Critical literacy and churnalism

market 1

market 1 (Photo credit: tim caynes)

Anybody who’s interested in starting an online business could not but notice the interest in internet marketing – specifically through the so-called ‘social media’ (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn and the like).  Yes, we all know that in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream – but can they hear you market?  Interesting conundrum.

What I find amusing, in my wry and cynical way, is the huge emphasis on ‘content marketing’, and this is, I believe, of direct interest to information professionals.  Do a Google search for ‘content marketing’ and be prepared to be astonished – not so much by the number of hits you get, as the enormous range of differing opinions of what people think it is.  The most popular use of the term seems to suggest that it is little more than the fluff surrounding product promotion.  For example, if your product is dog shampoo, you will write anything at all about dogs, and keeping them clean and flea- and mud-free.  Never mind that the content is trivial, repetitive, and extremely badly written, as long as it scores on the Google hit charts and that people are directed to your site.  And buy your dog shampoo.

Now, as has been extensively discussed on this blog previously, ‘content’ – i.e. the stuff contained in a document such as a web page or book or film or vinyl record – is what I call ‘information’: the idea somebody has had, expressed and recorded in shared symbolic codes (language, writing, music, mathematics).  Extending this, it would appear that the newest trend in the digital world – in particular, the commercial part of it (and sometimes it’s hard to know what isn’t commercial) – is marketing ideas.

Yawn.  So what else is new?  Information professionals – and educators of all stripes – have been ‘marketing’ ideas for a long time.  Indeed, they do more than that: they select, arrange, organise, curate, store, protect and make available ideas, from any source.  Why? Not to sell ‘products’ as such, but to enable people to better understand their lives and the context in which they live: specifically, perhaps, to help them make better decisions by developing critical thinking skills and so sorting out the wheat from the chaff.  As previously mentioned, information professionals have a social responsibility and thus, it should follow, do not have ulterior motives.

‘Content marketing’ as it is practised seeks to achieve something quite different: manipulation.  From syndicated (and biased) news reports repeated endlessly no matter which newspaper you read (so it seems, anyway), to badly written ebooks written by people deficient in intelligence, erudition, maturity, insight and grammatical skills, to billions of blogs, probably written by the same people.  And they all repeat each other.  In fact, there is even software which will ‘rewrite’ the same thing in many different ways so that the same ‘content’ (I hesitate to call it ‘information’ because it may not even contain an idea) can be published many times.  You can also get – and for free, quite often – a collection of ready-written blog articles to suit whatever it is that you wish to publicise – home-schooling, gluten-free recipes, sportscars, adventure holidays – you name it, someone has supplied a load of bumpf for you to re-use.  I visited some freelance sites a while ago, and found that the majority of bidders for jobs requiring writing and editing skills for English content did not have English as their home language and/or couldn’t write their application without glaring grammatical errors.  No wonder so much stuff published on the internet is virtually unreadable.

So much for the ‘information explosion’.  Most comments on this issue focus on one of two phenomena: the huge increase in scientific and scholarly publications, or the easily accessible media now available – including, of course, the internet, as well as the traditional magazines, radio, television and newspapers.  While the vast amount of scholarly information now available does stretch the resources and imaginations of information professionals, the general public seldom has interest in or direct access to such information.  So many of us turn to Google, and are satisfied with whatever answer we find that seems vaguely relevant amongst the first 10 or so hits.  But the biggest ‘information’ explosion has come from every Joe Blow now thinking he knows something worth sharing.  Or even, knowing that they have nothing of interest to share, but sharing it anyway.  This disease appears to be contagious, gathering up common citizens, students, retirees, the unemployed, as well as people who should know better, such as journalists.  In the frenzy of making their digital mark, an awful lot is being badly said about nothing at all.  And this is what will, in all probability, appear in those first 10 hits.

