Web 2.0 Meets Information Fluency: Information Access

coa1.jpgWhat follows is another section of my upcoming chapter for Terry Freedman’s Coming of Age 2.0. This section examines how we might weave traditional and emerging strategies into instruction as we approach information access in a Web 2.0 landscape.

Information access

Information access involves recognizing the need for information, identifying potential sources, and strategies for locating information.

In recent keynotes I have heard celebrated information specialists and futurists proclaim that we live in a good enough / why bother world. If people can easily find some information, they will not be motivated to find better or best information. As a teacher and as a librarian I find this approach impossible to accept. My math teacher colleagues do not stop their efforts at multiplication and division. They move as many of their learners toward higher applications and deeper mathematical thinking. Why should we not expect learners to master more thoughtful information seeking strategies?

We can encourage students to seek information energetically. That may include reaching beyond everyone’s favorite search engine or wiki reference tool. Though Google rocks it is not the only band in town. Google’s information reach is staggering, yet it may not be the best strategy for all information tasks. Innovation is thriving in the search world. In fact, a number of alternate search tools employ a less “vertical”, far more user-centered approach. We can introduce the flexible A9.com http://a9.com with its 2.0 like user-centered result lists and its transparent search across media formats–books, blogs, Web, video. Rollyo http://www.rollyo.com/ and Filangy http://www.filangy.com/ , offer a more personalized approach to searching. We can point to tools like Clusty http://clusty.com, where on-the-fly, expandable subheadings and related concepts compensate for students’ limited vocabulary and content area knowledge. KartOO http://kartoo.com/ and Music Plasma http://www.musicplasma.com/ represent a growing number of tools responding to the preferences of visual learners. In a highly effective, if more 1.0 approach, we can remind students of traditional subject directories like Librarians’ Index to the Internet (http://lii.org) or KidsClick! (http://www.kidsclick.org) or the many subject-specific portals that offer the significant advantages of selection and far less search noise. Debbie Abilock’s Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need http://www.noodletools.com/debbie/literacies/information/5locate/adviceengine.html and Laura Cohen’s (U. Albany) How to Choose a Search Engine or Directory (http://www.internettutorials.net/choose.html) keep up with the choices and serve as a guide for students.

The fact is that many of us can learn to use Google’s coolest features better to make the types of materials we want and need most to rise to the first couple of pages of our result lists. Teachers and librarians can point to the power of Google’s advanced search tools. (For instance, you are likely to find reports and lengthy documents by first searching for PDF as a file format.) We can link students to sections of Google’s excellent directory, for example its Issues page http://directory.google.com/Top/Society/Issues/

Because students will need to access both traditional and emerging sources, through both formal and informal information systems, they need understandings of both worlds. In subscription databases, it helps to know the underlying structure of controlled vocabulary and subject hierarchy. Students can use the official descriptors or subject headings to help them gather relevant content. They can select to search by either keyword or by subject and that choice really matters. Field searching offers users great precision if they know what they are looking for. While Google and other search engines assume an AND between words and phrases, databases continue to make use of Boolean operators. Simply using the word AND in a database, can mean the difference between a failed and a successful search. In nearly all search environments, using quotation marks to identify a phrase is an effective, time-saving strategy.

It pays to take time to do some old-fashioned brainstorming before attacking a search box. Developing a query involves deciding on the important words, predicting the words and phrases most likely to appear in your “dream” documents. Searching is an interactive, recursive process. We can teach students to mine their result lists to find additional words and phrases will allow them to use vocabulary they might not have originally considered.

Students have greater search power when they understand the newly tagged world. Tags are emerging as powerful tools, different from the structured controlled vocabulary and subject headings of databases. Technorati (http://technorati.com) now identifies more than 100 million author-generated tags (Sifry, 2006). As they search, students should be on the look out for the various types of tags assigned to the best information they find. Those public-created tags will assist them in gathering related content. They can discover information relationships by exploring aggregators like technorati http://technorati.com or del.icio.us http://del.icio.us/ . Student-developed tag clouds allow for browsing among related concepts, broader and narrower terms, names, places, etc. offering a freedom beyond outlining or taxonomy. A teachers who asks a learner to “show me your tag cloud” will see the various directions a student’s research, and her thinking, is taking.

We can teach students to control their own information worlds. By selecting relevant RSS feeds, they restructure search dynamics, channeling information to automatically flow in their direction, personalizing their own stream of information. As students find relevant information and news sources, we need to guide them to seek RSS buttons and capture those feeds.

