Creating a Virtual Library Classroom Tool for Digital Age Youth

Creating a Virtual Library Classroom Tool for Digital Age Youth

Serina Patterson | Electronic Textual Cultures Lab, University of Victoria


learning environments, pedagogy, application, web 2.0, social network, digital age youth, web design, SD62's Online Library, Radical Change Theory / environnements d'étude, pédagogie, application, Internet 2.0, jeunesse d'âge numérique, design de web, SD62's Online Library, Théorie de Changement Radical

  • 1.0 Our Youth Have Changed
  • 2.0 Youth have Changed, but What About Our Education System?
  • 3.0 Web Design: Digital Age Youth versus Digital Immigrants
  • 4.0 SD62's Online Library
  • Works Cited

"Today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors"
-Marc Prensky

Within the past ten years, the Net Generation – individuals between ages eleven and thirty – have already forever changed the way we think about communication, interactivity, and our capacity to learn. Unlike "Digital Immigrants" who grew up with analog and broadcast technologies,[1] use of today's digital technology - including instant messaging, blogging, iTunes, iPods, mobile phones, and social networks such as Facebook and MySpace - comes naturally to digital age youth. Over 90% of children aged five to seventeen (48 million) use computers (Lemke 7), and a study done in 2005 indicated that 87% of youth aged twelve to seventeen frequently go online (Montgomery 137). Currently, digital age youth are the most tech savvy generation; youth, as Don Tapscott writes, "just [breathe] it in" (19). Indeed, today's youth live in a world of ubiquitous twitch-speed content: they can connect to peers, ideas, and information instantaneously, as well as tailor their own online spaces that promote a sense of freedom and individuality. These applications have not only reconfigured traditional concepts of information flow, but have also helped in developing new skills for traversing this digital landscape. The explosion of digital and interactive media has thus had an impact on how today's students acquire information, and how educational institutions are striving to meet the changing needs of their students.

While certain online learning environments, such as Moodle, have adopted some features of current web 2.0 applications, numerous online classroom tools, such as The Rembrandt Project, have resisted the shift to increasingly decentralized and interactive knowledge platforms that would appeal to digital age youth. Furthermore, scholars such as Marc Prensky have admirably illuminated the need to implement interactive gaming environments in teaching methodology, but there has been little research regarding the creation and implementation of new learning spaces that meets the needs of both students and educators. By analyzing the construction of a virtual library classroom tool I built entitled SD62’s Online Library, the aim of my paper is to illustrate how the changing learning practices of today’s digital age youth can serve as conceptual foundations for enhancing online classroom tools.

Built in Drupal, a PHP open-source content management system, SD62's Online Library website is currently in its beta stage and is part of an ongoing project entitled "Teaching for the 21st Century," a study that explores the impact of e-reading on digital age youth in the classroom.[2] By focusing on concepts of connectivity, interactivity, and accessibility, I will argue that SD62’s Online Library extends the Radical Change Theory first theorized by Eliza Dresang, as well as highlights alternate approaches to online learning. This virtual learning space does not eliminate the classroom, but rather acts as a facilitator to lead students and educators to different interactions with knowledge. In this way SD62's Online Library can serve as an example for integrating web 2.0 technology that alters the user experience of a traditional online e-library.

1.0 Our Youth Have Changed

As Tapscott asserts, "the Net Generation has arrived" (6). In order to understand the appeal of SD62's Online Library website design to this new generation of digital age youth, I will explain the changing characteristics, behaviours, and attitudes of digital age youth and highlight the current state of the education system with respect to teaching a twenty-first century audience.

Tweens and teens are undoubtedly the highest demographic using web 2.0 technologies: a recent study by the Kaiser Foundation found that youth between the ages of eight and eighteen spend upwards of eight and a half hours a day exposed to digital and video sensory stimulation (Tapscott 106). Although research on the neurological relationship between youth and digital technology is still in its infancy, neuroscientist Gary Small argues that digital technology has indeed affected the physiological development of digital age youth. For Small, the "young developing brains [of young people] are much more sensitive to environmental input than are more mature brains" (25); as a result, the plasticity of young minds in response to environmental stimuli have caused youth to encode information differently than older generations (7-8; 25). In his work with educational games, Prensky similarly observes that digital age youth have "develop[ed] hypertext minds. They leap around. It's as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential" ("Do they Really Think Differently?" 3). These non-sequential thinking patterns illustrate that developing brains alter their neural circuitry to better accommodate active participation within a digital environment. Youth, Small notes, are able to process information faster, respond more quickly to visual stimuli, sharpen cognitive skills, and multitask better than older generations can (20).

