FestivIL by LILAC – are you thinking critically?

A couple of weeks ago I attended the LILAC online conference, FestivIL. As to be expected from a LILAC event, a lot of good stuff was packed into the three half days, including many opportunities to network and engage with other attendees through ‘campfire conversations’ – a break-out room with a random group of attendees as an opportunity to discuss and share reflections on the sessions (or just conference snacks and pets). A lot was done to attempt to recreate the real-life conference experience. Some sessions came with pre-recorded presentations and these videos, and slides for many of the other sessions, are available at: https://www.lilacconference.com/lilac-archive/festivil-by-lilac-2021 so you can explore here if there are any sessions you’re interested to know more about.

My main takeaway from the event was to reflect on, and question, my own teaching practice around critical evaluation of information sources. I feel like I spend so much time showing students how to find the stuff – am I spending enough on encouraging them to think critically about the literature they find? And how about thinking critically about the search process itself? (The answer is: could do better).

Unsurprisingly, this theme cut across many of the sessions I attended. The main stage speakers that bookended the 3 days of the conference – Emily Drabinski and Barbara Fister – tackled this issue in their presentations both talking about the existence of inherent biases within library systems which can impede information discovery for many, especially those not represented within traditional structures. Drabinski focused on how we can teach students to understand and critique classification and indexing systems so they navigate this to retrieve the information they need. This would certainly add something to my demonstration of CINAHL subject headings with Nursing students. Fister’s take on this was a little different as she talked about the need to think about why we should trust information and what gives something authority so we don’t encourage so much scepticism that we end up trusting nothing at all. She used the example of the QAnon movement (confession: I had to Google this one) showing that their core beliefs about critical thinking about information seem very closely aligned to those of us as information professionals – but the outcome is very different. Watch her video for a better explanation of that one!

Three of the parallel sessions I attended showed how some have tackled this in practice. All of these looked at information sources found beyond the confines of the library collections (so not textbooks and peer-reviewed journals) perhaps reflecting the tendency of many students to start with Google…

I was interested to find that Fake News workshops had been particularly successful with Nursing programmes. These workshops were developed as a way of teaching evaluation of information as a life skill to use beyond the programme.

In a session titled Cutting the CRAAP the presenters advocated for moving beyond lengthy checklists to develop higher level skills of critical engagement with modern sources of information. This is based on the COR curriculum which teaches students to use lateral reading to evaluate sources of information. The key to this approach is to look beyond the source when evaluating the information found. This session left me conflicted as I wonder if this approach can be used alongside such checklists to develop students’ engagement with information, rather than the checklists being completely redundant. Surely they’re leading us to the same place but it’s how we actually teach critical engagement that’s important – don’t just discuss the theory but make it a learning activity within the session.

Finally, I was really interested in the approach taken by Elizabeth Brookbank to teach algorithmic bias in search engines in order to develop more effective search skills in her students. She talked about helping students to work within the systems – how can they use advanced search and search terms to get around the issue of algorithmic bias. There is more of a wide acceptance of algorithms being at play when we use search engines now – but we need to take students beyond understanding this to knowing what they’re doing – as algorithms can and do reinforce inequality and biases in society.

Critical engagement with information is an essential life skill. As Barbara Fister put it: we need to bridge the gap between IL in HE (and education generally) and IL in real life – need to engage with it more broadly so students develop information agency and appetite to engage with information beyond the confines of the programme.

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