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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information fluency versus information literacy: what is the difference?

Back in the Spring of 2009 I created a Google alert for the phrase information fluency. At that time the phrase was being thrown around left and right. The alert helped me stay abreast of what people were posting in regards to the term. Until about March 2011, the alerts came daily often indicating upwards to 5 mentions across certain segments of the web. Not long after that I started to notice a slight downturn in the number of alerts. Often seeing a one or two day gap. Since that time I’ve seen a steady downward trend of alerts to where now there are significant gaps between the alerts.

definition of fluencyWhat does this mean? Does it mean no one is focusing on information fluency any more? Google alerts certainly are not going to really answer that question; I am under no illusion that everything posted on the web is caught in a Google alert. However, based on my limited analysis of the alerts I did receive, it is clear information fluency was a buzz phrase easily to throw around in education circles. While at the same time, many people were struggling to clearly define what exactly the phrase meant and represented.

Here it is 2014 and I don’t think anyone is any closer to creating a definition that is clearly accepted by the many groups that want to promote the idea of information fluency. In my own professional circles where many of us have built careers off of the concept of information literacy, the phrase information fluency just became another way to talk about information literacy. Many people started talking about transliteracy or metaliteracy as a mechanism to combine all possible literacies. I actually disagree with that sentiment and trend. What has happened is that every potential knowledge domain now has its own literacy. How does that help anyone? All we have now is a list of literacies that one needs to check off to deem oneself a capable, informed, and engaged citizen.

It is not unknown that I am not a fan of word literacy when it comes to describing the type of teaching we librarians are doing (or at least should be doing) in higher education. Once students reach our doors we should be focusing on much more than rudimentary ways in which students can interact with information; fortunately many of us are. The newly published 2014 Horizon Report: Higher Education edition  is a clear indication that the learning environment has gone way past the traditional practice where students sit in a room being lectured to. Higher education is moving towards supporting environments that encourage and foster knowledge creation rather than knowledge consumption. As a profession, we also need to be thinking in those terms.definition of literacy

How do we define information fluency? I believe we need to step back and truly acknowledge that everything around us is information regardless of platform or format. Not so long ago we could clearly separate tools and information. Where the two were linked was that specific tools allowed access to specific information. In our current more ubiquitous communicative environment, the tools used to find and access information are less relevant. Today, fluency is represented in the quality and ability of discourse, methods of interaction, willingness to learn, and avenues of creation. It is not an umbrella for different literacies. As information professionals we need to be thinking about how we help students achieve these higher order aspects and concepts that define and represent fluency.

In the mindset that information fluency is just another phrase for information literacy, I often hear people say that what I describe above is implied in the current ACRL standards and definition of information literacy. I don’t think implied intent is a good model, particularly when it comes to teaching and learning. Fortunately, an ACRL Task Force is working to revise the current information literacy standards and from the reports I’ve read really rethinking the overall approach. My concern is that the phrase information literacy will remain. It is not that I don’t support the efforts of my talented colleagues; I am happy the current standards are being evaluated and revised. My concern is that by using the same label there will be confusion and increased reluctance to consider anything new. I can’t honestly say information fluency is a better phrase.  What is tough about information fluency (as well as information literacy) is the abstractness of it and that no one really “owns” it like the traditional knowledge domains we’ve created in higher education. For academic librarians, we do need to think carefully about the language we use as a means to communicate our intent and goals for advancing student learning.

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IT and the year 2020: 13 questions we are still asking

I recently came across an article(1) by Robert C. Heterick, Jr. and John Gehl written in the nineties and published in Educom Review, now known as EDUCAUSE Review, discussing what IT in education will look like in the year 2020. The article’s authors make some interesting statements and pretty astute observations. They refrained from the obvious discussions of that time period such as paper resources will no longer exist. They instead focused on the broad picture such as the larger impact of digitization efforts on society as a whole and adoptability of devices into the mass population. One key phrase that demonstrates this: “in the year 2020 the capability [“electronic data interchange”] will be global (geographically) and universal (unrestricted to transaction type).” Just six years away from 2020 as a society we have rapidly moved in that direction with the numerous platforms and applications available; we are communicating in a very global way.

We have widely available functionalities that do not bind us to specific software applications. We can create presentations, videos, and images online and via our smart devices — most of which are free to use. (The “cost” of releasing personal data is a subject for another time.) The Open Source movement is definitely an indication of a desire to move away from proprietary, enterprise based-solutions. One area that will be interesting to watch is open video formats such as .ogv (Ogg Vorbis is a audio compression format that is free, open, and not patented; for more information visit the Xiph open source community at The release and adoption of HTML5 makes utilization of these open source options easier. Of course, MOOCs are another trend people are watching very closely. Additionally, the Futures Lab at Reynolds Journalism Institute presents quick video reports on up and coming web-based tools.

Heterick and Gehl reiterate Donald A. Norman’s concept that technology is easy to predict but the social impact is much harder. Certainly by today’s standards, high social impact is one of the only ways a new technology can survive. With the idea of social impact in mind, the authors pose thirteen questions all educators need to consider when trying to plan for the future. What is so interesting about these questions is that we are still asking them and still seeking answers. In today’s stretched economic environment and the recent recession, they seem more relevant and important to ask than ever before. Some are easier to discuss and perhaps find an answer. If we are ever able to answer these question, does that ensure higher education will survive? Maybe. I think what is more important is that we never stop asking these questions and ensure we are asking them before crisis hits rather than during or after.

  1. What will it mean to “register” a student?
  2. What will it mean to “be” a student?
  3. What will credentials and degrees signify?
  4. What will a course of study look like, and who will design it?
  5. Will there be any difference at all between distance learning and traditional education?
  6. Will the distinction between individual effort and collaborative effort be different in 2020 from what it is now?
  7. What will it mean to be “published”?
  8. What will the difference be between a faculty member and an author?
  9. What will the difference be between an author and a publisher?
  10. How will the costs of higher education be apportioned among the state, the federal government, philanthropy, and the student?
  11. What will be the role of the residential campus? What percentage of students in higher education will be seeking a first degree versus continuing education?
  12. Will the calendar of 50-minute classes, 16-week semesters, summer breaks, and so forth continue?
  13. Will the hierarchy of research, comprehensive, liberal arts, and two-year institutions make sense?

Within the structures of higher education and the student experience, a universal experience or one that is unrestricted to transaction type is still a challenge. Students often struggle with navigating the multiple requirement lists to obtain a degree. Transferring to another school can mean adding 1, 2, or more years. The implications of which are not only time but monetary. As educators we are talking about many things to enhance the student experience — effective teaching strategies, developing quality assessments, implementing  programs like writing across the curriculum. Certainly, the discussions about what it means to be a professor – published, tenured, etc. – is quite active. Many departments struggle with trying to recognize achievement within the new ways we are communicating, creating, and connecting. As I sit in numerous campus meetings, I am not sure we are any closer to being able to effectively answer those thirteen questions. I do know we can’t depend on any one person to find the answers; we have work together to determine what works within our own institutions.

1. Heterick, R., & Gehl, J. (1995). Information technology and the year 2020. Educom Review, 30(1), 22.

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