Untangling the web

Critical Thinking in an Online World

Debra Jones
Internet Librarian
Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA

Copyright 1996, Debra Jones. Used with permission.


In a rapidly evolving information technology era, librarians find their foundations of professionalism shaken. Critically evaluating the intrinsic role of the librarian reveals our responsibility for the education of independent information seekers. Using the model of the expert and apprentice, librarians need to focus on the teaching of critical thinking skills, over and above the more mechanistic skills of evaluation of resources and mastery of search tools. The design of instruction in a situated learning environment, utilizing constructivist tenets and a self-directed inquiry based approach leads to higher order cognitive skills and applicable, transferable learning. An instructional design project for teaching critical thinking skills in the evaluation of online resources is described as an example curriculum?

On The Abyss

The integration of the Internet into our daily lives affects no single profession as completely as that of the librarian. For centuries, information has been archived and accessed through a single location, the library. Instantaneous access to online information, direct dissemination of information as it is created, and interaction and creation of information online, all from the home or office- these are revolutionary and anarchical concepts. Very few among us still deny the pervasiveness of online information access, yet how do we see ourselves leading, and not just reacting, to this revolution?

Questions of self-identity have always plagued the library profession. We are indeed servers, those who take what is given to us, books, media, records of human history, and preserve it for others who then ask us to return it to them, unharmed. No one questions the nobility of this profession. Only peripherally have we assumed the role of teachers, instructing others in the basic techniques of navigation in our world. Programs that train our professionals, bearing the curious name of "Library Science," rarely offer courses in educational theory or the design and delivery of instruction. Like the short order cook, reference librarians turn out packets of information on demand, yet think not of transferring to the seeker any but a modicum of skills in using the OPAC or periodical indexes. The Internet, with its nearly full menu of online information, offers delivery at home, without waiting in line, or forming the query into the suitable jargon of the library world.

Library of Congress classification schedules, Dewey Decimal organization of knowledge, our bastions and tools with which we carve our living, may be under siege. Yet still we try to translate our lessons in "bibliographic instruction," a term that seemingly only relates to the construction of bibliographies, to computer based navigation on the Internet, all the while paying lip service to "information literacy." Are we able to make the necessary and fundamental paradigm shift?

Our Body of Knowledge

It is only reasonable, when considering a profession of centuries standing, to take a rather long perspective on these issues. If we find ourselves in an information technology era where our client no longer researches under our tutelage, and if, in fact, the user is now ensconced in his or her own private library courtesy of the Internet, then we need to teach them not only how to be minimally functional with the necessary tools and techniques, but in essence to be their own librarian. Internet users, expected to learn complex indexing systems and to create their own archives of information via bookmarks and downloaded files, will need to operate on the same skill level as professional reference librarians. Our traditional "point and name" library orientations and our two hour "Meet the Internet" workshops are just not going to do the job.

Consider the medieval guild model of apprentice training. We are the experts, and we have apprentices in attendance as they use our libraries and attend our classes. These apprentices do not need to learn the same tools and theories we learned in library school. They need to learn information seeking skills applicable to their fields, ones transferable to new situations and new careers. The apprentice of medieval times was taught applicable and concrete tasks in context, given increasingly difficult problems presented with an expert available, allowing abstract theories to evolve as competency grew. In most academic disciplines our educational system uses an expert to deliver an abstract body of knowledge to the unpracticed novice, who will later be expected to go out and apply isolated rules learned in school to unprecedented and shifting work situations. Similarly, we as bibliographic instructors teach theories of access to library-structured knowledge through the application of library-housed search tools. How will this training work, years later, for the engineer, physician, business person, or lab technician who seeks an answer to his immediate information need? Will he or she stop to consider which is the correct periodical index to use and what subject headings are most appropriate?

The necessity for teaching real world, career applicable learning strategies should be the focus of library instruction. If we are responsible for teaching information seeking skills, then we should look to the conclusions of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS, 1991) which described the need to equip tomorrow's workers with information management, collaborative problem solving, and critical thinking skills. The chairman of the SCANS committee William Brock states that "the most effective way to educate our youth is to teach them in the context of real-life situations and real problems" (1991, p. 22).

The lesson from the medieval guild model is represented in the cognitive apprenticeship concept of Collins, Brown, Newman, and others. This theory presents a learning environment that ignores the arbitrary delineation of academic or abstract versus vocational or concrete learning, and places the learner directly into a community of experts, confronted with self-selected, increasingly more difficult tasks. The content of the learning consists of "tricks of the trade," the heuristic, problem-solving strategies experts rely on, cognitive management devices of goal setting, strategic planning, monitoring, evaluating, and revision (Collins et al, 1989). The teaching methods employed must give students exposure to experts' strategies by coaching, providing scaffolding, then fading- gradually handing over the control of the learning process (Berryman, 1991).

