ASIST08: Credibility and Authority of Information in Learning Environments

I was up bright and early this morning for the first session, and am so, so grateful I’m staying in the conference hotel. It just makes life so much easier.

This morning’s session (well, one of the several) was on information literacy and how students judge credibility when they’re researching, whether it’s for school or recreation. Teaching students to evaluate information is one of my pet subjects, and the researchers presented some interesting research and brought up great ideas.

The first speaker, Heidi Julien of the University of Alberta, talked about research among upper-level high school science students. Some of her findings:

  • Students do use Wikipedia and Google primarily (interesting research in related to questions I raised last week)
  • They use these sources for both personal and academic information needs.
  • They tend to judge accuracy based on whether they see the same information across multiple sources
  • They privilege information sources their teachers suggest (so yes, teachers still have some authority!).

Julien’s research also revealed that students say they learn from previous experience, rather than from explicit IL instruction. Though part of me wonders if students always know when they’re receiving IL instruction, and I kind of think that teaching would benefit if IL instruction was embedded in subject matter instruction seamlessly.

She suggested that future research should look into what information searching and evaluation skills teachers have, and how we can change teacher education to include these skills. And she points out that teachers often neglect teaching these skills because they aren’t examinable, which to my mind just means we need to find better ways to assess students’ learning. But they, hasn’t NCLB taught us that already? (Oops, sorry for the politics. I won’t do it again.)

Louise Limberg of the University College of Boras in Sweden spoke next, about cognitive authority, how well students judge it, and how those judgments are related to learning outcomes. She uses Wilson’s theory of cognitive authority (which I want to read more about now), which highlights the relationship between the user and the source as a foundation for how authority of the source is determined (um, I’m probably not getting that entirely right, but I did my best).

Her research showed that students were very aware of the credibility issues that arise around a lot of information seeking on the web, and she discovered that (shocker!) surface assessments of the authority of a source, assessments that are based on superficial qualities rather than content-based qualities, lead students to show lower performance on various learning outcomes. Limberg quoted one of her student’s statement that (paraphrased) there is no objective information because everyone is biased. I balked a little because it seemed that Limberg was showing that this critical perspective resulted in higher learning achievements, and, well, I just don’t think it’s any better to believe that there are NO objective information sources than to be completely gullible about everything you read. It reminded me of my first year in my undergraduate when I started learning about subjectivity and knowledge production, and I was suddenly so convinced that everything was relative and no one was objective and even science was produced from bias, which, eh, has elements of truth, sure. But as I’ve matured (I like to think) I’ve come to realize that there are levels, so to speak, of objectivity, and that some information sources are more credible, and are worth looking at as objective sources. So applauding students who learn to be super-critical of information sources can, perhaps, go too far.

The next speaker was Soo Young Rieh of the University of Michigan, and I was very intrigued by her research methodology. She did a kind of ethnographic research project in which she had students from higher education institutions keep track of one information seeking moment in their day everyday for 10 days, and to relate how they found information and how they judged its accuracy. She argued that for most of us, judging credibility is something we do unconsciously (which kind of relates to my earlier thought about students perhaps not realizing they were receiving IL instruction). Rieh’s research showed that judging sources is something that is embedded into the information seeking process, and that we do it in different ways depending on the type of information we’re looking for. Rieh pointed out that credibility judgment always happens in a social context, and in some situations (er, in the classroom, for instance) people will substitute someone else’s standards for credibility (the professor’s) for their own. Her research was great and I’m looking forward to reading more about it when I get home, because I think it really could inform some of the ideas I have about embedded IL instruction.

The last speaker, Olof Sundin of Lund University, talked about information literacy practices as socio-cultural practices. He brought up some great points based on three research questions:

  1. What do pedagogues think about expertise in Web 2.0 tools?
  2. What do students think about expertise in Web 2.0 tools?
  3. What do producers think about expertise in Web 2.0 tools?

And of course, he points out that these roles sometimes overlap. His research used student-produced blogs, questionnaires, and, um, some other things (doh, I’m bad at taking notes) to assess students’ information seeking behaviors as they worked on long term projects. Some interesting points:

  • Wikipedia is used even by students as background for research, but they don’t cite it, even if the teacher doesn’t specifically disallow it.
  • Most students express a digital/print dichotomy. They don’t critical evaluate print resource anymore, because the focus of our IL teaching has shifted so completely. This one I find really interesting, and definitely worth looking into more. And I can see exactly why this happens, and can even see myself privileging print resources as I learn to provide reference and instruction services. So, good thing to keep in mind when I eventually have an instruction-related job.
  • The boundaries between teachers and librarians are becoming less fixed. This is also super interesting to me in relation to my ideas about embedded IL instruction. Librarians are being seen as teachers and teachers as information providers. I think this is great, and I’m really interested in potential future roles where these things are more merged, but those are thoughts for another day.

One of the last things Sundin mentioned was a project in which students from a variety of language backgrounds compared Wikipedia articles on the same subjects to see how they differ in the various language versions. Awesome, and I would love to see these students’ final project.

So, essentially, a lot of this information isn’t entirely new. Information evaluation is very contextually based, students’ ability to judge information varies a lot depending on the subject, how familiar they are with it, and what they’re seeking the information for. Students don’t always have the skills necessary to judge information, no matter the medium. Their knowledge of information sources is often superficial. Teachers have neither the time nor the resources to teach them IL practices, and with fewer and fewer librarians in schools, well…

One final point that piqued my interest: Someone during the discussion session asked about students as information providers. The panel talked about how students can begin to see their role as authorities on a subject, and I am really interested in this in relation to college students seeing themselves as part of a discipline. I think it’s important for undergraduates to do research, and to see themselves as people who can contribute to a field (that was the best aspect of my undergraduate experience). So I wonder how we can begin to inculcate this idea of students as information providers through IL instruction. Encouraging students to create research guides or edit Wikipedia pages might be really beneficial for them to begin to see themselves as part of a bigger project, which is the growth of a discipline.

It would have been nice to hear more next steps and solutions from the researchers, rather than just to hear their research pointing out how students do and do not know how to evaluate sources. But considering that I just asked last week whether students know how to take next steps in their research, it was timely and worth hearing.

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