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Guest column: Information Literacy On Campus

By on June 23, 20112 Comments

Finding information is a critical component of knowledge work, and occupies a significant amount of a knowledge worker’s time.  We know from research conducted by Basex in 2010 that knowledge workers spend 10% of their workday researching and searching for information.  The skills to conduct effective research are not inborn; they are learned, frequently in the course of higher education.

For students, doing research is the bread and butter of their academic life.  Conducting research doesn’t just mean searching for information effectively; it means being able to judge the reliability of sources, place information within various contexts, and synthesize different information sources while developing one’s thesis.  Encompassing a wide variety of competencies, research is one of the most important skills that students learn in preparation for participation in the knowledge economy.

Increasingly, however, students find that the overwhelming abundance of easily accessible but undifferentiated information on the Web hinders their ability to do the kind of deep, exploratory research that broadens their education and hones critical thinking.

Some professors seem to believe that the problems of Internet-based research begin and end with Wikipedia.  In 2007, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Middlebury history department was banning Wikipedia citations in research papers and exams.  It is now commonplace for professors to discourage and even penalize citing Wikipedia, although studies have suggested that students continue to use it for certain purposes.

Since 2008, a number of key studies by Professors Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg of the University of Washington’s Information School show that simple no-Wikipedia policies fail to address the underlying issues.  Indeed, their studies, which have surveyed some 10,000 students in campuses across the country, prove that most students understand the inherent limitations of Wikipedia and tend to only use it for “presearch,” early topic-shaping and context-gathering work.

Nevertheless, a study of 8,353 students at 25 U.S. colleges and universities conducted last spring revealed that “students find research daunting. They often drown in copious and irrelevant data.”  According to the study, most students report finding it very difficult to begin a research project and determine the scope of what is expected of them.  This isn’t due to a lack of ideas or motivation; rather, students’ uncertainty about doing research hampers them from choosing and narrowing down a topic that they can adequately research given the constraints of time, grades, and Information Overload.

An overwhelming majority of students have responded by adopting risk averse, consistent information-gathering strategies  that only utilize a very limited toolbox—typically course readings, Google, Wikipedia, instructors, and library databases—no matter what the research topic.  Strikingly, while most students use some library resources, very few avail themselves of resources that require interaction with actual librarians.  As Purdue University’s Sharon Weiner wrote in Educause Quarterly last year, the UWash studies show that “many students view their educational experience as one of ‘satisficing,’ finding just enough information that is ‘good enough’ to complete course assignments.”

Concern about information literacy on campus has reached beyond this relatively small group of librarians and academics.  In 2009, President Obama issued a statement declaring October 2009 National Information Literacy Month.  The official document suggests that in addition to basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, students must learn information literacy—defined as the ability to acquire, collate, and evaluate information—as a distinct but equally important skill.

There’s a growing realization, it seems, that to use all the information at their fingertips, students need instruction from experts in information science. The question going forward is how that instruction will be integrated into the college curriculum.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.

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