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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > May/June 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 3 — May/June 2003
Literacy in (and for) Our Time: A Conversation
By Ferdi Serim, Editor, MultiMedia Schools and Janet Murray, Associate Editor, MultiMedia Schools

Janet Murray and I have collaborated on a book, Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind, which specifically addresses the expectations of the ESEA Reauthorization Act, "No Child Left Behind." A vision provides a foundation to this work: "Contemporary literacy for all teachers and students will improve student achievement and promote lifelong learning that exceeds the accountability provisions of NCLB. Our vision of contemporary literacy both incorporates information literacy and builds on traditional literacy. Our vision of contemporary literacy embraces not only computers and data, but the critical-thinking skills required to use them effectively."

By collaborating on the founding of the Online Internet Institute (1995), the production of MultiMedia Schoolsmagazine (since 1998), the Big6 eNewsletter (since 2002), and, most recently, the book, Janet and I have discovered howwell her skills and training as a school library media specialist contribute to and broaden my perspective as a classroom teacher, technology coordinator, and education leader. Our session at NECC will focus on the contributions of the library media specialist to an effective school Information & Technology (I&T) team. The following conversation captures the best thinking we've encountered in building both the book and our presentations.

FS: Throughout the decade we've worked together, each coming at the task of improving options for learners from different directions, the common ground we've discovered in information literacy has taken a while to appear on the priority list of decision makers, funders, school boards, the press, and the general public. Yet recent events have thrust our concerns into center stage. For example, at NECC this June, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills will release the first of its documents and reports, including a Framework for 21st Century Skills, a report, "The Power of 21st Century Skills," and a prototype of its Readiness Guide to help schools and districts assess their conditions and strategize ways to make the transition from meeting the needs of a bygone age to meeting the requirements of present learners. An amazing array of organizations has made this work possible, including AOL/Time Warner, Apple, Cable in the Classroom, Cisco, Dell, Microsoft, NEA, and SAP. These organizations are joined by the U.S. Department of Education, CoSN, ISTE, ALA, and scores of others. How do you see the role of library media specialists contributing to such developments?

JM: Librarians learn the skills of scholarship and the art of information retrieval in graduate programs in library and information science. Although it is not widely known outside their ranks, school library media specialists (LMS) hold dual citizenship in the worlds of teaching and information science. In schools with effective technology programs, one often finds the LMS and the media center at the core, with effective partnerships reaching out to all classrooms.

FS: Managing knowledge is quite different from managing learning and requires different interactions with people, resources, and activities. This is one reason why the partnerships that comprise effective I&T teams can be so powerful. Understanding the role of the library media specialist is crucial to developing such an effective team. Understanding the role of teams and partnerships in the 21st century is equally important, and as frequently overlooked. Both research and teaching used to be solitary endeavors. Now, how effectively you communicate and collaborate with groups of people (both present and distant) is as crucial to solving problems as is deep knowledge of the domains in question.

JM: Some of these partnerships happen within the school and stretch us to tackle new challenges (or perhaps it is more like addressing long-standing challenges in new ways?). The American Library Association's Information Power identifies four evolving roles for the school library media specialist: teacher, instructional partner, information specialist, and program administrator. As a teacher, the LMS works to integrate national Information Literacy Standards and national education technology skills (NETS) across the curriculum. The LMS provides instruction in retrieving, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing information to solve problems and make informed decisions.

As an instructional partner, the LMS collaborates with classroom teachers to apply technology as a tool for research and promotes assignments that require critical thinking. As an information specialist, the LMS contributes to the success of the I&T team by retrieving and organizing research relevant to the implementation of NCLB. As a program administrator, the LMS contributes a whole-school perspective to the work of the I&Tteam and provides professional development for teachers using technology.

The Partnership for21st Century Skills

The new skills today's students need to succeed in the 21st century are not well defined, systematically taught, or effectively assessed within our schools. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills brings together educators, administrators, parents, businesses, and community leaders to define and create readiness guides for skills that are critical to each student's success in the 21st century. In its first year, the Partnership will create a 21st Century Skills Readiness Guide and a prototype Technology Literacy Readiness Guide. These guides will also demonstrate how 21st century skills support and reinforce the teaching of basic skills in the classroom.

