With a long career in education founded on research and teaching in the area of motivation theories and models, Dr. Ruth Small demonstrated her own brand of motivation in 2003 when she founded Syracuse University’s Center for Digital Literacy (CDL). Her vision created an interdisciplinary, collaborative research and development center partnering the university’s School of Information Studies, School of Education and S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
The mission of the CDL, which was well ahead of the digital literacy curve when it was created, is to develop tools to foster new literacies and study the consequences for children, youth and adults of having or not having digital literacies.
Dr. Small has received two national research awards for her scholarly work: the 2001 Carroll Preston Baber Research Award from the American Library Association and the 1997 Highsmith Research Award from the American Association of School Librarians.
She has received three awards for her teaching including the School of Information Studies Professor of the Year in 1996, Teacher of the Year from the Syracuse University Alumni Association and, in 2006, the prestigious Meredith Professorship for Teaching Excellence.
From 2003-2007, she created and directed the Preparing Librarians for Urban Schools (PLUS) program, a distance learning program for library service in high-need urban schools. Before joining Syracuse University in 1989, she worked as a college administrator, high school principal, librarian, teacher, and instructional design and evaluation consultant. She is also president of SMALL Packages, a consulting business specializing in motivational design and evaluation.
Literacy 2.0 spoke with Dr. Small recently about the state of digital literacy in education and the society at large.
What prompted you to start the CDL back in the primitive days of 2003, when the smoke had barely cleared from the dotcom implosion and no one had ever heard of a smartphone or Facebook?
At the time, and still to some degree now, digital literacy was perceived by many people as the ability to turn on and use a computer. That’s only a small part of it. It’s really about information. Information is at the heart of all literacy. That’s what literacy is, the ability to find, identify, evaluate, extract, expand and present information. I felt information needed to be the focus.
What prompted you to make the CDL a partnership between the School of Information Studies, School of Education and School of Public Communications?
I felt then as I do now that digital literacy requires a cross-disciplinary approach in the areas of communications, education and information. Those areas are converging, and have converged in many ways since then. They share a lot of the same issues, but we too often come at them from different perspectives. I thought it would be much more interesting to study those kinds of issues through multiple lenses.
You frequently use the word “information” in between digital and literacy. Isn’t that redundant given that most information is now in digital form?
I use that term because when I say “digital literacy” to people, they look at me like they know what I am talking about. When I say “information literacy”, they look at me like I’m wearing a funny hat. So I compromise with digital information literacy.
Did others recognize the convergence in 2003?
Some were just beginning to. Some of my colleagues were working in that direction. But there were many skeptics. People could not see the relevance at first.
Did you have trouble convincing people?
Our dean at the time was very supportive. But for most people it took a lot of explaining. It has become much, much easier than it was in the beginning. Back then we had to sell the CDL, now people come to us to initiate projects. They recognize that there is an obvious need.
How do the schools collaborate?
The co-directors from each school meet regularly. We plan and discuss ways to work together and report on projects we are doing. We share people and resources. A lot of different projects are going on at any given time.
So, you’ve proven the validity of the convergence model?
We have brought in several million dollars worth of grants. That goes a long way toward convincing people.
Can you provide an example of work at the CDL that has had an impact?
Our first project to be externally funded was and is called SOS for Information Literacy. It is a database of lesson plans and teaching ideas for librarians, classroom teachers, home schooling parents, anyone who teaches kids information literacy skills. There are thousands of lesson plans, video and other teaching support materials.
Many of your projects involve libraries and librarians, why is that?
For one, I am a librarian. Second, in order to be digitally literate you have to be able to read. And third, librarians are experts in information literacy.
Are you concerned that librarians and libraries are becoming anachronistic, as some people seem to believe?
Libraries are more important than they have ever been. A few years ago we studied the libraries in New York State and their impact on student achievement and motivation. We found they have a significant impact in terms of how kids view research and reading, but also found libraries and library programs to have a direct impact on actual test scores even when we controlled for poverty.
As you say, a lot of people don’t know what information literacy is. Is it sinking in? Are we getting it?
We are beginning to. I think people are starting to understand that this is a legitimate and essential area of learning. People have to know how to navigate, how to understand what the information is that you need in the first place, how to use information appropriately.
I am seeing a lot of people in business who get it. They see that digital literacy is critical for their success. I think progress is slower in education. They are slowly getting on the bandwagon.
Why is that?
Mostly because the system is slow to change. Education is moving in the right direction, but not fast enough.
We recently submitted a grant proposal on digital literacy in cyberlearning to the U.S. Department of Education. The reviewers didn’t get it at all. It was pretty obvious that they had no clue what we were talking about. We tried so hard to explain these concepts on the simplest level. So we made a decision to direct future grant proposals to the National Science Foundation because the NSF gets it. More than ever before, the types of proposals they are asking for contain the word “cyberlearning” and focus on the type of skills that comprise digital literacy.
What’s the downside of slow-and-go progress?
The danger is that people are not going to get the truth, the facts and different points of view. Having all this information available is wonderful and horrible at the same time. We have to know how to figure out what is good and credible information. We have to teach those skills. We all need them.
