Planets Apart: Recognizing Students' Different Information Communities

I try my best to be an involved parent, and yet I continually find I am unable to keep up with all of the media that my eight- and eleven--year-old children interact with on a daily basis. Recently, I was in a bookstore when my daughter spotted a book and exclaimed that we had to buy it for her older brother since he loves the author's YouTube channel and Tapas comics; The thing is, when I looked at the cover art, I did not recognize it. All the advice that parents should know what their children are looking at online went through my mind. I had clearly failed at this, and I am likely not alone (Robb 2017).

But, I did listen to my daughter and bought the book, The Odd 1s Out: How to Be Cool and Other Things I Definitely Learned from Growing Up by James Rallison. And, she was absolutely right. My son, who is not always the most enthusiastic reader, lit up when he saw the book, took it to school the next day, and finished it before I picked him up. Other classmates had noticed the book and wanted to borrow it, but he said he wanted me to read it. Of course, how could I resist? I dove right in, also adding it my high school library's What We're Currently Reading online slideshow, and that particular slide immediately caught the attention of students. The response was overwhelming.

Should I have been surprised that so many students recognized the book? Apparently not. It turns out TheOdd1sOut YouTube channel has over 9.2 million subscribers. Playing a comparison game inspired by my students, this means the channel has about as many subscribers as the population of Tajikistan. In fact, after seeing The Odd 1s Out in the slideshow, students asked me if there are more books by YouTubers, including Jacksepticeye and Markiplier. Now, imagine hearing these names without seeing them written out. Having never heard of them myself, let's just say I had to have students repeat the names several times. Finding them on YouTube, I found they have even higher subscriber counts of about 20.8 million and 22.4 million respectively, values closely equivalent to the populations of Sri Lanka and Niger.

If you are reading this and know these YouTubers, then you are much more in tune with the tastes of young people than I was. I found myself feeling very old and out of the loop. Generation gaps are not something new, though, and as an educator, I try to mindfully account for the different informational and experiential contexts of younger students. To this point, I check out the Mindset Lists ( each year for concrete examples of how my own framework for understanding the world may contrast with that of my students.

From the Class of 2019 list, "Google has always been there, in its founding words, 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible'" (McBride, Nief, and Westerberg 2018). Students have never lived in a world without Google. Another entry, "Email has become the new 'formal' communication, while texts and tweets remain enclaves for the casual," also resonated with me since I commonly encounter high school students who have little email experience. I remember being surprised the first time a high-performing student sheepishly asked for help sending an email, because they had never had to do so on their own before. I am no longer surprised.

These examples fit trends I frequently encounter regarding generational differences with technology. Conversations seem to focus on use in terms of habits (e.g., time spent online), tools (e.g., mobile device usage), effects connected to tools, and platforms (e.g., social media preferences).What the Odd1sOut experience made me reflect on, though, is how I may focus more on differences in terms of the content and specific media that we consume.

Filter Bubbles and Information Communities

Conversations about media consumption have certainly not been absent from the news. With the current state of political polarization, the concept of information filter bubbles popularized by Eli Pariser is one way to explain how people "inhabit different worlds" (Mitchell, Gottfried, Kiley, Matsa 2014) based on their political proclivities and reinforced by algorithms. While there are plenty of scholars examining the phenomenon of political media polarization—one of my favorites is Jonathan Albright of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism—information bubbles occur along many more vectors than party affiliation.

Online spaces have also been discussed as being segregated along racial lines (Waddell 2016), again reinforced by algorithms (Noble 2016) born from the specific biases of their creators. Speaking of bias, the Mindset List mentioned previously has been challenged for assumptions inherent in its language and examples ("More Nonsense" 2018). In both cases the implication is that the experiences of whole groups of people are being excluded by omission or else characterized stereotypically from a singular, outsider perspective. It is not just a matter of people living in different information bubbles, but how they end up in them and what content is—or is not—represented and how that content is presented.

People accessing different information clearly warrants serious consideration; but, with my YouTube fans, I started reflecting on how even more whimsical information groupings may function for students. For years now, I have been intrigued by the concept of "tribes" that I encountered through the works of Seth Godin. For him, the driving force behind belonging to a "tribe" is establishing human connection, having shared experiences, and being part of a community (2008). Thanks to abundance afforded by the Internet, while mindful of warnings about potential ill-effects of abundance (anderson 2016), I appreciate Godin's suggestion that people no longer need to accept isolation. No matter how weird we are—and we are all weird—we can find others like us. We are not alone. My videogame loving students are not alone.

Seeking an alternative to the problematic term tribe, I realized that community of practice is a close analog. "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner 2015). This term is one I frequently come across in professional readings, most likely because communities of practice seem appropriately applicable within work settings that require learning to drive and improve practice.