There is no real difference between what librarians teach - information skills requiring cognitive management processes, and what might traditionally be thought of as task-oriented production skills. Following the expert/apprentice model, it has been found that teachers with experience in the workplace emphasize dispositions, or a set of attributes that represent a specific enculturated point of view, rather than stressing complex reasoning skills. These teachers minimize lecturing and didactic instruction in favor of "micro-apprenticeships," project centered courses, and collaborative solving of "authentic" problems (Statz et al., 1990).

Selecting and using the appropriate index or database (tool based training), and abstract theories of librarian's subject content (knowledge classification schemas such as Library of Congress or Dewey) do not in themselves teach solutions to the authentic problems encountered by today's information seekers. Librarians do the work of translating the seeker's information queries into the appropriate research method, and then present the most likely set of tools to employ. Bibliographic instruction transfers only this understanding of task-oriented tools to the learner. The librarian would serve the student best if we taught the process of defining the information query, of designing the entire research strategy, and then moved on to selection and evaluation of research tools. An example of this would be an exercise in defining keyword terms describing the search concepts, from global to discrete, without the aid of library based tools such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, using mind-mapping, outlining, or simple flowcharting. Another exercise would be for students to evaluate and map out the process whereby the information they seek has come to be published, whether in print or online, including an understanding of primary and secondary research, and popular vs. scholarly publishing. This will give them a sense of the likely source of the information they seek based on who produced it and the intended audience. These are the heuristic skills librarians practice and they are essential to developing information literacy skills.

The librarian as expert needs to teach the independent, online information seeker more than any particular set of skills to attain information literacy. The Internet user faces a constantly changing body of "information," radically different from the information traditionally warehoused in libraries, with tools that reflect the thinking of computer programmers, far different from that of librarian catalogers. The true disposition of the expert information seeker, librarian and Internet user alike, must adapt to these shifting values. The constant evaluation required, comparing the apparent, or the external, with the required, or the internal, is the essence of critical thinking, and is the stock in trade of the librarian.

The Nature of Critical Thinking

John Dewey defined the nature of reflective thought as "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (1938, p.9). Critical thinking is generally agreed to include the evaluation of the worth, accuracy, or authenticity of various propositions, leading to a supportable decision or direction for action.

The knowledge domain of the librarian is the acquisition and evaluation of information resources. The librarian usually does nothing more with this knowledge base beyond offer it succinctly and freely to those who request it. This evaluation of resources across subject domains, selecting the valid and useful, is common practice of librarians. Free from the coaching presence of the librarian, the online information seeker must exercise these skills independently. Looking again to the SCANS recommendations for basic skills, information management includes not only the process of analyzing, selecting, and evaluating the information needed, but also determining when new information must be created. Similarly, critical thinking takes the learner beyond thoughtful reflection to analysis and a determined course of action. This is the process that we need to teach our clients.

Information literacy has been defined recently as ranging from tool and resource literacy to publishing literacy (communicate electronically), emerging technology literacy (understand and incorporate new technologies), and critical literacy (the intellectual and social value of information). The last three literacies require creating, decision making, and synthesizing other literacies into an understanding of the potentials and limits of information technologies (Shapiro & Hughes 1996).

Bloom's taxonomy, applied to the teaching of information literacy skills, helps us evaluate our present and potential learning objectives. The cognitive skill levels of knowledge, comprehension, and application are covered in traditional bibliographic courses teaching the variety of library resources and their particular uses. Analysis is attempted, while synthesis and evaluation are untouched. Teaching the skills of evaluation, especially in an evolving online publishing world with nonexistent standards, is imperative. Teaching the user synthesis - finding the useful out of the plethora of what is available and then creating new information, is our challenge.

Opportunities For Instruction

Significant and valuable inroads toward evaluation standards of online information have been made. Designing our teaching curriculum should certainly incorporate such standards, along with a basic understanding of the technology that makes online search engines possible. Our responsibility as information literacy instructors must extend further however.

Teaching the learner how to think critically means more than critical analysis of webpages or comparison of search engines. Both are the medium of the information, not the meaning. Prescribing a checklist of criteria to look for or steps to take will leave the learner unprepared when technology changes. Knowledge is transferred when it is embedded in a more general understanding of its entire structure and contextualized into the content familiar to the learner. Therefore, teaching evaluation of information resources is best taught within the learner's knowledge base and developed into a network of meaning as charted by the learner. Inquiry based instruction with real world applications in a collaborative setting presents the best opportunity for transferable knowledge. Examples of this approach could be a collaboratively designed and taught research class with instructors from specific discipline areas proposing content related problems that the students, instructors, and librarians jointly solve.

A constructivist framework for instruction shapes learning as an individual construction within the learner's environment. Instructional principles derived from constructivism include the following objectives:

  1. anchor all learning activities to a larger task,
  2. support the learner in developing ownership of the task,
  3. design an authentic task,
  4. design the task to reflect the complexity of the environment the learner will face,
  5. support and challenge the learner's thinking,
  6. encourage testing ideas against alternative views and alternative contexts, and
  7. provide opportunity for reflection on the content learned and the learning process (Savery & Duffy, 1995).

