Information Sophistication

moet & chandon champagne

CC image from naotakem on Flickr

Our institution was recently in the New York Times for the focus we are placing on financial literacy. We require students to attend multiple sessions about how to manage their money and make sound financial decisions. I think this is a forward thinking initiative, and wish that I had something like this when I was an undergraduate. What really struck me about the article, though, is the language that is used to describe what we’re teaching:

“Champlain… doesn’t actually use the term financial literacy. The opposite of literacy, after all, smacks of ignorance. Nobody wants to be ordered into a classroom for being illiterate. So the college speaks of its “financial sophistication” offerings…”

This is something I am going to begin adopting in the way I approach information literacy and teaching. As terms, I think ‘financial literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ are fine. People know what you are talking about. But they carry a lot of baggage, especially when used around students.

I almost never use the term ‘information literacy’ in the classroom, because I don’t want students thinking that I believe that they are information illiterate. If they think that, I’ve lost them. And in truth, I don’t think they’re information illiterate. I think they’re bright as hell and often they teach me things. They are really comfortable and adept at searching the web. I just think they’re not as sophisticated in their use and evaluation of information as they should be.

As part of our information literacy assessment, librarians got to look at annotated bibliographies handed in by first year students. In some of them there were rather questionable sources being used. Some included websites from high schools, some included only websites. People with a high level of information sophistication would include sources from a variety of formats. They would try to find sources that argued against their thesis, anticipating arguments. They would recognize bias and approach their problem with balance and objectivity.

I don’t believe that students are information illiterate, they simply need a higher level of information sophistication. At first students are only drinking the Pabst Blue Ribbons of the information world. These are things like Wikipedia and biased blog websites, and sites in the top five hits of a Google search. This is fine is many instances, but I want to help them develop more refined information palettes. I also want them to enjoy the Moët et Chandons of research articles, reports, and information presented in a scholarly, balanced way.


An Effective Use Of Technology In The Classroom

I’m one of three librarians at Champlain College teaching 21 sections of our CORE-210 classes. I have finished five so far and have five to go. In this session we are talking about plagiarism, and more broadly, the ethical use of information. Often sessions on plagiarism can be pretty boring and come off as preachy or authoritarian; but this session, with the help of some technology, elicits thoughtful discussion and is now probably my favorite session.

The technologies that we are using are a wiki,YouTube videos, and a digital projector (new school) and a white/blackboard and post it notes (old school). The videos that we show are examples of possible instances of plagiarism or possible unethical uses of information. After showing an example of possible plagiarism we draw a continuum on the board with one side being completely ethical and the other being completely unethical. Students then have to decide where they feel this situation falls on the continuum by placing a post it somewhere along it and then justifying their answer.

I see this as a perfect example of technology working well in accomplishing an educational goal. It works for several reasons:

  • The technology isn’t the focus – We are not highlighting a database or our OPAC. We’re not teaching them a technology. The technology is an afterthought. We’re using a wiki, but simply as a place to embed multiple videos. We’re using videos, but thoughtfully. They’re not just haphazardly thrown in. We are using these technologies in the way they should be used – as tools. When you forget you are using technology is usually the time when it is most effective.
  • A mix of old and new – We have some variety in the technology that we use. We don’t limit ourselves to only new shiny technology, nor do we eschew the new. We use the correct tools at the correct times. Using post its and the blackboard can be just as effective (if not more) than showing a video.
  • Physical element – Having a student write their reasoning on a post it and then physically walk up to the board and place it somewhere works well pedagogically. It helps people who are kinesthetic learners. It also makes students commit to a position and then justify their reasoning behind it. They can’t hide. They have to put their brains on the board so others can see them. Humans are physical beings and because of this we need more than just a screen. We need to touch things, move, and interact with the real world.

This session works really well because it has variety, a physical element and uses technology in a purposeful way. When the teaching librarians here are designing information literacy sessions in the future I want to remember the lessons that we have learned from this CORE-210 session.


The Zen of ACRL Immersion

people sitting in a circle

In Zen Buddhism a sesshin is a period of intense practice of Zen and meditation that typically last 5-7 days. This reminded me a lot of my Immersion experience this weekend. In Zen you are trying to maintain the utmost concentration on your practice, and the same is true with Immersion. Teaching librarians have the opportunity to concentrate on nothing but teaching and learning for 4.5 days.

Normally life consists of rushing from one thing to the next with little sustained focus, but at Immersion we got to concentrate solely on teaching. Even during the informal, social parts of Immersion we were jokingly refering to “teachable moments,” and “what lesson did we learn here?”

At sesshin there is also a significant amount of discomfort that occurs. Your legs and body can get very sore from doing extended sitting meditation, you can get completely exhausted doing all night meditation, and even get hit from monks using a flat wooden stick called a keisaku.

Now our amazing faculty members weren’t whacking us with sticks, but there is a certain amount of pain and dismofort at Immersion too. You can get really tired (I took a nap under my desk like George Constanza). You are required to prepare and deliver a short speech in front of your peers, which can make people very nervous. And you are constantly challenged in different types of less than confortable learning activities such as elevator pitches, skits, and even an addition of battledecks this year. But in both Zen and Immersion this discomfort is to serve a higher purpose. Getting out of your confort zone helps you improve and become a more successful person and teacher.

Finally in Zen there is sometimes an elightenment experience that occurs after all the intense practice and concentration and Immersion is similar. We discussed ”Aha!” moments, and I know I had a couple of those. I also heard several people saying (me included) that there were points later in the week when things started to all come together. Different pieces like assessment and learning styles began to make sense as a more coherent whole and we could see information literacy in a new light.

I do feel that I am more info lit enlightened and I’d recommend ACRL Immersion to librarian who has to do teaching in the classroom. It wasn’t all work. We had time to go out and blow of some steam too. I also made a lot of new friendships. It might not be for everyone but it is a great program if you’re serious about information literacy and want to push yourself to become better.