The pandemic of 2020 has taught us many things about ourselves, our roles in life, and the fragility/resilience of higher education. As we move through this process, my reflections on some of the information literacy challenges that have been put into special focus by education’s shift from face-to-face to online include how it has affected students, faculty, and the world at large.
For many, many years, I have been putting forward the following messages: “The information literacy gap is the biggest blind spot in higher education today,” and “A student who is not information-literate is not an educated student.” I’ve watched the infolit movement grow and become mainstream in academic libraries, while recognition of the information literacy gap has shown painfully slow growth among academics. Research ability development is still peripheral to the mainstream educational process.
The pandemic has starkly revealed the fact that students, without personal help from their professors and with only remote guidance by librarians, are often left hung out to dry when it comes to completion of research projects. Let me cite only a couple of real examples of pleas to librarians from our students doing research online:
From an undergraduate email: “I’m REALLY stressing out with research!!!” This student had a fairly simple research issue but was unable to formulate search terminology that would produce anything of value. I offered an explanation of our academic search tools along with some search terminology to try. Later, the same student again emailed, asking how to cite a website that was of dubious academic value. I suggested he not use the website and go back to the academic resources I’d shown him earlier.
From a graduate student: “I believe I can improve on my major papers through research if I know of search engines and the like that I can download onto my browsers like Google Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. …Do you know of any other free search engines that I may be able to access for research purposes from an academic point of view?” The student was totally unaware of library databases and assumed that his only resources would have to come from searches on the open web.
Counter this with my graduate students who have taken my 2-credit research course. What do I hear from them? Nothing. Silence. Well, some exceptions: One asked how to cite a resource available through a specialized software program. Another contacted me when our discovery search tool went down for a few hours. Otherwise, these students are functioning, well, even within a totally online research environment.
If we had not been near the end of our semester when the shutdown hit, we would have been flooded with queries from the rest of our students. In fact, we contacted faculty, asking them to share their research assignments, and we constructed steps to accomplish the research goals so that those professors could share them with their students. Anything that could avoid providing the same answer to multiple queries would help our workload.
A professor provided me with an undergraduate research assignment that required specialized databases, then asked: “Can you suggest five or six websites that would have basic, easy-to-understand-yet-academic research sources to which I could direct students?” Websites? Easy to understand but academic? The assignment, as I read it, required academic databases, specialized ones. I know the professor quite well, so I was blunt: Forget about websites. Here are the steps students need to follow to get the academic resources they need for your assignment.
I am sure many professors are adept at using our electronic resources, but some of them are behind the times. Some have no idea we have a large collection of ebooks and ejournals available. In fact, one professor insisted we keep staff available in our closed library building to funnel print books out the door to students who need them. How many student requests have we had for print books? Possibly one. We did have a distant student who wanted us to send her a book across the country—until I showed her that we had the ebook version of the title, instantly accessible. She was happy with that.
Other professors struggle to guide their students to optimize our academic search tools. The long-understood challenge of students finding faculty research assignments incomprehensible is exacerbated when students are on their own, especially when faculty have limited experience with advanced features of databases. Instead, students are coming to e-reference librarians for such guidance. I don’t see any broad messaging from professors to students offering research support to accomplish their research tasks.
Priming the pump of research assistance by asking professors to share their research assignments with us is one way to provide that sort of guidance through the professor. Our writing center has been a great help as well. Center staff sent out a “You are not alone” message to students, asking, “What is one thing that would a make massive difference to you right now?” One of the bulleted options was, “Research—get the information you need from our amazing research librarians.” Hopefully, some faculty saw this and pondered its import, but the gap in understanding between student research needs and faculty support remains wide, despite the fact that our faculty members are brilliant and highly concerned about their students.
Society, as a whole, has entered a perfect storm in the current information environment. At a time when general information literacy ability is low (challenge this if you dare), the need for accurate information is dramatically high. Throw in the onslaught of false messaging, bias, political strategizing, and so on, and the lack of ability with information handling and research becomes a crisis very quickly. Take my neighbor who, after absorbing the wild mix of messages out there, has come to believe that COVID-19 is a hoax perpetrated by vested interests. Such thinking leads to illness and death.
Many people have stopped trusting authorities, believing that much of life is overrun with conspiracies. They are ready to believe just about anything. On what basis? Well, in their view, even to ask that question makes you part of the establishment. There is no “basis” required. We have to live with what we suspect, with what we believe deep in our hearts. Asking for justification makes you one of those “evidence-based” people who have oppressed us with false narratives from the beginning.
