Writing Sample

Information Literacy in the Information Age

Overview of Research Topic

Today information is easier to access then it has been throughout the history of human beings.  This is made possible through free libraries, open stacks, and the internet.  One of the main problems with any information is knowing what is factual and what is artificial.  Opinion can be construed as fact to the untrained eye.  This has been a problem plaguing information seekers for generations but this problem has been magnified in the Information Age.  The Information Age is defined by www.answers.com as “The period beginning around 1970 and noted for the abundant publication, consumption, and manipulation of information, especially by computers and computer networks.”  This definition can be expounded upon by the advent of Web 2.0.  The new web has created even more complications to the information seeker because it has made web publishing easier to the person who has had no previous experience in creating web-sites, mostly through blogs.   According to popular opinion, college students should be the most versed in deciphering fact from opinion, however research shows that this could be far from the truth.

Today’s college student faces many of the same problems of yesterday’s student, i.e. deadlines, class work, homework, etc.  Though research papers remain a mainstay of student coursework, the way that the student finds information has changed.  With the combination of libraries and the internet, searching has become more dynamic and personal.  These new research habits need new standards of information literacy.  According to Educational Testing Service in their 2006 study, information literacy is defined as the ability to use digital tools, including computers and networks, properly to solve information problems in a digital society (ETS, 2006, p. 3).  This means that the college student should be able to visit a web site and look for indicators that what is being displayed to them is factual.  Earl Babbie gives pointers on how to find a reliable website in his book The Practice of Social Research.  He gives seven questions that the student should ask to determine what a good website is:

  1. Who/what is the author of the website?
  2. Is the site advocating a particular point of view?
  3. Does the website give accurate and complete references?
  4. Are the data up-to-date?
  5. Are the data official?
  6. Is it a university research site?
  7. Do the data seem consistent with data from other sites? (Babbie, 2010 p. 518-520)

What Babbie is suggesting is that a researcher should ask themselves these questions when looking for information on the internet.

To better understand what level of information literacy college students have, one must first know what their research habits are.  Dr. Alison J. Head and Dr. Michael B. Eisenberg address this in their research article titled, “How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age.”  They found that college students have two main reasons for searching; course work and everyday lives (Head, 2009, p. 2).  The main reason for searching, both personal and academic, was for the big picture or the background for research.  They found that 65% were for course research and 63% were for everyday life.  They found that almost every student who responded to their survey turned first to course materials for research papers whereas, in personal research, they go to Google or Wikipedia.  When it comes to using a librarian for information 80% of students chose not to use one whereas when it comes to finding out about literary databases, i.e. EBSCO, ProQuest etc., 90% consulted a librarian first (Head, 2009, p. 3).

It seems that for course related searching students turn first to the course materials provided by the professor.  However, students are still turning to the internet for information.  As stated the ETC, Educational Testing Service, did a survey in 2006 and they found interesting statistics.  They found 52% of college students were able to judge the objectivity of the site correctly, 65% judged the authority of the site correctly, 72% judged the timeliness, and only 49% were able to identify a website that met all three of the three criteria stated (ETC, 2006, p. 10).  When it comes to searching, the ETC found 40% of testers used multiple search terms when performing a search and when using a large search database only 50% were able to sift through the irrelevant results (ETC, 2006, p. 14).  These results illustrate that students are not asking the questions that Babbie suggest and that they are not able to sift through websites that provide facts from ones offering opinions.

Information literacy is something that needs serious study in the Information Age.  Web 2.0 has proliferated the internet by allowing the average person to create a website and present their opinion as fact.  It is important for today’s college students to be able to filter out the opinions, irrelevant information, from the factual information.

Research Question

Are college students information literate in using internet resources for research?

Sub questions

  1. Are they able to decipher factual-based websites from opinion based ones?
  2. Are graduate students more literate than undergraduates?
  3. Are doctoral students more literate than undergraduates and graduate students?
  4. Are female or male students more literate?
  5. Does the age of the student factor into information literacy?
  6. What could be done by intuitions to increase the information literacy?