The changing physiological state of young brains allows digital age youth to perceive and interact with technology in unprecedented ways. While writing this paper, for instance, one might also be checking on updates for a computer game, posting a comment on a blog, browsing updates from friends on their Facebook page, viewing the latest Call for Papers from their Google RSS feed, writing an email, talking to someone on MSN Instant Messenger, listening to their customized radio station on Pandora, and watching The History Channel on television. For digital age youth, technology is not only immersive, but also fundamental to their quest for identity: they can use blogs, social networks, and personal web pages as sounding boards to explore ideas, issues, values, beliefs, and opinions, as well as gain a sense of shared community among their peers. Perhaps more than any other generation, digital media has given digital age youth the autonomy and power to customize and personalize almost everything around them at such a young age; as media expert Kathryn Montgomery writes, youth want to "create their own personalized cultural collages" (109). Far from passive observers, digital age youth also want to be active participants in digital media: as we can infer from the global popularity of top sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger, digital age youth crave interactive and collaborative user experiences. Successful digital applications for youth must therefore address opportunities for collaboration, self-expression, community, innovation, and personalization within a visually stimulating environment.

2.0 Youth have Changed, but What About Our Education System?

Coming from this constant exposure to a modular, connected, and ever-changing digital world, digital age youth often approach learning with an expectation for the same interactive experiences. They no longer simply want to absorb knowledge, but engage with it in a significant way (Lemke 4); according to Cheryl Lemke's platform for integrating twenty-first century skills into the classroom, "students learn more when they are engaged in meaningful, relevant, and intellectually stimulating work" (10; 64). In the same vein, Tapscott suggests that we need to "customize the education to fit each child's individual way of learning" (122) – a suggestion that extends the student-centered approach to learning. Terry Anderson also notes that digital age youth need collaborative learning environments online where they can "[talk] about knowledge" and "reflect upon their own thinking" (37).

While numerous educators have abandoned the traditional lecture-style approach to teaching, many teachers still do not know how to effectively integrate digital technology into the classroom that balances their need to convey specific information with the interest (and attention spans) of their students. David Buckingham outlines the issue as a problem of implementation: "the problem with most educational uses of such media is that they continue to be regarded as merely instrumental means of delivering information - in effect, as neutral tools or 'teaching aids'” (145). Educational sites are thus often created with the goal of the educator in mind rather than the user experience of the students.

The Rembrandt Project presents an excellent case study of this dilemma: as an educational website that intersects Rembrandt's artwork with social studies curriculum, Bette Schneiderman promises to deliver a user experience to teachers and students that not only showcases "a new kind of environment" for learning (46), but that also teaches twenty-first century visual literacy skills (44). While users can access Rembrandt's artwork on the website, students are given few opportunities to discuss and interact with the works with their teachers and peers on the site itself – a feature Schneiderman states is an essential part of the project (47). Rather, the site provides lesson plans and suggestions for teachers to follow in their classrooms offline. The Rembrandt Project's web design highlights the educational problem commonly found in educational websites: in terms of their design these stationary websites may be useful to educators, but they ultimately suffer from a misunderstanding of how digital age youth interact with content in a digital setting. Although the Rembrandt Project hosts a virtual building in the game Second Life, the site does not effectively communicate collaboration, personalization, and interaction with content in a visually stimulating manner. As a result, the site shifts students from an active role online to that of a passive observer.

From a web design perspective, the problem lies primarily in the changing notion of interactivity between online and offline environments. Educational models such as Anderson's theory of online learning stress the importance of human-based and specifically teacher-student interactivity in a learning environment (4), but students today also learn from content-based interaction. Interaction is no longer simply an exchange between two people, but a method of influencing and changing the content in significant ways. With the plethora of web 2.0 applications available today, links, dropdown menus, and image galleries are, unsurprisingly, no longer a remarkable phenomenon to digital age youth. "Young Digital Natives," Small notes, "have become stimulus junkies, drawn into flashy graphics and intense, rapidly changing visual stimuli" (38). Therefore, the key lies in thoughtful design and implementation of web-based applications based on the user's motivations. Design, as Rod Sims notes, is critical to the success of an interactive application: "well conceived interactivity knows its audience, understands their knowledge base, and uses terms and phrases that are commonly understood by that audience" (Sims).

