How has the school library program developed digital and information literacies necessary for students to support their independent research and collaborative inquiry? An exploratory case study within the IB PYP inquiry process.

Digital and information literacies and the school library

Key concepts

Information and digital literacies, multimodal literacies, new literacies, school libraries

Introduction and case study context

You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it. (Seymour Papert)

For school librarians, this is certainly part of a core responsibility, to provide students with digital literacy skills and strategies that will enable them to find and access information at point of need, in order to create knowledge (Farkas, 2011). While students are growing up in this digital age, research reveals they are not necessarily skilled in reading to locate and use online information effectively (Leu, Zawilinski, Forzani, & Timbrell, 2014b; Pickard, Shenton & Johnson, 2014). This is significant when “students overestimate their ability to engage with information in a critical and literate manner” (Kirkwood in Beetham & Oliver, 2010, p.162).  Yet, students are required to be ethical and critical thinkers, and engage as collaborators and creators in participatory digital environments (Coiro, 2003; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011; Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), 2015).

This exploratory case study seeks to investigate Year 5 students’ (ages 10-12) learning experiences within a school library program. It endeavours to explore the pedagogical background, motivation and steps in implementing digital and information literacies. Did these sessions provide students with the emergent skills and strategies to support independent research and collaborative inquiry as they began their International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP) Exhibition?

Inquiry is the leading pedagogical approach of the IB. Teaching is conceptually based, and the school within the case study, follows a model of inquiry adapted from the work of Kath Murdoch (See Appendix A). The PYP Exhibition is the culminating inquiry process where groups of students collaboratively take responsibility for their own learning and use critical thinking skills to engage with authentic learning experiences as they “problem solve and construct their own meaning and solutions to various social, cultural and political issues” (Koh, Tan, & Ng, 2012 in Rochester, 2014, p. 1006).

The study involved ten classes within an international school setting in Singapore (213 students: 107 boys and 106 girls) over an academic school year. Students come from multiple cultural backgrounds and nationalities, including students with English as an Additional Language (EAL).

The focus of the information literacy (IL) sessions was to move beyond traditional library skills to focus on the perspective and experience of the user and ‘how to use information’; that is, to identify, navigate and evaluate information in online and digital spaces (Spiranec & Banek Zorica, 2010). Weekly 35 minute lessons were conducted in a classroom setting. This time constraint is familiar to librarians who often have a short period to teach thereby limiting what can be covered (Farkas, 2012; Rush, 2014; Smale, 2012; van Meegen & Limpens, 2010).  Classroom teachers were part of these sessions to enable the ongoing development of these skills and strategies within their own classroom practice. Students accessed 1:1 iPads as well as using other digital technologies.

Theories, concepts and literature

The internet and participatory web 2.0 digital technologies and environments have been a major disruptive force in education and society (Buschman, 2009; Dede, 2009; Farkas, 2012; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011). This has seen the adjustment of pedagogical approaches to reflect the changed educational environment (Farkas, 2012). Simultaneously, students engage in informal learning experiences outside of the classroom and access information at point of need (Farkas, 2012).

In this digital age, students need to be information fluent and consider when information is needed, decide which tools to use, to engage in critical thinking and analysis to evaluate, synthesize and create new information and be ethical users of data and information (ACRL, 2015; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011). Students need to understand that information is not static but a dynamic entity (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011; Rochester, 2014) and online information is now “characterized by pluralism, controversy, autonomy, fluidity, replicability and accessibility” (Spiranec & Banek Zorica, 2010, p.142). It is even more difficult when students are required to access and quickly filter huge amounts of information and data within this interactive environment (Coiro, 2003; Dede, 2009). Yet, these are essential literacy ‘survival’ skills (Literat, 2014; Pickard, Shenton & Johnson, 2014). This is problematic if students accept ‘information on trust’ and lack discrimination when selecting information from the internet (Pickard, Shenton & Johnson, 2014).

New Literacies

Literature acknowledges the development of notions of transliteracy and new literacies (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011; Leu et al., 2014a) with IL reframed as a metaliteracy connected to digital, media, visual, cultural and environmental literacies (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011; O’Connell, 2012; Rochester, 2014).  Furthermore, it is recognized that the nature of literacy has been altered by the internet requiring additional skills and strategies (Leu et al., 2014b) so much so that “literacy is not just new today; it is new every day” (Leu, Forzani, Rhoads, Maykel, Kennedy & Timbrell, 2014a, p.38).