Thinking about YouTuber communities, I wouldn't say that their faithful fans constitute an actual community of practice; nonetheless, they form a community of sorts. Upon further exploration, I discovered more ways to label and categorize communities and then I was reminded of "information communities," which I learned about in theory years ago during the first semester of my MLIS program. Joan Durrance defines information communities as "constituencies united by a common interest in building and increasing access to sets of dynamic, linked, and varying information resources" (2001). It turns out I had been prepared to think about this all along, but now I can explore the concept in practice.

The Importance of Metaknowledge

Let's return to the information community I learned about thanks to those student fans of Jacksepticeye and Markiplier. Figuring out how to spell those names, I searched to see if they had published any books. At the same time, though, I remembered seeing news stories about hugely popular, but controversial, YouTubers PewDiePie and Logan Paul. With Odd1sOut, I had read the book myself. But, short of doing this, how do I determine if these other channels and their creators share content that is appropriate for my school-aged audience? Without any contextual knowledge about them, where do I start to make sense of who they are and what they are about?

If there are still any doubters about the place for Wikipedia in research, this is a good opportunity to dispel that myth. Reading Wikipedia articles on Jacksepticeye and Markiplier informed me that they both specialize in let's play videos, a genre that I've seen my son watch but a term new to me. I accessed articles linked as references and learned about specifics to research further. I gained some basic bearings and was reminded of a quote by library manager Aaron Tay: "How do we identify such experts if we are not experts ourselves? The key insight is that experts not only have more content knowledge, they also have better metaknowledge" (2016).

What exactly is metaknowledge? George Musser explains, it is "knowledge about knowledge. Metaknowledge means you are aware of what you know or don't know, and of where your level of knowledge stands in relation to other people's" (2016). In this case, I not only lack knowledge about the specific content creators, I also lack metaknowledge about the inner-workings, interrelations, and politics of the related YouTube channel world. This makes it difficult to confidently evaluate them in as informed a manner as someone who has not only watched their videos, but also those created by similar channels. I have no solid grounding for comparison.

Generalizing this, effective information evaluation is extremely difficult anytime someone lacks metaknowledge built through sustained exploration of an expansive body of works related to a topic. To help we provide scaffolds to bridge their gaps in knowledge. But, even as students interact with new information and gain some basic knowledge to fill those gaps, they still lack substantial metaknowledge.

The extent to which my informational orbits fail to intersect with those of students became clear to me this year when I created a lesson about tracing evidence to primary sources. After using a Newsweek article as an example, I learned through discussion that only one student in the class had ever heard of Newsweek. Recognizing my faulty assumptions about what constitutes common metaknowledge, I did some digging and found that, according to their 2017 media kit, the print magazine only had global circulation of 200,000. Digitally, they had 8+ million global unique visitors, but that is still less than the number of subscribers for any of the YouTube channels I've mentioned (Newsweek).

Increasing Student Metaknowledge and Analogizing Their Information Experience

Given their minimal metaknowledge, how do we help students evaluate unfamiliar information that they encounter? Some advice I have been integrating into my research instruction comes from the Stanford History Education Group. In their Reading Like a Historian curriculum, students are prompted to use historical thinking to evaluate information through four skill domains: sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading (Stanford History Education Group 2018). A key shift in instruction involves recognizing limitations of source evaluation checklists and teaching students the practice of lateral reading (Breakstone, McGrew, Smith, Ortega, and Wineburg 2018) to place information in greater perspective, seeing what other information is out there and finding out what others have to say about the information under evaluation (Wineburg and McGrew 2018). Lateral reading develops metaknowledge.

Although I am just starting to experiment with teaching lateral reading skills to evaluate resources, one simple change I have made to increase student metaknowledge is regarding information itself. By providing direct instruction about information production and infrastructure, I seek to expand students' understanding about these aspects of information that often go unidentified and unaddressed due to an understandable focus on content. For instance, students are often surprised to learn that the Internet is more than what you can Google. They hear attacks on the media, and yet they are unaware of the existence of professional journalistic ethics to use as a measure or the variety of article types and ever-emerging formats. They not only need to learn how to effectively search online databases; they need to learn what academic research is in the first place. Explicitly introducing concepts and providing language to name and dissect information as a subject renders it visible as a product and establishes a foundation for evaluation.

Far too often, we as educators may be quick to lament all the knowledge (and metaknowledge) that students lack. What I'm realizing is that this is just a lack of knowledge in what we are teaching. They simply inhabit different information communities. By acknowledging how we lack just as much knowledge in what interests them, there are several potential benefits. First, valuing students' interests is an easy way to connect with them and show that we care. Inspired by writing this article, I created an assignment for my student library aides to share their favorite media with me. After reviewing the instructions, a student told me she loved the premise. She worked on it at home even though I planned to provide class time to complete it, and she had the biggest smile when we then talked about what she had shared. Feel free to copy and adapt this idea to learn about the media that your students follow. You can also check out the collection of some media that my students shared.