We have entered into a world of unreason, where political leaders around the globe challenge the status quo (“the experts”) with their own narratives based on the cult of narcissistic personality. We trust gurus as long as they are counter-cultural and forceful enough to have us believe their too-easy solutions to complex problems.
For the rest, who don’t buy into conspiracy-brain at an in tense level, there are too many voices, and we don’t know what to believe. Confusion reigns simply because we have limited skill to filter out the multiple messages that assault us every day.
The heart of the problem
Let me state it flat out: We are in this state of information chaos, not because the information is chaotic (although it is), but because we have failed to pay attention to development of the skills required for our new era of information glut. While the information literacy gap goes back centuries, the internet has proved to be an assault on humanity’s ability to process information, let alone to use information to build certainty. We rejoiced in the sudden abundance of knowledge without paying attention to the abilities required to navigate it intelligently. Educators and information professionals should have known better, but we marginalized information literacy development or ignored it completely.
Paul Zurkowski, as early as 1974, argued, “We experience an overabundance of information whenever available information exceeds our capacity to evaluate it” (“The Information Service Environment Relationships and Priorities”; files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED100391.pdf). He estimated that only about one-sixth of the population has such skills, stating:
The individuals in the remaining portion of the population, while literate in the sense that they can read and write, do not have a measure for the value of information, do not have an ability to mold information to their needs, and realistically must be considered to be information illiterates.
In light of the burgeoning information environment, Zurkowski called for “a major national program to achieve universal information literacy by 1984.” That, of course, did not happen. Maybe it couldn’t happen, but Zurkowski did warn us.
We paid scant attention. We’ve always paid scant attention except for the hero librarians who have pushed the in formation literacy agenda for years, decades even, in the face of a huge yawn by almost everyone else. When a pandemic hits, we are left without the skills, and too often without the broadband infrastructure, to grapple with an online-only environment.
The mandate of educators
Neil Irwin, commenting on the fracturing of global sup ply chains in the midst of the pandemic, writes: “But one lesson of these episodes of economic tumult is that those surprising ripple effects tend to result from longstanding unaddressed frailties” (“It’s the End of the World Economy as We Know It,” The New York Times, April 16, 2020; ny times.com/2020/04/16/upshot/world-economy-restructuring-coronavirus.html). The same is true for information literacy, which remains a profoundly significant, long-standing, and unaddressed frailty in the educational supply chain. Throwing digital tools and resources at students without research training is like throwing mud at a wall. It leaves a stain but doesn’t stick.
Our educational systems are going to have to move increasingly into a digital environment, not just because of the pandemic, but because that is the direction of the world. And we have simply let things evolve without addressing the crucial need to develop in our students an able facility within that environment.
I’ve said it before, but here it is again. Until information literacy becomes an integral factor in the foundation of all education, from kindergarten to Ph.D. studies, we will be generating uneducated graduates ill-prepared to encounter and maximize the digital information world they have to live in. We don’t need just more one-shot instruction sessions or occasional librarian-embedded courses. We need a curriculum-wide, long-term strategy to shape our students as information professionals. To the complaint that we don’t want to make students into librarians, I answer, “Why not?”
What’s wrong with creating a workforce that can nimbly navigate through an increasingly complex information world, gliding through the knowledgebase with ease? What’s wrong with educating everyone to solve problems and advance learning in an information environment that is familiar and accessible?
COVID-19 has surfaced a problem that has always been there. It has also created a great opportunity for educators to recognize the infolit gap. At our institution, librarians are working with faculty and course designers to meet the dramatic needs of suddenly online faculty and courses. We are collecting assignments, course by course, and creating tutorials to take students from topic to well-researched project. We are deeply involved in faculty training for online instruction. Suddenly we are needed.
I’m hoping that this isn’t a flash in the pan but is part of a revolution in education. Educators have been so devoted to content, they have pretty much left the process to their students. A student query, “What do I need to do to complete this project?” to this point has generally gotten the response, “Read the assignment instructions and do your best.” Now a strong element of each course’s instruction needs to be development of skill with problem-solving and information acquisition/evaluation such that students don’t need to wonder how to do their research.
Educators needs to listen to librarians:
- There is a profound missing piece in our education process.
- We can’t begin to address the gap with short-term, remedial solutions.
- We have to put information literacy instruction deeply and integrally into the foundation of every course.
- Having able and confident information users is as important as the content they absorb.
Education must get with a new program to address the biggest gaping crater in its infrastructure. Paul Zurkowski’s dream was not foolish. It is essential.