2021 Rockman Award Winner Interview: Alison J. Head, Barbara Fister, and Margy MacMillan

Alison J. Head, Barbara Fister, and Margy MacMillan won the 2021 Ilene F. Rockman Award for their report, “Information Literacy in the Age of Algorithms: Student Experiences with News and Information, and the Need for Change.” This report was published in 2020 by Project Information Literacy, a non-profit research institute of which Alison Head is the Executive Director and Principal Investigator. 2020/2021 Rockman Award Committee chair, Chelsea Heinbach, conducted an interview with the team after they received their award.

  1. What is Project Information Literacy and how does it relate to the work librarians are doing in higher education classrooms?

Project Information Literacy (PIL) is a nonprofit research institute that conducts large-scale studies about college students’ information practices as they progress through, and beyond, their higher education years. In a series of 12 groundbreaking scholarly research studies, Alison Head and her team of intrepid PIL researchers and librarians have examined how U.S. college students and recent graduates use research skills and develop strategies, whether learned from instruction librarians or devised on their own, to complete coursework, engage with news, or solve information problems in their everyday lives and in the workplace. All of PIL’s work is open access, and since 2008, PIL datasets and reports have been used by librarians, educators and journalists around the world to inform learning and teaching practices, policy, and new services.

PIL’s 2020 algorithm report, the 2021 winner of ACRL’s Irene Rockman Instruction Publication of the Year Award, was based on a study conducted by Alison Head (Principal Investigator), Barbara Fister (PIL’s Inaugural Scholar in Residence, 2019/20), Margy MacMillan (PIL’s Senior Researcher), Alaina Bull (a PIL Research Analyst from The University of Washington Tacoma), Steven Braun (Senior Fellow in Information Design from Northeastern University), Erica DeFrain (a Senior PIL Research Analyst from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and Jessica Yurkofsky (PIL’s 2020/21 Fellow, from the metaLAB (at) Harvard).

  1. What inspired you all to pursue this specific area of research?

PIL has explored students’ information experiences and practices for over a decade. This period of time has been an era when libraries have been continually adapting to a rapidly-changing information environment deeply influenced by developments outside libraries. In fact, one of the first research studies, Alison Head conducted, before PIL was fully founded, explored how students used Google and other resources on the open web in combination with scholarly material found in their libraries. 

In the years that followed, PIL began to use multi-institutional samples to take deep research dives into how students use the web and library resources throughout their undergraduate years and beyond. In 2018, PIL released a massive study, funded by ACRL and the Knight Foundation, on how college students engage with news, finding that most students were largely avid but skeptical news consumers, who relied to a large extent on peers, social media, and news digests to keep up. Yet, knowing that they run the risk of becoming trapped in a “filter bubble” of algorithmic personalization, most students described the steps they took to break out of news silos and balance their news diet. The News Study raised further questions for us that led to the Algorithm Study where we asked: how much do students actually know about how algorithms shape our information environment, and are they concerned about how the invisible lines of coding are deployed in information systems of all kinds? 

As with previous studies, the PIL research team wanted to go beyond how students complete college assignments to explore more broadly how students seek and process information writ large in the age of algorithms where the information ecosystem has dramatically changed. We also wanted to offer new, evidence-based recommendations for information literacy instructors to use in response to the challenges and opportunities of the age of algorithms our findings exposed. The Algo study, as we call it, was a natural progression from early concerns about Google and Wikipedia over a decade ago to algorithms and artificial intelligence today. 

  1. In your report you talk about how “An important theme to emerge from our sessions was that no news source could be trusted at face value.” How can we encourage healthy skepticism without descending into purely cynical nihilism where nothing is to be trusted? 

This important theme around trust of news and information sources first appeared as a key factor in PIL’s News Study, when student’s comments in that study suggested they had awareness of high tech and corporate forces adjusting the flow of information in their feeds. We came to know first hand that it’s not an easy task for students, or any of us, to gain a nuanced understanding of information in a media world that often relies on promoting binary extremes in a desperate bid for attention. From an information literacy perspective, what can be done?

