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Hope Beyond the Attention Economy

The ever-wise Barbara Fister has an article in The Atlantic on meta-literacy, libraries, and a scourge of misinformation. Fister succinctly articulates what many librarians, I suspect, have been feeling for some time now:

[T]he present moment demands serious inquiry into why decades of trying to make information literacy a universal educational outcome hasn’t prevented a significant portion of the population from embracing disinformation while rejecting credible journalistic institutions.

Information literacy instruction was a core element of my masters in library and information science program back in 2012 and has been a recognized essential of the academic librarian’s work since at least 2000. However, as Fister points out, we are struggling against entities with immense power and resources: the attention economy. Combine that with the unintended consequence of teaching an over-reliance on one’s personal exegetical abilities lacking any connection to shared authoritative framework, and here we are. We, the education complex, have done such a thorough job teaching bias that it is now the primary lens through which students see the entire information economy. At some point, though, we have to trust in something other than ourselves.

I do find hope in Fister’s piece. Hope that we still have room to grow as educators. Hope that our students are already savvy to the ideas we want them to internalize. Hope that teaching information literacy can still be engaging, useful to a democratic society, and worth spending resources on in colleges and universities. I especially love Fister’s suggestion that “students could be asked to describe their own practices online, their personal “code of ethics” as they navigate their social networks, and discuss those in comparison with codes of ethics from […] other disciplinary or professional societies.”

In another life, one which I am not middle management, I would set aside the time to create an open course or OER textbook on meta-literacy, using the knowledge and experience I’ve gained being a netizen these past 2+ decades. At one point, I began outlining such a course, but life and new job opportunities got in the way.

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The persistent myth of the digital native

Digital native ≠ digitally competent. Librarians who work with college students in the classroom and at the reference desk are likely to understand this. Unfortunately, the assumption that today’s students naturally take to technology still persists in higher ed.

Today’s traditional-age students are digital natives. Google and Wi-Fi have been available for as long as they can remember; the first iPhone came out when they were in elementary school. But there’s a difference between familiarity and understanding. Quickly finding information online doesn’t mean you know how to evaluate its trustworthiness. Growing up using apps doesn’t mean you know how to build one. Some students are digitally savvy when they begin college. But others are not. How can a college ensure that all of its students graduate with the digital skills they will need to thrive in their careers and beyond?

Beckie Supiano, How One College Helps All Students Gain Digital Skills [paywalled]

For one, colleges can scaffold digital literacy competencies throughout the curriculum, or adapt already existing critical thinking or information literacy competencies to accommodate digital modes of existing and creating. Additionally, academic affairs units could strengthen their support (i.e. $$ and staffing) for academic libraries and the librarians that are doing this work all the time.

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We’re working on that

Information Literacy is at the top of the Chronicle’s 2017 Trends Report. Good thing librarians have been researching and developing models on this for a few decades now.

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Fighting fake news

“Rather than focus on identifying fake news, then, we decided it made more sense to teach students how to recognize good journalism.” (Source: ARCLog)

We did a fake news workshop at mpow. I like this approach as well.

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Reliability of a source is not binary

A few of us at mpow have been talking about ways to put more “science” into library science, mostly in the context of using more robust research methods to study user behavior and assess library services. With that in mind, Lane Wilkinson’s recent post on using Bayesian inference to understand how users contextualize the credibility of an information source strikes me as a particularly useful thought experiment (if not an actual research agenda… which you should totally do, Lane!). There is one insight in particular that caught my attention:

“Values like credibility, reliability, or trustworthiness are not binary; they exist on a continuum between 0 and 100%. We need to stop asking ‘is this source reliable?’ and start asking ‘how reliable is this source given what it is reporting?'”

If there is one thing I could help our students to understand right now, this would be it. Perhaps simply framing the question of credibility in this way is enough to inspire them to be more critical of what they read via their everyday information consumption. One can hope.