This presents a real challenge to information professionals.  Critical thinking skills are seriously in decline, and many individuals seem to be unable to distinguish between ‘content’ that is being marketed, and reliable ‘information’. Citizens of the world, most of whom are able to vote, are being sucked into a vortex of ignorance and stupidity – in this, the ‘Information Age’.  If this continues, the meaning of ‘cultural memory institutions’ will evaporate, as their contents will simply not be understood, or worse, regarded as irrelevant to daily life.  All of those ideas which our forebears had, and recorded, that have shaped how we live today, will be invisible, as good as useless.

It’s not just ‘access’ that we should be concerned with – that”s easy enough, and becoming easier as information objects (‘documents’) are being digitised and networked.  And it’s  ‘reading’ either.  We shouldn’t be asking what people read.  We should try to understand  what our users understand and learn from what they read, and become teachers of critical literacy.

 

Prediction. Parts 1 and 2. And more to come.

Alhambra, Granada

Image by james.gordon6108 via Flickr

 

Now that we’ve passed the middle of 2011, I feel confident enough to suggest some of the things that I think we will have to think about in the near future.  I did once acquire a crystal ball, but it didn’t work: I therefore offer no predictions, but rather some thoughts on what seems to be going on at the moment, focussing on the possible effects on the information management professions.  I will mention some of these each day for the next couple of days.  Please do not hesitate to comment, as well as to add issues and phenomena that are important in your field of endeavour.

1. Multifunctionality and convergence

We have seen, for more than a decade, increased multifunctionality of information and communication technologies (ICTs).  The phone is now a camera, voice recorder, workout monitor, letter writer, internet accesser, aide de memoire and map finder, as well as other things.  This is a continuation of the development of computers, which were soon used for a lot more than just arithmetic and calculation.  The social media and search engines are moving in the same way: FaceBook does email, Bing integrates FaceBook data, FaceBook can also be used to become a member of various blogs and webistes of interest.  Google appears to positioning itself to run the Googleverse, as it develops its own versions of popular software – such as email and wordprocessing and social networking – as well as interesting additions such as Skype, blogging, Flickr and, of course, the library: Google books.  And then there’s Google Scribe, which anticipates what you are going to write; Google Body, which allows you to peel back, layer by layer, the human body; and Google Goggles, which enables you to search Google using pictures from your smartphone.

I posited previously (2002) that converging technologies have led to increasing convergence between the information professions: will this continue?  I believe that this would be desirable, but whether it is practicable and attainable is, of course, a different matter.  The arguments for increased convergence – or at least collaboration and multidisciplinary interaction – include a stronger public presence and perhaps more political clout (within organisations and communities); sharing of solutions to problems which have perhaps been located within particular disciplines/professions, but which are experience by all; recognition of the similarities, rather than the differences, of the challenges that face the information professionals.  Some of the more complex issues that must be dealt with include the retention of professional profiles, as each discipline/profession has unique characteristics and different contributions to make; the plethora of professional associations, all of which require membership fees and produce newsletters and journals that must be read; and lastly, the overwhelming number of subdivisions that can be identified in this enormous field.  Too much ‘multifunctionality’ can be diffuse – Jack of all trades, master of none.  But such demands are presently made on us: just consider the number of different tasks that must be executed in the role you currently occupy.

2. Social networking and user-generated content

The appearance and ongoing development of Web 2.0 appears to have no end.  In the analogue world, because of the relatively tedious ways in which documents were created and distributed, more control was possible, perhaps because of necessity.  Documents were not created or published unless it was necessary for whatever reason.  Publishing procedures were closely linked to bibliographic control systems: ISSNs, ISBNs, in book cataloguing information, edition statements and so forth formed part of a vast mechanism.  But even before the 1980s, people complained about information overload.  Then the internet appeared, and information professionals groaned: how on earth were we going to manage this flood of documents?  It appeared that every Tina, Dorothy and Helen could publish whatever they liked.  We didn’t even know what was out there, never mind trying to keep up with classification and cataloguing.  And then Web 2.0 happened, with amazing social possibilities.  The hallmark of this version of the internet is user creation and interaction.  Barthes mentioned the ‘death of the author’, in the sense that each reader will recreate an author’s text, an idea explored also, in some detail, by Umberto Eco in his ‘The open workThe death of the Author, with a capital A, has another interpretation now: the Author does not have to condoned, approved, validated, lionised or even recognisable to be able to publish as much as s/he wants to.

