Explicitly teaching “format as a process”

In my last post, I wrote about using parts of the latest draft of the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education as reading assignments in my information literacy course. This past week, my students read the section describing “format as a process”:

Format is the way tangible knowledge is disseminated. The essential characteristic of format is the underlying process of information creation, production, and dissemination, rather than how the content is delivered or experienced.

A print source is characterized by its physical structure (e.g., binding, size, number of pages) as well as its intellectual structure (e.g., table of contents, index, references). A digital source is characterized by its presentation, intellectual structure and physical structure (e.g., file format). In many cases, the way that information is presented online obscures not just the format, but also the processes of creation and production that need to be understood in order to evaluate the source fully. Understanding what distinguishes one format from another and why it matters requires a thorough knowledge of the information and research cycles, scholarly communication, and common publishing practices, especially for those who have never experienced the print version of formats.

The expert understands that the quality and usefulness of a given piece of information is determined by the processes that went into making it. The processes of researching, writing, editing, and publishing information–whether print or digital–can be highly divergent, and information quality reflects these differences. From tweets to magazines to scholarly articles, the unique capabilities and constraints of each format determines how information can and should be used. The expert learns that the instant publishing found in social media often comes at the cost of accuracy, while the thorough editorial process of a book often comes at the cost of currency. Whatever form information takes, the expert looks to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product in order to critically evaluate that information for use as evidence.

So, here’s where I admit to not having participated at all in the discussion and revision process before now. And, well, it seems I missed my chance to chime in, since the deadline for feedback on the latest draft was back in July. But the word choice here confused the crap out of most of my students. Maybe no one envisioned using the framework as reading assignments for undergraduate students… I know that’s not the key purpose of this text. But if we want to communicate beyond librarianship what information literacy entails, maybe it would help to use terminology that is less confusing. Of course, it’s easy to critique and hard to revise – I can’t think of any good term for what they’re getting at that wouldn’t also introduce some other confusion.

Overall, students were confused by what we meant by “format”. I got the sense that the first two sentences of the second paragraph, describing print vs digital sources, really threw them – because, really, isn’t that what we’re used to thinking of when we talk about format? If that’s not what we mean by format, why are we discussing those distinctions here? Pretty much every time I talk about format outside of the context of explicitly discussing the framework, I’m talking about whether the source is print, pdf, html, mp3, etc. When my library’s catalog allows you to filter by format, the options include book, electronic book, video, microform, audio, physical object, etc. Yeah, a physical object is a different format from a book according to the Framework’s definition, but the only difference between an e-book and a book is the manner of access. And, an audio source may or may not be a different type of source, depending on whether it is a recording of a musical score or an audiobook. I told my classes that even I found the wording kind of confusing, since it requires adding a new definition for a word I use differently in almost every other context.

Some of them also thought this frame was talking about correctly formatting your work. So their interpretation of format had more to do with getting the capitalization correct for MLA vs APA citations and having the correct margin sizes. I guess that makes sense, since they’re still being reminded to use 12 point font and 1 inch margins on their papers, and being told that it will be pretty obvious if they try to manipulate those options to make their papers seem longer than they are…

Despite this, some of them did “get it”, illustrated by this response to the reading “quiz”:

The main point of this article is that the underlying process of how information is made is more important than how the information is presented.

But many of them had difficulty with it:

Can I get a dumbed down definition of ‘format.’ I’m taking it as where information is gotten or what it is from? Not sure if i am interpreting it right.

So, the class discussions opened with that last question – what the hell does “format” mean in this context? I went for kind of extreme examples, comparing the process of spending 3 years researching and writing a book versus the time and research required to compose a tweet.

From there, we moved into a discussion of the different “knowledge practices” and “dispositions” associated with this frame. I included a question on the reading check “quiz” asking which of these bullet point items the student would most like to discuss in class. By far, the knowledge practice “Identify which formats best meet particular information needs” got the most votes in both sections. I think that clarifying what we’re even talking about with “format” here helped with this. But I used the example of thinking about where you’re going to look when you need to decide where to go for dinner tonight, versus where you’re going to look for information to use in a research paper. Of course you don’t want to find a book to help you decide on restaurants, because of how long it takes to write and publish a book combined with the rate at which restaurants close and new ones open! Understanding that helps explain why Yelp or Urban Spoon is a better source for that information need, while a book is better than a review website for most research papers.

At that point, I explained that we’ll be spending the next week or two talking about the processes that go into creating these different types of sources. So maybe the fact that I hadn’t really talked about differences between various types of information sources yet contributed to the confusion about “formats”.

We continued through all of the bullet points that got any votes, but after the first 2-3, it started to get redundant. They all connect together, which is great, but I hope the class didn’t feel like I was starting to beat a dead horse by continuing to acknowledge each point that anyone voted to discuss.

After that, I raised the few questions that were listed on the “quiz”. In both sections, someone asked what the point of knowing this is. One even must have searched for more information, because that student mentioned that it seems like only librarians talk about this. I’m not sure if it was the tone I used or the wording of the question I read in one section, but the class broke out laughing when I said one person asked “what is the point of reading this?” I’m not sure they realize I would have asked that question if no one else had! So that was my opening to talk about the relation of this idea to the learning outcomes of this class, the larger purpose for both, and the transferability of these skills (which goes back to the reason I’m using the framework as a text in the first place!). In the section with the comment about only finding discussions of this idea among librarians, I talked about it in terms of grammar instruction – whether you diagram a sentence on a regular basis or not, you’re expected to be able to use proper grammar. Your professors may not ever explicitly talk about what distinguishes one type of source from another, but they expect you to somehow know which sources will be best to use in your research papers.

Overall, it’s hard to know yet how that discussion on Thursday really went. Many of my students dislike speaking in class, so while I was trying for a discussion, I did most of the talking (more so in one section than the other, though). Maybe next time it could help to have them discuss the reading in their groups for 5 minutes before attempting a full class discussion. But I hope that the ones who were quietly staring at their feet (yes, feet, I didn’t actually notice any cell phones in laps, which kind of surprises me in hindsight, since I don’t really police that!) were doing so because their learning styles lean toward quietly absorbing ideas before applying them.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Tuesday goes with this context already in place. I’ll be using a lesson I copied from a colleague. I’ll bring in sets of 8 articles (news, magazine, and journal articles) and have them work in groups to decide on how they would like to categorize the articles. In the past, I’ve done this without any introduction – some groups construct their own categories and describe the defining traits in ways that are consistent with the distinctions we usually draw between newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, while other groups create very different categories. Will this discussion about what goes into producing a source lead more of them to construct categories based on what went into producing those articles?