Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Who can you trust?

Many people are wary of the reliability of information on the net: Wikipedia is still far from welcome in many classrooms despite being the most comprehensive reference work ever written. The problem is of course that we don't really know who has written the entries or whether they are academically reliable sources. Books and articles from reputable publishers are looked upon as reliable sources but I sometimes wonder.

The reliable sources of fifty years ago may now appear prejudiced, inaccurate or in some cases downright wrong. But at the time they were authoritative. Reading old encyclopedias is a fascinating exercise. What source is more reliable - the work of one person (albeit highly qualified) or the work of twenty people who have together revised and edited the work over several months? Both can be of course be wrong. The professor could have had a personal agenda in writing the book and the facts have been carefully selected to support his/her argument. The collective effort may have overlooked important issues. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Which brings me to the subject of course reading lists and their value to students. A teacher selects course literature according to a certain amount of personal taste and experience. No matter how objective we would like to be we never succeed. Today we drown in the sheer volume of material available in every subject area and any list is bound to be a tiny sample and the teacher will naturally select the texts he/she is most familiar with.

Who on earth can you trust? as a famous Swedish protest song of the seventies so nicely put it. Should students put their trust in Encyclopedia Britannica, the official course reading list, Wikipedia, blog posts, academic journals? Everyone tells the "truth" as they see it. We read and construct our own versions of the truth but no-one ever finds that elusive treasure.

I'm not sure that set course reading lists are very useful. They represent the teacher's qualified assessment of the most useful reading for the course but they are still a subjective selection. The main lesson students need to learn is being able to select their own selection of reading material from the overwhelming mass of content available today. A ready-made list is a handy short cut and saves the students all the work of finding their own material. But that struggle with information retrieval, filtering and assessment is an essential skill for future work situations.

Some teachers work very well with social bookmarking where the class builds up its own collective reading list with tools like Delicious or Diigo. All are able to contribute to the list and can collectively assess the value of the different recommendations. The involvement of a librarian in this process is of course extremely valuable. By the end of the process they have an often impressively comprehensive list of resources and have learnt a great deal about source criticism, tagging and information retrieval.

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