While the nation as a whole has made great strides in promoting standards and accountability in core subjects such as math, science, reading, and writing, more work needs to be done to incorporate 21st century skills into both state standards and assessment measures. In addition to having basic skills, today's students must demonstrate digital literacy, critical thinking, collaboration, and effective communication skills in order to prepare for tomorrow's workforce.

The Technology Literacy Readiness Guide, similar to the CEO Forum on Education and Technology's STaR (School Technology and Readiness) Chart, will allow states, districts, and schools to measure their own progress in defining, teaching, and assessing technology literacy and integrating basic skills into their curriculum. Through its work with the STaR chart, the CEO Forum recognized that school districts and individual schools are at very different stages in the integration of technology into the learning environment. Based on their experience with the STaR chart, the Partnership will design the Technology Literacy Readiness Guide to enable teachers and administrators to easily assess where their schools stand, and to identify specific strategies for progress.


FS: It makes so much sense when you say it that way. Isn't it remarkable that such common sense is so uncommon in the understandings that drive so many schools and so much less frequently understood by parents and the taxpayers who support public education? Note that library media specialists are being eliminated in many states struggling to balance their budgets. We encountered the story of Timber Drive Elementary School, whose visionary principal, Sue King, says, "My message to these districts is this: A school's media/technology staff helps ensure that no child will be left behind. Schools that have decreased or dropped their media programs are depriving themselves of just the resources they need to succeed."

Information Technology for Learning details our vision of contemporary literacy and a strategy for making the journey from this vision to practice. We advocate the formation of Information & Technology (I&T) teams at the building level, in order to provide the capacity for sustained support of educational improvement. The members of the I&T team are the people in schools who are most involved in the implementation of technology: the principal, the library media specialist, the teacher leader and the technical specialist (supported by the District Technology Coordinator). Note, we don't say support for technology: The efforts must remain firmly fixed on the goal of system-wide improvement at the school level, with the role of technology clearly as servant rather than master.

As readers, workshop participants, or visitors to the Web site will discover, we describe and define the roles of the members of the I&T team using analogies. The Principal is the "Pilot" who provides direction for the school's incorporation of technology; the technical specialist is the "Hard Hat" who deals with constructing and supporting the network; the teacher leader is the "Guide" who "knows about designing and implementing effective learning experiences." In the NECC workshop, you describe what it is to wear the "Scholar's Hat." Can you tell us more?

JM: Yes, the school LMS wears the "Scholar's" hat. Three of the four roles described by the ALA revolve around the idea of research and its fundamental role in scholarship. In the age of NCLB, anecdote, habit, and tradition are no match for credible research and study. The LMS is the only member of the school team with professional training in these skills and is perfectly qualified to develop these capabilities in the other team members. The fourth role (administrator/manager) allows us to understand the realities of building and sustaining any effective program in the districts where we work.

FS: I suppose you could call that Action Research, eh? As we seek 21st century skills for our students, we must develop (and model) these ourselves. If we want to elevate the levels of student performance, we also need to elevate the levels of tasks they are given. As educators, our task is to shape the system so that it reflects the needs of learners (both students and teachers). Some of this work we do with teachers, some with school leaders, and some with our communities. This new work is way beyond the boundaries defining our profession in the past century. How did you get on the path for this kind of transformation?

JM: By defining its librarians as "Information Specialists" in terms familiar to advocates of Information Power, the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS) lured me away from Portland (OR) Public Schools. Prior to joining DoDDS as the Information Specialist at Nile C. Kinnick High School in Yokosuka, Japan, I had been advocating telecommunications to support inexpensive collaboration among K-12 teachers and library media specialists by co-founding K12Net, an asynchronous messaging system built on FidoNet bulletin board technology. I automated the first library in Portland Public Schools and served as the first Telecommunications chair and Webmaster for the Oregon Educational Media Association.

FS: So your work "inside the system" anticipated this present moment, where the leaders of business, government, higher education are all saying the same things that education technology pioneers have been advocating all along. I was amazed at the National Forum on 21st Century Skills at the breadth and depth of talent and commitment gathered to move this agenda forward. It seems we are poised at a pivotal moment in guiding the direction of learning in this fresh century.

