Modeling and assessing radical change youth information behavior in the digital age: A pilot study


Problem and the Significance of the Study

Recent studies in various disciplines claim that today's children think and learn differently due to the new digital media culture (Buckingham, 2007; Dresang, 2005b; Gee, 2007; Ito et al., 2008; Jenkins, 2006; Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 2009). In this digital information age, new media forms and formats affect the ways youth learn and seek information. Their interactive, nonlinear, and multitasking approaches require new 21st-century skills such as Information and Communication Technology [ICT] literacies, higher level critical thinking, collaboration, and appreciation of cultural diversity (American Association of School Librarians, 2007, 2009a, 2009b; Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009; Silva, 2008). However, very few empirical studies have been conducted in Library and Information Science [LIS], specifically on how this changed digital environment affects the many facets of youth information behavior (Dresang & Koh, in press). As a result, we do not know enough about what the exact changes in information behavior of youth in the digital age are nor whether the changes promote important 21st-century skills for children.

Also, there are challenges in studying the complex and changing youth information behaviors in the digital environment, such as: (a) identifying a theoretical framework that explains new characteristics of contemporary youth information behavior; (b) establishing and applying valid and developmentally appropriate methods to capture these new multifaceted and complex youth information behaviors; and (c) designing and implementing assessments to determine the effectiveness of the new information behaviors in terms of 21st-century skills.

Therefore, this preliminary research, a pilot for a larger study, and the subsequent research that builds upon it are significant because they (a) suggest a refined and expanded Radical Change theory (Dresang, 2005a) as a theoretical framework for information behavior research in the digital environment; (b) design a series of sessions involving children based on sound child development and learning principles to collect and analyze data; and (c) create assessments for students' 21st-century skills during their information-seeking activities. The study also accounts for observation of information behavior differences according to ethnicity or gender extending the work by one of the researchers in a former project (Dresang, Gross, & Holt, 2007).

Theoretical Framework: The Expanded Theory of Radical Change

The theory of Radical Change, developed in the 1990s by Dr. Eliza T. Dresang, explains the changing nature of youth information resources and behaviors based on three digital age principles of interactivity, connectivity, and access. The theory provides a typology of digital age youth literature (Type One: Changing Forms and Formats; Type Two: Changing Perspectives; and Type Three: Changing Boundaries) and specific indicators that operationalize the digital age principles (Dresang, 2008).

The study expands the original theory by establishing a concomitant typology and accompanying characteristics of digital age youth information behavior through an extensive and interdisciplinary review of research literature. From the perspective of the expanded Radical Change theory, youth information behavior is a complex process of interplays among various factors, such as young people's cognitive status, identity formation and value negotiation, and social interaction within a context (Dresang & Koh, in press). The types of Radical Change in the digital age youth information behavior include [bracketed phrases below refer to specific ASIS&T conference topics]:

  • Type One. Changing Forms of Seeking information and Learning (the cognitive aspect of information seeking) [Digital inclusion]

  • Type Two. Changing Perspectives (identity and value negotiation) [Information behavior in diverse contexts]

  • Type Three. Changing Boundaries (information access and seeking collaborative, participatory community) [Social networking in a linguistically and culturally rich environment; open access & cultural diversity]

Research Questions

Following are the research questions of the larger study.

  • What are the types and indicators of Radical Change observed in children's information behaviors? Does this differ with ethnicity or gender? (Emphasis of the pilot study).

  • What are the relationships between youth's new information behaviors identified by the Radical Change theory and 21st-century skills? Does this differ with ethnicity or gender?

Study Design

The researchers conducted a pilot study in a culturally diverse elementary school classroom with 18 third graders in Tallahassee, Florida in May 2009. The researchers worked with a science teacher, who is also a certified school media specialist, to plan the three days of collaborative problem-solving sessions based on regular science curriculum and state science standards. Students were assigned to work in teams of two or three; they were given both closed and open-ended questions about planets in the solar system and were instructed to find answers from books, encyclopedias, and the Internet with no further specification. They also created posters to answer the questions, presented the posters and had a class discussion about their information-seeking experiences.

Data Collection and Analysis

The expanded Radical Change theory provides a framework for data collection and analysis. The variables observed and analyzed involved: obtaining information through a variety of media sources; demonstrating a preference for graphic and visual information; multitasking; seeking information nonlinearly and nonsequentially; and developing self-defined and controlled paths. Each variable was broken into observable indicators so that a high degree of observer reliability exists for collecting data. In addition, attention was paid to level of collaboration between team members and potential differences in ethnicity and gender. Two teams were selected for in-depth observation, both mixed gender, one with African American students and the other with white students. The researchers participated in the problem-solving sessions to observe systematically students' activities on a data collection sheet, and recorded all activities with four video cameras for further data analysis. Photocopies of students' posters were obtained to examine how they created information. A post-pilot interview was conducted with the teacher.


The preliminary findings from the pilot study include the following:

  • Almost all students used both print and digital media to find information. Researchers observed that children used various formats of information, such as texts, images, and sounds, from multiple media sources.

  • Students reported that they preferred to see visual and graphic information on books and the Internet. However, the nature of the task affected their choice of format. With no specific instruction, students created information in both forms of text and images in representing their findings in posters.

  • Students did multitask, including working on multiple questions at the same time or using multiple media simultaneously.

  • Students exhibited nonlinear and nonsequential information seeking, such as returning to a source previously searched, working on questions in a sequence other than 1 through 10, and gathering information from a resource in ways other than step-by-step, one way only progression.

  • Students developed self-defined and controlled paths. They made decisions on searches independent of the teacher and searched in ways other than those shown by the teacher.

  • No consistent ethnicity or gender differences were observed in relation to any of the variables.

Many students collaborated within and among teams, but the degree of collaboration varied widely among and across teams.

Pilot Study Limitation and Future Research

The pilot study was limited because of the school setting. Students' behaviors may have been constrained by school norms, e.g., researching a curriculum-based topic that was not necessarily of personal interest, constraints on behaviors because of the teacher's presence, and the variety of technologies and digital media was also limited. They had Internet access, but in a filtered format, so some websites were not accessible. Due to the limitations of the setting and the nature of fact-finding tasks, the researchers decided to focus principally on Type One behaviors with observations of Type Two and Three behaviors limited to diversity and collaboration.

However, this pilot study was worthwhile in terms of the above preliminary findings and testing data collection and analysis methods. It was a valid and reliable data collection technique to break down each variable into observable indicators. The four videotapes will be coded and analyzed using Bayesian Networks. Bayesian Networks are graphical structures that represent the relationships between variables using the rules of probability (Neapolitan & Jiang, 2007). The study suggests Bayesian Networks as a new approach to study non-linear, dynamic, multi-faceted and inter-related human information behaviors that are not always predictable. Bayesian Network has become a powerful alternative to model complex systems with uncertainty and subjectivity in various disciplines (Pourret, Naim, & Marcot, 2008).

The anticipated future research agenda, presented in the following model, will focus on continued proof of concept of the information behavior variables, interaction between the digital age resources and information behavior, and influence of both on proficiency in 21st-century information skills.

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