source distinctions: print vs. electronic – still a viable differentiation?

With the semester in in full swing, I am still surprised when I talk with students about what sources they need for a project and the response is “I can’t use anything from the Internet; I need scholarly sources.” Often these are novice researchers still trying to figure out what a scholarly source actually is and what it means to do research as a university student. These students still think in black and white terms – using the right sources, avoiding the wrong sources, meeting the source limit criteria, etc. When told not to use Internet sources without more distinction, this inevitably creates a barrier for the student. All they see is Internet=wrong, print=right. As a result these students are unable to determine if electronic versions of books, journals, newspapers, magazines, images, etc. are appropriate.

The nature of this black and white veiwpoint of the Intertet starts early and is related to the way students are commonly taught about Internet content in school — very much a checklist approach. Many students I work with have an engrained rote response to any question that resembles what Internet sources are appropriate to use — which is always along the line of .org, .gov, and .edu are good sites and .com sites are bad. In a recent bavatuesdays blog post, Going Online, the Jim Groom discusses a worksheet his son needed to fill out to learn about “good websites.” To his chagrin (and it should also be for many of us) the blog site was the “bad” site. He has a great quote at the end of the post which I definitely agree with as it is not only important in K-12 but also post-secondary.

What if we start creating an elementary school curriculum that gets at the more dynamic and generative possibilities of the web rather than thinking about it like a set of static, scary resources.

Given our highly digitized world, we need to ask if it still appropriate to make blank statements like ‘Don’t use Internet sources’ or ‘X sites are bad.’ In my work with college students, I find trying to teach within those parameters highly limiting and it becomes more confusing for students. For those of us who observed the rapid evolution of the Internet from a rudimentary, text-based environment (many sucky websites both in content and design) to one that is highly complex and visually rich, we understand why the distinction of ‘Internet=Bad, Print=Good’ transpired. However, I feel like that many of us in higher ed (where we are trying to encourage higher levels of critical thinking and inquiry) still have the mind set of the early days of the Internet.

In conversations with teaching assistants and professors about appropriate sources — specifically asking if students can use Internet sources, often the response is that students shouldn’t use Internet sources. When pressed further about digital versions of newspapers, magazines, ebooks, and scholarly journals, particularly those within a library database, the response is always ‘Yes, students can use those sources.’ At that point I move into “teachable moment” mode where I ask further questions to understand how a professor or instructor makes the distinction between a scholarly article on the web versus a commercial website. In numerous conversations with professors, I’ve come to realize that many see electronic versions of journals, books, and newspapers as ‘non-Internet’ because they are relying on the construct that they originate as paper therefore they are not really part of the Internet.

As librarians we need to help expand how various pieces of information are viewed and ultimately discussed within the classroom. In the eyes of students, if one uses a web browser to view content, that content is part of the Internet regardless of where it resides – e.g. library database, institutional repository, YouTube or if it is a digitized version of something that originated in a non-digitized format. As educators distinguishing whether or not content originates in an Internet-ready format is not as important as focusing on how the content is significant to what is being learned, the questions students are asking, or what problems many of them may be trying to solve. It comes down to how the parameters and expectations of assignments are communicated. It is easy to include criteria like minimum number of sources, appropriate formats, etc. It is more complex to engage students in a conversation about information sources and ways to interact with those sources to determine significance and relevance to the project.

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2 Responses to source distinctions: print vs. electronic – still a viable differentiation?

  1. Jim Groom says:

    Jennifer,
    I love your nuanced approach to starting to more deeply interrogate the space of internet sources in highered as a evergrowing reality.I’ve been fortunate enough to be teaching alongside Paul Bond (who is a librarian among many other things) for the last two years. Paul centered our most recent course on The Internet around the students research and vetting of sources. Here’s a post about this assignment and how it changed my idea of teaching through a series of resources that students gathered through their research. The next stage of this is to limit them to only resources that are open and available on the web. It’s remarkable how many of their links this semester lead to a paywall or a campus proxy that blocks access to those resources—a whole different can of worms. That said, I wonder if the accessibility of a resources might be anotehr layer of the craap test that makes it a good source. Is it freely accessible as a basic means of judging the value of a resource would be fascinating to me. OK, sorry, I took a left somewhere.

    • Jim,
      Thanks for the link to your posting about the Internet Course. I love that you are delving more deeply into the concepts of what information is and all of the different ways it can be influenced. We also use a modified version of the CRAAP test for our freshman programming which encompasses both the introduction to speech and writing courses (approximately 150 sections). Because of the varied assignments and approaches within the different sections (as well as the sheer number) we are not able to delve as deeply as you are. However, we do take the approach that the CRAAP criteria can be applied to all information sources and not just what is found on the Open Web (e.g. .org, .edu, .com, etc.). As more scholarly and historic primary resources are becoming available on the Open Web, it is important rethink our approach to how we discuss quality sources and methods of accessing, analyzing, and integrating them into projects and assignments.

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