Research Summary

Development of the International Ocean Literacy Survey: measuring knowledge across the world.

Testing the International Ocean Literacy Survey (IOLS)

Environmental Education Research

Climate change is causing profound changes in oceans, including sea level rise, increased water temperatures, and shifts in the chemical composition of seawater. Additionally, human activity, such as pollution and overfishing, threatens marine ecosystems and coastal communities. However, previous research has indicated that people know relatively little about ocean issues and marine science. Because addressing marine and coastal issues requires changes at both individual and policy levels, the authors argue it is imperative that global citizens become ocean literate. Ocean literacy is defined as: (1) understanding marine ecosystem functions and human impacts on oceans (knowledge), (2) being able to converse intelligibly about marine science and ocean issues (communication), and (3) having the requisite knowledge and skills to make informed choices about actions that impact oceans (decision-making). A need exists to evaluate the effectiveness of programs that seek to influence ocean literacy. To that end, the authors developed the International Ocean Literacy Survey (IOLS), with the goal of becoming a universal tool to measure ocean literacy.

The Ocean Literacy movement began in the United States in 2002, and brought together educators, scientists, and researchers to advocate for the inclusion of marine science in formal science curricula. This movement quickly expanded; since 2004, there has been a growing global effort to increase ocean literacy and integrate marine science into formal education settings. Gauging whether people are becoming more ocean literate, however, has proven challenging because there is not a universal tool to measure ocean literacy. This study reports on the progress that has been made toward developing such a tool. The International Ocean Literacy Survey (IOLS) is a community-based tool that is a product of the contributions of scientists, educators, and researchers from around the world. The IOLS will allow practitioners and researchers to compare ocean literacy levels across time and location. The IOLS had already gone through two tests, the first in English in the United States and the second in 17 languages in 24 countries. The first version of the IOLS (IOLS V1) was pre-tested with 417 students (ages 16-18) and subsequently refined. Testing the updated survey, IOLS V2, was the focus of this study.

The IOLS V2 includes 48 questions. The survey was translated into 16 languages and distributed globally via professional networks and social media to high school students (ages 16-18). Items on the survey asked a range of knowledge questions regarding human-ocean interactions. For example, questions include: “Recent human activities have changed ocean temperatures and pH. Which of the following have happened because of these changes?” and “If Earth did not have an ocean, what would the surface temperatures on Earth be like?” A total of 6,871 students from North America, Europe, and Asia participated. The intention of the study was to test the accuracy of the scale, the accuracy of each of the questions on the survey, the appropriateness of the answer options for each question, and the fairness of the scale across groups (gender and nationality). The authors used statistics for each of these tests.

The study found that, overall, the IOLS was an accurate and effective measure of ocean literacy. From their statistical tests, the authors identified several questions with inappropriate answer options and flagged these for revision. They also identified several questions that favored one group (e.g., nationality) over another and flagged those for revision. Finally, they flagged questions that were too difficult or too easy to provide any useful information about the ocean literacy levels of respondents. Once they finished analyzing the data and flagging problematic items for revision, the authors made the appropriate edits to the IOLS tool, and plan to test IOLS V3 in future research.

Because participants were recruited for the study through the authors’ networks and through organizational listservs, they were not representative of the global population. Thus, the authors were unable to infer anything about global ocean literacy levels from the results. However, the study did offer valuable insights and feedback on the survey, which the authors used to revise and improve the tool.

The IOLS is designed to measure ocean literacy among participants who come from various cultures and speak different languages, meaning that it can be implemented for high school students in a variety of contexts. Thus, practitioners will be able to use this tool with diverse audiences to assess program effectiveness in increasing ocean literacy among participants.

The Bottom Line

The International Ocean Literacy Survey (IOLS) is a universal tool to measure ocean literacy. For this study, the authors tested the accuracy and effectiveness of the IOLS by distributing the survey (via professional networks and social media) to students around the world. A total of 6,871 students (ages 16-18) participated in the study. Based on their analyses of the data, the authors identified some survey questions that needed revision but found that, on the whole, the scale accurately and effectively measured ocean literacy. Practitioners can use the IOLS across diverse audiences to determine whether their programs are achieving ocean literacy objectives.