Information Literacy: A Highway Code for the Internet

03 Oct 2016 |Written by James Richardson

Before I worked at Good Things Foundation, I was a digital skills tutor at a UK online centre in Sheffield. When you spend most of your working week teaching people how to use the internet, you start to notice patterns: the same concerns, the same doubts, often expressed in the same words by different people.

At the end of their first lesson, a lot of new users would remark that ‘I still don’t have a clue what I’m doing’, or that they would ‘have forgotten it all by next week’. They weren’t sceptical about the internet per se; what they didn’t have faith in was their own ability to learn. For them, learning to use digital technology was somehow different from learning other skills. On top of that, many had negative experiences of formal education, from which they’d come to feel that they simply weren’t any good at learning.

I always found driving was a useful metaphor. You didn’t, I pointed out to my learners, expect to walk away from your first driving lesson knowing how to drive - nor did you turn up for your second lesson remembering everything you’d learned the week before. And it would be a very bad driving instructor who expected you to, and berated you if you hadn’t. Learning is iterative: forgetting some of what you’ve been taught is part of the process. You consolidate knowledge through repetition and practice. In every learner’s first few weeks, my most important job was not to focus on this or that specific skill or task: it was to convince them that, like driving, success came with perseverance.

In recent weeks my team has been talking to CILIP and Ofcom about information literacy - the ability to critically evaluate information and use it to make informed choices. There are similarities between how information literacy is applied in the online and offline worlds - like remembering that a source of news may be politically biased. But there are some things that are unique to the internet, like knowing that the top results a search engine gives you might be sponsored links, or that the one weird old tip to lose belly fat is probably going to end up costing you a lot of money.

Data from Ofcom suggest that newer users of the internet, and those ‘narrow’ users who only carry out a small range of online tasks, are held back from making the most of the internet because they don’t have information literacy skills. They’re actually less likely to have experienced some of the negative effects of a lack of information literacy - like scams, hacks and viruses (1) - for the simple reason that they tend not to expose themselves to risk by sharing personal information like their email address and card details with the wrong people.(2) The problem is, they’re also much more likely to never share such information online, with anyone, in any circumstances - even if it’s safe to do so, and could be of benefit to them. They take the approach that ‘you can’t lose, if you don’t play the game’ - but their lack of information literacy means they don’t have the confidence to explore and make the most of the internet.

I presented these findings earlier this year in a lecture at Manchester Business School, but recent conversations about information literacy made me see them in a new light - and reminded me of the similarities between learning to drive and navigating the online world.

Functional digital skills - like using a mouse, keyboard and web-based applications - are like the technical skills you need to drive: steering, changing gear, and so on. But information literacy is like knowing the Highway Code: how to interpret road signs and signals from other drivers. The only difference is that things are much trickier for the new internet user than for the new driver. Fake road signs diverting you to dubious destinations are (thank goodness) not very common - but the internet is full of legitimate-looking warnings of data loss and criminal prosecution if you don’t immediately hand over several hundred pounds. And some people spend a lot of money creating websites that look like highly credible sources of information but aren’t everything they seem.

It’s not surprising that a lack of information literacy holds people back from exploring the internet. If you know from hearsay and sensational media coverage that risks exist, but don’t know exactly what they are or how to deal with them, the best way to keep safe is to stay away - just as you’re not going to get out on the road if you don’t know which signs are helping you get to where you want to go, and which are trying to lead you astray. But too often, information literacy is seen as a ‘nice to have’, or something that can be got round to once the functional digital skills gap is addressed. The conversation needs to move on, to reflect what Ofcom reported in their recent submission to the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee inquiry into the UK digital skills crisis:

Basic digital skills will be limited in the benefit they can bring, unless they are underpinned by strong critical understanding skills. Increasing these skills will increase digital confidence and competence, and has the double advantage of reducing the risk of the negative online experiences and increasing engagement with and creation of new online opportunities. Without these skills, people will not be able to make the most effective use of the internet.

In other words, information literacy needs to be embedded in digital inclusion programmes from day one, so that learners have the confidence they need to explore a new digital environment. To help achieve this, Good Things Foundation is currently working with CILIP, and centres and learners in the UK online centres network, to co-create simple, accessible online learning content for our online learning platform Learn My Way, that will help new internet users take their first steps in information literacy.

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of online security, and knowing how to stay safe. This is only one part of information literacy, but it’s a very important part - not least because it’s the part that new users know and care about from the moment they get online. That makes it a good place to start to help them think critically about the information they access via the internet, and become informed, active citizens who know how to assess and use information in their own best interests.

Learn My Way is Good Things Foundation’s free digital learning platform, which has supported more than 900,000 people across the world to get online. Learning content ranges from functional digital skills to the use of online health resources, public services, job-hunting and money management tools. MI data on learner activity is automatically recorded, allowing digital inclusion practitioners to easily monitor and report on the impact of their activities.

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1. Ofcom, Adults’ Media Use & Attitudes Report 2016, p. 197. Ofcom’s data show that only 8% of narrow users (those carrying out 1-6 of 17 types of common online activities) have received emails or messages sending them to a ‘phishing’ site, compared to 28% of all internet users; 11% of narrow users have had their computer infected by a virus, compared to 20% of all users.

2. Ibid, p. 194. 52% of narrow users of the internet would never pay online by credit or debit card because of security concerns, compared to only 20% of all internet users; for entering a personal email address the figures are 35% and 12%.