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  November 12, 2001

Students Need Special Skills
to Navigate World of Information

Every year, more students arrive at UConn with their own computers, computers equipped with circuitry and software that is far more powerful than earlier versions. And they connect to a network with enough power to access information at a speed that was inconceivable even five years ago.

But are students aware of what they can do with all that power? Scott Kennedy and Kathy Labadorf don't think so.

"Our students are very good with their computers," says Kennedy, head of information and research services at University Libraries. "Their ability to interpret screens is far superior to ours, and they can always manage to find some type of information surfing the Web. But what they find has, in too many cases, little relevance to what they need - very often it is inaccurate and unreliable.

"First-year students, used to working from textbooks, have little experience evaluating information resources, and assume that if it's written down it must be OK," he says. "We want our students to be able to explore the vast world of information intelligently."

It all comes down to information literacy, the two say. Now Kennedy and Labadorf, the undergraduate services librarian, are pursuing a range of options with faculty and library staff to help students achieve that goal.

It's a goal they believe is so vital to a full college education that they have worked to include information literacy as one of the five skill areas in which students must prove competency in order to meet the University's general education requirements.

Kennedy defines information literacy as having an understanding of how knowledge is created, disseminated, and organized; understanding how it is communicated and knowing how to tap into these processes; and an ability to evaluate, synthesize and incorporate information into written, oral, and media presentations.

"Before, the students had to come in the library to do their research. They had to use the catalogues, and library staff helped them use the system and find the texts they needed," says Labadorf. "When they came here, they knew it was an academic area, that the material they received was quality material because it was here.

"Now, they don't have to come in. Everybody has Netscape or another browser, and they access everything from their rooms. But the quality is no longer automatically built in. Many of the students are not aware of the vast resources available through the library's networked information systems. Nor do they know the difference in quality between material they find in Time magazine and the Journal of Ecology," she says.

Kennedy, Labadorf, and the library's nearly two dozen academic liaisons have been working for several years to institute programs to help students gain new computer skills. As part of the First Year Experience program, Labadorf has been offering one-hour courses to freshmen for several years. Additionally, beginning this year, all freshman writing classes have a session on computer skills, including a discussion of plagiarism, ethics, copyright, intellectual property and how to evaluate resources.

The liaisons also teach upper division students how to find online journals, data, and research reports in their specific field of study.

And they are instituting self-instruction modules online, available around the clock, that help students improve their competency.

Still, they say, in-person training is best. And that is enhanced if the students take part in active learning at the library, where several classrooms are fully equipped with computers.

The changing face of libraries also offers opportunities, says Labadorf. "Most of the funding for libraries these days goes to purchasing resources the students can access themselves. So our role isn't teaching students about Homer Babbidge Library as much as it is how to find the information and interpret it."

Kennedy hopes to establish a one-credit course, He recognizes that it would involve giving up a credit someplace else, but he and Labadorf believe it would be well worth it.

Having good quality information enables people to make quality decisions, says Labadorf, and ultimately improve their lives.

And that, she says, is a powerful argument.

Richard Veilleux

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