There are a lot of reasons to increase one’s information literacy and as we age, it may become even more important that we review how to evaluate useful information from information meant to mislead. For some, we may also work with older populations and may want to consider how to help them improve their information processing skills. If you fall into either of these groups, then this is meant to help you make some improvements or refresh some skills that may have weakened a little over the years.
First, let’s start with a definition of information literacy. According to Webster’s Dictionary…just kidding, I won’t do that to you. However, it helps to start with a general idea about the topic here. The simplest way to describe it is as a group of techniques, approaches, and actions that we take when we are evaluating the reliability of the information we are encountering.
And if you’re still with me, you probably have some idea of how increasing one’s information literacy could be useful when reading more than just the news or trying to “do your own research” on some particularly controversial topic. So what are some things you can keep in mind if you are looking to expand or polish the mental tool kit that you rely on? Let’s start with some general frameworks to keep in mind, and then I’ll recommend some specific resources to explore.
While most of us believe we get our information from reliable sources, it is easy to forget that not all online contexts are the same. Consider which platforms you’re spending your time on and whether or not these contribute reliable, useful information to your life. If they don’t, it may be time to cut back in order to increase your information literacy, even if you do not think of these as “news” or “information” sources per se.
I recently read something that suggested you ask yourself, how many of the information sources I am reading are sources that want to make money off of me? Now I know what you’re thinking: um, all of them? But the question is still worth considering. Look at where this information is coming from and who might benefit from it being distributed to as many eyes as possible.
If you want to read more about the so-called “attention economy,” try this piece with seven books about the attention economy.
Consider it a Process
Sometimes we forget that gathering and evaluating information should be an iterative process. The best and most effective approach will be to consider it a practice. Instead of doing this only once or twice, try to repeat critical thinking strategies on the same topic or related topics in order to improve your abilities. And of course, there will be an added benefit of continuing to gather information about a topic or series of topics that hopefully are of interest and benefit to you.
For this, I like to repurpose some writing advice that I read years ago from Robert Boice’s Professors As Writers. To paraphrase some of what Boice wrote (which I acknowledge was for a very different set of issues, but which can be applied well to information literacy too): 1) start before you are ready, 2) be mindful as you practice, and 3) stop before you are finished. This is still some of the most difficult advice to apply to learning information, to writing, or even to living the harder parts of one’s life.
Specific Tools and Strategies
If you’re looking for a way to deal with news specifically, start with this guide on how to evaluate news sites. Kelly Jensen does an excellent job of taking you through how to assess a website. She uses clear examples and steps you will find helpful and relevant. Unfortunately, “fake news” is one of those gifts that just keeps on giving. I highly recommend giving this a good read and applying what you learn to what you see called “news” out there in the wilds of the internet.
If you’re looking for an approach to finding information about a complex topic like COVID-related research, try Jessica Pryde’s piece on how to do your own research. It gives you an introduction to some reliable ways to find information through your public library or (if you must) Google Scholar.
If you want a more academic approach, you can use this free Coursera course on basic information literacy to increase your information literacy. Led by librarians and a teaching expert from the State University of New York system, you can learn to identify your own information gaps, evaluate information for accuracy and reliability, and devise appropriate research strategies. There are also courses with LinkedIn Learning (called Information Literacy) and Future Learn’s Learning in the Network Age for under $50 each.
There are also some games you can try online. Most are aimed at students, but adults might also find them worth trying. The BBC has made one called BBC iReporter, or there is another called Harmony Square where you can play the role of media troll. Finally, try iCivics.org’s NewsFeed Defenders game for clear steps to evaluate the reliability of information found in social media, presented in an interactive way.
Honestly, sometimes I wish information literacy were a less relevant topic. For example, why are we making people “do their own research” on health topics that can be so absolutely life-altering? Why are we making basic care and information inaccessible to so many? SIGH. But you and I both know that this is the reality in so many places around the world. We have to keep moving forward and continuing to teach ourselves and others around us how to evaluate the information we must seek out on a regular basis.
If you find that this isn’t enough for you, check out these 10 books about bad information. Thanks to that list, I’ve added some new titles to my TBR and most likely you will too. And just in case you need an uplifting break, read 32 reasons I became a librarian and let it restore some of your faith in humanity.