It’s time for a thorough revamping of the purpose of inviting students to engage in inquiry as a civic practice. Educators, including librarians who teach, will need to confront and clarify their own beliefs and assumptions about how they know what is real and what isn’t. It will take work. But there are some promising places to start.
First, taking a leaf from an organization formed to advise journalists on how to cover a divisive election, educators should consider ways to frame discussions of knowledge through the lens of democracy rather than through partisan political positions. This means being willing to take a strong stand on behalf of ethical research practices, the voices of qualified experts, and the value of information systems that judiciously vet and validate information, along with a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.
Second, educators must be explicit about the ethical frameworks and daily practices of truth-seeking institutions such as science, scholarship, and journalism. Social-media platforms enact values that are firmly grounded in beliefs about individualism, capitalism, and consumerism. Educators must make clear how those values differ from the pursuit of truth through other means. Be humble about failures, but avoid allowing cynics to blur distinctions between the values and training of scientists, scholars, and journalists and the values of social-media corporations, television personalities, and internet influencers.
Third, as Mister Rogers famously said, “look for the helpers.” People in educators’ circles have a deep knowledge of intersecting information systems, or at least of parts of them. Scholars have been studying these systems and documenting their findings for years. Journalists too. There’s no need to research them yourself. Find the experts and develop communities to share ideas about teaching practices.
Fourth, the kids are all right. While they may not have much academic knowledge, and their technical understanding may be limited, among students in any given class there is likely to be a lot of knowledge about how information circulates through social media. Some students may have significant experience in measuring the reach of their own media messages. Connecting what they’re learning in class to their lived experience online may encourage students to share what they know and are learning about information systems with their friends and family beyond academia. Indeed, in focus groups conducted by Project Information Literacy in 2019, college students expressed concern about whether the younger people and elders in their life understood how social-media platforms work and how to recognize disinformation.
Today’s students should be provided opportunities to learn from one another, to not only share knowledge but compare their experiences with different information systems and knowledge traditions as educators explain their own disciplinary practices, articulating and arguing for the values that undergird them. For example, students could be asked to describe their own practices online, their personal “code of ethics” as they navigate their social networks, and discuss those in comparison with codes of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association, or other disciplinary or professional societies.