Guest blog: Alison Kennedy, Head Librarian at St George’s School, Ascot

It is every school librarian’s dream to be handed the keys to a new library kingdom. In August 2015 I was granted such a wish and embarked upon my journey at St George’s Ascot, an independent all girls boarding and day school. Not only was this kingdom brand new but I was tasked with bringing the library service to the forefront of the school’s academic provision.

This blank slate meant that I had a huge opportunity at my fingertips and one of my priorities was enabling digital provision. With no Library Management System, no online databases and no VLE it was a daunting task but also provided me with many opportunities.

Like any other school librarian, I am always trying to reiterate the important role that libraries play in digital literacy. We all know that libraries go beyond books and reading for pleasure but that is a message that is sometimes lost in the misconception that libraries are outdated as “no one reads books anymore”. Firstly, I can confidently say that is definitely not the case and, secondly, we are MORE relevant in the face of such a plethora of information.

Whilst the library is a great source of information, it is also a source of skills that go beyond the curriculum. This has never been more apparent than the current global health crisis; with so much information out there the opportunities for fake news, misunderstanding and panic are plentiful. If our young people are equipped with a suitable degree of digital literacy then they will be able to apply critical thinking and evaluate which sources of information to seek and which to avoid. The impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing can be overwhelming if they simply read and believe absolutely everything they encounter.

I think we often view digital literacy in too narrow a context – seeing it purely as something that can be applied to an educational context. However, digital consumption is in every aspect of our lives and young people may be digital natives but they are not necessarily digitally savvy. There is an inherent trust in everything they read and that is a massive challenge not only for librarians but for teachers and parents too.

The first stop in my digital literacy journey at St George’s was to focus on the Sixth Form. I felt it was essential to equip this group with the skills for independent learning at university, and digital literacy in their lives in general. I began by offering research skills classes, connected to the work being done in different subjects, and fake news sessions to try and get the pupils to think about how they handle information in a variety of different contexts. I also began to teach on the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) course. This course is a great fit for librarians as it is a research based qualification so we can use our knowledge and skills to embed digital literacy skills into the taught skills element of this course. Over the years I involved myself more and more on this course; as a supervisor and teaching topics such as plagiarism, referencing and using online databases in the taught skills lessons.

In January 2018 I took over in the role of EPQ Centre Coordinator and this provided me with a fantastic opportunity to really develop the taught skills element of the course and focus on digital skills. Now the taught skills programme has an ICT component – many of the pupils do not study ICT beyond Year 9 and there is a definite skills gap that needs filled. Many digital natives may be able to create a Tik Tok video but do not yet know how to insert a table of contents, a bibliography or graphics into a word document. They are very adept at using Powerpoint but often do not utilise it to its full potential and/or rely on it for the presentation rather than using it as a tool to augment the presentation. Now, alongside the ‘traditional’ EPQ skills such as referencing and critical research techniques we arm them with the tools to do this by integrating it with ICT.

At the same time that the EPQ became compulsory, the school made the decision to issue Chromebooks to all pupils, we began to develop a VLE and we moved to use of Google Docs for the creation and sharing of content and documents. The rapid rate at which technology is developing and being introduced obviously gives us both challenges and opportunities. The main challenge for educators is staying on top of all of the developments and understanding how young people use digital tools.

However, the opportunities are also vast and staying on top of the trends can provide us with new ways to innovate and engage. There are new apps emerging constantly so we should look at many of them for inspiration. Young people are constantly using social media and it is crucial that they understand how to use such tools in a socially responsible way. I firmly believe that a huge part of our role in imparting digital literacy skills should focus on social media and the emotional and social aspect of digital literacy.

Social media tools also allow us to get creative with how we deliver lessons on digital literacy and how they can be a success in an educational context. By utilising the tools young people are already using we can connect with what they are interested in. We can, in turn, learn from our students and tap into their expertise with new applications as they emerge. Ultimately, the more interested in the content they are, the more engaged they will be, and the more enthusiasm they will have for absorbing the key messages.

Digital literacy is not the sole purview of the librarian but we certainly have an amazing opportunity to show where our skills can help young people, not only in their education, but in their wider digital lives.

View Alison’s presentation from JCS 2019 here.