For school librarians, it is worthwhile to consider further the concept of Leu et al’s (2014b) New Literacies theory, which embrace such findings as the centrality of critical literacies, the need for new forms of strategic knowledge, social practices and new literacies to fully access the internet. This has implications for IL sessions when online research and comprehension is pivotal to the “process of problem-based inquiry involving the skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices that take place as [students] use the internet” (Leu et al., 2014b, p.346).

Leu et al. (2014b, p.346) consider five processing practices that occur during online research:

  1. Reading to identify important questions
  2. Reading to locate information
  3. Reading to evaluate information critically
  4. Reading to synthesize information
  5. Reading and writing to communicate information

Students need to be given explicit instruction and ongoing opportunities to apply these complex reading processes in digital and online environments (Brown, 2014). Indeed, Henry argued “that locating information is perhaps, the most important function of reading on the Internet [as] all other decisions and reading functions…emanate from the decisions that are made during the search process” (2006, p.616).

These new literacies are evident in both the revised SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy model and the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education which were used as curriculum design tools, along with the school library’s “21st Century Skills – An Information Fluency Document” (See Appendix B). Each of these documents move beyond linear skills to include a holistic approach addressing knowledge practices and dispositions i.e. affective, attitudinal or valuing dimensions of learning (Goldstein, 2015; Kutner & Armstrong 2012; ACRL, 2015). These skills are developed systematically, at point of need, over an extended period and at a variety of levels (ACRL, 2015; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011).


Throughout the IL sessions, differentiation included a variety of teaching strategies, use of digital and visual tools, and groupings so students had opportunities for teacher directed focus, exploratory learning and joint construction (Rochester, 2014). Farkas also noted the “very different competencies, technological literacies and expectations” of students within the classroom (2012, p.88). It is certainly a fine balance between providing the structure and scaffolding to teach IL and digital literacies skills and providing students with the time to inquire, explore questions and “wrestle with information issues collaboratively” (Farkas, 2012, p.91). This is where the PYP Exhibition provided a window of independent inquiry for students.

As a concluding activity, as the PYP Exhibition commenced, a mini IL provocation to use search terms and practice the online search process was introduced as part of the Tuning in and Finding out stages to support the PYP Exhibition transdisciplinary theme of ‘How We Express Ourselves’.

Parental permission was sought to allow for the Year 5 cohort to be involved in the case study (See Appendix C). Qualitative methods were used during a ‘snapshot of learning’ which included concept mapping, search history tracking and over 50 screen recordings by students (in pairs or ‘threes’) using QuickTime Player (See Appendix D). The latter allowed students to engage in Talk Alouds (Moline, 2010). A survey which included 194 students’ perceptions of IL strategies was also completed (See Appendix E). These methods provided insight into the learner’s viewpoint and active search strategy process.

Information literacy sessions

Based on the above literacies practices and curriculum frameworks, the following steps to develop threshold conceptual understandings were taught during IL sessions:

Searching as a strategic exploration (ACRL, 2015) requires novice students to search a limited set of resources and to construct a premeditated search strategy, that is, using Leu et al.’s (2014b) criteria, students read to identify important questions and locate information.

While students were not introduced to the intricacies of how different search engines work,  they learnt about the structure of a web address and  ‘blurb’ in order to infer the most useful links among a set of search engine results (Leu et al., 2014b; Henry, 2006) as shown in Figure 1. Students also used their prior knowledge along with these strategies to select useful web sites based on their information needs.

Figure 1 Structure of the Uniform Resource Locator (URL)



Students were expected to reflect on the importance of context and choice as “information sources [may] vary greatly in content and format and have varying relevance and value, depending on the needs and nature of the search” (ACRL, 2015, p.9; Farkas, 2012; Spiranec & Banek Zorica, 2010).  As part of the conceptual understanding of searching as a strategic exploration, students explored multiple resources (including databases such as Newsbank, Ebscohost Student Reference Centre, online encyclopedias and websites) in order to read to locate and critically evaluate information (Leu et al., 2014b; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011; Moline, 2010).