Part of the problem for the reader is being able to contextualise the author, in order to draw meaning and fully understand the ideas that are being conveyed.  The Author is no longer automatically an ‘authority’ (“I read it in a book so it must be true”): far more sophisticated skills are required in order to select, understand, analyse and critique the information with which we are now overwhelmed.  This is sometimes called ‘critical information literacy’ which is quite different from the ‘information literacy’ that librarians used to know and love.  In fact, it might almost be called ‘critical media literacy’ or, the term I currently prefer, ‘Critical Digital Literacies’.  All the technology in China – and the rest of the world – will not help us one jot if the general population does not develop these skills.  I believe that we, as guardians of memory and cultural heritage, are the very people to undertake this.

Increasing epublishing and ereading means, at the very least, familiarisation with the tools that are required is necessary.  Does this mean the end of publishers?  How does it change the publishing cycle?  There have already been huge shifts in educational resources and scholarly communication patterns (more on this at another time); Open Access and Open Source are widely used and increasingly popular.  This will have, perhaps, the greatest impact on poor countries – but what will the nature and consequences of this be?

Consider the rise of civilian journalism.  I grew up in an environment in which it was natural to doubt every word on the radio or in the newspapers on current events; we needed to understand that we were being fed half news or even no news at all.  Sadly, in environments were ‘free speech’ is protected by law, too many accept that what news is being reported, and what comments are made on it, is both important and authentic.  The ways in which journalism (‘churnalism’ is a new aspect of this – see www.churnalism.com) and the media operate is accepted as part of the transparent background.  Civilian journalism empowers ordinary people to report directly on what is happening: this, enhanced by Twitter and Facebook, provide different interpretations and views.  It can be said, therefore, that in this regard, the internet is like Foucault’s Bibliotheque Fantastique: a place where we go to discover ideas and to have them challenged.  The new heroes are, if you like, at the bottom of the pyramid, in terms of sheer number, at least.

The other aspect of this is that printed newspapers are likely to shift to online only.  An advantage of this for individuals is that they can use push technologies – news aggregators such as RSS feeds – to deliver only the bits they want to know about.  And then there was Twitter – and now, for those with iPad tablets, FlipBoard, which allows you, effectively, to create your own magazine.

As information professionals, what are we going to do about this?  How will we manage and encourage access to all these ideas?   A Sisyphean task, seemingly.  How can our knowledge and skills be used?  How can we access and use user commentaries and annotations?  At the same time, we must ask, “Who is NOT using the internet?  Who is NOT publishing their ideas?”  This group may include anyone from serious scholars to the illiterate and disadvantaged: whose voices need to be heard?  Should we have any involvement with this – knowledge creation and distribution?

The rise of secret gardens, or, the Splinterweb.  Social networking is all well and good, but perhaps the hysteria is now over: do we all want everybody to know our every move, our ever mundane and trivial thought?  And let’s not mention the time it takes to pursue this triviality.  It seems that people are becoming more selective, perhaps more discreet and attempting to use their internet space and time more meaningfully.  This would suggest not only targeted audiences, but a judicious and discriminating approach to who can see what.  There is little doubt that, with the emphasis on intellectual property (note for example the astronomical number of patents that are being applied for and approved), most knowledge creators/publishers wish to protect and preserve theirs.  So, while a considerable portion of the internet will remain public and open, increasingly we are likely to see inaccessible areas.  Costs will be involved, flying in the face of the open access movment.

