What is research anyway?

It is frequently the experience of librarians that a request is made to engage with a class in the process of research, either for a specific inquiry or to learn about a new database, to explore a new searching skill or simply to gain some research tips and tricks. This is the perfect time to stop to consider what this idea of “research” is. Why would we bother teaching it when access to information seems to be easier now than it ever was? Is it a passing skill and are other priorities taking it’s place?

To understand what research is, why it is significant and how we can begin to build a deeper understanding of how to teach research, we need to consider how the idea of research fits into the broader framework of information literacy (IL). An article by Nancy M. Foasberg will help to frame this idea (paywall). Foasberg compares the the ACRL (the Association of College and Research Libraries) Information Literacy “Standards” with the newer “Framework” that recognises that information literacy is a social phenomenon and places students as participatory learners. This article exists behind a paywall although all the information about the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and Framework are available for comparison on their website. Foasberg takes a step back to examine the differences and overlaps between a positivist epistemology (p. 704) positioning research primarily as a process of information retrieval (ACRL IL Standards), toward a constructivist philosophy where “knowledge is constructed and reconstructed through social interactions” (p 702; ACRL IL Framework).

In essence, this is a shift from understanding information as something we “get” toward something we “share”.

Models familiar to us such as the Big 6 and the ACRL Information Literacy Standards position information as something that is external to the learner. Information literacy is therefore framed as the ability to seek out, possess and use information effectively. Research then becomes a list of skills in a sequence of tasks from determining an information need followed by access, evaluation, ethical use and finally, communication.

In contrast, a constructivist understanding positions “information literacy as a social practice” (p. 700). This does not diminish the importance of the skills outlined in the ACRL Standards but instead places them in a framework that acknowledges the complex information landscape that is the reality of the social world we participate in. Expanding our understanding of information literacy in this way positions research in a framework that “better recognizes the complexities of information and information behavior, and explicitly makes space for students as participants in the process of knowledge creation” (p. 700). As a participant, the learner has the agency to “critique the social and institutional hierarchies surrounding information production and distribution” (p. 703).

What is research?

Research is the facet of information literacy that is the iterative act of inquiry where students ask increasingly complex questions that lead to answers and more questions that generate expanding lines of inquiry (p. 701). Furthermore, research, only has meaning when it is understood in the context of a conceptual understanding of information literacy. As such, it cannot be separated from other skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, self-organisation, and social skills. The framework provides a broad context where learners explore concepts such as information authority, information value, creativity, scholarly discourse, and information formats & structures.

What can this look like in the classroom?

Fundamentally, as agents in their own learning, it is a process that looks different for every student as they become active participants in their individual information landscapes. Research is a social practice; a messy, dialogic practice (see a previous blog post from 2015).  We can describe research as taking action because it positions the learner as an active agent in constructing meaning while also understanding that these insights change over time with exposure to different communities. In 1970, Paulo Freire argued that non-dialogic education is a system of oppression that entrenches societal power imbalances. Research, then, is dialogue.

Research in the classroom is not simply about the “artifacts” of information – the databases, the sources, the formats, technical systems, the media, the library or the content. Focussing on the artifacts is a view that relegates information to be simply a commodity (p. 703). Emphasising the artifacts of information leads us to position the learner in a submissive role where they are only required “to interpret the knowledge that experts produce” in published texts (p. 704). However, the artifacts of information are not an endpoint for learners. Information is a flow that we step into, grapple with, participate in, act in and influence through our participation.

A student who understands that the authority of an information source is “constructed and contextual” is one who can then question, challenge and participate in the creation of understandings of authority. The learner then joins in the ongoing debate, respecting expertise but retaining a skeptical stance that sets the stage for an ongoing evolution of understanding and meaning. This is in stark contrast to presenting authoritative sources as a static understanding that is to be learnt and revered but not questioned.

The information literate student is not merely one who can display the skills of information retrieval, use and communication but one who is in the process of actively developing their level of expertise in participation. An information literate person holds knowledge loosely with the understanding that authority, value, research and strategy change over time and across different contexts. An information literate person is one who participates in the dialogue of communities contributing actively to the evolution of information.

This does complicate the teaching of research skills and information literacy but, as I have argued previously (#complexsystems), individually we are complex systems that exist within a wide range of complex social systems. To approach complex systems from a reductionist perspective significantly limits the deep learning that can occur and contradicts the realities of our existence (find a more detailed read about the complex situatedness of information here). All “information is embedded in a social context and cannot be understood outside of that context” (p. 713). This is not a standard that can be measured, but a framework, a disposition. This does not stop corporations from advertising that it can be tested with one standard assessment but the irony of corporatisation in this field is another discussion.

The outcome of this for students is that they become participants who can change the communities that they participate in and are positioned to reimagine new futures. This is research as action, research as inquiry and research as conversation.

Here are a few examples for the classroom

Example 1: “No school tomorrow”

A quick conversation starter with a class is to present the statement: there is “No school tomorrow”. It certainly gets attention and very quickly leads to a discussion about where I heard this information, who I heard it from, why that person said it, when I heard this information and in what form that information came in. It becomes quite clear that if I overheard a group of young students talking about it, then it is quite a different proposition than if I heard it from the head of school. Alternatively, if I tell them that I saw it on a poster last year on the last day before summer holidays or even last Friday, then it holds a very different meaning and significance. While it quickly becomes clear to students that there are no plans to cancel school tomorrow, it does generate a class discussion that in many ways should be the kind of discussion we have about any information. Such a discussion emphasises that dialogue should be central to how we discover and handle information. Such dialogue should also then inform how we communicate that information emphasising the need to accurately cite (formally or informally) our sources.

Example 2: Facebook, Google and Amazon

Why does research and information literacy matter? Three words – Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In an article titled, “The web began dying in 2014: Here’s how”, André Staltz says that what “has changed over the last 4 years is market share of traffic on the Web. It looks like nothing has changed, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic”. Furthermore, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all seeking to bypass the web to connect us via the internet and mediated by AI. Whether we believe this to be to our advantage or a threat to our freedom, there is no doubt that this should be a topic of discussion in the classroom. Who has the authority over information flows in our own lives? Is it our own research, critical analysis and dialogue or are we handing these decisions about the information we interact with over to corporations who buy and sell our data with minimal consideration for the ethics governing that market place? FB pulls billions of dollars based on the social construction of information, and it does this by providing a free service no-less. This socially constructed information has a monetary value of billions of dollars and wields unrivalled power and influence. Therefore, the dialogic nature of information is of profound significance challenging us to question how we are providing students with the opportunities to wrestle with these challenges now.

Example 3. Challenging Copyright

On page 712 of this article, Foasberg uses the example “that students may choose to question the highly restrictive, pro-corporate copyright laws that currently predominate most of the world”. While the ACRL Framework may stop short of  “critiquing copyright or calling for open access to scholarly materials, it does open up the possibility that both copyright and scholarly publishing can be challenged and perhaps changed. It hints that both the copyright system and the scholarly publication system are imperfect and temporary, encouraging students to make “deliberate and informed choices” about compliance or resistance to them. After all, students may one day be in a position to advocate for change to these systems”.

Further reading

#critlib on Twitter

HybridPedagogy is also a favourite hangout of mine for opinions and discussions about critical digital pedagogy.

Threshold Concepts & Information Literacy

Foasberg, N. M. “From Standards to Frameworks for IL: How the ACRL Framework Addresses Critiques of the Standards.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 15 no. 4, 2015, pp. 699-717. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/595062.

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