Promoting Teen Reading with Web 2.0 Tools aka BEST Preconference EVER!!! - Part I: Kick-ass Academics

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I'm going to have to split my blog entries of this preconference into more than a few sections because, for one measly afternoon, the organizers packed in two days worth of information!

I sweltered through the three block walk from the Convention Center to the Embassy Suites hotel ("walking distance of Convention Center" really needs to be revised in 90 degree DC weather) arriving with a rather healthy glow.  Two bottles of water and some trail mix later, I settled into a comfy chair outside the ballroom to spread my conference program and exhibit hall in order to map out my swag attack (more on this philosophy in a different entry).  I was REALLY early so I got to see the committee members, headed by the ebullient Wendy Stephens from Buckthorn High School in Alabama bustle around reading everything in preparation for their many guest speakers and panelists.

The agenda itself was impressive but no more so that the quality of presenter that followed.  I'm going to focus for now on the first segment which was what I like to call the "academic" portion, namely two excellent speakers focusing on the research and data we have surrounding the changing landscape of the adolescent reader and the implications this knowledge has for our targeting them for recreational reading promotion.

Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital AgeDr. Eliza Dresang from the University of Washington, Seattle was the first up to speak about her theories of Radical Change, aptly explained in her 1999 book Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age.  It's a credit to the quality of her theories in this book that, despite resource types and the information age evolving exponentially since its publication, her theories hold up extremely well and are as applicable as when this book originally debuted.

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media CollideShe highlighted three major digital age principles for Radical Change, namely the presence of interactivity (dynamic, nonlinear, non-sequential learning behavior and resources), connectivity (construction of social worlds, communities, and the expanded self-perception that comes from these associations), and finally access (which breaks the long-standing information barriers and opens up worlds to users).  No librarian in the room was about to argue the existence of these three factors in the lives of the kids we serve, and I appreciated that she cited the technological futurists attempting to help us understand where our world was evolving, like Gordon Moore (of Moore's Law fame) and Henry Jenkins (professor at MIT), author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.

Dr. Dresang made a point of bringing in the significance of recent research to enhance our understanding of the far-reaching impact of her theories and how they affect our vision of "library resources".  Teens are reading (duh, we knew that, didn't we?) and their brains are changing through their regular interaction with technology, which is literally shaping the areas of the brain accessed during this type of activity.  They prefer "digitally designed" resources and also prefer situations that allow for the three conditions listed above - interactivity, connectivity, and access.  This sounds a lot like the "what should our classrooms and teaching look like?" discussions I've had with teachers and administrators.

Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They LearnTeaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real LearningiBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern MindBut she also cautions us by indicating the research which shows that teens preferences do not equate to them possessing the skills to process and dominate these technologies that they prefer.  Gary Smalls, a University of California scientist has conducted brain research showing the negative effects of brain function of teens using technology and multitasking their way out of deeper understanding, much of which is summarized in his book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind.  Other scholars, some critical of the larger benefit to be had by adolescent use of technology, include Mark Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn by Larry Rosen, and Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf.  Dr. Dresang indicates that these authors come from various academic disciplines and, while she may be occasionally skeptical of their approach at times, they all provide valuable and important arguments for our critical understanding of teen use of technology.  Collectively it seems all researchers agree that children need to be taught to use technology critically and wisely, exploiting the best it has to offer while also understanding the weaknesses it possess to true personal development.

Moral of the story?  Teens are positive about technology and are attracted to the ways in which it satisfies their developmental need to develop an individualized persona while collaborating and sharing in various communities, but they lack they technology and literacy skills to fully wring the best our of information they find.  Luckily for them, they have librarians to help, eh?

Following Dr. Dresang was the erudite and informative Kristen Purcell, Associate Director for Research for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.  She blew the crowd away with the data she presented from a few recently published studies - "Teens and Mobile Phones" and "Social Media and Young Adults" - both of which she combined to give us a comprehensive picture which she called "Teens, the Internet and Communication Technology".  The reason that this data is so vital is that the Pew Foundation has been following these trends for long enough that they were able to take the collected data and compare it to 2004 data, giving us a snapshot of the various trends society has experienced over the last several years.  In technology years (which are kind of like dog years), these time span is equivalent to a century and the results are fascinating to say the least.

I liked Kristen's approach, namely that the researchers wanted to take the commonly held myths about teens - all teens use the internet, every teen has a cell phone and texts all day long, teens have been supplanted by adults on social networks, teens love Twitter, and teens are active creators of content online - and really peel back the surface to see what lay underneath.

What Pew discovered (see the great slides embedded above from Kristen's presentation) was interesting.  People who make sweeping generalizations about adolescent technology use are apt to forget the socioeconomic factors that make up the digital divide.  While I was impressed with how many households now have access to the internet, I was reminded (and appalled) at the number of homes still laboring under dial up connections (10% of reporting households).  When combined with the number of households with no computer (8%) and families with a computer but no internet connection (4%) that's a whopping 22% of American households with no access to the rich 2.0 environment preferred by teens.  The trend that the Pew Foundation has conjectured is that their data shows teens from homes with low income levels use their cell phones for primary access to the internet, causing the researchers to predict that the major trend for future years will be that "all internet access for teens will be from mobile internet devices".  Take a look at the data.  I believe her!