Information Literacy

I was recently pointed toward this short blog post about the difficulties of assuming information literacy in our students, whether they are of a younger generation who has grown up with iPhones and easy access to the internet, or whether they are older and have adapted to newer technologies in their everyday lives. The post author mentions his opinion that students can’t “be expected to learn for themselves how to discern good information from bad on the internet.” He is certainly correct, although I don’t think this is a terrible problem.

In my years of teaching, I’ve noticed a few different strands of thought when it comes to students, technology, and information literacy. A prominent view is the exhausted, old-timey professor who refuses to learn anything as new fangled as Skype or Facebook as a point of pride. Luddite Power and all that, the students can just deal with it on their own. A slightly more different approach treats all technology as though it dropped out of the sky with no context, with no similarities to any other tools we’ve used in the past, and that it has little to no bearing on more “traditional” modes of learning. Of course, there are those who are so tech savvy and capable that they fully embrace every new technological tool and trend, and often incorporate those tools seamlessly into course design and learning goals.

I fall somewhere in the middle of viewpoints 2 and 3. I think we absolutely need to be on board with newer and developed technologies, incorporating them intelligently and purposefully into the classroom, but I don’t think this means we fundamentally change all of our pedagogy, either. For instance, I was trained in composition pedagogy by a marvelous teacher and scholar who understood the role technology often plays into students’ lives, and helped me learn to adapt that understanding into my teaching. When I discuss annotation and active reading, I use Facebook as an example. Tagging photos, commenting, “liking” statuses? All forms of annotation that students are doing every single day. In teaching audience awareness, I ask students why it’s ok to use abbreviations in text messages to their friends, but not in a birthday card to their grandmother. They are already aware of how to adapt their own writing to different audiences. In fact, with these kinds of technologies and others, I would argue that students might be doing more writing during their day now than ever in the past.

Thus, the pedagogical strategies basically remain the same, only the tools themselves are different than they were, say, 20 years ago.

Of course, not every student comes to college fully versed in these technologies. University programs and departments are only just starting to come around and realize that the young people we think must be technophiles aren’t necessarily as capable with these skills and we think they are. For instance, anyone who has ever taught a class in the past, say, 5 years knows that the average college freshman does not compose a very effective email. These missives typically lack a subject line, a correct form of address (ie, “dear professor X”) and often don’t include their own name in closing. The fact of the matter is, few students these days ever write emails except to their professors, so they have no awareness about what’s appropriate. Those of us who grew up in the age of paper correspondence adapted the etiquette of letter writing to emails, but younger people don’t have that context to fall back on. Therefore, they need to be taught how to do so. And yet, whether in high school or college, many educators continue to assume students already have these skills.

As for information literacy, the same logic applies. We who grew up with card catalogs and Encyclopedia Britannica sets have been able to adapt some of our search and sort skills to internet or other technology based research. But what are younger students supposed to do? They need to be instructed in search techniques, how to determine a website’s credibility, whether to rely on a Wikipedia entry’s facts, etc. And this shouldn’t sound all that radical or difficult; it’s called…teaching. Rather than bemoan our students’ inability to select a “good” website from a “bad” one, we need to interact with students and the web to find out together. Below are a few tips and links I’ve used in the classroom with success:

  • The University of Arizona library has a series of excellent interactive tutorials on a wide array of topics. I frequently use the Evaluating Web Resources tutorial in class. You could either go through it as a class together, as I have, or assign students to complete it individually. It goes through different websites, asking if the information presented would be appropriate for a certain kind of assignment. I especially like this tutorial because it includes martinlutherking[dot]org–I don’t want to drive more traffic to it–which is a racist website run by Storm Front, yet its appearance and domain name are somewhat deceiving.
  • The CRAAP test. This is a device taught by research librarians everywhere to help students evaluate any kind of source on their own. They should discern the source’s Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose, and then make a decision as to its credibility.
  • Have students practice writing in as many genres and media as possible. Show them how to adapt certain strategies to different writing situations.
  • Make sure students can identify frames within news stories and other media. Give them two stories about the same topic, written with two different frames (ie, something from Fox News and something from Al-Jazeera). Have the students identify what devices are used to frame the information differently. This can be a key tool in crafting information literacy. Alternatively, it can make them paranoid frame-finders who see underhanded reporting everywhere. Either way, the student has learned something!
  • Don’t get mad if they go to Wikipedia first for information. WE ALL DO IT, I know that we do. Admit it. In class, go through a Wikipedia page with them, and discuss the potential pitfalls of relying on the entry as a source. Show them the fabulous links and bibliography that accompany the best entries. Make sure they know it’s a tool they can use, just not an end in itself.
  • Finally, don’t shy away from the use of personal technology in the classroom. This can be controversial, but I allow students to use their smartphones or other devices in class, no questions asked. (I will defend this choice in another blog post sometime). I found that students can more effectively acquire information literacy if they can practice it in the classroom. For instance, during group activities, one student can be designated the “info” officer, and look up any answers or information that is stumping the group. Limiting it to one student prevents the group dynamic from falling apart, but it allows the research to be conducted in real time, with the professor or instructor close by for assistance.

So there’s really no need to despair over students’ lack of information literacy. It’s an opportunity to refine our own teaching and to discover new ways of assisting students in the learning process. Once we admit that the Internet isn’t going away, and that students like to text a lot, we can begin to adjust our pedagogy accordingly.

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