I’ll give you an example. A communications faculty member told me about giving journalism students a task to write a news story and get it on the air. They went to the web, put in the keywords for the subject, took the first hit they got and wrote that up as the story. They didn’t investigate to see if it was accurate, out of date, fraudulent or biased.
Who is responsible for for teaching digital literacy?
It’s everybody’s responsibility. It can’t just be teachers or librarians or journalists.
Is critical thinking more important in the Digital World?
It definitely is more important because of the volume and immediacy and access of information. Before people were limited to what they had access to. Now it is almost limitless.
Are critical thinking skills being taught?
Not so much. Not at the level it needs to be.
A lot of reasons. One is the testing mentality, the fact that teachers are forced to teach kids facts so they can pass tests, and facts don’t teach critical thinking.
What do we do about that?
We have to be very proactive. It won’t happen on its own. It has to be pushed.
Can we do it? Can we become a digitally literate society?
I like to believe we can. I think we have a fighting chance. I am hopeful, but I am also discouraged sometimes. I just don’t see enough of it in K-12 and college and continuing education.
You’ve said the education system is slow to change. What about the teachers?
When it comes to the teachers, my colleagues in education, some get it right away and some still don’t, they just don’t. They don’t understand what the fuss is about. That is really discouraging.
Why are some not getting it?
Some people always resist change. I see so many teachers whose students are so far beyond them in technology. No matter what they do they are not going to catch up. That makes them less and less interested in technology. It’s a vicious cycle.
Is this a unique problem in the history of education, that is, the students being ahead of the teachers?
Students have so much more control over their own learning with technology. This type of supported learning autonomy in the classroom is very motivating for students. I don’t think that’s ever happened before to this extent in formal education. The student was rarely in control of his/her own learning. It was always a one-to-many style of instruction. Teacher controlled, teacher led. The whole sage-on-the-stage mentality.
For the first time students are beginning to have control over what they learn, how much they learn, when they learn, and what kind of learning they do. This allows them to build on and enrich what they are learning in school.
Sometimes in spite of what’s going on in school?
Many times in spite of what’s going on in school. Motivation is my specialty and research has shown that kids’ motivation in third grade takes a precipitous drop and doesn’t come back up until ninth grade, and it doesn’t come back as far.
Little kids want to learn everything. They want to soak it up. By third grade that is drained out of them totally, almost totally. By then they’ve learned to conform. They’ve learned not to be too curious. Not to ask unusual questions.
Do your college students understand how critical digital literacy is to their careers?
Sadly, I don’t think so. Here’s one example. Our professors who use Turnitin to check papers for plagiarism are catching a lot of kids. I don’t know statistically whether plagiarism is greater than ever before, but it is sure easier than ever before.
Do the kids see it as cheating?
Maybe they get that part, but they don’t get the fact that they are stealing somebody’s property.
I was teaching a class of juniors and seniors about intellectual property and citing sources. One day I gave them a copy of a paper and I told them I had just written it and was going to submit it for publication and I wanted them to critique it. In reality, it was one of my students’ papers. The student who wrote it said, wait a minute this is my paper. I said I thought that was okay, I just put my name on it, that’s all. That got the point across.
They don’t for the most part see what the big deal is.
Is that a problem with their education?
And with their parents. We haven’t been very effective at communicating what intellectual property is. Think of all the people who sell knockoffs and copies from other people’s work. Those people wouldn’t be in business if there weren’t people buying. It is just as wrong to buy as it is to sell.
Do the kids coming to your university have the requisite digital literacy skills?
Our school is a school of information studies so we get the kids who are interested in technology and have been for many years and are very savvy about the tools. But their digital literacy skills are lacking. They may be using social media and such but they don’t have the critical thinking skills, the evaluative skills, that go with the tools.
The learning needs to start in the home, or at the latest in preschool. Not long ago, my 3-year-old grandson went onto my daughter’s iPad and figured out how to order movies on Netflix. These movies started showing up at the house. And some of them were not always appropriate. It’s never too early to start teaching kids responsibility with technology.
Do you see creative approaches out there to issues such as motivation, critical thinking and digital literacy, or are we doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
There are hotspots of creativity. We are seeing creativity outside the normal channels of education. But within the rank and file on the teacher and administer side there is still a lot of old school—literally. There is a strong don’t-change-the-paradigm mentality.
What are you up to these days at the CDL?
We did a study a while ago that found that librarians as a group have a deficiency when it comes to providing learning services to students with disabilities. We got funding and are working with the Burton Blatt Institute, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, on Project ENABLE, which is looking at how to teach information literacy skills to students who have conditions that prevent them from learning in the same way that other kids might learn.
This week one of my colleagues and I are working on a grant proposal for a project that involves designing educational games that teach digital literacy skills. I am also collaborating on several proposals for projects that will look at ways to use wireless grids to help people to access, create and share information using any kind of digital device on any platform.
In other words, you’re out there trying to fill the digital literacy gap.
That is CDL’s mission. We have to make it happen. The digital genie won’t go back in the bottle. The CDL wants to be part of the solution.