A recent study from Stanford University cited that 82 percent of middle schoolers can’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored news” and a real news story. The authors of the study cited that students need to be better trained in information literacy and use better information seeking strategies to solve this problem. This is a reasonable strategy but runs into issues with implementation.
Teaching information literacy, the process of determining the quality and source of information, has been an emphasis of the American Association of School Librarians for decades. However, teaching of information literacy in school has declined as the number of librarians in schools has declined. The American Library Association has tracked a decline in the number of school librarians since 2005. Without school librarians, many students have little to no training in thinking critically about the resources they use. There is a slight silver lining to this as some youth who participate in large online communities that require quality information to support success do develop information literacy skills through their participation.
Some youth are able to determine quality information in their online interest spaces. They develop information literacy and information seeking skills while improving their participation in an interest. Those youth who participate in interactive online communities around an activity are exposed to situations where the development of information literacy skills is crucial for their success and progression in the activity. An example would be a video game like “World of Warcraft.”
World of Warcraft is a massive multiplayer online game. It accommodates a variety of play styles and allows the player to take their character to level 110. To do so not only takes most players a good deal of time but also takes a commitment to learning and information seeking. The player has to make a multitude of decisions about crafting their character and selecting quests and challenges that the player would like to undertake in order to level up.
In research conducted at the University of Wisconsin, the learning habits of youth in World of Warcraft were observed over a two-year period in an after-school lab. One study that was part of the lab focused on comparing the online reading comprehension skills of male youth, many of whom were struggling and disengaged with school, between finding information on a site about Tigers and finding information on a site about Murlocks, an enemy in World of Warcraft. What the study found was youth used the same type of searching and reading comprehension skills whether they were reading a school informational resource or a video game resource, and that the strategies they used were effective. Yet, when asked what do people with good online reading comprehension do, they oftentimes described an approach that did not match the approach they used.
In a study that I conducted, I looked at the information literacy practices of World of Warcraft at large and found that from the sample of in game chat and forum posts I gathered, the community has a high rate of self correction and, together, they use sophisticated methods of information evaluation and sharing. In the forums, 96 percent of the answers given were correct. Less than 1 percent of the answers provided to questions in the sample were incorrect and went uncorrected by the community. In the in-game chat, 41 percent of talk was players asking questions and 51 percent was other players answering the questions. Meaning that at least 92 percent of the talk was part of the information seeking process for players.
Another part of this study, which is detailed in an article, I talked to youth who played World of Warcraft about how they saw information resources that they used in World of Warcraft and school connected. What several of the youth reported was a feeling of symmetry between how resources they used for school and how resources they used for World of Warcraft were interconnected. They used the same approach to finding information in both settings. However, many said they had not thought about their approach to information literacy in World of Warcraft or school.
What these studies indicate is that some youth are developing skills that they can use to evaluate information and avoid misinformation. So, as part of this renewed interest in information literacy, a new approach should be taken. Information literacy should stop being taught in the isolation of a “school context” and start being information literacy and information searching in a broader context. Connecting information literacy instruction to interests that students already have gives them a real-world context in which to develop these essential skills, and help them from being drawn in by fake news and misinformation.
Banner image: Screenshot of World of Warcraft