[Paleopsych] NYT: Course Correction: Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea
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The New York Times > Week in Review > Course Correction: Teaching
Students to Swim in the Online Sea
February 13, 2005
Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea
By GEOFFREY NUNBERG
INFORMATION literacy seems to be a phrase whose time has come. Last
month, the Educational Testing Service announced that it had developed
a test to measure students' ability to evaluate online material. That
suggested an official recognition that the millions spent to wire
schools and universities is of little use unless students know how to
retrieve useful information from the oceans of sludge on the Web.
Clearly, "computer skills" are not enough. A teacher of Scandinavian
literature at Berkeley recently described how students used the Web to
research a paper on the Vikings: "They're Berkeley students, so, of
course, they have the sense to restrict their searches to 'vikings NOT
minnesota.' But they're perfectly willing to believe a Web site that
describes early Viking settlements in Oklahoma."
That trusting nature is partly a legacy of the print age. If we tend
to give the benefit of the doubt to the things we read in library
books, it is because they have been screened twice: first by a
publisher, who decided they were worth printing, and then by the
librarian who acquired them or the professor who requested their
The Web imposes no such filters, even as it allows users to examine
subjects people would never have gone to a traditional library to
research, like buying a printer or a cheap airline ticket. Many
adolescents use the Internet to get information about issues they are
reluctant to discuss with parents or teachers, like sexual behavior,
sexual identity, drug use or depression and suicide.
But there is a paradox in the way people think of the Web. Everyone is
aware that it teems with rotten information, but most people feel
confident that they can sort out the dross. In a survey released last
month by the Pew Project on the Internet and American Life, 87 percent
of search-engine users said they found what they were looking for all
or most of the time.
That level of confidence may not be justified, particularly when a
search for information requires judging a Web site's credibility.
According to the Pew survey, only 38 percent of search-engine users
were aware of the difference between unpaid and sponsored search
results, and only 18 percent could tell which was which.
A 2002 study directed by BJ Fogg, a Stanford psychologist, found that
people tend to judge the credibility of a Web site by its appearance,
rather than by checking who put it up and why. But it is much easier
to produce a professional-looking Web site than a credible-looking
book. The BBC was recently duped by a fake Dow Chemical site into
broadcasting an interview with an environmentalist posing as a company
Then, too, search engines make it all too easy to filter information
in ways that reinforce pre-existing biases. A Google search on "voting
machine fraud," for example, will turn up popular Web pages that
feature those words prominently, most of which will support the view
that voting machines make election fraud easier; opposing sites won't
tend to feature that language, so will be missed in the search. A
researcher exploring the same topic in a library would be more likely
to encounter diverse points of view.
Up to now, librarians have taken the lead in developing information
literacy standards and curriculums. There's a certain paradox in that,
because a lot of people assumed that the digital age would require
neither libraries nor librarians. But today, students have only
limited contact with librarians, particularly because they do most of
their online information-seeking at home or in the dorm.
More important, leaving information literacy to librarians alone
suggests a failure to understand the scope of the problem.
Part of it lies in the word "literacy" itself. No other language has a
word that covers such a broad swath of territory, from reading and
writing skills, to a familiarity with culture, to elementary
competence in subjects like math or geography. To many, "information
literacy" suggests a set of basic ABC's that can be consigned to
One can list some basic principles of information literacy, like
"Recognize an information need"; "Evaluate sources critically"; and
"Check to see if the site sponsor is reputable." But those precepts
are only of limited help with all that people now use online resources
Last fall, for example, I co-taught a graduate course on "Information
Quality" at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems.
The students were highly sophisticated about search engines and knew
their way around the Web.
But even they had difficulty with exercises that involved evaluating
information in unfamiliar areas, like using the Web to decide which
online degree program to recommend to a friend.
Still, given more time, those students would have known where to go
for more accurate maps of the territory they were exploring. Unlike
most students, they knew that "what's out there" doesn't end with what
comes up on Google. University librarians complain that students tend
to confine their online research to Web searches, ignoring other
resources that the libraries have access to, like old newspaper
archives, map collections and census data.
No less important, the students in our course would have known to use
an even more basic technique: asking the right person. E-mail turns
the Web into a vast digital help desk; user groups are teeming with
people who will gladly explain the finer points of espresso machines
or the history of English slang. But most people rarely think to make
use of them.
In the end, then, instruction in information literacy will have to
pervade every level of education and every course in the curriculum,
from university historians' use of collections of online slave
narratives to middle-school home economics teachers showing their
students where to find reliable nutrition information on the Web.
Even then, it is true, most people will fall back on perfunctory
techniques for finding and evaluating information online. As Professor
Fogg observes, people tend to be "cognitive misers," relying on
superficial cues whenever they can get away with it.
Only when confronting a question that is personally important - a
health problem, a major purchase - are most people motivated to dig
deeper. But that is reason enough to make sure that people have the
skills they will need.
Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford linguist, is heard on NPR's "Fresh Air"
and is the author of "Going Nucular" (PublicAffairs, 2004).
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