Great article on Web Literacy by Alan November and Brian Mull (Parts 1 and 2)

Why more schools aren’t teaching web literacy—and how they can start

Fourteen years after we first published ‘Teaching Zack to Think,’ here’s a new three-part framework for making sure students are internet savvy

By Alan November and Brian Mull

If you follow the dictate that we teach what we test, it’s understandable why schools haven’t spent more time preparing students to be web literate since NCLB was passed.

In 1998, a 15-year-old high school student used the personal website of a professor at Northwestern University, Arthur Butz, as justification for writing a history paper called “The Historic Myth of Concentration Camps.”

That student, who we will call Zack, had been encouraged to use the internet for research, but he had not been taught to decode the meaning of the characters in a web address. When he read the web address,, he assumed that the domain name “” automatically meant it was a credible source. He did not understand that the “~” character, inserted after the domain name, should be read as a personal web page and not an official document of the university. As with any media, punctuation counts.

Without web literacy, Zack believed Butz’s explanation. Zack read about how the Nazis were fighting typhus, a disease carried by head lice. He went on to read that the pesticide Zyklon was used to kill the head lice—not the prisoners in the gas chambers. Without basic knowledge of web punctuation or the skills necessary to validate internet content, Zack was at a disadvantage to think critically about what he was reading. He had been taught to read paper, but he had not been taught to read the web. Zack was illiterate in what undoubtedly has become the dominant media of our society. At the time, Zack’s teachers also were illiterate about the web.

It turns out that validating content is not rocket science. Even a first-grade student can begin to understand the organization of information on the web. It seemed obvious at the time that understanding the grammar, punctuation, and syntax of the internet was so basic to being literate in our web-based society that schools immediately would begin to teach all children web literacy. Yet, that hasn’t been the case in most schools.Attend Alan November’s ed-tech conference and get $50 off the cost of registration!

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It is our sense that two forces have worked in historic tandem to create the conditions where most of our schools do not teach our children basic web literacy. One is NCLB, which—even though it included funding for technology and staff development—we believe has had a chilling effect on introducing any innovation to the U.S. curriculum. The second is that web filtering became the de facto policy for keeping children “safe” online.

Instead of taking the high moral ground to teach students how to deal with odious content and the ethics and critical thinking skills that go along with social media sites such as FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, too many schools simply block these sites. As a point of information, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) does not require schools to block social media sites (see “FCC opens access to social media sites for e-Rate users“).

To this day, when we visit schools and give students various research problems to solve, it is the very unusual student—who is usually self-taught—who understands how to decode content on the internet. We know many librarians and individual teachers who creatively include web literacy in their curriculum. Colleagues such as Joyce Valenza will tell you this is not enough. As we did with books, we need every teacher to be web literate and to be designing assignments that require students to learn how to research and decode across grade levels and subject areas.

Retooling the research process

The web has grown exponentially during the past 15 years, and new concepts such as search engine personalization have emerged in this time. To learn how everyday search behavior can lead unwittingly to a more narrow view of the world, read Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble, or see the story “New web-search formulas have huge implications for students and society.” While their access to these sites might be blocked in school, our students are accessing vast amounts of information every day when they leave school via unfiltered search engines and social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

This reality should be a warning to all educators that we must prepare our students to make meaning from the overwhelming amount of information at their fingertips, and we must guide their ability to create and publish new information worldwide. To do this effectively, we must return to the basics of what it means to be a good researcher—but at the same time, we must look at the new tools our students have access to.

In our original 1998 article “Teaching Zack to Think,” we focused on teaching students techniques that would allow them to search with more purpose. This skill, while still important, is only one of three pillars we believe are now essential to be web literate. These three pillars are…

  1. Purposeful search: Using advanced search techniques to narrow the scope and raise the quality of information found on the web.
  2. Effective organization and collaboration: Being able to organize all of this information into a comprehensive and growing library of personal knowledge.
  3. Sharing and making sense of information: Sharing what we find and what we learn with the world, and using the knowledge of others to help us make more sense of it all.

If you follow the dictate that we teach what we test, it’s understandable why schools haven’t spent more time preparing students to be web literate since NCLB was passed. However, the Common Core State Standards that 46 states have agreed to follow does require that students be able to manage web-based information. David Coleman, contributing author of the Common Core State Standards, says that students must be able to “…read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”

The learning progressions articulated in the Common Core State Standards are structured to support students as they develop competency in discovering meaning, analyzing content, comparing information, synthesizing, and applying and sharing their understanding. Without foundational and working knowledge of information and web literacy, students will not be able to exhibit the range of functional and critical thinking skills required to conduct even the simplest research tasks.

Effective organization and collaboration

We’ll focus on the first of the three pillars of web literacy, purposeful search, in a subsequent article. As for the second pillar, assuming that Zack learns how to find high-quality information online, he’ll still need to develop organizational methods that enable him to make effective use of this information as he creates new content by himself and with others around the world.

A logical starting point to teach students how to be organized and to collaborate in their search experience is to teach them how to use Diigo. Diigo, a social bookmarking tool, allows a researcher to organize sites and images from the web, as well as personal notes, using keywords called “tags.” These tags are set up by individual users and can relate to subjects, content areas, individual projects, and more. In addition, all of these collected resources can be annotated and enhanced through embedded sticky notes. To learn more about the basics of Diigo, watch this online overview.

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