Reading: The University of Google

Completing a first year unit at university can be an overwhelming experience. Our first year of university builds our understanding of the history and foundations of our field, and introduces the contemporary discussions that are relevant today. Perhaps most important, our first year of university is when we begin our journey towards competence in information literacy.

A disclaimer: I wasn’t a great student when I completed my undergraduate degree. I graduated my bachelor’s degree with a credit average, mostly because I was only scraping passes in my first year and didn’t secure my first HD until my third year. I recognise now that my information literacy in that first year was near non-existent. I also disengaged from some of the more challenging readings that come about in first year studies in media and culture. I could blame a lecturer assigning Foucault in my very first subject as much as I like, but I also didn’t seek out what contemporary scholarship was saying about Foucault – because I didn’t know I could (or in fact, I should).

When it comes to first year units (and in my case, first year units delivered online), there are more and more students who are starting out just like me: I was blindly stumbling into university; I didn’t know where to start; and I was prone to disengaging with the assigned readings when I felt overwelmed.

The ‘online’ arm of the university I’m working for is, in my opinion, the best online delivery of university education that I’ve ever seen. I say this having completed both my BComn (PR) and MA (writing) online. But I also acknowledge that in this constantly evolving field, I came to this teaching role in a very different environment to when I completed my undergraduate studies. Examples of rapid change in online education are constantly being updated. The ability for online collaboration alone has just seen a massive leap forward because of the pandemic.

Still, great online infrastructure and design also requires teachers who are aware of the challenges that students face.

My goal as a teacher in a first year media/culture/screen studies unit is to help students understand how to deliver on the expectations of university study. You may be thinking ‘shouldn’t the goal be to teach them the syllabus’, and it absolutely is my goal. But ‘just’ delivering syllabus assumes that students arrive at university with an equal level of experience. Just delivering the syllabus assumes every student has the privilege of generations of university study and knowing what is expected of them – this is rarely the case.

University is self-directed. The learning materials, readings, lectures and tutorials are your starting point. It is then up to the student to follow the thread and seek out answers to the questions these raise.

A good first year essay uses the assigned readings, while a great first year essay seeks a range of sources, including peer-reviewed sources found through the vast digital library now available to every student.

And so, it’s time to talk about information literacy. The lack of which is not just a challenge for university students, but for society more broadly.

Since I started teaching four years ago, I have been constantly looking for new ways to both inform and inspire students about the importance of information literacy. Because even when a source is popular and holds the top Google ranking, that doesn’t mean its credible. Even peer reviewed journal articles will have questions raised and opposing positions published in journals to challenge the argument made. Arguments evolve and currency matters – arguing a position based solely on a 40 year old paper probably won’t hold up.

I would say I’ve had some success in building student interest in information literacy skills. However, I am swimming upstream against the current of the inflated value of personal opinion, ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories, and the ever increasing ease of publishing and disseminating anything we want in ways that appeal to existing biases.

In my ongoing search for ways to help students build information literacy skills, someone recommended I read The University of Google: education in the (post) information age, by Tara Brabazon. While The University of Google was originally published in 2007, which is perhaps a long time in the world of digital learning, the message feels as relevant today as it was then.

Early in the book, Brabazon raises a position, which mirrors where I think I am right now: “After surveying literacy theories for insight and assistance, I realized that there is a mismatch between my expectations of research and scholarship and what my students assume is university-level work.”

I’m still reading Brabazon’s book, so can’t draw any conclusions just yet. What reading the first section (of three) has shown is that there is a bigger conversation to be had.

What I’d love, is to find out what resources or approaches other teachers have found useful for scaffolding information literacy into their lessons.

What has worked for you when building information literacy skills for first year students?

What examples, analogies and interactive discussions have been effective to get first year students to consider the expectations of university study?

Reply with a comment if there’s are resources or ideas you think I should look into!

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