Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Teaching the (non)Controversy Part II: Information Literacy in the Age of Infowhelm

In Part I we looked at the way that information gathering and viewing has changed in such a way that we need some fundamental changes to how we teach research. To Recap:

  1. In the pre-information age, there were gatekeepers through editors, universities, etc. to wide print/publication and distribution. Information was generally vetted through these sources. While these gates still exist, they now compete with self publishing and alternative sources of information that do not filter.
  2. As it does in academia, there was a general trend for ideas to come into and fall out of favor based on their popularity and validity. Ideas that fell out of favor had a difficult time coming back in vogue. Ideas, particularly ideas at the fringe of conversations often remain in the social dialog through archives, Google searches, message boards, etc.
  3. Competing objectives such as ratings and pageviews have made the desire to have a matter "settled" take a back seat thoroughly examining every opinion and idea on the matter. These ideas, readily available as a result of the archiving of all thought on the internet, can be brought back to the public discourse as needed 
It is in this environment that we must teach our students to find, validate, and report on research.

Interlude: Oh, and Another Thing -- The Wikipedia Conundrum

Where were you the day Wikipedia went dark?
Under the traditional research methodology, Wikipedia stands out as clear violation of the gatekeeper mindset. The crowdsourcing of information stands in stark contrast to the vetted-by-publisher mentality. Thus we spent many years in education pointing out how easy it was to corrupt the system while Wikipedia and millions of users spent the years making the system harder and harder to game. 

In 2006, Thomas Chesney made an empirical analysis of Wikipedia, determining that 
"the experts found Wikipedia’s articles to be more credible than the non–experts. This suggests that the accuracy of Wikipedia is high. However, the results should not be seen as support for Wikipedia as a totally reliable resource as, according to the experts, 13 percent of the articles contain mistakes."
other similar research has put forth increased accuracy claims and comparative claims with more traditional reference and technical resources. There are two important things to draw from this:

  • First, our credibility goes down when we criticize Wikipedia as "unreliable" when the students' lived experience is that it is highly reliable for most things.
  • Second, we miss out on the opportunity to investigate the weaknesses of Wikipedia (heated political issues, issues with a high degree of interpretation of specific terms or ideas, current events) when we dismiss the platform as a whole.

[End Interlude]

Ultimately, then, we are educating in an environment where students must become their own curators of accurate information from both traditional research sources as well as the internet. They must use the same skills and techniques that editors and journalists still use without relying on those editors and journalists to serve as the gatekeepers of information.

And we as educators must teach this.

JD's Partial List of Skills that Must be Developed for a Digital Citizen to Survive:

A common stance during research topic proposals
  • Understanding must go well beyond fact vs. opinion. We live in an age where facts are often taken out of context, where specific terms are interpreted with general meanings in an attempt to change public opinion (the word "theory" is my favorite), and where expertise and credentialing can be confused and misapplied (ThinkProgress has a great example of this using NASA employees)
  • Sources do not have to be "Fake" to be "Wrong" - these are two different terms. Students have been learning about clearly bogus websites since 2nd Grade. They get it. The problem now is that if a website is not classified as FAKE, then it is accepted as TRUE. This is an antonym mismatch that we are seeing a lot in high school and college.
  • Students must develop skills in analyzing information from a number of different contexts. The "who is the source?" and "is there bias?" are only the first of a series of questions that students must be able to ask. Is the topic a political or religious one? Would Fox News and MSNBC have the same basic position on the facts of the matter? are two places to start.
  • Students must cultivate a variety of news and information sources and evaluate each one based on specific criteria. When I need a quick how-to answer about a gadget, my first step is to send the question out to the Twittersphere, knowing that a number of trusted responses will come my way. I do not ask "what is better, Apple or Android?" because the Twittersphere is not a good place to ask Fanboy questions.
  • Students must be able develop skills in self-discernment as well. At Brebeuf Jesuit, one hallmark of teaching is "Open to Growth." Part of this growth now entails being able to know what our pre-existing biases are, because you can absolutely find some informational source that will agree with you and it can be a challenge to invalidate information that you desperately want to be true.
(want to add to the list? comment below or in Social Media -- I'll update as we go)

Practically Applied

When looking at typical research based assessments, we find a number of flaws in assessing students on the list begun above or even on finding activities that would allow students to develop these skills:
  • Research assessments are based on simplistic rubrics of validity that don't require a nuanced analysis
  • Final products are evaluated for accuracy of form (MLA, APA, etc) rather than the deeper issues of credibility (this worked only as long as all sources were prima facie credible) 
  • Assessment focuses on a student's ability to effectively incorporate the conclusion of a source rather than critically assess the logic and data that led to that conclusion
  • Controversial topics are avoided for a variety of reasons, limiting the scope of analytical topics to those that are easily validated and 98% percent accurate on Wikipedia.

Point of View Wars -- An Assignment:

Kevin Burgun, English Teacher at Brebeuf Jesuit has been struggling with this same issue and developed the following assignment:

Phase I: Students will watch an Episode of WHALE WARS ("Battle Stations") and Deliverable: identify 10 phrases or statements that are presented as facts, particularly noting numbers and statistics. Reflection: Summarize your feelings after watching the episode. Identify words, images, and other things that invoked this feeling (be sure to have 5 additional examples of this).

Phase 2: Find the website for the Japanese Whalers and their "Whale Wars" section. Without referencing the sheet from Phase I, identify 10 phrases or statements that are presented as facts, again paying particular attention to numbers or statistics. Watch the video clips provided and make a similar assessment of your feelings.

Phase 3: Analysis. Fact check you two lists of facts and statistics. Determine which phrases are "True", "Mostly True", "Stretching the Truth", and "False". Reflection: How did you fact check? What was your methodology for determining truth? How did you account for bias while fact checking? Reflection II: Which side does a better job in eliciting the intended emotional response. Why? How much of your emotional response is dependent on your prior feelings?

The focus of this assignment is not an application of facts to reach an independent conclusion. It is analysis of the source of facts and the facts themselves. It does not put the reader in the artificial "objective" observer role but asks them to honestly evaluate emotion reactions and how they influence the interpretation of research. In short, this assignment starts us down the road of Information Literacy in the age of Information overload (what the 21st Century Fluency Project calls "Infowhelm").

Join the conversation:

Please feel free to comment, add other lesson ideas that address this topic (or social media sourcing, or logical analysis of source conclusions, or dealing with controversial topics). As comments and ideas come in, I would love to link to or highlight features on this blog, G+, and Twitter.


  1. Love this assignment. Now when are you and Dale going to start teaching a required Research Methods/GetReadyToHaveYourMindBlown course at Brebeuf?

    1. yeah, he did an awesome job with it.

      I am amazed at the in-school discussions about this topic recently. applications in religion, science, English. don't know where it will end up, but at least it seems worth the talk.