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Center for Digital Literacy to Study 8th Graders Information-Seeking Abilities

Researchers at the School of Information Studies' Center for Digital Literacy (CDL) have begun a new study that focuses on what eighth-graders do when given a research project. Do they know how to navigate the Internet, use search tools, and identify credible web sites? Do they feel confident enough in their research skills to pursue the information trails that seem the most interesting to them? We're focusing on eighth graders because it is a critical transition point between middle and high school, says Professor Marilyn Arnone, principal investigator of the study and director of educational media at CDL. Eighth grade is seen as a key threshold for having acquired a large set of information-seeking skills prior to fulfilling high school course work.
Funded by a $200,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), Arnone and her team of scholars, including Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Reynolds and consulting professor Jeff Stanton, will survey at least 1,000 students, as well as library media specialists, at 50 U.S. middle schools from low-, middle-, and high-needs districts. Their hope is to assess the students' technical digital literacy and their information literacy. Digital literacy refers to the technical skills necessary to use a computer and related equipment, conduct a search, and understand the general steps to find data. Information literacy focuses on how to process the information that is found through the search. It involves the ability to find, access, organize, evaluate, use, and present information.
They intend to create an online survey that will question students about each step of the research process. For example, a teacher assigns students a project to write a research paper on Vincent Van Gogh. What do students do to begin the search and how do they determine what information to use or investigate further? They may be asked to judge the value of various sites, basing their judgments on such factors as timeliness of the information, the credibility of the author, and the relevance of the information to the assignment. Based on these results, we can start to determine what the students know and what they still need to learn, says Professor Ruth Small, a co-principal investigator and the director of CDL.
After determining their perceived competence level in terms of information and technical digital literacy, they will study the students' actual abilities and the librarians' perception of their students' skill set. We hope to find answers to such questions as if a student feels less competent in their information-seeking abilities, is she less likely to challenge the information she finds' and how do perceived competence, self-determined behavior, and other motivational variables influence information-seeking in 8th grade students,' Arnone says. We will also explore other motivational issues related to information-seeking.
The researchers want to see if there is a gap between students' perceived confidence and their actual skill level, and also between the students' perceived confidence and the teachers' perception of how effective their digital and information literacy lessons have been with the students. This research builds on the work of Professor Ed Deci at the University of Rochester, who is serving as a consultant on the project. Deci is world renown for his work on self-determination theory (SDT), which contends that need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness underlie human behavior and when satisfied contribute to intrinsic motivation. SDT theory builds on the work of earlier researchers who have explored the need for competence and autonomy and has been used in hundreds of studies in both educational and clinical settings, Arnone says. However, the theory has not yet been explored in the context of school libraries and in exploring students' perception of their own competence in information and technical digital literacy. So, that's where we come in.
The group expects to have a pilot study completed in spring, and will conduct the large-scale study from fall 2007 through fall 2008. We hope to provide new instruments that can be freely distributed to library media specialists to use in assessing the motivational profile of students as it pertains to perceived competence in information-seeking and ultimately in helping to prescribe instructional methods to increase both perceived and actual competence, Arnone says.

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