First of all, let me introduce myself; I’m Anna, a relative newcomer to the Information Literacy research space. My background is in psychology and back in 2013 I completed my doctoral research investigating impulsivity and self-control, or how people make choices between small immediate rewards and larger delayed rewards (for a cute example of the type of dilemma investigated in this area, see this video).
During my time as a post-graduate student I had the opportunity to work with undergraduates in both first and third year and, after finishing my research, I happily moved into more student focused roles, specifically in international education. It is through a combination of my background in quantitative research and my interest in students, in particular student resilience, that I have found myself a part of this project. I’m still definitely finding my way in the field of IL, but one of the areas that I am interested in exploring long-term is how information literacy might be relevant to well-being and resilience. It might be a tenuous link, but I have found myself wondering how information literacy skills might help international students who are forced to navigate new and unfamiliar environments, often without their usual support networks.
Alright, after that wee intro, on to more pressing matters; an example of why information literacy is important to all of us, right now.
In November last year, at a press conference in Germany, then US president Barack Obama shared some sobering thoughts on how it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine whether or not information is fact, propaganda or misinformation. He said it is a particular problem “in an age of social media, when so many people are getting their information in soundbites and snippets off their phones” and cautioned that when we rely on potentially untrustworthy information to inform our decisions we endanger hard fought democratic freedoms. In light of the recent media storm around the (so called) ‘alternative facts’ originating from new White House staff, Obama’s carefully worded warning about relying on dubious sources takes on new (and alarming) significance.
Also last year, Oxford dictionaries announced its 2016 word of the year: post-truth, an adjective meaning ”relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Use of the word reportedly increased by 2000% from 2015, commonly in reference to the phrase post-truth politics and specifically in discussions about the Brexit referendum and US presidential campaign and election. If indeed the increased use of this word reflects a real underlying disregard for the truth, we (as parents, teachers, colleagues, friends, and voters) should all be concerned, not only about the increasing difficulty in gauging whether or not information is factual but also about this change in society’s apparent shift in priorities.
Both the ambiguity of the information itself and this apparent change in our priorities as producers, distributors and consumers of information, are compelling arguments for the importance of emphasising information literacy in education. Perhaps even more so, the combination is significant, because when credibility is difficult to determine, greater pressure is placed on our skills in critically assessing information, based on its source, purpose and content, and on our commitment to reflect on how we find, evaluate and share it.
The Brexit and US presidential election are also clear examples of why information literacy is crucial not only in academic settings, but in all of our everyday lives. From small consumer choices to participation in local and national elections, we should all be able (and allowed) to inform ourselves about the consequences of our preferences.
Finally, we also need to have the curiosity to keep on asking questions. Although Obama may have been right in his concern about a growing complacency towards the truth, we are privileged to live at a time when, if we are curious enough, information has never been so easy to come by. We (literally) have a wealth of information at our fingertips and, although this might be easier said than done, all we need to learn is how to find, evaluate and responsibly use it, and keep doing it over and over again.