Information Literacy

March 11, 2005

As I was writing last month's monster post about the comparative public benefit of the Gates, the Republican Convention and the Olympics, I popped onto Google to try to find some statistics to back up (or refute) my unfounded assertions. Within 5 minutes, I had links to economic reports and scholarly analyses as well as press releases and text from a book. As the result of five to ten minutes of research while sitting at home at 11:00 at night, I managed to find quite a number of useful facts and analyses.

This is why I love about the world wide web: fast, easy and free access to information, at all times of day. Before Google, before altavista, before Hotbot, it was possible to get much of the same information in a local or university library. Today, the internet makes it possible to do so while sitting on your couch at home.

However, not everyone thinks this is an advance. Michael Gorman, president-elect of the American Library Association, wrote an op-ed in Library Journal disparaging the character and quality of information available on the free web and via Google: Revenge of the Blog People!

The Google phenomenon is a wonderfully modern manifestation of the triumph of hope and boosterism over reality. Hailed as the ultimate example of information retrieval, Google is, in fact, the device that gives you thousands of "hits" (which may or may not be relevant) in no very useful order.

Those characteristics are ignored and excused by those who think that Google is the creation of "God's mind," because it gives the searcher its heaps of irrelevance in nanoseconds. Speed is of the essence to the Google boosters, just as it is to consumers of fast "food," but, as with fast food, rubbish is rubbish, no matter how speedily it is delivered.

For much serious, scholarly research, the traditional method of books from the library is far superior to using the free internet. For up-to-date research into business and legal topics, the open internet is not only superior to books, but a useful and anarchic companion to expensive proprietary databases.

In order to be a successful internet researcher, one must have a strong grasp on information literacy. Because any idiot can put up a web page, without the editorial process that is involved in getting a book published and added to a library system, the individual researcher has to do much the same amount of credibility judging as editors and librarians.

Last month, Stanford's Geoffrey Nunberg discussed the state of information literacy education in the New York Times: Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea

Information literacy seems to be a phrase whose time has come. Last month, the Educational Testing Service announced that it had developed a test to measure students' ability to evaluate online material. That suggested an official recognition that the millions spent to wire schools and universities is of little use unless students know how to retrieve useful information from the oceans of sludge on the Web.

Today, in the information age, Children are growing up in a different environment than even I did in the early personal computer era. While we had an IBM PC at home, the computer wasn't useful as a tool for schoolwork except as a word processor (well, unless playing Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego counts as schoolwork.) Children today may have access to powerful multimedia computers with instant access to all kinds of information on the internet (don't forget that The internet is for porn.) Compare Yahoo! 1995 with Yahoo! 2005.

Understanding internet research is vitally important for today's students, as it is pervasive and variable in quality. While those of us who use the web far too much have developed a solid understanding of how to gauge a source's credibility, this is something that students need to learn. When I was in school, we had sessions about how to use the library for research in elementary, middle and high school. However, those courses of study worked under the assumption that all the sources we would be working with would be credible. Adding internet search skills and credibility testing makes such curriculum more involved and complex.

Nunberg notes:

Up to now, librarians have taken the lead in developing information literacy standards and curriculums. There's a certain paradox in that, because a lot of people assumed that the digital age would require neither libraries nor librarians. But today, students have only limited contact with librarians, particularly because they do most of their online information-seeking at home or in the dorm.

Librarians of the new millenium are often available over instant messenger and can be very useful-- not only to help vet credibility, but to suggest other sources, such as electronic sources in proprietary databases and sources in print.

Posted by Andrew Raff at March 11, 2005 05:35 PM
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