 

What information people have to do with learning

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

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As you may have noticed (or not, as the case may be), I haven’t written here for a while.  I’ve been meeting a publishing deadline for a new book, which has been an exciting project (for me, anyway).  This is a bit of a draft chapter on scoping out the role of education.  I am writing about how best to educate information professionals for the digital age: the whole question of tertiary education is, at the moment, quite fraught anyway, as any of you so involved may be aware.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this.  Here beginneth the text for today:

Teaching and learning

As humans, we are engaged in teaching and learning from birth to death.  We learn from living – from every experience we have – and no experience is ever wasted.  Learning processes are affected by sensory input, physical sensations of energy, fatigue, pain, emotions, spiritual insights, and flashes of creativity.  Knowledge is created from individual experience and vicariously, from the experiences of others, which are shared in a multitude of ways: directly in face-to-face conversations, through reading what others have written or recorded (in books or email, where communication is asynchronous) or through the mediation of technologies such as television or radio, or chatrooms, which may be synchronous.  For centuries, a distinction has been made between such everyday learning, and ‘formal’ learning which takes place at certain times and venues, where there are clear and different roles for teacher and learner.  The teacher is ‘somebody who knows’, and the learner is the person who lacks knowledge.  (The learner, like the information user, is constructed in a deficiency model).  The role of the teacher is multifaceted: s/he must socialise learners, training them to work respectfully with others, as well as conveying content and instilling in them the ability and the skill to learn how to learn.

 

With regard to students in a first professional degree in information work in the 21st century, however, the model of a teacher in front of a classroom of children is not the best one that can be emulated.  All information students, whether undergraduate or postgraduate, are adults.  They live in a highly networked, digital information environment, one in which globalisation is present in many spheres, as are many problems – poverty and climate change amongst them.  These students, as adults, already have a considerable amount of knowledge, gained formally and informally.  The leitmotif of contemporary discourse is postmodernism, which places an emphasis and responsibility on individuals to attempt to make sense of the world we live in (a task in which information workers can assist).  It stands to reason, therefore, that the ways in which the discipline/profession is taught is at least as important as what is taught.

 

There are a number of components that will affect knowledge creation or the learning process.  These include the personality, competencies and interests of the individual (and the teacher), as well as previous experiences and his/her cultural context, the space in which the exercise takes place, the complexity of the content, the time available, as well as many other factors.  The teaching and assessment methods employed are usually predicated upon the epistemological approach to the content as well as to learning theory.  Apart from content, the educational programme needs to be built on an intellectual framework or structure for the discipline/profession, to demonstrate clarity regarding its goals and responsibilities, and to provide clarity on the chief concepts within the theoretical framework.  In addition, teaching techniques should encourage the development of the skills mentioned previously – such as working in teams, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, creativity and the like.  Assessment and evaluation should also be aligned with the teaching philosophy.

 

In this chapter, then, there is a brief review of framing epistemologies that are considered suitable for education for digital librarians, and the three predominant models of teaching/learning that are most common.  The argument is made that a constructivist methodology supporting the heutagogical model (which resonates with critical pedagogy) is probably the most suitable, and can be used for the design of course experience and student assessment and evaluation.  While there is a healthy body of literature on teaching and learning, educational theory and adult learning, in particular, no attempt is made here to summarise or critique it.

Use of ICTs in education

It is not original to note that the use of ICTs has already changed formal and informal education, but their use is still embryonic, and a great deal of research is being currently undertaken with regard to online learning, also known as elearning or Web 2.0 education.  Specifically, these terms designate a physical distance between the teacher, the documents referred to and the students – and between the students as well.  Networking enables conversation, remote access to documents and creation and distribution of other documents.  Elearning exploits audio-visual media as well as text, synchronous and asynchronous communication, and the mediating technologies can be mobile, such as smartphones and tablets.  This has given rise to renewed emphasis on making educational resources ‘open’, that is, freely available on the internet, and one of the first universities to do this was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2002, with its OpenCourseWare project (see, for example, the portal at InfoCoBuild [online] http://www.infocobuild.com/education/education.html).  Alongside these developments, there has been increasing interest in the idea of open access materials in publishing generally, with a focus on educational resources, currently spearheaded by Wayne Mackintosh of Otago Polytechnic, New Zealand with the Open Education Resource (OER) Foundation ([Online] http://wikieducator.org/OERF:Home) and the WikiEducator ([online] http://wikieducator.org/Main_Page).  This counteracts to a certain extent the extraordinary rise in for-profit online education, to which Daniel (2011) refers, and which points to the increasing commodification and commercialisation of higher education, in particular.  The OER venture, if successful, will also go some way to assist in providing access to quality tertiary education and research in Majority World countries.

