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TMI: Reflections on Information Literacy

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Date posted: April 9, 2012

“I think we’re kind of one of the first generations to have too much information as opposed to too little.”

Project Information Literacy VideoThat’s one of the most interesting remarks in a new video, “It’s Complicated: What college students say about research & writing assignments,” from Project Information Literacy (PIL). When there is a superabundance of information, some of it is useful and some not. Some of it is factual and timely and some not. Some is relevant and some a distraction. How do you sort through huge amounts of data to find that which best suits your need?

Information literacy, the ability to find, evaluate, use, and manage information effectively and ethically, is a key 21st century skill, and it’s an important component of digital citizenship. Yet where are students being taught information literacy? How do they learn to navigate through endless web pages, online videos, and databases?

Project information Literacy at the University of Washington has been investigating college students’ information literacy skills in a series of research reports stretching back several years. In looking at how collegians approach research projects, in how they study during the crunch time of exams, in how they find and use information, PIL is providing an interesting and sometimes disturbing window into how “digital natives” manage the academic side of massive amounts of available information and technology.

PIL research seems to indicate that K-12 students probably aren’t being formally taught media or information literacy. These students enter college unprepared to thoughtfully examine search engine results, typically selecting the top two or three Google results without understanding how or why those links are listed first. They have problems selecting the topic for a research paper and difficulties assessing what sources they will need to gain a clear understanding of the issue. College students have developed, on their own, idiosyncratic tactics to cope with the unending amounts of information at their fingertips and with the constant availability of digital distractions.

The research findings are more complex and nuanced that I can relate in a blog post. For details, explore the PIL reports, which are fascinating reading and provide a lot of thought provoking observations. What I come away, in the end, with is the distinct feeling that our schools are still preparing students for a world where one’s access to information is limited instead of for a world where anyone with access to the internet has limitless information at their fingertips. For the latter, we need a workforce, electorate, and society that are information literate and prepared for life in the 21st century.

The focus on learning discrete bits of information that can be tested easily and which developed as an unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind did not encourage information literacy. It remains to be seen if the Common Core and next generation assessment systems will do more to encourage critical skills like information and media literacy. What’s your guess?

Disclosure: Cable in the Classroom has been an underwriter for some of Project Information Literacy’s research.