The Twilight of the Computer Lab: Why Information Literacy Belongs in Every Classroom

When word came to the Brainly offices that Dr. Kathy Kennedy, a veteran teacher and university professor, was encouraging her graduate-level education students to use Brainly as a classroom tool, we decided to do our homework.

We learned that Dr. Kennedy, in her course on social media for educators and corporate trainers, was asking her graduate students to explain how Brainly could be integrated into their lesson plans. “The goal of the exercise,” she told us in an interview from her home in Texas, “was to invite all these educators, many of whom have been teaching for years already, to rethink how we instruct our students to navigate online information. Above all, I wanted my class to recognize that students today need very different instructions for how to interact with information than what students needed just a few years ago. The old way was to teach computer literacy in the computer lab or the library. But these days students are using the internet for help with every single one of their classes. That means we need to be training information literacy in every single classroom.”

The old way was to teach computer literacy in the computer lab or the library. But these days students are using the internet for help with every single one of their classes. That means we need to be training information literacy in every single classroom.

Dr. Kennedy explained that when students search for information online they tend to have one of two experiences. Either they delve into the internet on their own and end up in an unmanageable sea of information, or they search the internet in a buffered way, shielded from bad information by guidelines enforced by teachers, parents, or software filters. The result is that students rarely learn how to assess information independently. “But Brainly gives students a balance of guidance and independence,” she tells us. With Brainly, students can ask a question, receive answers, then assess the credibility of what they find by using Brainly’s answer-verification features.

Dr. Kennedy generously allowed us to publish her lesson plan, which she uses to instruct other teachers in how to guide their students’ online-information searches. In the lesson, students are invited to ask questions on Brainly and must write a report using the answers they find. “The benefit of teaching this lesson plan to other educators,” she tells us, “is that it’s highly versatile. It can be used at any grade level and for any subject. And the whole point is to show teachers that every classroom needs to have an information-literacy component.”

Brainly gives students a balance of guidance and independence.

When students are allowed to search Brainly independently, she tells us, and when teachers retain a degree of oversight into the results of those searches, students can learn to tell assess online information in a real-world context. “And the skill of telling good information from bad is more important now than ever,” Dr. Kennedy added. “Because in my forty years as a teacher I’ve never known a time when students have been more confused about what to do with the information they’re finding around them.”

That got our attention. As it turns out, Dr. Kennedy’s concerns about how young people evaluate online information lined up perfectly with both the results of our own academic research into information literacy and our conversations with other educators. Time and again, we’ve found that today’s students are struggling to locate a useful pathway through the wilderness of online information.

Dr. Kennedy wrote her doctoral dissertation on digital learning technologies, and her opinions on how students experience information draw on her work as an educator, librarian, and curriculum advisor in elementary, intermediate, secondary, postsecondary, and graduate schools. At every level, she says, three key learning goals have guided her teaching philosophy. “Whether you’re teaching first-graders or grad students,” she says, “the most important skills are problem-solving, critical thinking, and information management.”  Teachers excel at teaching problem solving, Dr. Kennedy reports. “And although we’re getting better at teaching critical thinking, we’re downright terrible when it comes to information management.”

Time and again, we’ve found that today’s students are struggling to locate a useful pathway through the wilderness of online information.

Dr. Kennedy explained that limited resources and stringent testing requirements frequently prevent educators from giving students sufficient classroom instruction in how to assess information credibility. Educators tend to manage this problem by intervening in their students’ online experiences, either by endorsing a list of trusted websites or by altogether banning students from using websites with unvetted information.

For Dr. Kennedy, this approach is often necessary for teachers struggling with immense workloads. At the same time, she worries that shielding students from low-quality information not only fails to reflect their out-of-class experiences with the online world but ends up preparing them for a version of the internet that doesn’t exist. “When we see young people taking for granted that anything coming from Facebook or Instagram is trustworthy and factual,” she says, “it’s because we’ve only trained them to operate in vetted informational environments. But we haven’t trained them to doubt, and we haven’t taught them to respond intelligently to misinformation.”

Dr. Kennedy argues that this problem emerges when educators are asked to conceive of technology as a set of practical skills for students to acquire and master. Put differently, educators are encouraged to perceive technology as being inherently separate from information. But for young people, digital and internet technologies are embedded, intrinsic features of information itself. For Dr. Kennedy, educators can bridge this gap by teaching technology not as a set of skills but as a form of critical thinking in which students learn to manage and evaluate information. “It would be outrageous,” she explains, “to spend time in an English class showing students how to turn the pages of a book. But that’s essentially what we’re doing by offering technology classes that teach students how to type or how to use Excel. We’re looking at computer classes as tool-learning classes. But research shows that students are very good at learning how to use digital tools on their own. Our job as educators is to show students how to manage the information they find when they use those tools. The best way to do that is to teach students how to think critically. And thinking critically is the whole point of being educated anyway.”

Educators are encouraged to perceive technology as being inherently separate from information. But for young people, digital and internet technologies are embedded, intrinsic features of information itself.

Rather than envisioning technological proficiency as a goal in its own right, Dr. Kennedy proposes following the lead of real-world employers and imagining technology as both an embedded feature of the workplace and a tool intended for achieving some other, unrelated outcome. Dr. Kennedy encourages teachers to integrate technology directly into the curriculum while maintaining a focus on the core learning goals of the class. By using Excel in biology or chemistry assignments, or Google Earth for history or literature, educators not only create informational environments that are more relevant to digital-age learners but can guide how students process information in those environments.