3.0 Web Design: Digital Age Youth versus Digital Immigrants

When I first set out to build SD62's Online Library, I knew that it had to appeal to the needs of two distinct audiences: students and educators. The main goal of SD62's Online Library's was to create an e-library framework that allowed students to download class materials and discuss literature, plus enabled teachers to create classroom groups, upload library and classroom material, and have full control over student accounts. If we glance briefly at the design of top teen-centric sites versus the top online libraries available publicly, we can clearly see the discrepancy in visual stimulation between these two demographics. On popular teen sites for girls such asCosmo Girl (a teen magazine), Girl Sense, and Gurl, teens can find latest trends in teen fashion, take personality quizzes, play games, chat with friends, personalize their profile page, customize a mini avatar, and so on. Information on these sites is vibrant and ever-changing: podcasts, videos, images, Flash-based applications and other interactive media used to engage teens is presented with bright colours, clean CSS templates, and trendy graphics. Although these sites may appear saturated with information, teens are able to read and navigate information with ease. From their design, digital age youth know immediately that these sites were built for them. Top online libraries, in contrast, do not usually contain any of these interactive elements. The Internet Public Library,, and The Free Library provide great search queries and subject categories, but no way to interact with the literature. Additionally, the layout is visually minimalist with little or no colour or graphics. Feed Books and Read Print provide visually appealing CSS templates, but users can only “favourite” books. Perhaps one of the only online literature websites that combines traditional library navigation with interaction is Amazon's Shelfari a virtual bookshelf where users can add and discuss books they are currently reading. Unfortunately, Shelfari is not a library: books must be borrowed elsewhere. From this survey of websites, we can gain a sense of the differences between sites that appeal to both digital age youth and older generations: while website designs that appeal to digital age youth are often visually stimulating, websites built for older generations have simpler navigation and are largely text-based.

4.0 SD62's Online Library

The split of preferences between these two demographics were also strongly reflected in my report for requested features. While conceiving the initial design of SD62’s Online Library, I asked Devon Stokes-Bennett and her students to provide a list of desired features for the site. Students wanted a site that not only provided an easy download system, but (unsurprisingly) also included a variety of interactive elements they typically might find on frequently visited websites such as Facebook and iTunes.

Features Requested by Students

Features Requested by Teachers

An easy and comprehensive search engine that allows students to search by author, title, subject, genre, etc.

Easy to navigate books and files through a neutral visual interface

Genre categories like iTunes

Groups and sub groups for different classes and districts

A rating system, but only for opinion (interestingly, students felt that a five star rating system “would be hurtful” for books their fellow peers enjoyed)

Enable interactive discussions between teachers and students

Images of book covers (many students requested a site that provided numerous colours and images)

Allow instructors to monitor and modify site content generated by students

A feature that recommends similar books based on the user’s previous selections (they wanted something similar to the iTunes music recommendation system)

Only instructors can create student accounts. Students do not have the ability to change usernames

Future potential for downloading music, podcasts, and videos of books and other media

An uploading system that allows instructors to upload files to their classroom space (a group) and e-books to the library

A classroom space where students could ask questions, give help on assignments, have group discussions on class topics, and so on

Provide instructors with information on site statistics for page visits, book downloads, and popular books

A profile that students could add their own interests and personalize

A reading journal (blogging system) where students could share their thoughts on literature, and provided the ability to have different privacy settings on different posts

For instance, the students did not simply want a text-based list for their navigation system, but an “iTunes-like interface” wherein they could turn book images over to read the back jacket and preview opening chapters. In effect, students wanted to engage with texts in a system they were comfortable with: they wanted to “touch” the books, recommend them to a friend, and express their opinions about them. For students, books were no longer perceived as objects given out in class and lectured on by their teacher; rather, their desire for active participation illustrates that they are already changing the way people think about learning spaces and, in some cases, how we engage with literature itself. Teachers’ requests, on the other hand, mostly focused on issues of security, classroom space, and uploading books in an intuitive process. Interactive elements played a minimal role in their desired user experience.

4.1 The Students

Eliza Dresang has similarly picked up on this trend toward interactivity in books targeted at digital age youth. Coining this change as the “Radical Change Theory,” Dresang outlines three criteria – connectivity, interactivity, and accessibility – for defining technology-driven changes within young adult literature. Since SD62’s Online Library is, in part, a place to learn and connect with literature, I would like to extend her theory by applying it to the design and development of SD62’s Online Library. In short, Dresang’s theory is useful for understanding how media conforms to the sensibility of its users.

4.1.1 Connectivity

Dresang refers to the principle of connectivity as a “sense of community” within the medium created primarily through socialization (94). SD62’s Online Library provides students with multiple ways to foster this connectivity by promoting shared experiences and communication. In addition to a classroom group that is, a mandatory group administered by their instructor where they can ask questions and download assignmentsstudents can create and administer their own groups about any school-friendly subject. Students can also create a forum within their group and start discussions with members who join their group. Moreover, a public forum connects all members on the site with defined, school-related topics.

Individual reading journals and a commenting system also increase the site’s sense of community by enabling students to read and post thoughts about literature. Students can comment briefly on any book or post in a reading journal. Alternatively, if students simply want to provide a quick opinion on a book, they can click on the “Vote Up” icon located on every book’s main page. Top voted books are displayed on the website’s front page.