Year 5 students were also introduced to Wikipedia as a resource for initial topic understanding, to access creative common images, as well as helping to narrow their search terms by reading subheadings within an article. Additionally, students may discover further resources, via the citation trail, to support their inquiry. Wikipedia also allows for differentiation of learner needs. Students with English as an additional language (EAL) have access to their mother language and also to the Simple English Wikipedia site. Students further engaged in discussions about online collaborative authorship and reliability to develop their critical evaluation skills.

Alternative search engines to locate information and to engage with the search process was introduced (Henry, 2006). Visual search engines such as Instagrok and Tag Galaxy showed the significance of the relationship of keywords and tags. Advanced search techniques, using Google and Google Images, gave students the experience of narrowing search terms by using filtering and search tools. Other search engines such as Gogooligans and DuckDuckGo were considered for their advertising-free, safe search features, and privacy settings.

Finally, students focused on the Tuning in stage to consider the purpose of their information need and to use keywords to narrow their topic before the start of the search task (Henry, 2006). This concept mapping activity was completed during the mini IL provocation (See Appendix H).

The conceptual understanding that authority is constructed and contextual (ACRL, 2015) introduces students to read to critically evaluate information (Leu et al., 2014b). Students considered how “information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used” (ACRL, 2015, p.4). Pickard, Shenton and Johnson noted how the skill of evaluation is one of the most difficult within the cognitive domain and as a mainstream or gate-keeping skill “should be promoted by teachers in the classroom, as well as by librarians in the context of IL instruction” (2014, p.4, p.7).  Indeed for novice learners, design and presentation features rather than content can influence credibility judgements (Pickard, Shenton & Johnson, 2014). In addition, social and digital technologies have made this even more difficult for students to determine the producer of information and author’s expertise (Mackey & Jacobson, 2011).

Digital games such as Keynote Museum and Kahoot, websites and social media tools such as YouTube provided appropriate learning experiences to explore and revise web evaluation (See Appendix F). Animated discussion was generated as students judged the reliability and authenticity of an island holiday home for dogs (see Figure 2) with particular notice taken of authorship and disclaimers as well as content on the website.

Figure 2 Screenshot from Dog Island website which illustrates why students need to critically evaluate websites


Librarians provide IL scaffolding so students can “judge the value, credibility and soundness of different sources of information or knowledge through comparison and critique, rather than to accept and present all information or knowledge as given” (Koh, Tan, & Ng, 2012 in Rochester, 2014, p. 1009).

As novice learners, students developed understandings of basic indicators such as authority and validity criteria (ACRL, 2015, SCONUL, 2011). This is especially important in the emergent stages until students can independently create their own knowledge and transfer their learnings across disciplines (Moline, 2010; Rochester, 2014). The CARRDS Framework (see Appendix G) provided an evaluation scaffold, although students were reminded that this was only one framework among others available. Students made inferences based on credibility of author or organisation, the URL domain address clues, date/currency, references or citations, the purpose of the website and reliability of information (which incorporated fact checking and utilising prior knowledge) as well as relevance toward their information need.

As a final web evaluation task students had the choice between six websites to expose two websites with erroneous information and to also consider the purpose of each website (See Appendix F). Students were encouraged to think critically and “always question the information they read for reliability and accuracy, always read to infer bias or point of view, and always check the sources they encounter while reading” (Leu, 2014b, p.353; Henry, 2006; Mackey & Jacobson, 2011;).

Information has value and scholarship as conversation (ACRL, 2015) were two other threshold conceptual understandings addressed. Students are very familiar with the concepts of reuse and remix in informal contexts as they create and participate in digital and online environments.  What they do not understand are the legal and ethical nuances (Farkas, 2012). IL sessions introduced academic integrity and intellectual property, focusing on the concepts of plagiarism, copyright, creative commons and referencing. A core element of presenting information to others is giving attribution and communicating the sources used – indeed the key mantra was to ‘Cite everything’ and ‘Cite as you go’. Students used the scaffold of the RefMe online citation tool to explore the proper attribution of multiple formats of information (Henry, 2006).

