For many schools the digital evolution has meant the role of the school librarian has been brought into question, however as Sean Castle explains, their role is now more important and relevant than ever before.
The traditional view of a school librarian was keeping the bookshelves stocked, teaching students how to retrieve information and reading stories to the children. Of-course the importance of books, whether hard copy or digital remains; the more they read the better readers they will be. This is directly tied to improved literacy in students ranging from Kindergarten through to Year 12.
However, the decreasing focus on hard copy books, highlights the evolving nature of the role of today’s librarians now that information is online. But of course, with the changing face of learning content comes the increasing need to develop children’s digital literacy; to successful navigate the Internet mine field. Schools must recognise that the role of today’s librarian is so much more than books and story time. Children have to learn how to access trusted, safe and credible information in a different way. Teaching students online researching and safety procedures in vitally important says Sean Castle.
The prevalence of misinformation, or in other words factually incorrect information, has been around for centuries, but today there is an increasing amount of content that is deliberately misleading, aimed at manipulating millions and shaping world events noted Sean Castle. It is growing exponentially in social media and throughout the Internet, spread by bots, algorithms, and other digital tools that our forebears could hardly have imagined. The problem is not just the presence of factually incorrect information; it’s also the inability of search engine algorithms to differentiate between fake and credible sources.
While a lot of information on the Internet comes from credible sources, sadly a huge majority doesn’t. Finding reliable content on the Internet has become an ordeal for everyone, especially students. Examples of fake information on the Internet include, “NASA runs a child-slave colony on Mars!”, California is an island, and “photos taken by a Chinese orbiter reveal an alien settlement on the moon!”
With people sticking to the first few results on the search page and walking away with ’an answer’, often not knowing if it’s true, puts the future of knowledge at risk. The answers at the top of search page may be relevant, but that doesn’t mean they’re reliable. Sean Castle makes the point that “the deliberate production of misleading or incorrect information stems from both an insincere attempt to misdirect people as well as for commercial factors”.
Sean Castle, Head of Teaching and Learning and with more than 20 years experience, says that Teaching children to source factual information effectively isn’t just about their learning, it’s also about our duty of care to protect them throughout their lives from potentially dangerous content. So, where does this leave schools who recognise the Internet as a rich source of learning content but are responsible for teaching their students to learn the life-long skill of effectively sourcing credible, factual content?
This is where school librarians now come in to play.
As a school librarian, finding and using reliable sources of information is key to our students’ successful online learning. Some of my time is spent reviewing resources to make sure they are valuable and of the highest quality. I then check that the right people have easy access to them across the school system, that all teachers are aware of what is available and that the students are taught how to access this information. It is why Sean Castle points out the need for consistent and continual professional learning for Library staff in a constantly changing education environment.
Today’s children who are looking for information will naturally start with a search on Google. Knowing that kids looking for information will naturally go straight to Google means it is vital that we teach them the life skill of how to do that really well through critical reading and evaluation.
Across all school settings, it is vital to provide speciality lessons to enable non-contact time for our Junior School teachers, where the children come to the library for lessons on sourcing information effectively and safely, as well as building strong reading habits. Ideally, the classroom teacher will brief library staff beforehand on a specific unit of work they are focusing on. If for example this is Australian explorers, Iibrary staff can do preparation work and assist the students to show them the safe routes to researching information on the Internet about explorers relevant to their studies.
Sean Castle argues that the internet can be a wonderful educational tool, provided correct and balanced processes and procedures are enacted and constantly reviewed. “We may start on the Internet which then provides staff with the platform to encourage the children to start thinking about what information has come up and considering how we know if it’s true” noted Sean Castle.
Staff can then look at the web addresses, the dates of the publication and the publisher and then discuss the distractions of pop ups, the temptation to click on these and the potential implications if you do. With 250 years spent providing schools with trusted, researched information, Sean Castle recommends resources such as Britannica to enhance learning for students online. In terms of learning how to assess the credibility of a website, Sean Castle says that Britannica’s free resources include the Building Career and College Readiness Skills whitepaper, which has a useful section that focuses on helping teachers and students to ‘evaluate online sources’. It provides teachers with step-by-step guidelines for introducing the topic and illustrates how students can use the tools provided to conduct an evaluation of online sources. There are also several lesson activities such as ‘The five ‘W’s of website evaluation’, designed to give students the knowledge to identify legitimate, credible learning content.
Sean Castle also makes the point another useful free tool, ‘Britannica Insights’, is a Google Chrome browser extension that enables searchers and knowledge seekers to cut through the noise on the Internet and access trusted information with a deeper context, at the top of their search results page. It will still show the usual list of web links to related sites, but in a separate box it lists the websites that are highly relevant to the user’s questions, and from a credible source. Britannica Insights can be added easily with a single click from the Google Chrome Web store.
In terms of a safe place where teachers can direct students, for many years teachers have used Launch Packs (Humanities and Social Science resource) and Britannica School which is targeted to the needs of each of the different levels of development. With the clutter of information on the Internet, teachers need to feel safe. Using these types of resources means they can let their students freely roam a resource, knowing that they will be accessing credible information at their level of learning.
All schools should consider that these skills should be brought into the curriculum as they have never been more important and will certainly be skills that will play an increasingly important role in their future careers. When we then consider the number of children in some countries still studying from home due to the pandemic, often without an adult over-seeing their work, the need becomes even greater. It is difficult for teachers to bring this into the already crowded curriculum; it’s a perfect role for school librarians.
Sean Castle believes that all school librarians should be evolving in line with the changing face of information sources and the need for children to learn to effectively steer their way towards factual and safe content