RISC World

Information Handling Skills for Schools

Mike Battersby offers advice on the Internet in schools

By using information technology, skills which in the past have been needed, but where the need has possibly been mainly implicit, can now be made much more explicit. In a technological information-based society such as a developed post industrial society, the need to have information skills is central to many occupations as well as home and leisure activities.

Depending on the degree to which a task is detailed by a teacher, the initial skill may be the formulation of a key question or hypothesis that will, if answered, provide the evidence that is needed to make a statement or conclusion about a topic being investigated. Alternatively a teacher may set a topic or title to be investigated and structure it.

Following on from the starting point of having an aim or goal to achieve in the investigation or project being undertaken, then other information handling skills which can be developed from the use of the Web may include:

Evaluating the credibility of the source of information which produces the site and its content:

  • Is it a bona fide organisation such as the Royal Society of Chemistry or is it someone producing their own pages from their bedroom (not that this eliminates the possibility of usefulness or accuracy). Is it an extremist organisation, a cult or politically biased source? The Web allows a far greater spectrum of contributors than would normally be found in a library or bookshop and this kind of assessment is very important both when undertaking educative tasks and to prepare pupils for post school life.
  • Is, as far as can be discerned, the information (a) up to date, (b) biased, with for example political, ethnic or gender bias?
  • Is the information presented factual or mostly opinion?
  • Does the site make reference to credible reference sources?
  • Can other sources verify the one being investigated as being credible?

Once the general validity is assessed then other information skills come into play:

  • Is the textual information relevant to the particular topic being researched? What portions of information should be selected and what portions discarded?
  • What graphics are useful in illustrating the content? How many graphics are needed to convey a point?
  • What key points are there in the text to be extracted for use in the study? This involves the skills of scanning and skimming the text and then analysis to identify key points and the detail that is appropriate to use.
  • Checking on the meaning of unfamiliar words.
  • Note taking may be needed to help to extract the key points succinctly, with the skills of summarising essential details.
  • Synthesis is needed to be able to put the key points together into a coherent discussion.
  • A conclusion may be needed to draw out what findings the discussion has led to.
  • Presentation skills are needed to put the information retrieved into a coherent form of expression and structure that is suitable for the audience for which it is intended. Apart from the content itself, layout and illustration may aid the ability of the work to be communicated to others.
  • Editing skills may be needed to revise, re-work and refine the project in successive stages.
  • Evaluation of the work done to assess how fully it has achieved its intended aims and how it might be improved. This may involve an overall weighing up‘ of the factors included in the content, together with any assessments of the validity of the sources used. It may require how far‘ or to what extent‘ judgements to be made in terms of the validity of a conclusion drawn, for example.

These skills are, of course, the same skills needed as always in, for example, the writing of an essay or project but the use of information technology, and the Web in particular as the greatest (in quantity) information source of all time, can make the development of these skills more explicit and add new forms of classroom activity in the development of them. The end results can also be presented in a wider variety of ways, including publishing the work on the Web itself for the whole world to see (potentially)! The quality of output and the potential world-wide audience may act to motivate pupils.

Information technology tools can reduce the amount of time and effort spent on routine tasks e.g. removing the need for items to be rewritten or re-typed if revised, instead being edited dynamically. This should allow more time for the development of the skills listed and so aid development of learning in these ways.

A pupil who has a high ability at analysis and synthesis may be better able to express themselves in electronic form than if, say, their handwriting is poor. They are therefore likely to get more recognition of the skills they have than where they are obscured by the inability of the teacher to read the work submitted.

The use of the Web may also be an aid to structuring work in a methodical fashion. For example a pupil may find it helpful to follow a sequence of actions such as:

  • Searching for relevant sites.
  • Scanning the content of sites — Web pages to identify usefulness.
  • Bookmarking a relevant site.
  • Returning to the bookmarked sites and identifying key points in each, discarding those not useful or repetitious.
  • Saving out key points and then synthesising them in a word processing or DTP package.
  • Refining the content and structure of the work e.g. with relation to audience by editing text and/or graphics in a word processing or DTP package.
  • Adding a conclusion based on the information found.
  • Evaluating the finished work.

While, in some ways, these skills may be quite sophisticated, they are appropriate to all age ranges. Even if their application is far more elementary in form when undertaken by younger pupils, the skills may essentially be similar.

Activities to discourage

  • The indiscriminate copying of chunks of text simply because they relate generally to the topic being studied.
  • The use of illustrations simply because they are attractive to the user.
This extract was taken from the book Information Handling Skills for Schools, published by Learning Online News. The editor, Mark Webb, is a former editor of Archimedes World who still has fond memories of his times within the Acorn market. A special offer price of £4.99 is available to RISC World readers - email for details of how to order.

Mike Battersby