4.1.2 Interactivity

Dresang’s second technology-influenced principle is interactivity. For Dresang, interactivity “refers to dynamic, user-initiated, nonlinear, nonsequential, complex cognitive, emotional, and physical behaviors” in relation to literature (94). While she focuses on print-based literature, Dresang’s definition extends well beyond the tendency to define interactivity as exclusively based on human relationships. In an online classroom environment, this interaction becomes a key component for engaging students with classroom material. SD62’s Online Library contains numerous elements that promote nonlinear navigation and personalization in relation to the site’s library content. First, the website features multiple, aesthetically engaging navigation paths to find desired books. Students can browse books by interacting with a three-dimensional tag cloud, tag categories, and a coverflow interface that cycles through newly added books. Also available is a feature that provides users with a list of books similar to the book they are currently viewing. If a student wants to locate a specific book, they can use the search bar or browse through the alphabetized list of books under the “library” link; while these two features are, perhaps, the most traditional forms of navigation, books are still viewed as images in order to create a visual, virtual bookshelf.

4.1.3 Accessibility

Dresang defines accessibility in terms of breaking down information barriers between people (94), but for a website accessibility also includes providing information across human-interface barriers. Written in PHP, SD62’s Online Library is available using any modern web browser from the last decade. Features are functional across all browsers and information is laid out in a consistent manner. The site uses actual text and JavaScript instead of Flash so that accessibility clients can read or translate material for students who are seeing or hearing impaired. The site also supports high contrast colours in order to provide easy reading on different screens. In addition, SD62’s Online Library currently hosts over two-hundred novels, short stories, and poems for students to download and read. With such a wide availability, teachers can vary curricula without a high initial cost.

4.2 The Teachers

If students crave interactive, visually stimulating media, then how do we implement this new type of interactive environment in a way that is also feasible for educators? Buckingham cautions that schools should be careful to curb the desire to create applications that are "more like children's out-of-school environments" in order to maintain a certain level of authority (179). SD62’s Online Library is teacher-friendly in that instructors can turn off any interactive element on the site, create a group that only allows instructors as members, and monitor student-generated content, among other things. While theorists such as Prensky suggest solutions for enhancing interactivity such as gaming without regard for a teacher’s access to resources or curricula (6), virtual classroom tools must also keep in mind the needs of the teacher and the schoolboard. Thus, security and accessibility are top priorities on SD62’s Online Library and only teachers can create and delete student accounts. Students are not able to upload books, images, or documents to the site.

While SD62’s Online Library is still currently in the beta stage, the site still offers teachers an innovative platform that provides creative ways of extending learning beyond classroom walls. In this way, teachers can create creative assignments, use their group page as a hub for out-of-class discussion, or use the site in a physical classroom. As students and teachers interact with the website and more features are added, SD62’s Online Library has not only become a classroom tool for engaging students with literature, but has also progressed well beyond a simple teaching aid used only in a physical classroom. Understanding the way students perceive and interact with content can help pave the way for building educational spaces that better meet the changing educational needs of digital age youth.

Works Cited

Anderson, Terry . “Toward a Theory of Online Learning.” Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca: Athabasca UP, 2004. 33-60. Print.

Buckingham, David . Beyond Technology: Children's Learning in the Age of Digital Culture. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

Dresang, Eliza and and Bowie Kotrla . “Radical Change and Synergistic Reading for Digital Age Youth.” Journal of Aestheitc Education 43 (2009): 92-107. Print.

Lemke, Cheryl . 21st-Century Skills: Literacy in the Digital Age. Culver City: Metiri Group, 2003. Print.

Montgomery, Kathryn C . Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. Cambridge: MIT, 2007. Print.

Prensky, Marc . "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants." On the Horizon 9.5 (2001): 1-6. Print.

–––– . “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do they Really Think Differently?” On the Horizon 9.6 (2001): 1-9. Print.

Schneiderman, Bette . “Creating a Learning Space that is Virtual and Experiential.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 42 (2008): 38-50. Print.

SD62’s Online Library . UVIC Electronic and Textual Cultures Lab. Web.


Sims, Rod . “Interactivity on Stage: Strategies for Learner-Designer Communication.” Australian Journal of Educational Technology 15 (1999): 257-72. Print.

Small, Gary and Gigi Vorgan . iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. New York: Collins Living, 2008. Print.

Tapscott, Don . Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2009. Print.

[1] “Digital Immigrants” are typically people who were born before 1977 (i.e. Baby Boomers and Generation X).

[2] The pilot group for this project comprised two high school English classes from Victoria's school district 62.

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