Monday, June 25, 2007

Can one learn skepticism from a video game?

It seems that I get irked more easily these days. Something others might find innocent or bland I take as pernicious. I now subscribe to Inside Higher Ed’s Daily Update and one of today’s items is mentioned as follows:

When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library

Colleges urged to teach information literacy by embracing the learning styles of video games. more

This line so annoyed me. I found it inane. I’ll explain why in a bit. But let me first point out other recent remarks I’ve found equally ridiculous. In arguing against the Senate’s recent measure to toughen CAFE Standards, Rich Lowery on the News Hour said that even if the standards improved fuel efficiency they’d have negligible impact because people will drive more. Oh my! (Presumably, smart consumers compute a cost per mile by dividing the price of gas by the car’s fuel efficiency and when the cost per mile goes up, for example as has happened recently with pump prices, we drive less and when that goes down, we get the opposite effect. But it is more complex than that, for example because driving can be a substitute for flying, the demand for which is also affected by the price of gas, and further, we really don’t know what the demand elasticity is, nor do we know what will happen to future prices at the pump.)

And then there is Vice President Cheney’s argument that his office is not part of the Executive Branch because the Vice President is also President of the Senate, proving once again that the real sin of power is hubris and that the exercise of hubris leads to outcomes that can’t pass a reasonable man test. (This is not an academic debate. At issue is whether the Vice President’s office must comply with and Executive Order requiring all “entities” in the Executive Branch to, on an annual basis, turn over classified information to the Information Security Oversight Office, a unit of the National Archives. The Vice President has wanted to keep these documents secret. And let’s recall that Scooter Libby worked for Cheney, so he seems well past the point of deserving the benefit of doubt on this one.) This incident makes you feel that instead of teaching Checks and Balances in grade school they should have the kids go straight to reading The Prince.

Second, if you do follow the “more” link at the end of the Inside Higher Ed blurb to get to the actual article by Scott Jaschik, you will find that the expression “information literacy” is not mentioned even once. Whoever cooked up that blurb must have surmised that all instruction Libraries provide for students falls under the mantle of “teaching information literacy.” Perhaps that’s true, but perhaps not.

The message of the article itself is mostly benign --- the Library as Temple is an outdated concept, student inquiry should drive Library Instruction, and Library tools should be easy to use so a novice can find things. These points closely parallel the current message we’re hearing about classroom instruction – we should move from a teacher-centric to a student-centric approach. So there is not too much to get worked up about there. But then in multiple places in the piece there is explicit exhortation to embrace games. (This included a bit about LAN parties, which aren’t parties that I host (or attend) nor are they parties about local area networks, but rather are parties held after hours, from which I gather that LAN in this context is short for late at night.)

The irony to me is that none of this seems like promoting information literacy and much of it seems like escapism. I’m quite ok with escapism and do my fair share of indulging. But what about information literacy? Is that still on the radar for Libraries? Does any of what is being advocated by James Paul Gee, George M. Needham, and others have anything to do with teaching information literacy?

I want to move from ALA’s orientation to information literacy, to my own and in doing so I want to return to the title of this post. In my way of thinking about information literacy we enter situations with a prior world view based on what we’ve experienced, what we’ve been taught, what we’ve argued with others, and what we’ve reflected on by ourselves. When we confront a new piece of information we do so with that prior world view operating in the background. We test the new piece of information. Does it fit? Does it contradict what we believe to be true? Is it redundant or does it add something new? Then, if it seems new and especially if it seems to contradict something else we believe, we perform other tests. Does the author of the content stand to gain from having you believe one thing or another? Are there others saying the same thing? Where do those others fit in the political spectrum? Has the author or any of these others said different things that you’ve come to believe are true? What else would I have to believe to make this true?

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of questions but rather was intended simply to open up the process that we go through when we speak of information literacy. Much of the time that process is implicit. We don’t actually make such a list of questions but we do zero in on whether the information is to be trusted as well as how we can incorporate it into our world view.