PIL has proposed two lines of information literacy instruction for moving forward: (1) Improve understanding of how a wider array of information, particularly the news, is produced and disseminated (beyond discussions of the peer review process), and (2) develop more reflective information habits that consider their roles as consumers, curators and creators of news, the relationships between news media and audiences, and the wider process through which media and society shape each other. We’ve incorporated some of these recommendations into the learning materials we created for the 2021 “Covid-19: The First 100 Days of News Coverage” project, e.g., questions that use journalism organizations’ ethics statements to assess the fairness of news stories and photographs. Creating space for discussion and reflection, rather than debate, where students can consider the ways their interactions with news shape both their flow of news they receive and what they think about the world, is one step to building what we call information agency.

  1. In your report you mentioned that students are very concerned about the ways algorithms reinforce inequalities through automated decision making. You also state that “learning about algorithmic justice supports education for democracy.” How can librarians incorporate the concept of algorithmic justice with an eye towards civic engagement and democratic participation in information literacy education?

Some of the more concerning moments in our conversations with students came when many of them characterized their experiences with information literacy instruction in the past as out-of-touch and inadequate. They didn’t believe their teachers had kept up with technological developments, including algorithms and tracking, and they assumed what they learned about seeking and evaluating information in college was narrowly focused on successfully completing academic assignments rather than on the bigger picture and developing strategies for solving information problems they could apply in their everyday lives. 

Yet, we were cheered by how deeply interested students were in learning more about what we have called the “age of algorithms” — the constellation of social trends and technologies that act on information in ways that have  profound effects on all of us. Students shared strategies to limit the effects of digital surveillance with fellow students, while some frequently took notes on what their peers had to say, practicing peer-to-peer learning on the fly. They expressed concern about how their elders and how the younger generation would be affected by algorithmic systems. They were largely unaware of how algorithms are being deployed by government and corporations to drive decisions from the length of prison sentences to who gets a job; they connected those practices to issues of social justice in a way that seemed to shift their attitude from being resigned to being stirred up and eager to take action. These issues of these technologies were not only about being a trade-off they needed to make between their privacy and the algorithmic-driven services they felt were essential for daily life, but they were also about taking stock of how these invisible systems were creeping into all aspects of their lives and society at large, and undermining democracy itself. Faculty interviews, too, suggested both a high degree of concern about algorithmic information systems and they had a desire for someone on campus to step up and take on a challenge they felt unequipped to tackle. 

These research findings open a space for librarians to provide their communities with critical knowledge about our changing information landscapes, to remind our constituencies that being information literate is more than using databases and identifying peer-reviewed research, that it has implications for democracy. It also suggests that, given student interest, academic knowledge practices could be fruitfully connected to how we navigate a broader range of information systems in a way that could invigorate our instruction programs.  

  1. What kinds of support helped y’all in writing the 2021 ACRL IS Rockman Publication of the Year? 

There were many folks that helped make the algo study possible, and we could have never done the research study that we did without their support and encouragement. We received generous financial support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Electronic Resources & Libraries, a leading library conference, and the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Carolina. Also, in a first for PIL, we put out a call for individual donors, and were very grateful for all who contributed: Suzanne Bernsten, Anne Deutsch, Emily Drabinski, Robin Ewing, Sarah Fancher, Alex Hodges, Trudi Jacobson, Gayle Jenkins, David Lankes, Clarence Maybee, Panagiotis Metaxas, Maryanne Mills, Peter Morville, Bonnie Tijerina, Sandy Tijerina, Sarah Vital, and Scott Walter.

Importantly, we had a talented collaborative research team working on this study, who had varied backgrounds and interests, and a wide reach into various literatures that allowed us to take an interdisciplinary approach to the issues raised by study participants. By explaining what we were seeing in the data to each other, we strengthened our collective understanding. Where this was particularly powerful, was in the overlap between our data analysis team and research design team, which enabled us to clarify concepts that might otherwise have been lost in translation. 

