic research BEFORE the final semester of their senior year of high school; that I had stuck too close to the established curriculum. I could go on, but I won’t. The students I expected to do well did so; my trouble-makers didn’t take the unit seriously, some even buying their reports off the internet. Everyone in between fell into the cracks. It’s my fault. I wasn’t that great of a teacher. This fact was only confirmed by one project from a mediocre student whom I had come to expect to do his level best to complete his assignment.
His final paper was well-written, to say the least. He had mastered English usage, so no problem there. And the fact that he was allowed to research his favorite topic–video games–meant that there was sufficient passion for the assignment. Where he fell flat was his use of sources. The unit had used plenty of lessons regarding types of sources and how to cite them. Each activity allowed students to complete appropriate research and develop their papers. I thought that I had given students enough resources to complete digital research on their topics. That was until I read an essay on video games that cited a Cracked.com blog post.
As with other moments, this occurrence sticks in my memory because I could have done better. Had I realized that high school students would have simply Googled their topic and use whatever source they found, I would have warned them against such behavior. Indeed, this was the start of an ongoing trend in information-seeking behavior that spans generations. What was only peaking around the corner in 2014 would become a national phenomenon in 2016. With the advent of “fake news” and the intrigue surrounding Facebook and “Russian bots,” the citizenry acknowledged what information professionals already knew: you can’t believe everything you read online. What’s more, you can’t use said information in an academic context.
It is for this reason that I’ve chosen to investigate secondary school students as an information community. It has become a universal understanding that teenagers are all “digital natives.” But the question remains: do they possess the capabilities to think critically about the information they encounter online? How much hand-wringing around the need for “digital literacy” instruction is actually warranted? Does the information community exist solely in the digital world, or are we operating on yet another assumption about “kids today”?
And without much more ado, let’s look at secondary students as an information community within Fisher and Durance’s (2003) framework:
1. “…information communities exploit the informationsharing qualities of technology and yield multiplier effects for stakeholders (those affected by actions of the communities).”
Of all the information communities, it’s safe to say that adolescents (specifically of the later Millenial and Generation Z categories) have been able to leverage technology as a means of informationsharing. In a 2018 study, Pew Research Center found that 95% have access to smartphones, and 45% admit to being online “almost constantly” (Anderson & Jiang, 2018). In the same survey, teens identified YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat as the three most popular platforms, with Facebook at a distant fourth and diminishing in popularity. As a third component, respondents were asked whether or not social media had a positive impact on their lives. Most teens felt that social media had neither a positive or negative effect. However, respondents who believed in the positive impact of social media cited it as the best sources of news and information.
2. “…information communities emphasize collaboration among diverse groups that provide information and may share joint responsibility and resources (including in-kind contributions).”
The wide-reaching net that is social media ensures a collaborative environment where diverse populations of teens are encouraged to contribute to a digital store of information. It’s worth noting that the Pew study cited above brings wealth, gender, and race into account when figuring statistics. Indeed, regardless of race, class, or gender, teens are on social media. Even if they don’t have a smartphone or computer of their own, 95% of teens have access to such devices. And with that, comes the opportunity to engage with various online communities on a near-constant basis. “For the most part, teens tend to use similar platforms regardless of their demographic characteristics,” according to the study. The only difference being that teens from lower-income households are more likely to use Facebook as an informational platform (Anderson & Jiang, 2018).
3. “…information communities anticipate and often form around people’s needs to access and use information in ways that people perceive as helpful.”
The Pew study cites a series of perceived benefits of social media as detailed by survey respondents. Among other positive aspects mentioned by teenagers is the opportunity to connect with friends and families, access information, and express oneself creatively. What teenagers have done for generations at a localized level (visiting friends and family, keeping diaries and creating art, and conducting research in libraries), modern teenagers are doing on a global platform. This offers a freer exchange of ideas but threatens more scrutiny.
In response, libraries and educators seek to assist teenagers in developing the tools needed to protect themselves online.
4. “…information communities remove barriers to information about acquiring needed services and participating in civic life.”
When it comes to civic engagement, adolescents have at least two means of engaging in civic engagement. Most recently, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida caught the country’s attention by staging a social movement in favor of tighter gun laws via social media. Not all the students were adept with the group’s chosen platform from the start. Indeed, Emma Gonzalez, one of the figureheads of the movement, claimed to be clueless on Twitter until the platform was deemed the best way to disseminate information.
On the analog front, literature targeted at Young Adult readers is focused more and more on civic engagement and activism. From the anti-autocratic messages in the Harry Potter novels and the social messages in series such as The Hunger Games and Divergent to nonfiction focused on community issues and activists of note, YA authors seek to encourage teens to think about the societies they live in and how they might be able to affect the kind of change they wish to see.
Not to miss out on an educational opportunity, the American Library Association released a pamphlet for public libraries that detailed how librarians can engage the civic-minded teens in their community through initiatives and digital literacy programs.
5. “…information communities foster social connectedness within the larger community.”
As a way of globalizing the various elements that create the teen information community, it’s important to note that the use of social media and the internet means a broader information community than simply that focused on adolescents. For better or worse, teens are having more of a say in how our broader culture is shaped. More teens are finding themselves thrust into social revolution (as with the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High). Still, some would question the amount of liberty “today’s youth” have over inserting their own opinions into the mix (see: comedian, Bill Maher’s campaign against “Social Justice Warriors” on Twitter).
All the same, teens have more of an opportunity to comment on and create culture, which can be a positive change, given the right guidance.
Anderson M, Jiang J. Teens, social media & technology 2018. Policy File. 2018 https://search.proquest.com/docview/2063163964.
Corbett, S. (2018). Resist, Persist, Publish. Publishers Weekly, 265(19), 23–29. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lls&AN=129496915&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Dankowski, T. (2018). Engaging Civic-Minded Teens: Data literacy fosters YA participation and innovation. American Libraries, 49(3/4), 38–41. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.libaccess.sjlibrary.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lls&AN=128259021&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Fisher, K. & Durrance, J. (2003). Information communities. In K. Christensen & D. Levinson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of community From the village to the virtual world (Vol. 1, pp. 658-660). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. doi: 10.4135/9781412952583.n248