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THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS IDEA
What we need is cheap and abundant information
Through the internet gushes a torrent of information. How can students possibly absorb it?
We have asked several of our contributors to respond to a question in our occasional series of forums. This time the question is: What is the world's most dangerous idea? We expect that the answers will be quite controversial. Please add your comments.
In case you missed it, US President Barack Obama declared October 2009 to be “National Information Literacy Awareness Month.” The cynical may see this action as a sign that our leaders fear we are losing the battle against cheap information, and I agree. By cheap I mean that the internet has made huge amounts of information easily available: for example the free, collaboratively written Wikipedia measures up quite well against traditional expensive print encyclopedias. But much of the information that is available is cheap in terms of quality as well. The very abundance and ready availability of information undermine efforts by educators, librarians and others to develop good information literacy skills and habits.
The concept of information literacy is itself only a generation old, a child of the Information Age. The need to be able to find information and evaluate it is not new, but in former times there were fewer sources of information. Researching a topic mainly meant spending some time in the library. More importantly, what sources of information there were came with some assurance of authenticity, backed by the publisher's reputation. As new ways of storing, organizing, and distributing information arose, new skills were clearly needed not simply to use these new technologies, but to avoid being overwhelmed by them.
David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist and Unabomber survivor, almost two decades ago foresaw the coming flood of information as the internet opened to individuals, businesses, government agencies, and the like. Tapping into this flood has been likened to 'drinking from a fire hose,' and he envisioned a scheme for dealing with it. His proposal assumed that artificial intelligence would develop to the point where an army of robotic agents could filter, sort, and summarize information to create a manageable and usable flow for each user. The flood of information that he foresaw has indeed occurred, but unfortunately the artificial agents to filter it have not yet appeared, except in very rudimentary forms. Individuals are on their own when trying to drink from the fire hose. To switch metaphors, the information superhighway has been built, but many users are driving on it with a horse and buggy.
Is information literacy a lost cause? Some studies suggest that today's young people are savvier about online information than we may think. For instance, a recent survey by Project Information Literacy (projectinfolit.org) found that college undergraduates generally do recognize that Wikipedia is a good place to start their research on an unfamiliar topic, but not a good place to end it.
However, my own experience in the classroom, similar to anecdotal reports from other college professors, seems somewhat at odds with this survey's results. We find that students often are content to do their research with a Google search that turns up a few sources of dubious reliability, such as blogs or forum postings, or more reliable but still lightweight sources such as newspaper articles.
Seldom without specific prodding by instructors will students utilize the library's databases to find serious scholarly articles. Worse yet, some students show a failure to understand the difference between such materials and materials found on the web. Perhaps the surveyed students were saying what they felt they were expected to say, rather than what they really believe. Or p
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