By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer
Gone are the days of library card catalogs and having to consult the 26-volume hardbound encyclopedia gathering dust on your parents’ bookshelf. Students these days have seemingly infinite information at the tips of their fingers. Most households in the U.S. have a computer, and most teachers report at least one computer in their classrooms. Research shows that the majority of high school students use the Internet to complete school assignments, and 71 percent of students use their laptop computers for school. In this changing world, it becomes more and more important to understand how reading and researching on the Internet are different from performing those tasks with books and other paper texts.
Don Leu and his team at the University of Connecticut have been examining this topic for several years. First on their agenda was studying whether reading online is the same as reading on paper. They discovered that students who are poor readers on paper may be good readers online, and students who are good readers on paper are not necessarily good readers online, suggesting that reading online requires some unique skills. Leu and his collaborators argue that reading online requires that students be able to: (1) use search engines; (2) choose appropriate search result; (3) judge whether the source can be trusted to be accurate and unbiased; and (4) consolidate information across multiple websites or online texts.
Of course, it’s not enough to understand the process of reading and researching online. As with any skill, some students are better at it than others, and as computers, tablets, and smart phones become more common, it becomes more and more necessary for students to hone their online reading and research skills if they are to succeed in college and career. Teachers need to be able to teach these skills, and teachers need to be able to identify when their students need extra help or practice. In 2005, Leu received a grant from NCER to study Internet use in adolescents at risk for dropping out of school, and developed an intervention to help teach seventh-grade students specific strategies to locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information on the Internet.
Building on this earlier work, in a 2009 grant from NCER, Leu and his team set out to develop measures of online reading comprehension. The end result of this project is a set of Online Research and Comprehension Assessments (ORCAs) for use with seventh grade students. The team developed both a multiple choice version and a version that allows students to work in a simulated internet environment. In both versions, the student is tasked with answering a research question posed by a simulated peer, and must use a search engine, choose the appropriate search result, determine whether a source is trustworthy, and then tell their simulated peer about what they found. The ORCAs were tested with 2,700 students in two different states, and the researchers surveyed teachers and other practitioners to determine whether the ORCAs were usable.
Leu has been especially interested in thinking about how changing ideas about literacy may impact low-income students differently from middle- and high-income students. In a recently published paper, Leu shows that students who came from families earning approximately $100,000 per year were more than a year ahead of students whose families earn approximately $60,000 per year on online reading abilities as measured by the ORCAs. This study highlights the importance of considering the achievement gaps between high- and low-income students on a variety of domains, including those not typically measured by standardized tests, such as online reading comprehension.
The ORCAs are available online for free, as is a professional development module to help teachers learn to use it.
Questions? Comments? Please email us at IESResearch@ed.gov.