Thursday, October 01, 2009

The New Jack Librarian on the New Information Literacy

Have you read this article yet? It was published in the September issue of WIRED and its called, curiously enough, Clive Thompson on the New Literacy. In it, Thompson summarizes some of the results of a massive research project that has been analyzing the writing of college students since 2001.

"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization," she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.
The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That's because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it.

38%. That's a nice stat to keep in your pocket when some geezer you know starts complaining about how kids these days don't read and write anymore.

Ok. Let's bring on the next sacred cow for the slaughter. Kids today don't know how to learn anymore. From the October 2009 Toronto Life article, Lament for the iGeneration:

Last year, the renowned American neuro­scientist Gary Small argued in his book iBrain that the constant use of new technologies by young people is changing the way the brain assimilates and stores information and processes interactions with other people—evolution of the species at a breakneck pace. “Perhaps not since early man first discovered how to use a tool,” he wrote, “has the human brain been affected so quickly and so dramatically.”

Even spending a few hours a day on-line, he showed, helps strengthen certain neural pathways, while weakening others. In his book, Small cites UCLA studies that showed how using on-line search engines trains the brain to create “shortcuts for acquiring information.” The implication: young brains accustomed to finding information instantly are now less capable of storing it for the long-term—what some might call the definition of learning. The brain is programmed to acquire and store information only on an “as needed” basis.

It all sounds very dire, but from my limited understanding of cognition this just sounds like a very hyperbolic description of students forming a habit. And habits - with effort and inclination - can be changed.

Many librarians say things like "students don't know how to search". Not only is that statement insulting, it's simply not true. Just like writing, these days people search several orders of magnitude more than any other previous generation.

On Monday morning, I'm going to be in front of a class of about twenty first and second year students enrolled in a Composition course. In it, I'm going to try something that was inspired by a workshop I attended some years ago. I'm planning to try to solicit from the students what they think are the differences between "Google searching" and research in an academic setting.

While brain-storming making up my own list, I think I came up with a beautiful way to describe the differences. From Wikipedia's summary of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Schwartz relates the ideas of psychologist Herbert Simon from the 1950s to the psychological stress which faces most consumers today. He notes some important distinctions between, what Simon termed, maximizers and satisficers. A maximizer is like a perfectionist, someone who needs to be assured that their every purchase or decision was the best that could be made. The way a maximizer knows for certain is to consider all the alternatives they can imagine. This creates a psychologically daunting task, which can become even more daunting as the number of options increases. The alternative to maximizing is to be a satisficer. A satisficer has criteria and standards, but a satisficer is not worried about the possibility that there might be something better.

Most people are satisficers when they search for their everyday needs. But academic research is searching like a maximizer. What I particularly like about this comparison is that it recognizes that research is a psychologically daunting task which I believe, makes breaking ingrained search habits even more difficult.

But rest assured, I think the kids are all right.

1 comment:

charlotte said...

One of my staff read something interesting about telling the students that of course they know how to search because they all use google, so in info lit classes we are just trying to refine that show them some tricks for the library databases. I have found this pretty useful as a way to hook students in to what I am talking about.