Information: do we really know how to handle it?

Information: do we really know how to handle it?

It has become axiomatic to state that we live in an information society. Our relationship with information in all its guises – as learners, students, researchers, citizens, and also as employees, employers and entrepreneurs – governs much of what we do in our daily lives.

 

The methods that we deploy to search for, discover, access, sift, interpret, analyse, manage, preserve and retrieve information and data are major factors in how we go about our business and how we relate to the wider world. And yet, given the centrality and mind-boggling volume of available information, how confident are we that we really have the know-how, skills and confidence to get the most out of it – even after graduating from university? How good are we really at not drowning in the information deluge? And more pertinently, how does this matter to enterprise and to what it might expect from universities?

We are exposed to information from a very early age and as we progress through primary, secondary and higher education, we are taught to handle it in a way that is intended to equip us for our post-education existence, including our professional lives. But there are limits to what we are formally taught; mainstream curricula tend to address the issues haphazardly. The know-how that we pick up during our formative years is influenced by cultural factors and the practices of our peers, so we are prone to pick up some bad habits on the way. All too often, searching for information is equated with looking up the first page of Google results, sources are limited to Wikipedia, and web content of dubious quality or provenance is accepted uncritically. Even among skilled professionals such as academics, research data may be poorly managed in a way that makes it difficult to discover and re-use. The ways we use digital technologies, learned well before the age of ten, may all too easily disguise a worrying lack of sophistication regarding the handling and interpreting of the information enabled by these technologies.

Information literacy, often associated with digital literacy and media literacy, is the term used to describe empowering people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals – this is the definition set out by UNESCO, which takes a strong interest in these matters. With its slightly pejorative implications – who would be happy about being described as illiterate? – information literacy is not the happiest of expressions. In the UK at least, it is also not widely used or understood beyond the realms of information sciences and librarianship. The interest that librarians have in this area is unsurprising, and the expertise that they bring is most valuable. But the concepts that it relates to have such wide-ranging relevance that there is a strong case for engaging in a dialogue in this area that extends beyond the library community.

In particular, it is of interest to ascertain the extent to which the necessary skills, know-how and competences associated with information literacy are transferred beyond higher education into the world of employment; and how businesses, in all sectors and at different scales, recognise these information-related attributes as an asset and as an important component of staff development.

With a small grant from HEFCE, an informal network called the Research Information and Digital Literacies Coalition (RIDLs) is endeavouring to do just that. RIDLs was set up in 2012 as a vehicle for engineering a dialogue between librarians and other players in higher education (information scientists, pedagogists, graduate school leaders, research data managers, academic publishers…) and, on that basis, running small-scale projects. As part of its 2014 programme, RIDLs is looking to gather evidence on the perceptions of players including:

  • University careers advisory services, individually and/or through the intermediary of the Association of Graduate Career Advisory Services.
  • Learned and professional bodies, particularly with regards to the professional development services that they offer to their members. These organisations often straddle the realms of academia and practice, and can therefore be well-placed to understand how relevant skills and know-how might be transferred into professional environments.
  • Accreditation bodies.
  • Research funding organisations; the HE Funding Councils and Research Councils UK have a strong interest in employability of graduates and postgraduates.
  • A range of specialist bodies, such as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, the Quality Assurance Agency and, of course, NCUB.
  • Employers’ organisations, not least the CBI and the Institute of Directors; ideally, we would also like to tap into the views of selected individual businesses.

For all of these, we wish to develop an understanding of the place (if any) of information literacy in their policy, strategy and practice. We would like to find out whether and how information-related skills and know-how are relevant to organisational and business objectives and outputs, and how they might seek to nurture these attributes. And finally, we are keen to establish whether individuals emerging from higher education are deemed to be sufficiently information literate – and if not, what gaps need to be filled.

The NCUB community may be well placed to help answer such questions, and on behalf of RIDLs, I would very much welcome views, reactions and concerns – please do contact me at stephane.goldstein@researchinfonet.org ; and look out for more information on the RIDLs initiative at www.researchinfonet.org/infolit/ridls.

Stéphane Goldstein has worked as a manager in higher education and research funding, initially with the Medical Research Council and Research Councils UK, and since 2005 with the Research Information Network. He has managed numerous research projects over this period, and latterly has taken the lead in the building, development and running of the RIDLs coalition – the network for the promotion of information literacy in higher education. He has undertaken research and analysis in other areas, including research data management and data publication.

Photo credit: Les Taylor, on Flickr

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