Information Literacy: A Critical 21st Century Skill!

I’m sure we’ve all fallen victim to it.  We’re going through our Twitter or Facebook feeds and we see something that is just awesome.  It echoes our beliefs and our understandings of the world and we quickly repost it. Or maybe it’s just so timely and important that we feel the urge to share.  With a quick click of a button, we send out some piece of information to our colleagues, family and friends without ever really evaluating it.  And that’s how misinformation is spread virally across the digital ecosystem, innocently and immediately.  Through this click and share culture, countless celebrity deaths have been hoaxed.  Multiple “scientific discoveries” have been faked.  Numerous political controversies have been created.  Whether factual or not, the misinformation spreads across the Internet.

I’ve written before about numerous fact checking sites available online but a recent article on the Chronicle shows that the problem is a little more pervasive. We’re all “at sea in a deluge of data,” the article argues, and many students and graduates aren’t navigating the waters well.  In interviews with a number of employers from major companies, researchers in a Project Information Literacy study found that information research and analysis was a top priority for new hires but that new graduates often possessed “a small compass” to complete in-depth research.  Many new graduates resort to Google searches and Wikipedia and “default to quick answers plucked from the Internet.”  The Chronicle article, written by the director of Project Information Literacy, argues that what is needed is that educators begin developing students’ “knowledge in action.”  Students need to perform “a kind of athletics of the mind aided by Internet-enabled devices, search engines, and pools of data from a wide variety of outlets.”  They need to look across data sets and information sources and synthesize this information in new ways.  “Knowledge in action” is not just a scholarly or educational activity. It’s about lifelong learning and effective citizenship.  It’s a skill and framework of mind that helps students recognize which sites are reputable, which information is accurate and how we evaluate sources.

But how do we teach information literacy and develop “knowledge in action?”  First, I think we have to assume that our students aren’t just learning it somewhere else.  I had a graduate assistant several years ago who I assumed could perform some background research for a project that I was starting.  Because she had an undergraduate degree in history and had written a thesis, I assumed she could navigate primary documents and synthesize them into a cogent summary.  Instead, she shared a list of Internet sites in an email.  When I asked if she had checked out JSTOR, EBSCO or ProQuest, she said she didn’t know what those were.  The activity became a teachable moment for the student and for me.

As educators, we have to recognize that our students become information literate by doing independent research, not just in large research assignments but in day-to-day classroom activities as well.   We have to create classroom cultures that celebrate evidence-based arguments and that value critical analyses of the evidence brought to bear on any discussion.  Through these processes (and others), our students will become better consumers of information.  And we will have saved thousands of celebrities from fake online deaths.

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