Lots of technology, but we’re missing the point

Let me suggest something outrageous. There is an enormous blind spot in all of education, throughout the whole world. It is simply this: We are not teaching our students how to handle information. Paul Zurkowski, a representative of the information industry, recognized this problem as early as 1974 and coined the term “information literacy.” Back in 1974 he called for a massive program to train the 80 percent of the U.S. population that was not information-literate, setting a goal of 10 years ending in 1984. It never got off the ground.

But this is a different age. Surely it can’t be true that most current students are information-illiterate. Our universities have information literacy librarians who go into classrooms and teach students how to use databases and other forms of information technology. President Obama declared October 2009 National Information Literacy Awareness Month. Add to that the simple fact that students surely must learn to handle information on their own over time. Clearly I’m in error, stirring up a tempest in a teapot.

We could wish that this were so, but it’s not. Those many information literacy librarians scurrying from classroom to classroom are universally frustrated, because they know that making a student information-literate is not a remedial exercise that can be accomplished in an hour or two.

Let’s consider what a skilled handler of information would need to know and do:

• Identify and distinguish the myriad forms in which information comes today, from traditional books and journals to academic web sites, blogs, wikis, prepublication academic articles posted for review, and so on.

• Identify a research problem and state it clearly as a focused question or thesis.

• Determine which of the multitude of finding tools are best able to identify relevant information to deal with the research problem.

• Optimize the advanced features of any number of databases, most of which have different interfaces and different search options.

• Prioritize criteria needed to assess the complex world of today’s technologically-based information in order to determine whether a piece of content is relevant or worthy to be included in the research task.

• Distinguish among citations to books, essays within books, journal articles, and so on, capturing the relevant information required for a bibliography.

• Make the best use of bibliographical managers like RefWorks, EndNote, or Zotero.

• Harness the information embedded in a variety of found resources that generally exist in a variety of formats.

This is not a remedial task, like learning how to read a spreadsheet or memorizing the periodic table of the elements. It is closer to learning a new language.

That is why it remains the biggest blind spot in higher education today, and our greatest example of missing the point. No matter how much technology we throw at our students, they will flounder if they do not know how to handle information effectively. There is a myriad of research available (search “information literacy” in Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts) showing that students, right up into graduate school, are information-illiterate, lacking any more than basic skills in handling information effectively. Nor do they become information-literate by research experience.

In concert with Zurkowski, let me put out a new call for academia to turn to information literacy librarians and let them propose ways to make information literacy foundational to all education. Our students deserve intense instruction and practice in developing the skills they do not currently have in our Information Age.

Give them technology, to be sure, but make them skilled information handlers as well.

William Badke is Associate Librarian at Trinity Western University, an instructor in information literacy for the past 25 years, and author of Research Strategies: Finding your Way though the Information Fog, 3rd ed. (iUniverse, 2008).

Laura Ascione