Thursday, March 17, 2011

Majoring in the Universe

Saying you want to teach information literacy is a little bit like saying you want to major in the universe. You're trying to teach people how to find, interpret, understand, and use information (a.k.a., pretty much everything). In my headache-addled brain, the instruction manual looks something like this:

Step 1: Declare your intention to teach information literacy.
Step 2: ?
Step 3: PROFIT! (Paid in the form of smart people instead of money.)

The trick is narrowing the focus to something manageable. I was struck by what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe said in Understanding by Design about the need for creating essential questions. What are the questions that boil down the essence of the field? What are the questions that even experienced practitioners struggle with? Creating a learning design around questions seems to be the best way to avoid an undue number of assumptions.

With that in mind, here are my candidates for key essential questions in the field of information studies:
  • What is information?
  • Where does information come from?
  • Why is information important?
  • Is some information more important? If so, when and why? Who decides what information is most important? Why?
  • How do you know when you need information? How can you figure out what information you need?
  • What are sources of information? Are some sources better than others? If so, when and why? Who decides what sources are best? Why?
  • Who decides what information should be kept? Why?
  • How is information stored and organized?
  • What are useful strategies for interacting with sources of information and information retrieval systems? What should you do if there are barriers to the information or it cannot be located?
  • What makes information correct? What makes information meaningful? Are these always the same? Why or why not?
  • What happens when pieces of information conflict? Why might different sources conflict?
  • Who uses information, and how? How should information be used (or not used)?
  • When and how should information be shared? Is it always right to share information, or are there times it should be contained? Who should decide this? Why?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wikipedia and Information Literacy

What is information literacy? Cite ACRL or AASL standards all you want, but for many teachers and librarians, the definition is secretly, "Teach kids not to use Wikipedia."

Some level of concern is certainly warranted. After all, when dinosaurs in a webcomic point out credibility issues with this particular source, it may be wise to consider broadening one's horizons. But Wikipedia is far from the only source that has ever provided inaccurate information. Actually, it has become far more transparent about how accurate its information is, noting when a section of an article needs additional footnotes or clarification, or when it may not be grammatical or objective. Wikipedia arguably forces people to question where information comes from and think critically about it in a way that traditional encyclopedias do not. So why has it become the shibboleth for declining information literacy skills?

A great deal of the backlash against Wikipedia has to do with assumptions about what information is the most useful, reliable, and important. The academic community in particular still privileges print, the individual, and "the expert." It values being able to trace an idea, expressed in written language in a stable form, back to its source: the individual who worked hard to become an expert in that field. Plagiarism is the greatest sin, a form of identity theft--blurring one's own thoughts and ideas with those of another individual or assuming the individual's intellectual identity outright. The stability of print allows the individual to claim the right to his or her ideas and oust the pretender. Naturally, an environment with these ideals and norms would look with suspicion on a Web-based encyclopedia that is constantly changing and lets anybody--anybody!--contribute to it in a collective fashion. Why, you have no idea who said what, or when, or if they had the proper qualifications... It can't be authoritative if there's no source of authority!

Ironically, this distrust may be the perfect seed for growing critical thinking skills. But for students, the distrust may expand outward to more hallowed institutions. What makes a person who writes a book more of an expert than a person who writes a blog? True, the former may benefit from editorial oversight, but the latter has to face the immediate, public responses to a post, many of which can be critical and force the writer to elaborate on or correct the original post. It is misguided to say that one form is inherently more "authoritative" than the other. But it is perfectly acceptable to ask students to consider where the information comes from, how it was created, who created it, the benefits and limitations of its particular form, and whether it all adds up to something appropriate to use to solve an information need in the current context. Should you cite a Wikipedia article on The Sound and the Fury in a literary research paper? Of course not. Is it a good place to start if you're going on a date with a Faulkner buff in half an hour and you don't want to sound stupid? Well, why not? And who's to say which information need was more important in the long run?