Report back from ‘Social media: re-conceptualising information literacy?’, an event hosted by the Information Literacy Group at Manchester Metropolitan University on 9th June 2011

This thought-provoking seminar was led by Prof Helen Partridge, from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Australia and visiting fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

I went to this event half-anticipating some hints and tips on practical applications of social media in info literacy training. Instead, Helen challenged us to think about the way in which people currently experience, respond to and create information using various kinds of social media and participatory technologies. Her view is that the issues raised by social media are not new (we still teach people to be independent learners, critical thinkers, etc) but that we have to recognise the rich and ever-changing information experience of our users in order to help them become “information literate”.

I’ve jotted down a few of the key questions we looked at and some of the responses both from Helen and members of the audience.

1. How do people experience information using participatory technologies?
– Participatory technologies = social media (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc)
– When we think social media, we have to think mobile technologies.
– “Immersive” / “in-flow” – information might be constantly flowing past (e.g. on Twitter or RSS) and users grab relevant bits of use.
– Some institutions ban social media from their computer clusters – is this just ignoring the reality of information experience?
– Users might be “digital natives” (with smartphones, ipads, twitter, etc, etc) but not competent at using information critically.
– What is information? What informs us? E.g. a musician might be inspired (informed?) to compose by a noise rather than a scholarly article. Information is an individual experience. What is informing to one person, is not informing to another.
– Blurring of information worlds – some people perceive TV to be social media with the advent of programmes which you can Tweet into.
– Ethical implications: teenagers often perceive Facebook and Twitter, for example, as a private space rather than a public one.

2. Is information literacy a social construct?
– Is it possible for one person to be completely info literate? Can a person be info literate by themselves?

3. What are the implications for teaching info literacy?
Helen suggested that there are two main issues at stake:
1) We need to provide appropriate information for our users (as we always have – although the formats in which we do so may change)
2) We need to help students become empowered to use information independently, critically and with confidence.

Some audience members felt there was a danger of forcing students to sign up to particular technologies, but it shouldn’t be about making people use social media they don’t want, but encouraging and inspiring openness and confidence in a rapidly changing information world.

All of this suggests that our role hasn’t really changed – we’re still helping users become info literate. What has changed is the way in which users can increasingly access, store and even create a huge range of information and the speed at which technology changes.

Post by: Sarah Pittaway

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