Surviving the Information Jungle
forward to: Super Searchers go to School by Joyce Valenza (Information Today, 2005)
Research for most of us who finished our formal education before 1995 was conducted in an Information Desert. Those five or ten sources required for a research paper were darned tough to find in our school and even public libraries. Teachers and librarians performed much the same role as that of any desert guide: helping the student locate scarce resources in the educational environment. Remember how happy you were to find that last, perhaps only partially relevant, magazine article that met the minimum number of sources required? I do – vividly.
And we teachers and librarians were pretty good as desert guides. We taught kids to use the card catalog, the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the vertical file, reference sources, and indices. We knew where to look for that hidden waterhole, patch of shade, or edible lizard. We could because were taught these exact skills ourselves as students. Libraries didn’t change much in the first nine decades of the 20th century.
Today’s student who has access to online sources of information has been thrust into the Information Jungle. A quick search using just Google can yield thousands of potential sources of information. And the “free” Internet access by common search engines is just one trail in this great tangle. Wandering slightly off the well-trod path, the searcher discovers subscription databases, the “invisible” web, massive online union catalogs from which print materials can be interlibrary loaned, newsgroups, digital multimedia collections, chat rooms, and e-mail contact with individuals. Now educators have the challenge of acting as jungle guides: helping learners to find, evaluate and select resources of genuine value. With resources being overwhelming rather than scarce, avoiding snakes, telling the good berries from the poisonous ones, keeping away from the quicksand, and finding a way out of the undergrowth are the “skills” we as teachers and librarians need to help our students rapidly acquire.
The challenge has been that this change from desert guide to jungle guide has been so rapid that many educators have not had time to learn the skills of Information Jungle guide. I don’t remember being taught anything about Boolean logic, advanced search pages, or meta-searches in my B.C. (Before Computers) library school classes. Yahoo was a just a term of endearment for seventh graders, the library catalog was still a bunch of wooden boxes, and the arrangement of most reference sources could be mastered by quietly humming the alphabet song. I was trained to use walking stick and map not a machete and GPS!
Every aspect of doing research has been impacted by the Information Jungle closing around us. Not only do today’s learners need new search skills, but they also need to be able to:
- Carefully articulate the problem to be solved or question answered.
- Effectively evaluate the reliability of information found.
- Use the research findings to develop original solutions to problems of personal relevance.
- Use information technologies to communicate the findings of problem-based activities.
- Develop assessment tools that help improve their information searching, evaluating and communicating skills and allow for reflection.
- Develop a love of researching, reading, problem-solving and learning.
Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Joycie Valenza has put this book together. Not only is she about the sharpest tracker in the Information Jungle herself, but she’s found the other real experts that know their way through this techno-maze. They are writing to teach us their methods, so we in turn can teach them to our students and teachers. H. Rider Haggard, himself, could not have created a group of more intrepid explorers. Sheena – I mean, Joyce – thanks for doing this for all of us who not only have to preach life-long learning, but practice it as well.
Information problem-solving skills are the most critical any school can teach its students. Savvy citizens will be using them throughout their lives. And the information necessary to intelligently select a community in which to live, a political candidate for whom to vote, a lawnmower to purchase, or a business proposal to accept will increasingly be harvested online.
Don your pith helmets, folks. Let’s plunge into the Information Jungle’s dangers and delights!