According to the Pew study The Internet Goes to College: How Students are Living in the Future with Today’s Technology, (Jones and Madden, 2002) freshman college students favor commercial searches engines over academic databases their universities support: “Although academic resources are offered online, it may be that students have not been taught, or have not yet figured out, how to locate these resources” (p. 13).

Those who wait for information to be set free, those who wait for all the scholars and authors to put their work up outside of their books and journals, may be waiting a very long time. As Google strives to digitize the print content of university libraries, our K12 students may not recognize that they have substantial libraries of content already available to them that Google hasn’t yet and may never grab. They do not have to wait.

Hundreds of databases offer hundreds of thousands of valuable documents beyond those accessible on the free Web. Schools, state and national libraries and government agencies subscribe to content that is both developmentally and content-appropriate for learners. Unless we teach students about the enormous value of these reference sources, ebooks, magazine, journal, and newspaper articles, unless we value them ourselves, students will not find them or use them.

I could not conduct my own research without the university equivalents of databases created by such vendors as: EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, Wilson, to name just a few. Because our school culture values these sources, because they are designed directly to meet their information needs, our students have grown to love them as well. We point to them in our pathfinders. We create access to them both by name (http://mciu.org/~spjvweb/catalogs.html) and by subject (http://mciu.org/~spjvweb/databasessubject.html and we look forward to finding an effective federated search solution that will search across the databases, our catalog, and the Web.

Teachers and librarians must ensure that these valuable materials get used and are no further than a click or two away from learners. Students who do not have access to this substantial content, students who choose not to use them, are part of what I consider an information underclass. It is distressing that students and teachers settle for information that is good enough, when excellent is out there and just one further click away. Students need to be able to access the scholarly content their professors will expect them to grapple with, the business journals and reports their employers will want them to cite in board meetings.

If scholarly or professional content makes sense for your students and your budget does not allow an investment, free choices are increasing and we must link students to them. In addition to Google Scholar http://scholar.google.com and Windows Live Academic http://academic.live.com searches, our pathfinders might guide students to sources with limited full text journal content: the Directory of Open Access Journals http://www.doaj.org/, FindArticles http://www.findarticles.com/
FreeFullText.com http://freefulltext.com/I.htm
MagPortal.com http://magportal.com/. Google recently Google announced its News Archive Search http://news.google.com/archivesearch of both free and pay-per-use content and Time Magazine recently posted its free archive (http://www.time.com/time/archive/) which reaches back to 1923.

Interactive survey sites allow students to design and conduct original research. Using tools like SurveyMonkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com/) and SurveyScholar http://www.surveyscholar.com/ and Zoomerang http://info.zoomerang.com/, students can easily collect data and graphically describe their results. Surveys are truly authentic experiences requiring students to navigate through some of the sticky issues of inquiry–predicting question issues, deciding how large a sample should be, designing effective question formats—single choice, multiple choice, rating scales, drop-down menus. The sophisticated reports these sites generate eliminate some of the challenging statistical work previously associated with playing with survey data, forcing learners to focus on understanding and interpretation

The internet fosters a search environment in which learners work independently, often in their rooms, often after midnight. There are fewer face-to-face opportunities for adults to intervene to help assess an information problem, focus a topic, suggest keywords and alternate vocabulary, or recommend a critical book or website or portal. While we should celebrate the independence of learners, we must recognize that any 15-year-old doesn’t really know what she doesn’t know.

We can guide students through the search process by creating online landscapes that help them make sense of their nearly limitless choices. Collaboratively created Web-based pathfinders can create information blueprints for particular units or projects. They pull together resources of multiple formats to meet the specific needs of the learning community. Using these tools, we can create schema to help students to think in terms of information clusters or buckets—the types of buckets they will be able to apply to future information tasks. As teachers and librarians in this new landscape, we have new opportunities to intervene, AND to have dialog, while respecting young people’s need for independence. Librarians are beginning to move their pathfinders to blogs and wikis, to open them to students and teachers for collaboration and comments. They can suggest search strategies. They can lead students to information types– primary sources, literary criticism, biography, news. They can lead students to the variety of information formats—portals of streaming media, wikibooks, ebooks, blogs, ejournals. The internet offers us opportunities for examining global perspectives. As students research the issues of our day, we need to help them to discover the media of other regions—the streaming media, the newspapers.

More next time–on evaluation!

Jones, S., & Madden, M. (2002). The Internet Goes to College: How students are living in the future with today’s technology. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved September 4, 2006 from http://www.pewinternet.org/report_display.asp?r=71

Sifry, D. (206). [Weblog] State of the blogosphere, April 2006: Part 2: On language and tagging. Sifry’s Alerts. Retrieved September 10, 2006, from http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000433.html

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