Vol 25 | No 2 | Spring 17
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How the UCI Libraries Foster Critical Thinking, Complex Problem Solving and Information Literacy

ImageSadly, the national discourse during the last election proved that we live in an era of "fake news," in which "truth" and "truthiness" have taken on special meaning. It also demonstrated the extent to which we are increasingly isolated into like-minded groups. We do this intentionally at times, but technology also isolates us.

The term "filter bubble" refers to a phenomenon that occurs while using many common websites, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and The New York Times, among others. Those web sites use algorithms (mathematical equations) to tailor search results to us as individuals based on our search history and our personal information. This is often convenient, but it also shuts us off from apposing points of view, and limits our range of experience and understanding.

As academic librarians, we spend a good deal of our time teaching UCI students and community patrons to think critically about information and helping them participate in complex problem solving. We want students and other patrons to engage with a wide variety of information sources, including those that suggest new or divergent ways of thinking. We point students to reliable information and to material in scholarly databases and in our print and online collections. We provide a wealth of knowledge and endeavor to guide students to in-depth research practices and the judicious, responsible, use of information resources.

We teach more than 700 classes each year on information literacy, and meet more than 17,000 individual students through these classes. We also reach countless students and community members through our online, phone and face-to-face reference services.

It is our job to teach students to apply critical thinking in this world of exploding information from articles to tweets. We watch students struggle with the challenges of discovering, internalizing, evaluating and applying credible information. Making sense of information is hard, maybe even more so today, because it is so easy to publish false information, and it is so difficult to distinguish between credible and untrustworthy sources. In today's information age, student have to be able to define their information need, access and interpret the information sources, and use those sources to communicate a summary or argument on a problem, hypothesis or issue. They have to become familiar with sources (Who wrote and published the source?), to understand sources (What are the author's frames of reference and intentions? Are the authors' biases clear? Are the conclusions reasonable, given the data?) and to analyze sources (What kind of research or data are employed? Are they current, and reliable?).

The world of information seemed a lot simpler when many of us were students! Some of us even remember using card catalogs. A few decades ago, students might have been asked to distinguish between an article in a scholarly (peer reviewed) publication and an article in a popular magazine such as Newsweek. A librarian might have explained that while the popular magazine was good for background information, it was not necessarily written by disciplinary experts, and it wouldn't have be subject to rigorous review. Consequently, while it might be used for pleasure or informational reading, it should not take a central role in students' research and writing.

That message is important today, but research has become both easier and more difficult. Tools like Google can be very useful, but they sometimes return hundreds of millions of hits after searching just one keyword. Too much information isn't always a great thing!

The UC System invests millions of dollars in scholarly databases so that our patrons have free access to scholarly information that has been carefully vetted and evaluated for authority and accuracy. Further, those databases offer options to quickly limit or expand searches to get the information a researcher needs.

Implementing information literacy and critical thinking is time-consuming and difficult. If we get it right, however, our students will have the tools for lifelong learning and lifelong critical reflection. The investment of our time, energy, and resources is certainly worth it.

For more information please contact Alison Regan, Assistant University Librarian for Public Services at aeregan@uci.edu or 949-824-9753.