The last two principles relate strongly to developing critical thinking attributes. Instructors of information resources need to bear in mind that technology supports knowledge construction and does not define it. Teaching technology based tools, the vehicles of online information, should be part of the learning process and not an end in itself.

Teaching Critical Thinking

The roots of the critical thinking movement in education are in the 1980 California State University Executive Order announcing the requirement of formal instruction in critical thinking which stated:

Instruction in critical thinking is to be designed to achieve an understanding of the relationship of language to logic, which should lead to the ability to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively and to reach factual or judgemental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief (Dumke, 1980).

Although appearing to be in the realm of philosophy or literature studies, critical thinking now emphasizes the mental attitudes or "dispositions" and the application of reasoning to everyday situations.

Critical thinking across the disciplines share common features.

  1. Critical thinking is a learnable skill with teachers and peers serving as resources.
  2. Problems, questions, and issues serve as the source of motivation for the learner.
  3. Courses are assignment centered rather than text or lecture oriented.
  4. Goals, methods, and evaluation emphasize using content rather than simply acquiring it.
  5. Students need to formulate and justify their ideas in writing.
  6. Students collaborate to learn and enhance their thinking (Meyers 1986).

These straightforward ideas are easily applicable to the online setting. Instructors must refocus their thinking away from individual mastery of the resources and the product of competency. The focus should be instead on teaching the process of information discovery within the learner's own contextual meaning. Will the sought after information solve the problem, will it lead to learning, and the self-construction of knowledge? These should be the leading objectives as we practice and mentor the goals of "information literacy."

An Instructional Design Project

The author, endeavoring to practice what she preaches, collaborated with two English instructors to develop a self-paced "laboratory" course for practicing critical thinking skills. The objective of the one-unit workbook-based class is for the student to explore the information resources of the Internet, employing the attributes of a critical thinker. The simply stated criteria for critical thinking, agreed upon by the three collaborating instructors are:

  1. Differentiate between fact and opinion.
  2. Examine the assumptions, including your own.
  3. Be flexible and open minded as you look for explanations, causes, and solutions to problems.
  4. Be aware of fallacious arguments, ambiguity, and manipulative reasoning.
  5. Stay focused on the whole picture, while examining the specifics.
  6. Look for reputable sources.

Starting with the concept of the world of information from personal observation to cultural assumptions of what we "know," the student is given the "tools" to locate information on the Internet and the explanation of how they function only when as the tools become necessary. The student initiates his or her inquiry with a generally accepted knowledge base - the weather, and proceeds to a self-selected field of expertise or interest. Guidelines for evaluation of resources are introduced to the student, and the student is asked to select and compare research tools and the resultant findings, suggest reasons for the results, and possible modifications of the search process. The student will then write a research paper incorporating the selected, evaluated, and synthesized online information.

The instructional design parameters for self-paced instruction included these factors:

  1. Instructional objectives stated initially to the learner.
  2. The learner selects his or her own path of inquiry.
  3. Small steps, with the necessary tools introduced only as they are needed.
  4. Frequent student interaction, requiring high level cognitive involvement.
  5. Alternative paths available for variable levels of involvement or usefulness.
  6. Evaluation of the process, not just the resources uncovered, with considerations of the value of the information, success of the endeavor, and other (non-online) possibilities of solving the inquiry.

We do not expect our learner to travel down our same path as librarian or researcher but to become independent knowledge seekers. There is no right or wrong process of research, although there are many heuristics we can pass on. Applicable use of information requires that we see knowledge acquisition as amorphous and changing. As librarians, so we are too. Let us teach those who come to us our strengths, not our past.


Berryman, S. E. 1991. Designing effective learning environments: Cognitive apprenticeship models. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 337689).

Bloom, B. S. 1960. Taxonomy of educational objectives: Cognitive domain/affective domain. David Mackay Company, New York.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. 1989. Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In: Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (ed. by L. B. Resnick). Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NY.

Dewey, J. 1933. Experience and education. Macmillan, New York.

Dumke, G. 1980. Chancellor's Executive Order 338. California State University, Chancellor's Office, Long Beach.

Meyers, C. 1985. Teaching students to think critically. Jossey Bass, San Francisco.

Savery, J. R. & Duffy, T. M. 1995. Problem based learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework. Educational Technology 33(1) 31-38.

Shapiro, J. J. & Hughes, S. K. 1996. Information technology as a liberal art: Enlightenment proposals for a new curriculum. Educom Review 31(2) 31-35.

Statz, C. McArthur, D., Lewis, M., & Ramsey, K. 1991. Teaching and learning generic skills for the workplace. National Center for Research in Vocational Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 329682).

United States. Dept. of Labor. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. 1991. What work requires of schools : a SCANS report for America 2000. Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, U.S. Dept. of Labor, [Washington, D.C.]

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