Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Article Note: On Using New Media to Teach Information Literacy

Citation for the article:

Cope, Jonathan and Richard Flanagan, "Information Literacy in the Study of American Politics: Using New Media to Teach Information Literacy in the Political Science Classroom." Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian 32.1 (2013): 3-23.

A big part of my philosophy as an instruction and information literacy librarian is that the skills my team and I teach are lifelong learning skills. When we teach students how to do research, how to evaluate the sources the find, to ask questions, so on, we do it not only for the moment but with an eye to the future. We do it with the belief that, hopefully, they will be able to use those skills in their lives after college whether it is to buy a house, look up information on a medical condition, or evaluate the claims and lies of politicians. Thus I found myself interested in this article because these days we get a lot of political information via new media, which can be defined here for the most part as online sources, especially social media. This topic has always interested me, even if I don't get to write much about it. We hear a lot about social media in librarianship, but we rarely hear about teaching about it to our students (or the community at large if we look at public librarians), and more importantly, how to evaluate and even respond to it. There is a lot in this article that instruction librarians can and should learn and then teach to their students.

Some of my notes with comments:

  • "Several political scientists have championed the potential of including blogs, social media, and other new media forms in their political science courses; however, there has been little close examination of some thornier issues that new media post to the political science educator" (4). There has been a little writing on the topic of using blogs to teach students about the scholarly process and conversation. We probably need to keep investigating this further, and for me, as we teach our classes, we may need to consider this topic more. 
  • What the article argues, which I think is very important: "In this article, we argue that when using new media (e.g., blogs, social networks) in political science courses, a great deal of attention must be paid to developing within students the capacity to evaluate claims found in information sources and to the development of a disciplinary analytical framework that students can use to situate their research within the broader context of the course and the social and political world" (4). 
  • Professors still love to demand students use "reliable sources." However, times have changed. Sources have changed, and we need to teach our students how to use everything at their disposal, and more importantly, how to evaluate it. As the authors write, "the new media environment for covering American politics is a chaotic blend of independent bloggers, Internet media aggregators (e.g., The Huffington Post), social media networks, and traditional news organizations with a Web presence. In this context it becomes necessary to think about IL more as a group of methods for thinking about and analyzing the claims made by variegated information sources than as a set of skills that can be taught divorced from a disciplinary engagement with the information content" (5). I will spare my four readers my opinion of most "independent" political bloggers and places like HuffPo. But yes, it is important to think in terms of teaching critical thinking skills and evaluation skills. The nice thing about this article is that it describes a collaboration between a librarian and a political science professor. This is how it would work best: the expert in the content and the expert in information sources and research coming together to teach the students. 
  • The notion of "reliable sources" is not clear cut anymore is because, as the authors mention, newspapers have been hiring bloggers for a while to write for their newspapers. In other words, you don't necessarily have a "traditional" journalist writing for The New York Times, for example, when it comes to things like politics. This means we need to teach students to ask a whole new set of questions. 
  • The problem with a lot of nontraditional media sources, or why Matt Drudge's blog is not a good source (just because he got lucky in breaking the Lewinsky story, it does not mean he is some objective reporter). As the article authors write, "these new sources often approach the news with a strong ideological and partisan approach that challenges traditional ideas of unbiased, professional and peer-reviewed journalism" (6). 
  • By the way, this is not just for political science classes. Even undergraduate composition classes need this. "The ability to evaluate the veracity of claims and then to synthesize these different claims into coherent written arguments that offer original and thoughtful analysis of the material within a disciplinary context is a fairly high-order skill" (7). And boy was it a challenge to teach it as I learned when I taught composition long ago. 
  • The authors describe an assignment where they have students look at a Congressional District where they write a paper on a congressional race deemed competitive by election time. Naturally, this can be challenging as media coverage can vary from district to district. This is worth reading as the students are taught skills that I wish a lot of common citizens had. A large reason that the U.S. ends up with such bad politicians is that people just don't make an effort to be informed. In many cases, they may not know how, but it is also because finding that information is not always accessible. Some of the things students are asked to do include (see page 8)
    • track developments in the race such as fundraising, campaign tactics, advertising, and media coverage. 
    • make note of local political history and demographics
  • When you think about it, it does take some work to find some of the above, but a lot of new websites, online sources, and social media have made some of it easier. For example, Open Secrets (out of the Center for Responsive Politics) and the Sunlight Foundation are two I can think off the top of my head now. Before the Internet, you had to rely mostly on national newspapers, and if you were lucky enough to have access to Lexis-Nexis, maybe you could look at local newspapers. In addition, according to the authors, pre-Internet, students were taught how to use Congressional Quarterly's Politics in America or the National Journal's Almanac of American Politics (9). I think I learned about those two in library school. We have come a long way in terms of options and resources, but it also means we need to be asking a lot more questions and looking at sources more critically. 
  • A challenge the authors faced with their students: "While the authors' students were very good at quickly finding particular nuggets of news and information related to their assignment, they frequently struggled with critically examining the claims made by those information sources, understanding the differences between different kinds of sources (e.g., a highly polemical blog post vs. an empirical analysis), and then synthesizing those pieces of information into a coherent and original analysis" (11). In part, this just reinforces that we can't assume that just because the kids are tech savvy, that they know how to get online to find information and use it well. I've mentioned it once or twice.
  • Method. Authors examined 12 student papers and their discussion board postings. They then created a typology of students based on their work: the Believer (takes all news as trustworthy no matter what), the Cynic (suspects everything and claims no news media or campaign claims can be trusted. In a way, think of the character of Detective John Munch in Homicide: Life on the Streets and later Law and Order: SVU), the Opportunistic Surfer (the guy or gal who just loves being able to find all sorts of things online. However, is more in it for the tech than for the substance), and the Discerning Analyst (this is the ideal they aspire to get; the student who can evaluate what he or she finds properly and synthesizes well). The article includes a table defining the types. I think this may be a bit too simplistic. Given politics today, you do need a bit of the skepticism of the cynic in addition to being a discerning analyst. That probably would earn me a cynical label, but keep in mind, I know how to use and analyze what I find. However, we can't afford to have believers running around, which is probably why politics can be as bad as they are. We need to teach them to be good discerning analysts who are willing to ask questions and call b.s. if needed. It's not all cold objectivity. 
  • More on the need to be skeptical, but not falling into the deep cynical trap: "Although skepticism about claims is a healthy starting point, a deeper evaluation of the sources and an engagement in some kind of argument is necessary for a good piece of political writing" (15). Be very skeptical, but then go beyond that. 
  • Significance: "The new world of political blogs and the rise of amateur/citizen journalism require attention in the classroom, something that most accounts in political science and information literacy have ignored" (18). 
  • "Students must be provided with the analytical tools necessary to examine the empirical claims made by partisans, and they need the historical and contextual tools to understand the interplay of these forces" (19). Not just students, but the population in general needs these tools, and I think librarians, both academic and public, should be able to help in this (at least the good ones should be able to help). 
  • And to conclude: "The students must also understand the impact of new media on voters and campaigns, in terms of both how campaigns and candidates are using the new technology, and to what degree vote decisions are impacted by these new mediums of communication. Students share these struggles with other citizens; the digital revolution holds the promise of increasing the quality and quantity of information. But students, like voters, need the wisdom that reflection and education provide to make the best of new technology and media forms" (21). 

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