Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Challenging Information Literacies for a Democratic Society #i3rgu

I’m liveblogging from the i3 conference held this week at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland. The three "i"s are: Information: Interactions and Impact, and I think I've been to all of the i3 conferences, which take place every two years. The conference was opened by Peter Reid (RGU) the conference chair.
The first keynote was Olof Sundin (Lund University, Sweden) on Challenging Information Literacies for a Democratic Society. This is a long liveblog, reflecting his rich presentation, but remember this is a liveblog with my impressions captured in the moment!
He started by talking about his background and interests, for example his cultural science focus. He posed the question: How can IL research make a difference and how can it provide some answers to the big issues that contemporary society is facing. This is indeed a big question and flags up that researchers should not be afraid of these major issues, and should be prepared to be challenging and be challenged.
He went on to talk about how social, technical, and economic changes are affecting how we evaluate and perceive information. For example there are challenges to the authority of what libraries hold and what teachers say. Thus "The questions we (IL researchers) ask couldn't be more important": however information literacy researchers seem to have problems reaching outside our own field.
Sundin charted how he had reached his current position. He sees himself as someone who researches from a socio-cultural perspective: he has "an interest in new orders of knowledge that follow with the digitisation of information" - and how these reconfigure practices with information. Information literacy, for him, gives him a purpose beyond information seeking. He noted that the amount of (competing) subfields in information research could be unhelpful. More specifically, Sundin mentioned his research had been investigating "IL and source criticism in school settings" and, following on from that, looking at the construction of knowledge in particular involving key encyclopeadia sources such as Wikipedia. His third theme is trust and the role of searching, with the huge growth of use of search engines.
Sundin moved on to reflect on the nature of IL research. He mentioned the "IL bashing genre" ie that many authors have identified weaknesses in IL and IL research. Elements that have been criticised include the weakness of theory, the fragmentation of the field, and lack of funded research. He felt that we needed to pay more attention to linking and poisitioning our research field in relation to policy and related research areas (e.g. investigating different literacies, such as media literacy).
However, Sundin also identified strengths for IL research. This included: "indepth empirical understanding" of some contexts e.g. IL in formal education. There was also a broader focus for research (e.g. workplace IL). He also felt that there had been theoretical and methodological development, for example with a wide range of methods used to explore research problems. Lastly he saw a high societal relevance of IL.
Sundin felt that there were three levels of IL: institutional (as a kind of label, to indicate a particular subject area); at an empirical level (with different strands ofresearch); and at a theoretical level. Sundin emphasised that all three levels were valid; once should not dismiss the first two levels and focus only on theory (or lack of it).
Sundin turned again to his own research, and made links with new literacies research and socio-cultural approaches, amongst others. He quoted Christine Bruce (1997) in identifying that the "technologies of literacies" now had to be examined as part of literacies. This did not mean only focusing on technology, but having to include technology practices when attending to information practice.
Following on from this, Google is an "obligatory passage point" (quote from Mager, 2009) for many people today. He then quoted Van Dijck (2010) who talked about knowledge being coproduced with search engines, because we interact with them through the "black box" of their search algorithms and ranking systems. These search engines will be (so to be speak) making decisions about what is presented to us as a result of a search, in a way that is hidden to us.
It is this aspect that has made the act of searching more interesting to Sundin "a practice that defines our times" with the "searchification of everyday life". Increasingly, search has a limited number of starting points, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. He mentioned how encyclopaedia searches start out often as Google searches (I remember there are research articles with evidence on this, people google and then find teh link to Wikipedia). This also de-contextualises the information (whereever it was published, it ends up being part of a hit list).
As the complement to "search-ification" Sundin also presented the "Everyday-ification of search" as for many people searching (e.g. via mobile) have become incorporated in to the "background places and spaces" of people's lives. Therefore they accept search engine results, possibly without criticism.
Sundin went on to talk about his current research work: Knowledege in a digital world: trust, credibility and relevance on the web. 128 people have participated in 21 gocus groups. They were asked about the role of search engines in their lives. Google was always present: mobile has been key in this "once you have it [smartphone] you can't live without it" said one participant. Search was seen as going on all the time, unless you physically couldn't access the internet. This leads to (unconscious) trust in the search engines to present the right information.
Sundin felt this meant we were "Outsourcing critical evaluation of sources to the principles of Google", and he referenced other scholars when presenting his argument that this meant we were seeing more decontextualised information, leading to more fragmented understanding. This comes round again to "Google as an obligatory passage point" - but whilst Google knows a lot about us, we don't know enough about Google and how it works.
Finally Sundin referenced a forthcoming article (by him) which analysed the Swedish curriculum documents for evidence of topics concerning information literacy and searching. He identified that the curriculum requires critical abilities in evaluating sources, but the process of searching was seen a skill to acquire, rather than something that also had to be engaged with critically. For Sundin, searching could no longer be seen as a neutral infrastructure, and the sources and searching both had to be seen critically. Part of the role of the information literacy researcher can be to open up the black box of the search engine and study it in its socio-cultural context.

Sundin closed by saying that he did information literacy research to contribute to a democratic society. "A standpoint we should not be afraid of taking". We should seek legitimacy in the professional, policy, national research and international arenas. He urged us to identify important research questions in our field, and make connections with scholars in related fields, being assertive about the contribution that information literacy researchers can make. "Let's be bold, let's be complicated and don't be afraid of taking a stand".
Photo by Sheila Webber: through a window at Dunnottar Castle, Stonehaven, Scotland, June 2015

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