Information literacy is the critical issue of our times and, in truth, we’re failing at it. But it’s not just our students. Think of WMD and Iraq and consider the dismal failure of the Fourth Estate to challenge the grounds for invasion in a meaningful way that would have prevented the war. Read Frank Rich’s latest column about the Bush Administration’s current effort to downplay the failure of the surge.

But don’t just consider information literacy from the perspective of national politics. Think about it in your job. Ask whether non-learning technology types (other IT professionals, Deans and Provosts, faculty) are sympathetic to learning technology or not. Consider the furor over the Gorman posts about blogging.

Then think about information literacy in other aspects of your life. Think about the Lincoln quote on fooling some of the people, and ask whether the insidious effort to get Intelligent Design taught in the K-12 science curriculum as an alternative to Darwin is really about fooling some of the people. Then ask yourself whether you too can be fooled, especially if you don’t have the opportunity to bring to bear your usual process for incorporating new information into your world view. Think about the Stockholm Syndrome and what that means for information literacy.

We’ve become a society where debate is absent; marketing prevails instead, the promotion of Madison Avenue, the White House, Fox News; the source matters not. It is the style of presentation that matters. How are we to evaluate that content? We’ve matured to the point where humor and lampooning seemingly have more credibility than straight news.

Then return to students in the classroom and ask about the “Will this be on the test?” mindset and the “I don’t know what you want” type of frustration that students express when they are receiving instruction from a faculty member. Ask whether students surrender their own world view in this classroom setting because survival in school qua grades seemingly demands it.

And with that brief tour of information literacy you’re now ready to consider where video games fit in. To me, they don’t. That’s why I got my dander up.


LisaLibrarian said...

Leaving aside the problems with the headline of the article or even the article itself .... focusing on the learning styles (or perhaps more appropriately stated - learning strategies) employed in designing for mastery and mastering video games it seems there may be things that are useful for teaching information literacy. E.g., just telling students they should explore, browse, think about, and evaluate information might not be as effective as a series of increasingly complex tasks that have students practice those abilities in a variety of scenarios and with different types of information. (See Gee's 36 Ways to Learn a Video Game in his book "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.") I think it might be more useful to reflect on how people learn to be successful in a game and see if the same learning approaches can be used in other types of environments. For example, what if the Library online catalog was robust enough to know your level of mastery and start by presenting fairly simple search boxes and then help you develop search skills over time and then offer increasingly robust search options? I don't know how to make that happen technically but it is the kind of thing we might think about.....

Lanny Arvan said...

First a question, then a little story.

I'm under the impression that the core problem qua example is that students do a Google search for whatever and then trust what they find from that search without questioning the reliability of the source, whether that is for doing a term paper in a course or any other type of query. Assuming that is true the question is this. Does an embrace of games do anything to address that particular problem?

Now the story. Last week I was in Madison for the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute. (I will write a full blog post about the institute before too long.) One of the main activities the attendees engaged in was called "Making the Case," a mock presentation on a difficult campus issue to high level campus leadership. In many respects the presentations were quite good, showing flair and imagination. But in one respect they were rather dreadful. Each group needed to make some heroic assumptions to get their case "to work." Not one group explicitly pointed out those assumptions nor did they discuss the implications for their recommendations if the assumptions did not hold true.

Also, I got to "observe" one of the groups as it worked through the making the case. During the process they learned to function as a team and to trust each other. It was rewarding to witness that. But they seemed hell bent to provide answers before, in my opinion, they were ready to do so and I kept on encouraging them to ask questions.

In one of the plenary sessions the attendees were polled about their gaming playing - perhaps 20-25% were serious gamers. My completely unscientific conclusion is that the gaming is orthogonal to the concerns I mention above. It might help with engaging in collaboration, but I don't think it is all that useful for the critical thinking.

LisaLibrarian said...

Hmmmm.... I understand that a lot of learning in game play is about making and testing assumptions, proving strategies, and then changing when assumptions and strategies start to fail, etc. ..... But, there are a lot of other things in the context of game play that don't obtain in other situations.