British Columbia Library Association

Critical Information Literacy and the Infodemic in 60ish Seconds

By Mia Clarkson and Krystyna Nowak

Introduction

In August 2020, Capilano University’s Marketing and Digital Experience (MDX) sent out a call to faculty inviting them to be featured in their new 60 seconds with…video series. The goal of the series was to introduce faculty members to students and other university staff online, speaking on interesting and relevant topics. Specifically, the call for participants asked if faculty had something to share from their area of study that related to current events, or that they felt the general public should know more about.  These videos would then be shared through the official CapilanoU instagram account in stories, and as posts to the Capsule.stories Instagram account, which serves as a new digital magazine created by MDX.
Seeing the 60 seconds with…series as an opportunity to highlight both current issues and our expertise, we brought a proposal to MDX to feature librarians in one or two 60 seconds with… videos discussing knowledge creation and sharing in the pandemic. MDX liked the proposal enough to offer the library their own series of videos, exploring a different theme in each one.
This article will discuss how the librarians approached the dual goals of engaging students in critical thinking about COVID-19 information in short videos, and positioning librarians as academic experts alongside other faculty members who have a unique and critical perspective in the pandemic era.

 

Background

Capilano University Librarians were having two conversations that made the 60 seconds with… series an attractive opportunity. The first was about Covid-19 and the ways in which news coverage, the “infodemic” (World Health Organization 2020) that accompanied the virus, catapulted academic research into mainstream discourse.  The second was about the importance of framing information literacy as a unique field of study and expertise that informs our status as faculty.

Krystyna and Mia also felt excited by the chance to use the video series as a means of introducing students and faculty to critical information literacy concepts by adding complexity to the topics we normally teach in one-shot classes, such as source evaluation and the academic publishing process. As well, the video series provided an opportunity to engage the CapU community remotely and furthered one of the goals of our outreach program, to create opportunities for learning about information literacy outside of the classroom.

Numerous discussions within librarianship and academia inspired the topics the librarians selected for the library’s 60ish seconds with… series.

Krystyna was inspired by some of the presentations and conversations that occurred at WILU 2019 and which continued at CLAPS 2020 around information uncertainty. These included Emilia Marcyk’s WILU 2019 presentation, “Fostering Productive Uncertainty in Information Literacy Classrooms,” as well as Michigan State University’s (2018) “Embracing Uncertainty” video. Marcyk’s presentation focused on the role of information uncertainty in information literacy instruction and offered suggestions for instruction librarians that can help students go beyond binary thinking and grow more comfortable with unknowns. Krystyna also did some reading about so-called merchants of doubt, who exploit discomfort with uncertainty to discredit existing evidence, as well as research on the relationship between anxiety, uncertainty and conspiracy theories.

Throughout the pandemic Mia saw news coverage that needed to report on scientific research but was unable to get into the nuances of how systems of academic information sharing, like peer review and publish or perish, can impact the quality and availability of research. Ed Yong’s longform story in the Atlantic, “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” featured the first mainstream reporting she encountered on the infodemic in the context of academic communication rather than journalism. It states that “[b]y tying career advancement to the publishing of papers, academia already creates incentives for scientists to do attention-grabbing but irreproducible work. The pandemic strengthened those incentives by prompting a rush of panicked research and promising ambitious scientists global attention” (Yong 2020). While other articles cast the speed of news media and the unreliability of social media as key problems in pandemic information sharing, explanations of how scholarly communication practices also contribute were often relegated to academic sites (see for example Redden, 2020 and other Inside Higher Ed coverage).

Finally, at the CapU librarians annual retreat, discussions around academic librarianship and faculty status turned to information literacy and meta-research as an area of specialization. The team discussed different ways to frame librarian expertise as a research interest or pedagogical approach rather than a support service. The pandemic posed a unique opportunity to promote information literacy, particularly an understanding of the academic research and communication process, as a skillset increasingly required beyond the classroom.

 

Overview

There are four videos in the initial 60ish seconds with…series though two additional videos may be added in the future.

The first video introduces the series and frames the issues that will be discussed as representing aspects of the infodemic. This video then delves into the issue of COVID-19 related misinformation and encourages students and faculty to consider what attitudes, beliefs and affiliations shape how they choose to receive and evaluate new information. It attempts to introduce the problem of misinformation without providing a checklist-style solution and instead promotes critical self-reflection.

The second video introduces academic publishing as a performance measure for authors, tied to pay and promotion in their job as researchers and instructors. The idea that an academic article could be biased because of a publication process that incentivizes timely and exciting breakthroughs hugely complicates the idea that scholarly journals are the most acceptable and credible sources for an undergraduate research paper. At the same time, students intimately understand working on a deadline and wanting a good grade, arguably the same constraints academic researchers face pursuing newsworthy research and tenure.

