Thursday, August 25, 2011

Information Literacy and deciding what is "good"

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is the latest discussion of the woeful information literacy skills of contemporary undergraduates (a topic about which I have blogged already).  No fewer than six of my friends and colleagues sent me the link to this article, because it's also an excellent presentation of the ERIAL library ethnography project.  My colleague Andrew Asher was one of the anthropologists participating in this large-scale study, which aimed to ground what we know about students and their interactions with libraries and library resources in their actual behavior, through open-ended interviews, participant observation, and other research instruments like photo diaries (all methods I engage in as a part of the Atkins Ethnography Project here at UNC Charlotte).

Particularly highlighted in the Chronicle's coverage of the ERIAL project (and its upcoming publications via ALA) is the surprise that so-called "digital natives" could be so terribly unskilled at evaluating information.  I don't think we need to be surprised by students capable of googling not being aware of how to pick which source to use, any more than we would be surprised by children kept away from books all of their lives being unable to figure out what to do with all of those large blocks-full-of-paper things in the library.  Digital literacy has never been the same as information literacy, and all of the digital toys in the world will not render our students (or anyone else's students, for that matter) capable of distinguishing a reliable source from an unreliable source.

Persistent, consistent instruction in information literacy is what will give our students that skill set.  And it cannot begin at university--this skill should be taught and exercised throughout K-12 education (and beyond).  The testing culture of our current educational system makes critical thinking far less valued than retention and regurgitation of facts, and we are paying for that emphasis with the lack of preparation we see in our undergraduates.  The idea that an undergraduate degree is "to get a job," rather than a basis for becoming a thinking and contributing (not just in economic terms) member of society, also gets in the way of educators advocating for critical thinking in the classrooms.  Some students get frustrated by it (being asked to think critically about class content, society, life in general) because they are not necessarily used to being asked to do it, and professors are frustrated by students' frustration--why did they come to college if not to think?

I am collaborating on a project now that involves interviewing and observing high school seniors and college freshman as they look for information, academic and otherwise.  My research partners and I are beginning to analyze the interview data now, and among the many striking things is the standard by which students judge information to be "reliable:"  repetition.  Several students say things like, "if I find it more than once on the web, I know that it's reliable information."  Why do they think this?  Where are they getting this standard of reliability?  Is it possible that they're not being told any other standards?  Or are they simply assuming that the most popular Google link is popular for a fact-based reason?

I think about how students evaluate information when I see their interest in the library website providing reviews of books, articles, and other materials that they can access in our collections.  They want an service whereby they can see what previous users of the materials have said about the materials, so that the students can make an informed decision about the utility of the materials for their purposes.  If you think about the Amazon-style reviews, (see, for instance, the reviews of this Economics textbook), you see that the reviewers writing the "most useful" reviews are explicit about what they wanted out of the book, how the book met their needs (or didn't), and allow the reader of the reviews to evaluate the extent to which the reviewer's standards are the reader's own.  Something is given stars based on whether or not it met a particular user's needs, therefore context is necessary in a review, for other users to be able to effectively evaluate the potential of an item.

What is "good," therefore, is a subjective, shifting thing.  Students who are writing five-page essays might review books as "too long" for what they need to do, and articles as "just the thing."  Graduate students working on dissertations might review books according to their theoretical perspectives.  Reviews on a library web site might give students the ability to get in virtual form the kind of feedback that they already ask their peers for in person (or on facebook, via text, or via emails) about the materials they need for papers, exams, and other coursework.

Students already evaluate information in non-academic settings.  They read (and act on) reviews of movies, cars, live music shows, and restaurants.  They take into account who is doing the reviewing, and whether that reviewer's perspective is relevant and informed (or not).  It is not that they are utterly incapable of critical thinking.  It is that they are not doing it in academic settings.  They have not been trained to do it.  Neither have they been told by our educational institutions (writ large) that critical thinking is terribly important.

Beefing up information literacy programs at the university level, and at K-12, would be an important first step towards remedying the problem.  But the problem has other deep structural reasons for its existence, and those problems require fixes that come from outside of the educational system.

Monday, August 1, 2011

History's Detectives and the Way the World Searches

I haven't watched History's Detectives (on PBS),  in a while, so when I caught up on an episode the other night, I was struck by something I hadn't really noticed before.  For those of you who've not watched it (because you are not a history/anthropology geek like myself), History's Detectives is a sort of spin-off of Antiques Roadshow.    But instead of people bringing their stuff to the Roadshow for experts to tell them about it, the experts  come to people's houses to inspect the item, and take it away with them for a thorough investigation as to its history and meaning.

It's fun, if you like that sort of thing (which clearly, I do).  This time around, I particularly noticed how the beginning of the process of investigation was represented.  After taking the object away with them to their study/office, the expert sits down with their laptop, and immediately fires up Google.  When Wes Cowan was beginning his investigation of a WWII propaganda leaflet, he typed almost those precise words into the Google search box, and worked his way through the links that came up.  He actually said for the benefit of the camera, "I don't know anything about this," before he started Googling.

It looked just like what any student does when they are asked to write a paper about a given topic.  Or what a faculty member does when they want to have a general sense of what's being written about a topic before they teach a class on it, or write an article about it.

Here's what marked Mr. Cowan as an expert:  he didn't stop with the Google search.  He's not on this show to do televised Google searches.  He moved away from the general overview that Google searching could give him, and started reaching out to professional contacts, snowballing his sources until he'd found the answers his client was looking for.   He moved from secondary sources to primary source documents in the process, spoke to people who knew the artist who produced that particular pamphlet, and was capable at the end of all of that work of crafting a finely detailed story of the artifact in question.

Students writing papers have different goals, and how far they go beyond the Google search (or, a browse-type search on an academic library web page) is very much up to the kind of assignment.  If they are writing a five page essay, the post-Google process will look different from that which goes into a 10 or 20 page paper. There is no one perfect search, because all searches happen in a given context.  What may be sufficient for one assignment is woefully inadequate for another (and will be reflected in one's grade for that assignment!).

What does that mean for academic libraries, and those who work with students on their assignments?  It's more important than ever to get a grounded sense of why students are looking for information, not just the fact that they need information on "X."  The reference interview for a 5-page paper has compelling reasons to look different from one for the 10 page paper.

Demonstrating that we know the difference, and translating it into practice in the form of a reference interview gives us more credibility, and makes it more likely that students will come to us for help in the future.