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September 2006, Vol. 5 Issue 8
 
SURFING THROUGH NOISE

by George Lorenzo

I have spent the past six months conducting research on information fluency for a project I’ve been working on for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative with EDUCAUSE Vice President Diana Oblinger and Charles Dziuban, director of the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Central Florida. This has resulted in two white papers that are in press and another white paper that is nearing its editorial final phase. In addition to reviewing a great deal of the literature on this topic, I have conducted about 40 interviews with experts in this particular field - mostly academic librarians.

Before I go any further, an obligatory definition is needed. I am going to cut right to the chase and say "information fluency" is the term that needs to be embedded in the minds of educators instead of the current "information literacy" term that has historically been in all the literature. So, without further adieu, information fluency means, as noted by the University of Central Florida, "the ability to perform effectively in an information-rich and technology-intensive environment. Simply put, information fluency is the ability to gather, evaluate, and use information in legal and ethical ways. Information fluency encompasses and integrates three important skills: information literacy, technology literacy, and critical thinking." 1

Fad or Transformative?

As I was in the midst of this thoroughly engaging and interesting work on information fluency, which I am still working on, I came across an editorial in The Chronicle Review titled "From Fad to Worse," written by Joel Best, chairman of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. Best explains that, over the 25 years he has chaired academic departments at three universities, he has attended numerous meetings "where the future is unveiled, priorities are articulated, and innovations are announced." He then lists a slew of higher education initiatives that were predicted to be, in no uncertain terms, "transformative." However, "compared to their advance billing, they all turned out to be short-term enthusiasms or more bluntly educational fads." 2

In many ways I agree with Best’s assessment of higher education, so it was not unnatural for me to be questioning whether or not the broad sentiments and notions concerning information fluency in higher education were just the elements of another "fad." In about 30 minutes, however, I concluded that information fluency is not a fad. In my opinion, those institutions on the information fluency train are travelling down the right track, one step ahead of everybody else, for preparing students for careers related to any discipline, as well as for lifelong learning, personal achievement, and advanced knowledge attainment.

Notable Initiatives

The University of Central Florida, for instance, is on the right track with its newly created Information Fluency Initiative. Other institutions worth noting here include Philadelphia University’s Information Literacy Project; the University of California Berkeley’s Library/Faculty Fellows for Undergraduate Research, funded by the Mellon Foundation; and Wartburg College’s Information Literacy Across the Curriculum initiative. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Assessments

Like most large higher education learning initiatives, there is an assessment side to the information fluency story. While there are numerous internally created assessment instruments and practices at colleges and universities across the country, there are three relatively young commercial assessment services worth noting: The Educational Testing Service (ETS) Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) Literacy Assessment, Project SAILS (Student Assessment of Information Literacy Skills), and the Information Literacy Test from the James Madison University Institute for Computer-Based Assessment. In my opinion, the ETS test is the most effective for discovering the information fluency skills students may or may not have. The ETS test is also the most expensive, by far, and the one that has had the most research and development dollars. There’s another test that’s free - although it never reached a final iteration for complete confidence about its validity and reliability - called the Bay Area Community College Information Competency Assessment.

The Overabundance of Information at Our Fingertips

I believe that the most important issue concerning information fluency, in general, is this: While the amount and easy access to valuable, trustworthy information available online through myriad forms - websites (of all kinds), library databases and services, social networks, blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, e-mail - has made us all smarter (quicker) and better informed, it has also made us more easily susceptible to misinformation. Finding the right information online for our personal and career-related needs and wants entails "surfing through noise" that is becoming more amplified and distorted every day.

Creating More-User-Friendly Environments

To lessen the noise, so to speak, the large database, content aggregators, and publishers that service libraries e.g. EBSCO, Gale, ABC-CLEO, ProQuest, etc. are facing the challenge of making their interfaces, search functions, and navigational features easier for students and educators to use. These aggregators see search engines, such as Google, and collaboratively created content websites such as Wikipedia, as both a blessing and bane. "From a historical perspective, initiatives like Wikipedia and Google have demystified databases for a large segment of the population," says Proquest’s Senior Vice President of Publishing Suzanne DeBell. On the other hand, "people have a different standard for the content (they discover online). If it is immediately and easily accessible, and quickly answers a question they have, they will accept it."

The problem is they will accept the easily found information which is often less than satisfactory over the more difficult and complex library database search where they can find the real golden nuggets of scholarly work.

The research and development of controlled vocabularies and OpenURL technology are two areas in the field that attempt to meet some of these challenges related to making database searching and navigation easier for students to accomplish.

"A controlled vocabulary is a carefully selected list of words and phrases, which are used to tag units of information so that they may be more easily retrieved by a search. The terms are chosen and organized by trained professionals (including librarians and information scientists) who possess expertise in the subject area. Controlled vocabulary terms can accurately describe what a given document is actually about, even if the terms themselves do not occur within the document’s text." 3

"OpenURL is a type of URL that contains resource metadata for use primarily in libraries. The OpenURL standard is designed to support mediated linking from information resources (sources) to library services (targets). A "link resolver", or "link-server", parses the elements of an OpenURL and provides links to appropriate services as identified by a library. A source is generally a bibliographic citation or bibliographic record used to generate an OpenURL. A target is a resource or service that helps satisfy user’s information needs. Examples include full-text repositories; abstracting, indexing, and citation databases; online library catalogs; and other Web resources and services." 4

These are only two areas of concern that are briefly highlighted here in my first attempt at discussing information fluency and its importance in higher education. In future issues, I will try to address this topic in more detail under this banner of "Surfing Through Noise."

End Notes:

1. What UCF Students Need to Know for the SACS Review, http://if.ucf.edu/students.pdf

2. Joel Best, "From Fad to Worse," The Chronicle Review, April 14, 2006, Volume 52, Issue 32, Page B6, http://chronicle.com/weekly/v52/i32/32b00601.htm

3. Karl Fast, Fred Leise and Mike Steckel, "What is a Controlled Vocabulary," Boxes and Arrows blog, www.boxesandarrows.com/view/what_is_a_controlled_vocabulary_ in Wikipedia, "Controlled Vocabulary," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controlled_vocabulary

4. Wikipedia, "OpenURL," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenURL.

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