Critical analysis

According to the online survey, the majority of students (91.2%) considered the IL sessions helpful, agreeing between 3 and 5 on the Likert scale with 1 being (not a lot) to 5 (very helpful). However, the library program needs to also consider the extreme users, the remaining 8.7% who chose the Likert 1- 2 scales. As the survey was anonymous, it did not allow tracking to see who these students ‘on the edges’ were, as to implications for mother language and reading abilities. Students agreed overwhelmingly that digital games are fun, interactive and help them learn (See Figure 3). The survey has ramifications for how to differentiate teaching the IL and digital literacies for this group of students and how digital games can be further incorporated within the school library programme.

Figure 3 Sample student reflections of digital games

Help me learn because they are fun so get me interested and make me want to get better and learn more so I do well in the game.
It makes me want to engage with the topic more.
It helps because if we get it wrong we discuss it and then explain why it is correct and it helps me to remember what we have learnt.
It helps because it will give questions you may not know the answer to and then it will tell you the answer and then it will explain why it was that answer.
Yes because it’s a fun game and because if you get something wrong your brain remembers the awnser.
Digital games help me because it transforms knowledge that was a bit boring to something that’s really fun and helps me remember new information.
The fun games sink in your head;   Because they help me understand more of the Internet.
Yes, because it’s a fun way of learning important things that you’ll need later & now in life.
It was helpful because I learnt how to find trustworthy websites
It helps me by making my head think to the topic so I will understand more.
Because it teaches you about how to search information and get information that is true.
I found it easier to engage during these games as an opposition to a teacher standing at the front of the room telling me something.

The data confirms that Year 5 students, as novice learners of online reading, are beginning to apply their knowledge to different contexts. Students’ concept maps as part of the goal setting process, showed students formulating search terms yet also indicated the need for ongoing practice (See Appendix H).  This Tuning in stage is “critical to searching for information on the internet” (Henry, 2006, p.618).

Screen recordings and informal in-class observation showed students engaged in discussion with one another and sharing prior knowledge. Working in small groups repositioned digital technologies as collaborative rather than individual tools. There was a balance of students using both natural language and selected keywords as they searched online. Several groups did not consider combining their search terms which affected both search results and time management. While students indicated using a variety of resources the internet is now the ‘go to’ resource for information across multimodal formats as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 Sources of information used by upper elementary students


While students used different search engines, Google is the preferred search tool as shown in Figure 5 (See also Appendix I). Student comments  echoed each other, viewing Google as the ‘most helpful’ search engine based on their perceptions of  familiarity, ease of use, fast, efficient, relevant useful information, variety of formats e.g. images, videos, news, calculator, advanced search tools which allows the user to narrow their search, provides “precise searches” and copyright. Interestingly, Mackey and Jacobson exclaimed that ”the ease and ubiquity of resources such as the generic Google search feature, along with the certainty of results, however, lulls information seekers into a false sense of security that they have found what there is to be found” (2011, p.71). Other students’ preferences acknowledged the ‘kid safe’ and ‘kid friendly’ (easy to use and relevant information) aspects of search engines such as KidRex, DuckDuckGo, and Gogooligan. The other two resources that stood out for students to locate information was YouTube and Wikipedia.

Figure 5  Students’ preferred search engines


The snapshot of the recorded online ‘search process’ both confirmed student perceptions and introduced other concerns (See Appendix I). One third of the student groups were seen to transfer learnings and understandings into practice when discussing issues (“Does this answer our question?”, “Should we look in images?” “Is it trustworthy?” “That could be useful”, “It has a real address and phone number”, “Let’s scroll down here and read”) and using web evaluation criteria such as currency, authorship, reliability, relevance or the issue of online safety. These students also engaged in taking the time to scan and read for information.

Yet, the screen recordings also reinforced earlier research observations that students do not know how to approach reading in online environments (Henry, 2006; Timbrell, 2014). In spite of the initial task outline to consider keywords, questions and search strategy before using the internet, many groups began using the internet without clarifying clear goals. The result was poor navigation skills and lack of focus evident in abandoning either search engines or websites without comprehending the content, random searching by jumping quickly between different search engines and off topic conversation.  Nor, did these groups take the time or show careful online reading of search results, address bar or websites, instead engaging in non-strategic clicking and then finding information that did not meet their information need or was too difficult for their reading comprehension. At this emergent stage, students are novice searchers showing ad hoc search activity, unable to engage with sufficient depth to fully explore the topic scope (Coiro, 2003; Debowski, 2001).

