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Information Literacy On Campus

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011 by Ben Rossi

Finding information is a critical component of knowledge work, and occupies a significant amount of a knowledge worker’s time. We know from research conducted by Basex in 2010 that knowledge workers spend 10% of their workday researching and searching for information. The skills to conduct effective research are not inborn; they are learned, frequently in the course of higher education.

For students, doing research is the bread and butter of their academic life. Conducting research doesn’t just mean searching for information effectively; it means being able to judge the reliability of sources, place information within various contexts, and synthesize different information sources while developing one’s thesis. Encompassing a wide variety of competencies, research is one of the most important skills that students learn in preparation for participation in the knowledge economy.

Increasingly, however, students find that the overwhelming abundance of easily accessible but undifferentiated information on the Web hinders their ability to do the kind of deep, exploratory research that broadens their education and hones critical thinking.

Some professors seem to believe that the problems of Internet-based research begin and end with Wikipedia. In 2007, Inside Higher Ed reported that the Middlebury history department was banning Wikipedia citations in research papers and exams. It is now commonplace for professors to discourage and even penalize citing Wikipedia, although studies have suggested that students continue to use it for certain purposes.

Since 2008, a number of key studies by Professors Alison J. Head and Michael B. Eisenberg of the University of Washington’s Information School show that simple no-Wikipedia policies fail to address the underlying issues. Indeed, their studies, which have surveyed some 10,000 students in campuses across the country, prove that most students understand the inherent limitations of Wikipedia and tend to only use it for “presearch,” early topic-shaping and context-gathering work.

Nevertheless, a study of 8,353 students at 25 U.S. colleges and universities conducted last spring revealed that “students find research daunting. They often drown in copious and irrelevant data.” According to the study, most students report finding it very difficult to begin a research project and determine the scope of what is expected of them. This isn’t due to a lack of ideas or motivation; rather, students’ uncertainty about doing research hampers them from choosing and narrowing down a topic that they can adequately research given the constraints of time, grades, and Information Overload.

An overwhelming majority of students have responded by adopting risk averse, consistent information-gathering strategies that only utilize a very limited toolbox—typically course readings, Google, Wikipedia, instructors, and library databases—no matter what the research topic. Strikingly, while most students use some library resources, very few avail themselves of resources that require interaction with actual librarians. As Purdue University’s Sharon Weiner wrote in Educause Quarterly last year, the UWash studies show that “many students view their educational experience as one of ‘satisficing,’ finding just enough information that is ‘good enough’ to complete course assignments.”

Concern about information literacy on campus has reached beyond this relatively small group of librarians and academics. In 2009, President Obama issued a statement declaring October 2009 National Information Literacy Month. The official document suggests that in addition to basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, students must learn information literacy—defined as the ability to acquire, collate, and evaluate information—as a distinct but equally important skill.

There’s a growing realization, it seems, that to use all the information at their fingertips, students need instruction from experts in information science. The question going forward is how that instruction will be integrated into the college curriculum.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.

E-mail Overload 101

Thursday, June 16th, 2011 by Jonathan Spira

Information Overload isn’t just a scourge for the business sector.

But what would Ben Franklin do?

Its effects can also be felt in academia, where both students and professors struggle to manage a rising tide of information.  While this problem has many facets, in this article I will focus on Information Overload as it manifests itself in the relationship between students and teachers.

E-mail has become ubiquitous on college campuses, and some of the effects of its widespread use are surprising.  It is now, for better or worse, many students’ preferred form of communication with professors.  On the one hand, this gives some students an opportunity to communicate with professors when they otherwise wouldn’t have done so, either because the student can’t meet with the teacher during office hours or, perhaps, because he or she is too intimidated to ask the professor in person.

On the other hand, just as in the business world, students are much more likely to send e-mail without thinking about its clarity, the appropriateness of its content, or its importance.  The result, for many professors, is a veritable e-mail avalanche.  The barrage reaches a crescendo around finals week, when many students drop drafts of papers into a teacher’s inbox all at the same time and expect a quick turnaround, not taking into consideration that they and their peers have likely overloaded the professor to the point of incapacitation.

The problem got so bad by 2006, the year I entered college, that the New York Times took notice of it in “To: Professor@University.edu Subject: Why It’s All About Me.”  Jonathan Glater wrote in that piece about professors who receive e-mail that is inappropriate, irrelevant, or rude.  Many professors reported being asked for information that was already in the syllabus, or receiving emotional tirades about test scores.  A later Inside Higher Ed article quoted a professor who receives over 100 e-mail messages a day, many from students.  Some professors have formulated rules of “netiquette” to discourage students from sending so much e-mail.

Even when their e-mail is perfectly appropriate, students expect that professors will answer promptly, but this rarely happens.  I confess that as a student, the promptness of a professor’s e-mail response did influence my opinion of him or her to a small degree.  As Glater reported, student e-mail (and the expectations that underlie it) can put tremendous pressure on junior faculty who know that their tenure prospects rest in part on student evaluations, which are much more widespread today than they were even a few years ago.

But for many students, the opinion of Athan Papailiou, a student quoted in the Inside Higher Ed article, is representative.  He said that he “understands the frustration of reading endless e-mails, but answering questions is an integral part of teaching.”  This was certainly my thought until I spoke to my father, who happens to be a professor.  He wondered why I felt professors had an obligation to even answer all of my e-mail, much less do so promptly.  I was (momentarily) speechless; the expectation was so deeply ingrained that it had never been called before the tribunal of my conscience.  It was an eye-opener.

After I complete my graduate studies, I will be on the other side of the divide between student and professor.  Just as my former instructors, I will likely face an overloaded inbox and expectant e-mail correspondents.  I can only hope that those waiting for e-mail replies from me will take a moment, as we all should, and consider how we all suffer from Information Overload.

Benjamin Rossi is an analyst at Basex.