5 Ways to Improve Students’ Online Reading Comprehension

Students prefer print to reading online. At least that’s what the research has found. I think most librarians can confirm this anecdotally.

Is anybody asking why? Because its implications are problematic.

We know that online reading comprehension requires a separate set of skills than print-based reading comprehension; skills such as interpreting, critically evaluating and then synthesizing multiple modes of information.

Online reading comprehension becomes even more critical as students enter college and are required to locate, evaluate, synthesize and communicate information stemming from online resources. That of course, is the basis for information literacy.

Students’ current preferences for print suggests that their online reading comprehension skills are underdeveloped. This is not surprising considering that schools have been very slow to adapt to 21st century learning — and many still equate 21st century skills with technology skills.

Add to that the misinterpretation of what a digital native is (yes, being born into a digital age makes you a digital native in a sense, but not necessarily a digitally literate native) and you can see we have a problem. A BIG problem that ultimately is hurting students’ abilities to function as information and digital literates in both college and career.

So what can we do to nurture the development of students’ online reading comprehension skills? Here are 5 ways librarians can tackle the problem:

  1. Transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is storytelling across multiple media platforms, exercising multiple literacies. Librarians can support online reading comprehension by promoting the reading of transmedia stories in the library, and collaborating with teachers to integrate transmedia stories into the classroom. See my previous posts here and here to learn more.
  2. Maker activities. Maker activities, especially of the digital variety, support online reading comprehension as students locate, evaluate and learn how to synthesize multiple digital elements together to communicate messages within their local or global communities. Transmedia storytelling can serve as an inspiration for maker activities.
  3. Digital games. Strategy (e.g. Minecraft, SimCity) and role playing (e.g. World of Warcraft) games, in particular, help develop the types of problem solving skills that are inherent in digital and information literacies. In that way, digital games are also good for supporting online reading comprehension skills. Librarians can provide access to digital games and game play in the library, and collaborate with teachers to bring digital games into the classroom to promote multiple literacies.
  4. WebQuests. WebQuests use elements of gamification to help students develop online research skills — and online reading comprehension skills along the way. WebQuests that are presented with a storytelling narrative (e.g. scenario-based, fantasy-based) motivate students to solve online information problems in an authentic context. Librarians can use WebQuests for library instruction, or just as easily integrate them into classroom-based lessons.
  5. Alternative research assignments. Research assignments that utilize social media (e.g. blogs, wikis) or share-able tools (e.g. infographics) support the full gamut of online reading comprehension skills – locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information. Librarians play an important role in advocating for and articulating the value of alternatives to the traditional research paper.

The WebQuest as a Model for Embedded Librarianship

A WebQuest is an inquiry-based learning activity that limits students to a set of carefully selected web-based information sources. The model was originally developed by Bernie Dodge at San Diego State University in the mid-1990’s, so it has been around for awhile! I love WebQuests because they are not only fun and easy to create, they also serve as fantastic tools for teaching information literacy skills.

I have used WebQuests in the classroom, but in reading an article on the most effective instructional methods for online discussions, WebQuests were found to be more effective then other methods at promoting higher order thinking skills. What I found especially interesting in this article is that the instructional method of the invited expert was not nearly as effective as WebQuests for online discussions. In fact, invited experts ranked third in the study in terms of cognitive presence of the students.

So what does this mean for information literacy in online learning? Well, embedded librarians usually play the role of invited experts in online courses. If the invited expert method is less effective than other methods such as WebQuests, then maybe the current model of embedded librarianship needs to be re-examined.

Research has found that while students tend to rate invited experts well, the method itself does a poor job of promoting higher order thinking skills. This makes a lot of sense to me because it is very difficult to provide adequate research support in an asynchronous environment. First of all, you have students that lack the ability to formulate the ‘right’ kinds of questions. Secondly, the asynchronous environment makes it difficult to do the back and forth that face-to-face reference involves. And that back-and-forth is the key to promoting the metacognitive processes that students need in order to become information literate. So, students end up getting advice and source recommendations instead of individualized instruction from these online discussion forums. That’s not good.

Are WebQuests the answer to this problem? They just might be. WebQuests are particularly useful for teaching students how to evaluate information (not just sources). They are usually based around some type of narrative that requires role-playing on the part of the student. For example, I created one about an inheritance, with an added twist that in order for the student to accept the inheritance from their ‘Great Aunt Ida,’ they would need to move into her house smack dab in the middle of a cancer cluster (this was a local issue that had made headlines). Within the WebQuest, the students were provided a set of sources to help them make that decision.

I had a whole lot of fun creating the WebQuest, the students enjoyed it, and I do feel that it stretched their evaluation skills much further than other methods had.

The WebQuest as a model for embedded librarianship would be pretty easy to adopt, and could perhaps serve as an adjunct to the invited expert method. The nice thing about WebQuests is that they can be used over and over again, and shared.

QuestGarden is a great resource for finding examples of WebQuests. You also have the option to subscribe to QuestGarden as an authoring tool for your WebQuests. That’ll run you $20 for two years (cheap!).