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Information Literacy

Introduction

The internet has made it incredibly easy to find an abundance of information. The downside is that with so much information at your fingertips, it can be hard to figure out which information is relevant, and which information you should trust. Regardless of the type of resource you're using, it's important to critically evaluate sources - a blog post written by an expert can still be more credible than a scholarly article or theory that's proven to be flawed.

When evaluating sources, you want to consider the following:

  • Validity: Why can you trust the authority of this source?
  • Relevance: Is this source relevant for my information needs?
  • Bias/Perspective: What perspectives are reflected in the source, and how does that compare/contrast with other perspectives?

Validity: The 5 W's

One consideration when evaluating sources is the validity of the information: whether you can trust the authority of the source.  When evaluating the validity of information, the University of Michigan gives the following 5 W's of Information Evaluation that can help you remember the questions to consider: 

  1. WHO is the author of the sources? Are they experts? Why are they qualified to write on this topic? Are they affiliated with any educational institution or other well known group? Have they published much else on this subject? Who is the publisher, and what is their reputation and authority? Keep in mind that lived experience can give someone authority on a topic even if they do not have traditionally recognized qualifications: seek out the voices of students, parents, and other members of the community when relevant. 
  2. WHAT is the purpose of the information sources? Is it trying to persuade you or sell you something? Did any individual or company fund the research? Are there images or other media used in the source? (If so, what or who are they representing?)
  3. WHEN was the information source published? Has it been updated? Is it in a field where information changes rapidly, like technology, or does the information have a longer shelf life?
    1. Seminal research/theory - Older scholarly literature may still be very relevant! If an article or researcher is still frequently referred to and cited, faculty and graduate students should be familiar with it, whether or not you've actually read the original article in full. For example, Gloria Ladson-Billings developed the term 'culturally relevant pedagogy' in 1995, over 25 years ago, but the term is still frequently used today.
    2. Newer scholarly articles - These articles are useful for exploring more recent conversations and research on a given topic. For example, "culturally sustaining pedagogy" was introduced in 2012 as a "remix" of culturally relevant pedagogy, and in 2014 Ladson-Billings wrote an article welcoming this change. However, note that it takes time for research to be written and validated. There may not be much research on newer topics (for example, there may not be significant research yet on the effects of the ongoing COVID pandemic on education). Once new research is published, it takes time to validate that research and to see how frequently that research is cited.
  4. WHERE can I verify the information? Does the author offer evidence that supports what they're telling you and is there other information out there that helps confirm this evidence? If there is only one research study on a given strategy, there may not be enough evidence yet to say that the strategy is validated by research. Can you trace any claims back to the original source, and have they been taken out of context?
  5. WHY would you use this instead of another source? Is this a frequently cited or referenced article? Is it important in the field? Has the source been peer-reviewed?

Validity: Practice

Consider the following information need:

I have many students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) in my secondary math classes. What are the best strategies for teaching ELLs math?

How would you evaluate the validity of each of the following sources using the 5 W's? 

Click on the tabs above to evaluate your own answers against an exemplar response.

Who is the author of the source? Kristina Robertson. According to the website, she is an English Learner Program Administrator with 20 years of education experience and a Masters of Arts in TESOL. She has served on the American Federation of Teacher's ELL Educator Cadre for a decade. Though she isn't a scholar with a PhD on the subject, she has a lot of practical experience in teaching ELLs, which means that she likely has some good advice to share.

What is the purpose of the information source? The purpose of the article seems to be purely to inform. There are no obvious biases, and it doesn't appear to be trying to sell something.

When was the source published? It doesn't say, though it has to be sometime in 2009 or later, given those are the dates of the references.  There doesn't seem to be anything that might be outdated in the article.

Where can I verify the information? Only a couple of references are listed. It doesn't hurt to try out the tips listed, but this source is likely not verifiable enough to use in a scholarly work.

Why would you use this instead of another source? This brief article written by an expert is likely a useful place for me to get started with learning how to teach ELLs.  I would not use this as a scholarly reference, given that it is not peer-reviewed and doesn't prove that research backs up its claims.  However, since I'm not writing a research paper and just want tips for my classroom, I would use this article.

Who is the author of the source? Anny Fritzen Case is an assistant professor of teacher education at Gonzaga University, which means that she has the credentials to write a research article on this subject.

What is the purpose of the information source? The purpose of the article seems to be to describe a study and discuss how ELLs and non-ELLs interact. There are no obvious biases, and it doesn't appear to be trying to sell something. 

When was the source published? 2015. This is recent enough that it is unlikely to be out of date. 

Where can I verify the information? The article cites a large number of references, details the authors research methods, and has been peer-reviewed. This means the article is likely scholarly enough to use in a research paper. 

Why would you use this instead of another source? This article is likely credible enough if I were writing a scholarly paper, and would be useful if I wanted to consider the theoretical aspects of how ELLs and non-ELLs interact. However, this article is likely on too specific of a topic if I'm just starting to teach ELLs and just want a high-level overview of the best practices to use in my classroom. I would therefore not use this article at this time, unless I was specfically concerned about ELL and non-ELL interaction. 

Relevance

In order for a source to be useful, it must not just be valid, but relevant for your information needs.  A scholarly source may be well-vetted, but if it you are looking for practical advice, a practitioner source may be more relevant and therefore better suited. 

If you are looking for sources to improve your teaching practice, here are some specific questions you may want to consider:

  • What is my information need? What type of source (popular, practitioner, or scholarly) will best meet that need?
  • How does this source reinforce, complement, or challenge your current practice? Consider surprises you encountered as you read, and make connections to your own experience.
  • How does this source apply to your classroom context? (Consider the content you teach, the students and communities you serve, the structures at the school, etc.)
  • What are your goals for your classroom? How does the information in this source help you reach those goals?

Bias and Perspectives

Knowledge is not a fixed body of facts but is complex, culturally situated, and ever-evolving. A query may not have a single uncontested answer, and a given scholarly work may not represent the only or even the majority perspective on the issue, even if it is a perspective that you agree with. While there may be acknowledged authorities in the field (scholars and publications that are considered "standard"), even in those situations, some scholars would challenge the authority of those sources.

Therefore, it is also important to consider bias and perspective, in addition to validity and relevance. Be open to new perspectives, and always view sources -- no matter who wrote them -- with an attitude of informed skepticism and awareness of potential bias. In addition, be open to voices that may not be traditionally thought of as "expert" or "authoritative", especially marginalized voices that may be underrepresented in traditional publishing processes. 

Here are some questions to consider as you think about bias/perspective, particularly when looking at sources related to your teaching practice:

  • Is the source trying to persuade you of something, or even sell you something? What rhetorical strategies are they using? Did any individual or company fund the research?
  • What worldviews, perspectives, and biases are reflected in this source? How do those add value to the topic, and in what ways is the perspective limited? Does the source affirm or disregard the perspectives and histories of marginalized groups?
  • How, if at all, does this source support culturally responsive and inclusive teaching? Which students does this source empower and support, and which students, if any, does it harm or exclude?
  • In what ways is this source in conversation with other sources you have read? In what ways does the author agree with, disagree with, or build on other sources?