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A Little Bird Told Me…

The Pew Internet and American Life project has just published a report on “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age.” One finding that was particularly interesting: 43 percent of respondents who use social networks say they were moved to learn more about an issue after encountering information about it on a social networking site.

Where did I hear about this report? On Twitter. That’s where I get a huge amount of information these days, following people with interests similar to mine. It’s one of the ways I keep up.

I keep wondering what, if anything, these new information streams mean for the efforts we make to prepare students to engage with information after graduation. A long time ago I read a thought-provoking article by Canadian scholar Catherine Sheldrick Ross who argued we librarians overlook the fact that a great deal of information that we use every day isn’t sought for, it’s encountered. Yet when we conceptualize how people find information, we tend to imagine it all starts with a particular information need. We pay far more attention to information-seeking behavior than we do to the whole process of making sense of things, or to “information behavior” as Randall McClure terms it in an extremely useful new book, The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Processes of NextGen Students, edited by McClure and James Purdy. Information behavior draws the focus away from a certain skillset to a deeper understanding of the ways students interact with information.

I don’t have any particular need for most of the information I encounter daily on Twitter. I didn’t wake up wondering whether social media influences civic participation. But reading that Pew report informed me of something I didn’t think to be curious about until I bumped into it. This happens to me . . . well, I can’t even count how many times a day. It’s one of the ways I keep up.

Not long ago I had students read a blog post by Steven Johnson (author of The Ghost Map, Everything Bad is Good for You, and most recently Where Good Ideas Come From; how much do you want to bet our compulsive bibliophile Joshua Kim has read them all?). They were puzzled by his dependence on serendipity and tapping social networks. Undergraduates are busy people asked to rapidly learn enough about ideas to write about them. They don’t plan to use any of the sources they seek out for another project in the future. Their search is usually very task-directed and mining databases is the most effective way for them to find stuff they can use, though they might start out by prowling around the Web to find the shape of their topic and harvest a few keywords. More experienced undergraduate researchers also mine reference lists, though it doesn’t come naturally to them. Years of composing citations doesn’t prepare them for reading them, and databases that act like a shopping site for scholarly articles seems much easier to use than seeking out known publications.

Yet I do think many if not most of our students get better at dealing with information during their college years. The difference between what they do in their first semester and as seniors is significant. They don’t take the first sources they find. They develop an almost visceral preference for scholarly sources over information that comes through other channels. They seem more aware of rhetorical issues than when they arrive at college: who is the audience, what evidence is presented, is it used fairly and persuasively, can I trust this source? What starts out as a hunt for cut-and-pasteable chunks of information becomes a far more nuanced search for meaning.

The most recent report from Project Information Literacy suggests that first job out of college poses real problems that school-developed information literacy skills don’t currently  address very effectively. We need to find ways to make our students better prepared to be intentionally curious and ready to engage in information quests that are never entirely complete, open to an itch to learn – rather like that 43 percent of social media users who bump into something about public affairs online and are motivated to find out more.

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