Reading in a Web 2.0 world? For learning, understanding or both?

There have been times while doing my reading for my Web 2.0 course that I have felt completely buried, so my inquiry question is this. What research-based strategies can I add to what I already know about online reading to help my students (and myself) read, understand, and learn more effectively?

As I work on this course, I have found myself more than once identifying with my colleagues and students when they expressed dismay at how difficult it can be to do research on the Web. I thought I was pretty good, but I have found myself slowed down – considerably in September; less now – by the new-to-me Web 2.0 experience.

I’ve been working on the concept of reading online for more than seven years now. When I began looking at this idea in 2000, there was almost no help available in terms of research. I drew a blank searching the professional literature and the World Wide Web. While strategies for teaching students to search and to evaluate online material has been widely available, I could find nothing that dealt with how to help students comprehend what they found online. I had to create my own materials based on what I saw that my students needed.

There are two quotes that sum up how easy it was for my students to successfully research using the Internet. Roger Ebert said, “Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly.” And D. C. Denison said, “The Internet may be the world’s greatest library, but let’s face it – all the books are scattered on the floor.” 

I identified several areas where my junior high and high school students needed help. These included

  • Using appropriate search strategies,
  • Creating effective search strings,
  • Learning to navigate a wide variety of online resources,
  •  Critically evaluating online content,
  • Locating useful/relevant information within a site or on a specific page, and
  • Using information appropriately once they found it, including avoiding accidental plagiarism.

Fortunately, in the last few years, research in the field has increased dramatically.  Researchers have identified a number of problems, and offered some strategies for dealing with them.

Julie Coiro, Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and a Director of The New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut does research focusing on online reading comprehension. Here are some problems she identifies:

  • There is little consistency in the multimedia formatting of information on the Internet.
  • The amount of information available on the Internet can be overwhelming.
  • “Reading online is a complex process that requires knowledge about how search engines work and how information is organized within Web sites – knowledge that many students lack. Internet texts also demand higher levels of inferential reasoning and comprehension monitoring strategies that help readers stay on task” (Coiro, 2005, p.30).

Here are some of the strategies she suggests teachers use:

  • Modelling search techniques and strategies for students
  • Teaching students how to preview web sites using a 7 step process

Two Australian researchers (Murray and McPherson, 2006) recommend scaffolding instruction for the reading-to-navigate and navigating-to-read tasks involved in researching on the web. They identified these successful teaching strategies:

  • teaching skimming and scanning,
  • analyzing web page components
  • Teaching students to read an informational print text (read the title, . . . read the headings, predict what will be under each heading . . .), and then using those skills on a web page

One researcher’s work resonates particularly with me as I continue to learn to navigate Web 2.0 sites, especially blogs. And Web 1.0 sites too. Elizabeth Schmar-Dobler identifies more issues with online texts for students:

  • Dense text [I HATE reading PDF versions of articles retrieved from the U of A library databases. So often the background images obscure the already dense text.]
  • Distracting features such as animated graphics, colour. [It took me a long time to STOP being distracted by ads when looking at lists and search results in Diigo].
  • Understanding expository text “requires familiarity with its concepts, vocabulary, and organizational format.” [Have you notice how hard it can be with some blogs to figure out how to find a previous article? Or how many don’t have the search feature enabled?]
  • Hyperlinks mean reader creates own path through the material – can get lost and confused. [I have this problem with figuring out when a new window is opened, or when a tab is opened – I can’t count the number of times I’ve unintentionally closed my whole web browser. I’m not sure if this is a Vista problem or a “me” problem. Likely it’s me!]

So what can I do with all this information I’ve collected? Here are some ideas.

  • Share this information with my teachers.
  • Share this information with my students.
  • Integrate Internet reading comprehension strategies into our current program.
  • Increase emphasis on inquiry-based learning practices, as these help improve learning skills. “Teachers who give students choices, challenging tasks, and collaborative learning structures increase students’ motivation to read and comprehend text.” (Perkins-Gough, p .92)
  • Provide a wide variety of online resources at different reading levels
  • Work collaboratively with staff and student experts to provide instruction in navigating sites, interacting with online material.
  • I did find one new and different software-based approach to making online reading easier. It is described in the article “Visual-Syntactic Text Formatting: A New Method to Enhance Online Reading.” This describes a web-based software product that breaks down text into smaller chunks to enable easier reading, and cascades these chunks in large font down a page. The article claims that “Among high school students, who read with the format over an entire academic year, the VSTF method increased both academic achievement and long-term reading proficiency by more than a full standard deviation over randomized controls.” A trial is available for the program, called LiveInk, so I’ve been trying it out. Basically the user copies text to the clipboard and then pastes it into a window. I can certainly see this being very effective for some of my students, but I found that for me it slowed down my reading too much.

What have the experts said lately about reading online? Have things changed in a Web 2.0 environment? While students spend a lot of time reading online and creating content online, the jury is out on whether or not they can read effectively in terms of the way their teachers would like them to read. In his post Reading Online is Not Reading On Paper Will Richardson writes about how he is having difficulty reading novels or other books, he thinks because of the nature of the reading he does online. He points out that when he asks teachers what instruction is happening with this issue in the classroom, they reply, not much. He says, “What continues to concern me, though, is the paucity of conversation about any of this in our schools. This is hugely complex, and it requires a strategy and good pedagogy.”

Richardson discusses the article by Mark Bauerlein, Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind. Bauerlein details a number of the ways in which reading online differs from traditional reading, and concludes that reading online is a lesser literacy. Another article, Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? supports the view that online reading is a different type of reading than reading books, but is just as valuable.

I would certainly agree. I’ve been reading books well for years and years, but does that make me just as  good an online reader? No, it does not.

And new research deals with just this issue. I found online a proposed chapter for an upcoming book, Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices. In NEW LITERACIES OF ONLINE READING COMPREHENSION, Donald J. Leu, Julie Coiro, Jill Castek, Douglas K. Hartman, Laurie A. Henry, and David Reinking, discuss “Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Reading.” The first heading in their chapter is “The Internet is This Generation’s Defining Technology For Information, Reading Comprehension, and Learning.” The authors conclude, among many other things,, that reading offline and online are not the same, and should not be taught or assessed in the same way. They state that “a new and ambitious agenda of reading comprehension research is needed.” I’m looking forward to seeing that come to fruition, as perhaps there will be help for me as well as for my students!

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