This anecdotal evidence is in direct contrast to students’ perception on the importance of website evaluation criteria (See Table 1). Interestingly, there are still significant (while small) numbers of students (the extreme users, in red) who selected 1-2 on the Likert scale considering the criteria as ‘not at all important’ which has implications for both their own online search practice, online reading and the school library program.

Table 1 Frequency of responses provided for online survey website evaluation criteria
Response Statement 1.     Not at all important 5. Very important
You look for information about the author or organisation 2 (1%) 14 (7.2%) 29 (14.9%) 69 (35/6%) 80 (41.2%)
The information is detailed rather than brief 3 (1.5%) 7 (3.6%) 42 (21.6%) 81 (41.8%) 61 (31.4%)
The web page/site is new or has been recently updated 2 (1%) 8 (4.1%) 29 (14.9%) 73 (37.6%) 82 (42.3%)
The web page refers to the work of other experts or has a reference list 3 (1.5%) 7 (3.6%) 51 (26.3%) 71 (36.6%) 62 (32%)
There are no spelling or grammatical mistakes 6 (3.1%) 7 (3/6%) 26 (13.4%) 51 (26.3%) 104 (53.6%)
It is clear why the website has been created 0 (0%) 9 (4.6%) 33 (17%) 64 (33%) 88 (45.4%)
You read the search page blurb and look at the URL address for clues 6 (3.1%) 13 (6.7%) 41 (21.1%) 78 (40.2%) 56 (28.9%)
You use prior knowledge when using search engines and choosing websites 2 (1%) 4 (2.1%) 23 (11.9%) 78 (40.2%) 87 (44.8%)
It is easy to check the information is correct by looking at other websites 0 (0%) 9 (4.6%) 23 (11.9%) 71 (36.6%) 91 (46.9%)
You think about keywords you will use before searching online 2 (1%) 7 (3.6%) 30 (15.5%) 85 (43.8%) 70 (36.1%)
You choose different search engines depending on how they can help you find information 6 (3.1%) 10 (5.2%) 29 (14.9%) 66 (34%) 83 (42.8%)


The demands of evaluating information would appear to be insufficiently valued in education (Pickard, Shenton & Johnson, 2014). The case study reaffirmed Debrowski’s (2001) findings of the need for further exploration of students’ search strategies. It would certainly be interesting to track these students as they move through the secondary years, as to how their research and online comprehension develop. While there are obvious limitations to the case study especially the time constraint of both the IL sessions and the mini search provocation, it is still evident that the following skillsets and strategies need to be continually reinforced within the school library program and the classroom:

  1. Practicing searching and analysing search engine results, including strategic use of keywords and “determining the extent of information required for a particular search” (Mackey & Jacobson, 2010, p.68; Henry, 2006).
  2. Providing time for students to inquire and explore multiple formats in order to activate prior knowledge to help with searching on the internet (Henry, 2006).
  3. Students evaluate and annotate websites as part of inquiry tasks in addition to content creation, e.g. why they have selected websites to use.
  4. Opportunities for student reflection of tools and strategies used within a search process and whether it was effective (Henry, 2006; Farkas, 2012).
  5. Revising conceptual understandings of academic integrity and practicing bibliographic skills throughout the academic year within the classroom context.


The case study provided interesting insights into students’ emergent digital and information literacies skills. Students are beginning to apply the information learned within the IL sessions to different contexts. Yet, the qualitative data from the snapshot of learning also reaffirmed the literature and the dichotomy that exists between student’s beliefs and perceptions and their actual skills in reading to effectively navigate, locate, evaluate and use online information. While students acknowledged the significance of digital and information skills and strategies within the online survey, they are still very much novice learners ‘finding their way online’ without much thought given to their practice.

Given the impact of digital technologies and participatory environments today, information literacies are now even more significant (Mackey and Jacobson, 2011).  Students in the case study already are familiar with the dynamics of change as they live in cultures outside of their own. As they progress through their schooling, students need to make similar connections and develop the skills and strategies to successfully engage with the new literacies in complex digital and online environments.


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