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Truth with a capital “t”

So long as we rely on code and algorithms to locate information, there will always be the hurdle of implicit bias. The same can be said of relying on humans.

“As long as Google has a commercial interest in appearing omniscient, it probably won’t work to improve knowledge panel transparency. That burden will fall instead to people like Taraborelli and nonprofits like the Wikimedia Foundation, which is working on an open-license, machine-readable knowledge base that will both source all of its statements and accommodate conflicting sources.”

The burden also falls to librarians and educators to teach the skills necessary for being a critical reader-researcher.

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A formal ACRL document

The ACRL Board wants to make it clear that the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education is “a formal ACRL document” and that a decision on what to do with the previous standards will be discussed at the 2016 Annual ALA Conference.

I am admittedly a fan of the new framework: not so much of its content but its form. However, I’m still not sure what we mean when we say that it will be “a living document.” Will the threshold concepts be expanded as libraries research and publish new information about their use? Will we add additional concepts to the original list? I understand the need for standards, especially in our current assessment-driven higher ed environment, but I don’t believe we should let another decade go by before we revisit how we as a profession define info lit.

Still, I am happy to know that many, many people far more experienced and intelligent than me are working on and thinking about these issues.

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Standards, anyone?

Is anyone else anxiously awaiting the draft report of the new information literacy standards from ACRL? I’ve probably checked the website 20 times in the past month. Seriously.

The latest issue of Communications in Information Literacy devoted an entire issue to changing standards. Notably, the articles discuss two concepts essential to understanding the new standards (we are told): metaliteracy and threshold concepts.

It’s been over a decade since the standards were first published. A decade from now in all likelihood we will be in the same place, but between now and then is a good time to reenergize the discussion.

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QOTD: Info lit isn’t natural

“Information literacy in a strong sense is deeply unnatural, and yet we task ourselves with teaching it. Sometimes we might feel bad for not accomplishing more, but given the workings of the human mind, when it comes to teaching information literacy, it’s amazing if we accomplish anything at all.” (Source: Information Literacy as an Unnatural State)

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Making more makers

What role should 21st century colleges have in helping students to develop hands-on, manual skills? That is the question Scott Carlson asks in this week’s Chronicle Review. At a time when “sustainability” is not just a way of acting ethically but a popularized lifestyle choice, it’s easy to see the appeal of this type of instruction.

One passage in particular caught my attention. Drawn together by a common interest and a human desire to be makers, students at the University of Vermont formed their own artisan guilds:

L. Pearson King, a junior environmental-studies major, taught his peers how to carve spoons in a woodworking guild last year. “It’s kind of trivial, but it’s also cathartic and kind of fun,” he says of the project, and the students in his group were immensely proud of their work. “To be active in the creation of an item forms a completely different relationship with that item.”

Maybe there is something to the guild approach that libraries can build off of. While information literacy is not as necessary to human survival as being able to build shelter or cook food (pending the zombie apocalypse), it is still a vital skill for 21st century life. For universities that do not have information literacy instruction (ILI) built into the curriculum, librarians have constantly struggled to find ways not only to integrate ILI, but to assess it. If your only interaction with a student is the one-off, how do you know if it sticks?

Could the library be a catalyst for “information guilds” or “technology guilds”? : groups of students that come together over a shared interest to get their hands dirty with information and to build [digital] objects. Could the library be an instigator for hacker co-ops, infonistas, techno-mavens, and virtual gurus?

The first objection that comes to my mind is “There’s no need for it.” But isn’t there? How many students come to us frustrated with an inability to even conduct simple research tasks? How many more students never approach us because they don’t know where to begin?

As someone who can’t tell a circular saw from Adam, I can relate to the frustration of not knowing where to start due to a lack of what is actually very basic knowledge. Guilds like the ones formed by the Vermont students inspire just enough confidence and self-awareness to initiate the process of making. As librarians, are we in a position to inspire these types of groups with a focus on information and technology? How do we begin?