TCS Daily

A Little Bit Broken, A Little Bit Perfect

By Dominic Basulto - January 28, 2005 12:00 AM

The "information literacy" movement, which seeks to develop a unified methodology for evaluating the explosion of content on the Web, is gathering strength - and that's bad news for Internet surfers everywhere. In mid-January, the New York Times reported that the traditional educational establishment is uniting behind standardized testing behemoth ETS to produce a new Information and Communications Technology literacy assessment that will enable universities to assess students' ability to identify, sort and evaluate online information sources. By March 31, ETS expects that over 10,000 undergraduates will have taken the test. That is just the beginning - as more information flows to the edges of the Internet, there are likely to be more attacks on the seemingly haphazard accumulation of knowledge on the Internet. These attacks may be subtle - the introduction of new standardized tests giving credence to a notion of "information literacy" - or not so subtle, like the arrival of new "white knight" online information gatekeepers who promise to make sense of the Web's complexity.

At some level, it is possible to understand the demands of the information literacy movement. The Web, after all, can seem like a big, hairy mess at times. As a result, information literacy proponents argue that students are ill-equipped to deal with the explosion of information available on the Internet - especially the misrepresentations, mistakes, biases and outright lies that sometimes pass for "information" to the untrained eye. For the information literacy movement, the Internet is a black hole, an abyss that must be monitored, censored and screened by a trusted gatekeeper -- like a school librarian. Failure to do so will result in students randomly downloading documents after a ten-second Google search, trusting unreliable sources, and accessing information at cafes and pizza parlors rather than in ivy-covered academic libraries. In short, the information literacy movement argues we are information rich, but knowledge poor.

The only problem with this argument is that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. The Internet was not created by a central planning authority and was not laid out in advance, and therefore, will never be as safe and reassuring as a dusty encyclopedic tome located in the corner of a school library. As Tim Berners-Lee famously pointed out, "The Web will always be a little bit broken." The very nature of the Web means that it will be decentralized, self-organizing, borderless and open to everyone. For some, that represents a welcome relief from an oppressive information hierarchy; for others, it represents a form of barely-controlled chaos.

Certainly, it is too simplistic to argue that all students need is Google and an Internet connection to complete a research project that passes academic muster. However, are offline critical thinking skills so very different from online critical thinking skills? Students will always need to be able to identify the presence of misinformation or to identify the characteristics of 'reputable' or 'reliable' documents and to isolate and understand bias. This is called "understanding," and it's not something that one course can teach or one test can measure.

It is far better to allow the Internet to regulate itself. Signs of that are already happening - voices are starting to murmur that ranking systems based on hyperlinks are not enough. The Internet is not a popularity contest, after all. Already, the loosely joined pieces of the Internet are hashing out the problems with "trust" and "authority" on the Web. In the Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger stated that "the Web isn't about information" - it is about context, about stories and about individual voices. As the Web regulates itself, it will work out the issues of trust and authority that are at the heart of the information literacy movement.

Thus, "information literacy" coursework that prepares students for possible future careers in information science, journalism or education but little else is not the answer. In early January, Stanley Wilder wrote a trenchant review of the information literacy movement in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he argued that "information literacy would have librarians teach students to be more like them." Rather than developing students with critical thinking skills, the movement would turn students into information retrieval specialists - and in the process, "marginalize academic librarianship." Even if specialists could agree on what information literacy skills are common to all academic disciplines, the sheer pace of technological advancement means that many of these skills will soon be outdated. The New York Times article, for example, pointed out that one of the test questions on the upcoming information literacy standardized exam asks students to sort e-mail messages into appropriate folders. Being able to sort e-mail messages means that one is information literate?

There is a better solution than what the information literacy movement proposes - allow the Web to fix itself. The solution is not for ETS to invoke the specter of "information overload" and create yet another standardized test. Information will continue to flow to the edges of the Internet and the pace of technological change will continue to occur at a breakneck pace. In the process, experts will appear in places you might not expect. Controlling access to information is no longer possible as it was even fifteen or twenty years ago. More importantly, controlling the way people think about information is no longer possible as it once was. Information, as many have pointed out, wants to be free, and the desire for freedom is a powerful force that can not be denied.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor.


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