Lower Schoolers Become Online Skeptics

Jenni Voorhees and Angela Smith teach students why digital literacy is crucial for life in the 21st century.

Reading online, says Director of Lower School Academic Technology Jenni Voorhees, isn’t like reading a book—and she wants to make sure Sidwell Friends students know it. For one thing, she explains, people don’t always read web pages thoroughly.

“Maybe you’re scrolling, looking across the top,” she says, “or dropping in to see what the highlights are. Or with more modern designs, the web page might look more like a layer cake, where everything is chunked for you, and you decide which chunks to look at. But you’re certainly not attacking the pages like a book.”

At the Lower School, students get training in digital literacy from 2nd through 4th grade. They learn why web articles require more scrutiny than library books, why certain kinds of ads cast doubt on the legitimacy of a site, and why finding out who created the website is crucial to determining its accuracy.

“I ask kids, Who makes websites?” says Jenni. “People make websites! They aren’t made by some other thing; we’re all humans, and if we’re making a site, there’s a reason for it.”

She takes students through a method they can perform every time they visit a new website. “You look at the top and assess the URL,” she says. “We ask, Is this a familiar name? Does it end with .com, .org, or .edu? Who’s making this? And who is it made for? Then we go all the way to the bottom and see if we can find an author and a copyright date. We all know that if a book was published in 1976 and it’s about George Washington, it might be okay. But if it was published in 1976 and we’re learning about how many elephants are left in the world, it’s probably not up-to-date information. If we look at the bottom of a website and it hasn’t been updated since 2010, that’s the same kind of thing—we’d wonder if it’s still an active website.”

Angela Smith, the Lower School librarian, helps deepen students’ understanding of trustworthy sources during their library time. During their studies with Angela, students learn to research topics using print resources. As in Jenni’s digital literacy lessons, they check crucial details, like author name and copyright date, and discuss the importance of citing sources. “We then work together to teach a lesson about the contrast between online and print sources,” says Jenni.

To chart students’ progress in becoming more digitally literate over time, Jenni talked to 3rd and 4th graders as they investigated a variety of different websites—some with trustworthy information and some without. She interviewed them before and after their digital literacy lessons, asking detailed questions about what they saw. One question Jenni posed to her students during the first round of interviews was why there were so many ads on certain websites.

“You might be studying Ancient Greece, but you like dresses, so you press the ad,” suggested one student.

However, by the end of their time with Jenni and Angela, students had new answers. “If this website were for kids, there wouldn’t be all these ads!” said another student. “There are a bunch of ads on the site that no kid would use.”

“Our philosophy at Lower School is that we teach digital literacy every year,” says Jenni. “The 3rd graders will get it again in 4th grade. We say that when you get onto a website, it’s like walking into somebody’s living room. They’ve invited you into their house. Are you comfortable in their house? Is this a place that’s appropriate for you? And if you’re feeling kind of funny about it, you should leave.”

Jenni and Angela presented their work at the 2017 International Society for Technology in Education conference. For more information, see their interview with EdTech magazine.

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