 

Amongst all the technological changes, perhaps the most noteworthy characteristic is the relatively easy and cheap access to information resources, which has blurred the distinctions between who has knowledge, who shares knowledge, and the ways in which individuals create their own knowledges.  There is little point in memorising a great deal if access is so easy (Berg, Berquam and Christoph, 2007).  University students form only a section of internet users who can all control online content delivery, create information to share with others (via blogs, wikis, FaceBook notes, websites and mashups) and create knowledge themselves (e.g. Klamma, Cao and Spaniol, 2004; Lenhart and Madden, 2005).  Commenting, communicating, contributing and collaborating are activities that students – and many others – engage with every day.  Furthermore, education is only one area in which rapid change is taking place, and a major challenge facing higher education now is preparing students for a different future.  Mobility, flexibility, lifelong learning and job-readiness must all be considered, to encourage the development of people who can cope with uncertainty and change.

Social responsibilities of higher education

It comes as no surprise that under present circumstances, institutions of higher education are increasingly called upon to recognise their social responsibilities, even, and perhaps especially, while there is an ongoing trend towards the corporatisation of the university.  In 1997, Saul, in his book Unconscious civilisation, suggested that the population at large prefers to believe in a fantasy world created and perpetuated by a corporatist ideology, rather than addressing the many issues raised by economic rationalism.  He believes that, in spite of increased access to knowledge and education, the struggle for individual freedom and democracy is being lost while we succumb to “the darker side within us and within our society” (Saul, 1997, p. 36), characterised by greed and selfishness.  In 2009, a UNESCO Conference on Higher Education accentuated the contribution that higher education makes to the eradication of poverty and progress towards sustainable development goals.  Higher education institutions should both respond to and anticipate societal needs.  Universities must, UNESCO asserts,

 

advance our understanding of multifaceted issues, which involve social, economic, scientific and cultural dimensions and our ability to respond to them.  [Higher education] should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges… Higher education must not only give solid skills for the present and future world but must also contribute to the education of ethical citizens committed to the construction of peace, the defense of human rights and the values of democracy (UNESCO, 2009, pp. 2-3).

 

Even while there is talk of a ‘knowledge economy’ and a ‘learning society’, the means must be found to realise the anticipated positive outcomes, and this highlights the role that digital librarians can play.  Hutchins (1970) was an early proponent of the idea of the ‘learning’ society, after considering the model of classical Athens.  At that time in Athens, he noted, education was not separated from the rest of daily activities but becoming educated was a societal aim: society educated the individual.  “The Athenian was educated by culture” (Hutchins, 1970, p. 133) facilitated by slavery, which freed citizens from the more mundane chores of life.  Hutchins believed that modern machinery – and now ICTs – have taken the place of slaves and can likewise permit this in contemporary life:

 

The two essential facts are… the increasing proportion of free time and the rapidity of change.  The latter requires continuous education; the former makes it possible (Hutchins, 1970, p. 130).

 

Schön, whose work has been referred to previously in connection with professionalism, is considered by Ranson (1998, p. 2) to be “the great theorist of the learning society”.  Schön is another scholar who has noted the turbulence of the modern age and the loss of the ‘stable state’, which convinced people of the unchangeability or constancy of life, or at least the “belief that we can attain such a constancy” (Schon, 1973, p. 9).  Technology is disruptive, however, and has threatened the ‘stable state’, so even while a desire exists to remain the same, there is a continuous process of transformation which demands proficiency at learning (Schön, 1973, p. 26).

