One of my continuing topics of interest is why we need to teach information literacy. So I’m going to call this series of posts the “Need Feeds.” Need Feed #1 is based on a story I heard on NPR called “Using Psychology to Save You from Yourself,” by Alix Spiegel.
This story introduced me to the concept of “Behavioral Economics,” which looks at the way that people make economic decisions, and specifically, what policies have been enacted to help people make better decisions for themselves. Spiegel cited two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who study “… the ways the human mind systematically misjudges the world around it.” Spiegel says, paraphrasing Kahneman, “From stockbrokers to baseball scouts, people have a huge amount of confidence in their own judgment, even in the face of evidence that their judgment is wrong.”
One of the solutions suggested for the problem of why people do not choose in their own best interests is to enact policies that make it more convenient for folks to “do the right thing.” For example, economist Richard Thaler notes that if employers want people participate in a pension program, then they should automatically enroll them in the program and allow for an “opt-out” for those who do not want it. He states: “…it’s important to take account of the fact that people are easily overwhelmed by information and so are likely to simply opt for the status quo.”
This echoed how I’d been feeling about many students’ use of the Internet as a source. Loanne Snavely in her article, “Global Education Goals, Technology, and Information Literacy in Higher Education” writes, “It cannot be assumed that just because students feel a high degree of confidence in their information searching competence they are actually sophisticated information users. In fact, they are not (OCLC and De Rosa, 2006).
The “facts” Snavely is referring to come from an international survey of library users which shows that an overwhelming majority of users (84%) prefer a search engine to begin their search compared with other types of sources, including the online databases provided by libraries:
This is something which librarians and teachers encounter with every research project. Students would rather use the sources they can find by using search engines such as Google and AltaVista than to use the more authoritative information found in databases. Databases provide electronic access to information on several topics and in many forms: newspapers, magazines, scholarly journals, radio transcripts, audio, video, photographs, etc. When surveyed, people who have used online databases and the information found at library websites all agree that the information there is valuable. But most people still would not start there, choosing instead to use a search engine. Is this evidence to support the premise that people do not make decisions that are in their own interest?
Or, does this second set of survey results provide a clue:
Here we can see clearly what databases are good for, and where they are lacking. Users consider libraries to be trustworthy, credible, and accurate, but prefer search engines because they are are free (with Internet), available 24/7, fast and user-friendly. I know that database providers are constantly working on making the searching mechanisms easier to use. Public Libraries are working on the “free” part. What is missing?
Back to behavioral economics. The article suggested enacting policy to assist people in making good decisions. In the world of teaching, I equate this to requiring students to use certain types of sources and/or limiting the number of Internet sources they use. This is certainly something that I do. It forces them to use sources they wouldn’t normally use (because the are following the “status quo” of using search engines), and exposes them to information that, as we can see from the survey above, is of good quality. But this does not completely address this issue. I believe that another solution is necessary, and although it was beyond the scope of Spiegel’s story, I think the psychologists and economists she interviewed would agree. Educating people on the decisions they make is vital.
What makes databases able to yield good results is the way they are searched. The Internet does not have the kind of “backstage” structure to do the subject-related searches that a database can. The search engine can only look for keywords among the full-text of the page. Databases have a “thesaurus” in which a subject-matter expert (a live human) designates subject terms to go with each article (this is like “tagging” on the Internet, a method which links the information on the page with a subject term. The difference in a database is that it uses a “controlled vocabulary” which limits the terms used for more efficient searches). Tagging is making Internet searching more efficient, to be sure. But the way a database is searched is inherently different from a search engine, and you have to understand the “tricks of the trade” in order to get the most out of it. Searching a database as if it were a search engine is seldom successful. I know anecdotally that many students do not return to library databases because their first experiences with them are so frustrating that they cannot possibly consider using them to be of benefit. Understanding the difference will result in better searches and lessen this frustration. Teaching students to use a database successfully by gradually exposing them to the concept of search strategies is important.
It seems that we spend a lot of time trying to engineer a way to “force” students to make the right decisions. If we rely on the “policy” side of designing instruction, we can require them to do things that are in their best interest, but without their full understanding and participation. How do we engage their will and motivate them to want to use good sources? I think this is a discussion worth having.
Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources (2005). OCLC. 12 June 2009
Snavely, Loanne. “Global Educational Goals, Technology, and Information Literacy
in Higher Education.” New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2008.114
(2008): 35-46. Professional Development Collection. EBSCO. Friends School
of Baltimore. 12 June 2009 <http://search.ebscohost.com/>.
Spiegel, Alix, rept. All Things Considered. NPR. WAMU, Washington DC. 8 June
2009. Transcript. NPR. 29 June 2009 <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/