Importance of Question

This question needs research because  professors, universities, and librarians need to know the habits and the literacy level of the students.  If the universities know that the level of incoming freshmen is low they can mandate a course or workshop on internet information literacy.  The professor, armed with the same knowledge, will be able to provide their students with more in-depth parameters to their assignments.  They could require students to visit Google Scholar, EBSCO, or use a metasearch like www.dogpile.com.  Finally libraries could offer seminars for all age levels.  This includes school librarians introducing younger students, middle and high schools, to the seven questions that Babbie suggests and how the students can find these answers.

Literature Review

The major concept addressed by this research question is the information literacy of college students.  There has been a lot of research into the literacy issue with college students.  Two such studies were done by Dr. Alison J. Head and Dr. Michael B. Eisenberg titled, “What Today’s College Students say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age” and “How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”, in these studies they find information about internet information literacy by surveys and interviews.  Pia Russell addresses this concept also in her article “Why Universities need Information Literacy More than Ever”.  Finally, the Educational Testing Service, ETC, gives statistics on the level of digital information literacy in their study “2006 ICT Literacy Assessment Preliminary Findings”.

In “What Today’s College Students say About Conducting Research in the Digital Age” Head and Eisenberg illustrate searching patterns and literacy levels through discussion groups.  They found several reasons why many students first go to Wikipedia to begin their search.  Wikipedia has been much contested as an accurate and useful website.  Some of the reasons given by the students are; “…provides good background…uses plain English…interface is usable…lists citations…helps to give students a start…”(Head, 2009, p. 12).  This article also outlines what frustrates college students in information searching in both personal and academic searching.  They found that many become discouraged by lengthy results from Google, not being able to find the answer, looking for the perfect source, not finding enough information, and feeling that nothing new is being said, to name a few (Head, 2009, p. 4).  This article is useful in showing why the students are more likely to settle for a site that may be more opinion based as opposed to fact based.

Head and Eisenberg’s second study, “How Students Seek Information in the Digital Age” outlines their findings of a survey of college students across the United States.  They found that when it comes to course related searching, the students first turn to their course materials and in personal searching they turn to Wikipedia and Google first (Head, 2009, p. 3).  This shows that the students realize that there is a lot of information to be found on the internet and feel that it is better to reference course materials first to find the most accurate information for assignments.  The information seekers are not confident in their ability to find factual information on the internet.  This also ties into their frustration in seeking information on the internet illustrated in their first article.

Pia Russell says that it is important for Universities need more information literacy.  She has two points that support this; one, students lack an understanding of what constitutes factual information, and two, students have problem sifting through all the websites displayed to them when using a search engine like Google (Russell, 2009, p. 1).  She outlines some ideas as to what can be done to help universities help students synthesize the information being displayed on the computer screen.  The two main ideas that she has are; long term program of instruction and discipline specific approaches (Russell, 2009).  In this short article she gives the problem of information literacy and some possible solutions.

Finally the ETC provides the statics that show how little current college student know about information found on the internet.  They, the students, are unable to judge the objectivity, authority, and timeliness of websites.  Only 49% of students were able to find a website that fit all of the above listed criteria.   They found that most students picked to broad of statements to search and most did not know how to narrow their search.  Finally they found no difference between male and female answers (ETC, 2006).  Their study shows that most students not only do not know what a useful, factual site but they do not have the knowledge to refine their search.

Information is found everywhere.  The ability to decipher the information is key in any aspect of life.  This problem is bigger for the college student in this information age.  They are unequipped to find and decipher what constitutes good information on the internet.  They are also unwilling to use resources available to them, i.e. the library. This research question is designed to find out how poorly the student is equipped and what can be done to help foster the students information literacy in the information age.


Babbie, Earl. “The Practice of Social Research”. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, United           States, 2010.

Head, Alison and Eisenberg, Michael. “How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age”. University of Washington, Washington. 2009.

Head, Alison and Eisenberg, Michael. “What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age”. University of Washington, Washington. 2009

Educational Testing Service, 2006. “2006 ICT Literacy Assestment Preliminary Findings.” http://www.ets.org/ictliteracy.

Russell, Pia. “Why Universities need Information Literacy Now More than Ever”. Feliciter Issue 3 vol. 55. 2009.

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