All in all though, we could not have done this research without the support of liaison researchers at the sample sites: Anne-Marie Deitering, Sarah Fancher, Andrew Haggarty, Phil Jones, Terri Summey, Garrett Trott, Celia Rabinowitz, Michele Van Hoeck, and the students and faculty in their institutions who engaged so deeply and genuinely with our questions in the focus groups and interviews. Finally, we are indebted to the leading thinkers we convened to provide feedback and commentary on the study in a session hosted by Alex Hodges at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Gutman Library as the report was in its last months of production: Steven Braun, Kasia Chmielinski, Jason A. Clark, Jessie Daniels, Andrea L. Guzman, Nate Hill, Alex Hodges, Momin Malik, Panagiotis Takis Metaxas, Eni Mustafaraj and Ronald E. Robertson.

Another key factor in the success of the Algo report was timing. Barbara Fister, PIL’s Inaugural Scholar in Residence 2019/2020, first suggested exploring algos in a new research project, since it was her “hobby horse.” We then explored the literature and quickly realized that rising concerns about algorithms had a lot of room for research. Safiya Noble’s book, Algorithms of Oppression and Shoshana Zuboff’s Age of Surveillance Capitalism began to be assigned and discussed on campuses; Noble had, in fact, spoken on some of the campuses where we conducted our focus groups. At the same time, we started seeing our Twitter feeds blow up with concerns and case studies around algorithms in education, providing rich resources to draw from. In the year of our own data collection, analyzing and writing, the topic of algorithms became much more  mainstream, among educators, journalists, philosophers, as well as data scientists. 

In light of our findings that students were often more aware of algorithms than faculty, another emerging thread in the literature informed our recommendations. In the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL) there is a rich and growing discourse focusing on students as partners. We drew on this research in developing ways to incorporate student expertise in promoting algorithmic literacy. Writing at the confluence of these flows of information was exhilarating, and the interest that we were seeing in the topic confirmed that we were onto something important and helped us keep going through the daily grind of data crunching, writing, and footnote verification!

  1. What’s next for you all and your research?

Our passion at PIL is to identify new research challenges and tackle them with meaningful projects that move the field of information literacy forward and increase its reach and impact. In this vein, PIL has launched a new series this year of long-form essays, “The Provocation Series.” These occasional essays build on a solid decade of PIL’s original research about college students’ information practices in the digital age, and give us the opportunity to reflect on all the data we’ve collected, while taking a deep dive into topics we’ve often not had the time to explore. Barbara Fister has written our first essay, “Lizard People in the Library,” that argues teaching students about information systems is as important as teaching them how to fulfill research assignments. Barbara’s piece was adapted the same month it appeared on our site for an article in The Atlantic. Alison Head has written our second essay, “Reading in the Age of Distrust” that just came out. As with all of our publications, the PIL Provocation Series essays are open access. In a first step, to encourage sharing and discussion, we are making reading group questions available for each essay and offering Virtual Chats with Series authors. 

After 12 years of conducting research, PIL is also moving toward taking a more active mentoring role, so that the field of information literacy research continues to grow. This year, we have partnered with Boston Library Consortium (BLC) to develop and lead the innovative and exciting new BLC Research Academy, a nine-month virtual training program on information literacy and assessment. PIL’s Founder and Director, Alison Head, will head up the virtual research academy, defining the academy’s programmatic goals, while continuing to run PIL. Members of the PIL team will also share particular research skills and hands-on experiences with the BLC Fellows in the innovative professional development program that starts in August 2021. 

Ultimately, both of these new initiatives — the Provocation Series and the BLC Research Academy — have the same goal as all of PIL’s efforts: To improve teaching and learning while suggesting new avenues for inquiry, research, and experimentation about students’ information practices in the digital age.

Full Citation:

Head, Alison J., Barbara Fister, and Margy MacMillan. Information literacy in the age of algorithms: Student experiences with news and information, and the need for change. Project Information Research Institute, 2020.

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