 

Schön was particularly concerned with ‘professional’ learning, and as demonstrated in his work The reflective practitioner (1983), he associated the problem firmly with the rise of what he calls ‘technical-rationality’.  ‘Technical rationality’ is described by Usher et al. (1997, p. 143) as “a positivist epistemology of practice… the dominant paradigm which has failed to resolve the dilemma of rigour versus relevance confronting professionals”.  Schön’s reaction to this was the development of the notions of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’, which respectively deal with considering what a person already knows and his/her attitudes towards a problem in order to understand it, and considering the phenomenon after the event (Schön, 1983, p. 68).  It is tempting to note the phronesis in Schön’s thinking.

Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

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Information is that part of an individual’s knowledge which s/he choses to share with certain other persons at certain times for certain reasons.  Information must be represented in language of some kind – and by ‘language’, I mean any form of symbol or code or gesture that enjoys a culturally derived meaning: there does not appear to be universally understood meaning that can be attached to any sound, gesture, image, colour or shape, as far as I am aware.  Information is best considered as a rather loose form of the concept of ‘ideas’.  A document, it has already been noted, can be considered as a container of information: that is, when information is recorded in order to overcome spatio-temporal constraints, it is recorded in a document.  The document, as a physicality, has its own particular characteristics.

‘Ideas’ are also perhaps culturally derived, or have cultural origins.  While, as individuals, we certainly enjoy individual personalities, capabilities and competencies, we also, fairly early on, start forming a knowledge framework, or scaffolding, onto which we can position other thoughts and ideas and insights and experiences, as they are encountered.  But while our individualism makes us selective, our individualism is, in turn, shaped by our context – our cultural context, specifically.  As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, ‘First we shape our tools (or houses) and then they shape us’ – we have a similar structurated relationship with knowledge, culture and ideas.  Eventually, what we know – our knowledge – is a product of our being and of our experiences – physical and cultural – of the world.

What is ‘culture’?  I will not attempt any definition of that word here, except perhaps to say that it does not necessarily mean the grand artefacts of high culture, nor the most popular of contemporary creative expression.  As T.S Eliot said, ‘Culture is the smell of cabbage soup’; slight sensations (like the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea) can give rise to great visions and deep understandings.

What does this have to do with digital libraries, archives and museums?  We do know that these are highly specialised and expensive projects.  We also know that the technology is still at a primitive stage, comparatively speaking, compared to where it might go: digital preservation is an area that, in particular, needs some significant development.  Because of these reasons, at least, digitisation efforts have, for the most part, been focused on digitisation of documents (used here to include any information-containing artefact) that  are perceived to have some cultural value.  In other words, these documents are considered to contain information which is considered to be important to transmit, to preserve, to communicate.

In making such decisions, however, are we not making choices which may change or even skew the understanding that future generations may have of the very ‘culture’ we are attempting to preserve and make available?  Do we run the risk of relaying or supporting only one particular view of what is important (however broadly that may be conceived)?  Archives tend to deal with those documents which provide evidence of business transactions – and which are considered worthy of conservation and preservation for possible later use (whatever that might be).  Museums will collect objects, sometimes defined by subject area (‘art’, ‘natural history’) determined to a certain extent by what is discovered or found, as well as what is unusual or scarce.  Libraries are known to be particularly selective in the documents that they collect and manage, depending on subject area and user community profile.

But what about all the other textures and flavours of everyday life?  What should we be doing about social media?  Should we continue to rely on Google to locate all the born-digital documents that are available less formally than those that are formally published and distributed?  Should we, could we, ignore more transient or ephemeral documents?  Where does ‘quality control’ begin and end?  Who will the digital ‘user’ be in years and generations to come?  Will focusing only on the past or present in a selective way make sense in the future?  How should we as information professionals be associated with open access materials?

Researchers And Social Media: Uptake Increases When Obvious Benefits Result « The Scholarly Kitchen

Forums and Minerals, the new Internet tools

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A very interesting study which, surprisingly, reports that we use the stuff that is useful, and don’t use what isn’t useful.

http://amplify.com/u/arvzi Collaboration between librarians and technologists continues to be necessary. http://amplify.com/u/brvzr

Logo used by Wikileaks

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http://amplify.com/u/arvz2 You’ve heard of WikiLeaks. Now, there’s UniLeaks. http://amplify.com/u/brvzc