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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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ergo: an online framework for critical literacy in secondary education

Linda Angeloni
Content Producer – ergo, State Library of Victoria

For over 150 years the State Library of Victoria has been the State’s premier public research institution, facilitating public access to information. Pursuing that role in the context of the modern world has meant translating a growing amount of printed material to the Web, and also offering guidance in how to navigate it.

School students are one of the groups served by the Library. Today’s young people are exposed to more information than any previous generation. The sheer quantity of information students are now expected to process and manipulate makes critical thinking and information literacy skills more important than ever. To this end the Library has recently developed the ergo website, a learning and teaching tool for secondary teachers and students that supports the instruction of information literacy and critical thinking skills in the classroom. ergo provides not only online resources but also a conceptual framework for the development of the skills students need to evaluate information.

The key areas of the site are titled Learn skills, Explore history, For teachers and About SLV. The skills component of the website is explored in the ‘Learn skills’ area, covering research techniques, essay writing and study skills. Digitised resources appear in the ‘Explore history’ section. These two areas are linked through innovative dropdown ‘annotations’ that provide commentary and worked examples, show the relationship between sources and outline the skills required to analyse them. The 'For teachers' section offers a range of resources, activities and worksheets for use in the classroom, or as assessment tasks. There are four Resource Kits each for VELS levels 5 and 6 and VCE. 'About SLV' introduces readers to the Library's wider resources.

Preparatory research

This integrated approach was born out of initial market research conducted by Gundabluey Research and the ergo Project team in February 2008. The research involved structured discussions with our target audience of teachers and secondary students to ascertain their needs and expectations of the Library. Sessions were conducted on site at the Library and involved group discussion and one-on-one questioning. Groups consisted of 12–15 participants and included teachers and students from a range of areas, schools and disciplines. During these sessions we recorded many observations which helped shape and focus the goals, content and functionality of the site. The feedback, some of which surprised us, may be summarised as follows.

1 Keep it simple

There’s nothing more pathetic than an older person trying to use street culture and language. Kids can sniff it out like that …
– Student.

Teachers and students clearly stated: give us the information and give it to us straight. Despite the common belief that games and quizzes are the key to engaging teenagers, the site most commonly used by students in our group was Wikipedia – a simple information site with a text-based interface. Sites like Wikipedia and Google were useful because they gave students what they needed, quickly and easily.

As a result, ergo was designed to maximise ease of use and relevance to a student audience. Features include simple navigation and site structure; efficient use of text, including dot points; point-of-need support through drop-down worked examples; and rollover glossary entries.

2 What is research anyway?

There was this teacher, and she like taught how to research like 5 million times in one year and then I had her the next year and she tried to teach it again. I know it already! – Student.

Comments like these are unlikely to surprise teachers, librarians or parents, but clearly illustrate the fact that students don’t necessarily understand what research is, let alone how to research effectively. Some students stated they struggled to extend their research beyond the Internet whereas others believed Google was all they needed.

As a result, ergo's ‘Learn skills’ section explicitly shows the stages of learning associated with the development of fundamental information literacy skills. Features which developed from this premise include

  • step-by-step guides to research and essay writing articles designed to be a starting point with essential basic information
  • worked examples throughout ‘Learn skills’
  • guides which can be used in sequence (eg The writing process) or to explore a discrete skill (eg Writing a bibliography)
  • a six-step research process recommended by the School Library Association of Victoria and educators internationally.

3 It’s hard to find the ‘right’ answer

I get the impression from a lot of students that they’re not used to and sometimes don’t even enjoy the prospect of having to think – they just want to cut and paste. But I think the problem is more about kids not having confidence in their own ideas – they just say what they think you want to hear. – Teacher.

While the belief that some students just want to cut and paste is quite common, these students' behaviour is arguably the result of insecurity and the misconception that there is a ‘right answer’.

This idea in part drove the decision to combine skills and resources in the one website, helping students to develop transferable skills, building confidence and intellectual rigour. As a result, ergo

  • is designed to raise questions and provide a foundation for discussion, not simple answers
  • provides contextual information to support students developing their own opinions
  • groups primary sources in ‘Explore history’ in order to illustrate relationships between texts, ideas, people and events.

4 If it’s written down it must be true

I think students have a tendency to assume, depending on their age, that because it’s published somewhere, even on the Net, then it must be factual. – Teacher.

Statements like this reinforced the view that ergo needed to focus on skills associated with evaluating sources and identifying bias. The idea that students need to evaluate everything they see and read, whether online or in a text from a hundred years ago, underpins all areas of the ergo website.

This can be seen in

  • a critical literacy framework built around simple questions students can ask when they’re reading, reinforced throughout the site in worked examples, student resources and education kits in the ‘For teachers’ section
  • over 500 digitised sources, selected to illustrate contentious issues from Victoria’s past, including Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s self-portrait, John Batman’s treaty and early cartoons of Indigenous Victorians
  • contemporary and historic resources drawn together to illustrate relationships between the past and the present
  • explicit documentation of the thinking processes behind research and critical thinking, helping students to repeat, transfer and elaborate on these skills.

5 Primary sources are compelling

I love quotes – because they’re profound, really important and like mean something. They bring you closer to what you’re actually researching. – Student.

Students and teachers alike responded to primary sources and their capacity to bring the past to life. As a result of recent digitising projects, ergo showcases hundreds of primary sources from collections traditionally closed to students, including manuscripts, original artwork and rare photographs. Over 200 primary source quotes also appear on the site. Through the exploration of primary sources, ergo also increases awareness of the role of libraries and institutions like the State Library of Victoria and their increasing presence online.

ergo and other Library resources

The ergo site also alerts students who wish to pursue their topic in more detail to the Library's wider resources. These resources may be of particular help in later research undertaken during higher education, employment or the pursuit of personal interests. ergo links to resources beyond books and journals, via databases and indexes to items such as newspaper articles, historical pamphlets, political and cultural ephemera, old postal directories and news cuttings about lesser-known public figures. ergo also links to the Library's inquiry service that provides access to subject experts. The reference librarians can assist inquirers to clarify their research goals and guide them to online and offline resources they may not otherwise discover.

ergo combines core information and critical literacy skills with contextualised groups of resources showcasing the State Library of Victoria’s unique collections. In this way, ergo not only provides educators with an invaluable learning and teaching tool but also engages students and teachers with the broader library community by providing them with a tailored gateway to the ever-growing range of online resources and alternative pathways to traditional print resources.

Ultimately ergo demonstrates the Library’s ongoing commitment to providing access and a world of information to a new generation of users.


Subject Headings

Secondary education
Information literacy