JM: The crucial importance of Information and Communication Technology [ICT] Literacy heightens the value of successful implementations. As Carrie Lowe reports, "Eisenberg and Berkowitz (1988)1 found that the best way to teach information literacy skills (such as the Big6) in curriculum context is through the collaboration of classroom teachers and library media specialists. Brievik (1998)2 found that the same is true in higher education, as students succeed in integrated courses designed by faculty members and academic librarians."

FS: Given the new national educational policy focus on improving student achievement, through research-based practices which document student growth, the work of the Partnership on 21st Century Skills is both timely and imperative. As noted in the 1999 National Research Council report "Being Fluent with Information Technology,"3 the "requirement of a deeper understanding than is implied by the rudimentary term 'computer literacy' motivated the committee to adopt 'fluency' as a term connoting a higher level of competency. People fluent with information technology (FIT persons) are able to express themselves creatively, to reformulate knowledge, and to synthesize new information. Fluency with information technology (i.e., what this report calls FITness) entails a process of lifelong learning in which individuals continually apply what they know to adapt to change and acquire more knowledge to be more effective at applying information technology to their work and personal lives."

The goal of developing measures of these skills needs to recognize both the context, as well as the nature, of the process and how this process differs from those typically measured in schools. The report notes, "Because FITness is fundamentally integrative, calling upon an individual to coordinate information and skills with respect to multiple dimensions of a problem and to make overall judgments and decisions taking all such information into account, a project-based approach to developing FITness is most appropriate."

Digital Transformations

Published by Educational Testing Service's Center for Global Assessment, "Digital Transformation" states a definition of ICT literacy as "using digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society." A free PDF copy of this report is available at

In "Digital Transformation"4, Educational Testing Service (ETS) gathered a distinguished panel of international researchers, who find that "ICT literacy cannot be defined primarily as the mastery of technical skills. The panel concludes that the concept of ICT literacy should be broadened to include both critical cognitive skills as well as the application of technical skills and knowledge. These cognitive skills include general literacy, such as reading and numeracy, as well as critical thinking and problem solving. Without such skills, the panel believes that true ICT literacy cannot be attained."

JM: These concerns are not limited to the U.S.; they are truly global. My presentation to Japanese librarians and library educators preparing for the introduction of the Internet and certified school librarians in Japan, "Pioneering Technology in the School Library," has just been published in a Japanese book, Internet for the School Library (University of Tokyo Press, 2003). And we've presented in Italy, Malaysia, and Singapore as interest in what it takes to move from vision to practice has increased over time.

FS: So it is a case of "think globally, act locally."

JM: That's right. For a change, those of us in classrooms have the most important information to contribute to these national and international initiatives. We have changed data into information and then into insight. As we build local teams and develop our human networks to share what we are learning, we "walk the talk" and make it possible to expand 21st century learning to everyone.

FS: Such definitions of 21st century skills heighten the importance of the work of I&T teams at every level. Only when the people responsible for curricular, instructional, management, and technical aspects of the school operate from a shared understanding of the importance of ICT literacy can their actions align to make contemporary literacy possible for all students. Fortunately, such initiatives are already underway and reporting significant success. We need to add our voices to the chorus, both drawing from and contributing to the practical knowledge required to reach our common goal.


1Eisenberg, M.B. and Berkowitz, R.E. (1988). Curriculum Initiative: An Agenda and Strategy for Library Media Programs. Worthington, OH: Linworth.

2 Brievik, P.S. (1998). Student Learning in the Information Age. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

3 "Being Fluent with Information Technology," (1999), Committee on Information Technology Literacy, National Research Council, National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055;

4 "Digital Transformation: A Framework for ICT Literacy" (draft), Educational Testing Service, March 2002.

Communications to the editor may be addressed to Ferdi Serim, MultiMedia Schools, 11 Palacio Road, Santa Fe, NM 87505; 505/690-6039; fax: 505/466-1901;; Janet Murray, Kinnick High School, PSC 473 Box 95, FPO AP 96349-0095;

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