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Doug Johnson's Tech Proof

The 4th R


College students and high-school students preparing to enter college are sorely lacking in the skills needed to retrieve, analyze, and communicate information that is available online only 13 percent of the test-takers were information literate. The Chronicle of Higher Education

Oh, boy, just one more darned thing K-12 schools are not doing well enough. As if high-level reading, writing, and math are not sufficient for college preparedness, along comes this high-sounding information literacy.

As painful as it sounds to add one more skill set to an over-burdened curriculum, the case easily can be made that information literacy is as necessary a skill in the information age as the basic Rs have been in the past. What exactly is information literacy and why write about it in a technology column?

A simple definition of information literacy is: the ability to use information to solve problems and answer questions. In one sense, information literacy is a much-expanded term for plain old research. Most models¹ explain information literacy as a process, a series of steps, including:

  • Framing good questions about a topic.
  • Identifying information needed and potential sources for it.
  • Locating relevant, and identifying reliable, information.
  • Synthesizing and using the information to suggest a solution to a problem or supply a defensible answer to a question.
  • Communicating the findings in a variety ways.
  • Judging the effectiveness of both the project and process

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With the flood of information now available through the Internet, and an increasing tendency for people to use technology to locate, manipulate, and communicate information, I would argue that a better definition of information literacy might be: the ability to use information and information technologies to solve problems and answer questions.

The very glut of information has changed the nature of the 4th R -- Research. Here are just a few factors:

  • Increasing importance of the quality of the assignment. Research that asks for a simple factual response easily can be downloaded from an online term paper mill.
  • Discretion in, and ability to use, both print and primary sources. The preference for todays Net Gen students for digital sources of information might well leave them lacking skills to use print resources that add both authority and depth to the research.
  • Ability to choose/evaluate Web sites. On todays Web, where middle schools students can produce more professional looking Web sites than college professors, the ability to discriminate between accurate and inaccurate information becomes critical. When researching a health related question, for example, a poor choice of sources could be life threatening.
  • Development of ethical and safe on-line behaviors. As students spend an increasing amount of time in the virtual world, knowing how to treat others and how to protect themselves from the possibly harmful actions of others becomes critical. And that one is tricky for teachers since we ourselves might be somewhat uncertain about what is right and wrong online.

One positive aspect of adding information literacy activities to the curriculum is that this should be a method of teaching rather than an add-on. For example, the textbook unit on weather can be replaced by a simple research assignment. (Choose a potentially dangerous weather situation and recommend actions your family can take to guard against it.) Happily, Ive seen teachers who have chosen to add an information literacy project to their weakest units, resulting in students learning both vital new skills and improving the retention of subject matter.

The 4th R: How much attention are you giving it in your classroom?

¹Some information literacy models include American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and Association for Educational Communications and Technologys (AECT) guidelines, Information Power: Building Partnerships for Student Learning and Eisenberg and Berkowitz The Big6. The International Society for Technology in Educations (ISTE) National Educational Technology Standards include many information literacy components.

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