The third video deals with information uncertainty, the positive role of uncertainty in research and the ways in which discomfort with uncertainty can be exploited by people in power and used to promote conspiracy theories. The video encourages instructors to highlight uncertainty in academic research to help students become comfortable with unknowns.

The final video deals with information overload and maintaining a healthy information diet amid the pandemic. In this video, Alyssa Hamer, the Collections & Public Services Librarian, provides suggestions for consuming information mindfully. Out of all of the videos in this series, this video focuses most on suggesting practices that can be helpful for coping with the infodemic.

Mia is currently working on a script for a video on how the news media communicates scientific research and can overstate the impact of a single study, while Kim Minkus, the Indigenous Learners Librarian, is interested in creating a video on pandemics, Indigenous communities, and the issue of re-traumatization.

 

Challenges

One of the biggest initial challenges in drafting scripts for the video series was deciding on the primary audience. After Krystyna’s first conversation with MDX, the librarians started to draft a series that was aimed more at students, which was light-hearted in tone and focused on recognizing possible symptoms of the infodemic. However, the more the librarians drafted these scripts, the less enthusiastic they felt about them. While these scripts felt well-suited for a video tutorial for students, the librarians thought they were losing sight of one of their original goals, that of positioning themselves as experts on information literacy.

After regrouping to discuss the tone and theme of the videos, the librarians decided that though the team would keep the language of the videos clear and accessible to a wide audience, they would try to find a balance between engaging faculty and students and highlighting critical information literacy concepts they were initially excited to discuss.

The other major challenge was time and content. Each of the videos in the series could easily be turned into a 20-30 minute video, and in fact, there are much longer videos and scholarly articles written about the topics discussed in the series. Unsurprisingly then, a major challenge for the librarians was writing scripts of roughly 200 words that managed to discuss complex issues. Initially, time constraints also made it tempting to create videos with easy solutions, and checklist-style quick tips for big problems like assessing information, understanding how bad research can get published, and information uncertainty. Wanting to avoid oversimplifying the topics, the librarians found that choosing a single takeaway and focusing on one example related to the pandemic was the best way to create concise scripts.

Ultimately the scripts aimed to strike a balance between complicating ideas like academic expertise or credibility and being comfortable starting a conversation rather than providing solutions in the face of the infodemic. Or to put it another way: identifying causes rather than treating symptoms.

 

Implications for Practice

Instruction librarians often struggle to find the space to discuss critical information literacy topics within short, one-shot classes. With the rapid move to online learning, the librarians at Capilano University found that they were often asked to cover the same amount of material with less time to reduce Zoom burnout among students. The 60ish seconds with…series offered the librarians involved in this project a way to reach a wide audience through short videos shared to official social media channels, share their expertise with the CapU community, and introduce more complex ideas related to research, academic publishing, and information literacy. These concise videos may also be used as conversation starters in future one-shot classes, as a way of inviting more students into these important conversations.

For libraries Covid-19 brings both opportunities and challenges, often within the exact same area. Just as many libraries address calls for more support helping users spot fake news, there is a chance to abandon the credibility checklist and start a more critical conversation about the ways we consume, analyze, and share information. The need to connect online rather than in the classroom can push us to meet students and faculty in spaces they already use, like social media, and deliver information literacy instruction in unconventional formats. By resisting simple answers to complex problems, librarians can position themselves as information experts with valuable knowledge that has real-world applications for information seeking and knowledge creation.

 


Mia Clarkson is a Business Liaison & Teaching Librarian at Capilano University Library

Krystyna Nowak is a Teaching & Outreach Librarian at Capilano University Library

 

References

Marcyk, E. (2019, May 22-24). Fostering productive uncertainty in information literacy classrooms[Conference presentation]. WILU 2019, Winnipeg, Canada.

Michigan State University. (2018, August 3). Embracing uncertainty [Video]. MSU mediaspace. https://mediaspace.msu.edu/media/Embracing+Uncertainty/1_yu8wu5zg/64139561

Redden, E. (2020, June 8). Fast pace of scientific publishing on COVID comes with problems. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/06/08/fast-pace-scientific-publishing-covid-comes-problems

Yong, E. (2020, September). How the Pandemic Defeated America. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/09/coronavirus-american-failure/614191/

World Health Organization(2020, September 23). Managing the COVID-19 infodemic: Promoting healthy behaviours and mitigating the harm from misinformation and disinformation. https://www.who.int/news/item/23-09-2020-managing-the-covid-19-infodemic-promoting-healthy-behaviours-and-mitigating-the-harm-from-misinformation-and-disinformation

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