Saturday, January 30, 2010

Your Information is out of Date

Recently I emailed an Information Fluency newsletter to subscribers who want to know about such resources. One of the features included three Wizards: the Search Wizard, the Evaluation Wizard and the Citation Wizard. These have been popular online tools for a number of years. They help students understand the search process, how to determine the credibility of Internet information and efficiently to format citations, helping to avoid plagiarism.

Then I got this message:
Carl, I passed the citation wizard on to my English department. The feedback that I had was, it does not include the new changes for 2009 for MLA.
That was a surprise to me. I hadn't considered the possibility that MLA updated their citation requirements. The Wizard for the MLA style was based on the 2003 edition.

I did the necessary research and coded the changes in the Wizard, but in doing so I uncovered a number of sites that have not synced up with MLA's 7th Edition. Currently, you can find reputable sources providing out of date information. (If you want, challenge your students to search for MLA citation guidelines and see what they come up with.)

This is a good example where subject-specific knowledge assists the evaluation. The English Department knew about the changes because they follow that news. Somehow I missed it. I imagine there are students out there who have not yet caught wind of the change. Even if you search for MLA citation style online, you may still land on the previous edition. How can you tell if your information is out of date?

It sounds pretty Aristotelian, but how can you know what you don't know? This is a predicament with most searching. Either you know enough about the subject already or you take it on trust because one or more reputable sources said so.

A very small percentage of students are likely to be experts in the subject matter they are researching. They will either assume what they find is authoritative or they will accept it because someone with more expertise used it.

In either case, there's always a danger you will be wrong.  Assuming information is accurate, based on face value, is certainly risky. Accepting it because someone who knows more than you validates it is also a risk. What if they're wrong?

Even without subject-matter expertise, simple investigative techniques may reduce making a Type I error, accepting information as correct when it is not.

The trouble is that it takes time and effort, if only a few seconds.  A student could do a quick fact-check on MLA style to see if there any recent developments (e.g., MLA citation change). I wager very few will do that; I didn't.

While I felt a little embarrassed when called out on the mistake, it's the only way I could have found out this quickly that the Wizard was out of date. Sometimes we will just make avoidable mistakes and thank those that correct us.

Next time I think I'll do a quick fact-check first.

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