These days, students are at least as likely to turn to the Internet as a library book when their science project or history report is due. But exactly what goes on inside kids’ heads when they’re trolling the Web in search of information about magnetism or Frederick Douglass is still a mystery. Researchers at the University of Connecticut want to change that. In a $1.8 million, three-year study, Professor Donald J. Leu is leading a team that’s investigating exactly how kids learn online. In studying the “new literacies” needed to navigate the Internet, Leu’s team has found that most students have a tough time reading critically and distinguishing legitimate information from the Internet’s vast flotsam and jetsam. So researchers are carefully observing 7th-grader students in Norwich, Connecticut, as they work online to answer questions such as “Why do rainbows form?” The researchers track every keystroke and site visited, while the students verbally explain what they’re doing and why. “I’m still confused. What does ‘refracted’ mean?” one participant asked rhetorically as she worked through the science question. She used the Web site dictionary.com to answer that query before moving on to seek out more details about rainbows and light. Later, the research team will review her and other students’ sessions as they refine an Internet teaching model that will eventually help teachers train students in Internet literacy. “Not a single state evaluates students’ ability to read search engine results,” Leu said. But as the Internet’s reach steadily expands, online research may soon be the fourth R.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.