Another benefit to observing students within their information communities of choice is that we may find ways to analogize information literacy skills they have developed and apply them to academic contexts. After all, the more I observe students, I realize that they have developed many skills all on their own; they just do not necessarily transfer them to unfamiliar information they encounter in school. In November 2018, I co-presented Scaffolding Without Spoonfeeding When Teaching Research with teacher librarian colleagues Anthony Devine (@anthonyrdevine) and Stephanie Macceca (@readingpusher) and we included examples of research-related analogies (slides 28-36) we have used with students such as making side-by-side comparisons of library database search filters with those on Amazon. We have likened markers of authority such as investigating a scholar's body of work and citation chains to how students carefully scrutinize and interpret the social media accounts of people they like (or don't like), who follows whom and who is liking what. Another analogy that always goes over well is illustrating bias by comparing expertly angled selfies with those unflattering photos students stealthily take others. In both cases, the subject of the photos is the same. Neither image is false or untrue, but the framing and presentation contrast sharply. Bias is a constant.

If analogies abound, why don't students automatically transfer their information literacy skills? I'm starting to believe that I've been underestimating the difficulty of skill transfer given barriers caused by an absence of content knowledge. This is a critical point for further consideration particularly when students do not share knowledge assumed by the majority in a community. And, I would argue that adults are not immune. Recently, after sharing my YouTube anecdotes with some teachers in passing, they essentially echoed the response, "I don't even try to keep up with what students are into." I can't help but think that part of this resistance is due to the fact that it feels so disconcerting to learn about something outside of one's own experience that it is easier to disengage. Of course, this is exactly why I think we must try. Having the experience of sense making with a topic utterly unfamiliar to me helps me retain humility when it comes to teaching research. My feelings of confusion and ineptitude are exactly what students experience whenever we have them interact with information that is new to them. I get to practice my own advice when it comes to identifying expertise in an area in which I lack metaknowledge, and I wonder, how will they grade my evaluation efforts of the media they love?

Works Cited

Anderson, Kent. "How's That 'Abundance' Thing Working Out for You?" The Scholarly Kitchen (November 17, 2016).

Breakstone, Joel, Sarah McGrew, Mark Smith, Tessa Ortega, and Sam Wineburg. "Why We Need a New Approach to Teaching Digital Literacy." Phi Delta Kappan 99, no. 6 (March 2018).

Durrance, Joan C. "The Vital Role of Librarians in Creating Information Communities: Strategies for Success." Library Administration & Management 15, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 162-167.

Godin, Seth. "Tribes Q&A." Seth's Blog (November 16, 2008).

McBride, Tom, Ron Nief, and Charles Westerberg. "The Mindset List® For the Class of 2019." The Mindset Lists. Accessed December 9, 2018.

Mitchell, Amy, Katerina E. Matsa, Jeffrey Gottfried, and Jocelyn Kiley. "Political Polarization & Media Habits." Pew Research Center. October 21, 2014.

"More Nonsense from Ron Nief" Beloit Mindlessness (September 29, 2018).

Musser, George. "Metaknowledge." Aeon. July 6, 2016. .

"Newsweek Sales 2017." Newsweek, 2017.

Noble, Safiya. "Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression." Personal Democracy Forum, YouTube (June 15, 2016).

Tay, Aaron. "Librarian & Fake News: Bayes, Metaknowledge & Epistemic Humility." Musings about Librarianship. February 18, 2016.

Robb, Michael. "Think You Know What Your Kids Are Doing Online? Think Again" Common Sense Media (December 11, 2017).

Stanford History Education Group. Historical Thinking Chart. Accessed December 9, 2018.

Waddell, Kaveh. "The Internet May Be as Segregated as a City." The Atlantic (September 6, 2016).

Wenger-Trayner, Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner. "Introduction to Communities of Practice." Wenger-Trayner. 2015.

Wineburg, Sam, and Sarah McGrew. "Lateral Reading and the Nature of Expertise: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information." Stanford Digital Repository July 28, 2018.


What We're Currently Reading:

"Scaffolding Without Spoonfeeding When Teaching Research" presentation

Library aide assignment

And some of the media my students shared:

Tracing primary sources lesson:

SHEG Reading like a Historian:

About the Author

Suzanne Sannwald, MLIS, is a teacher librarian at West Hills High School in Santee, CA. Having completed the teacher librarian credential program and earned her master's in library and information science from San Jose State University, Suzanne is a Spectrum Scholar alumnus and current AASL Induction Program participant. She mashes up her previous professional experiences as a classroom teacher, classified employee, and technology administrator at the middle, high school, and higher education levels within both public and corporate settings. Connect with her on Twitter: @suzannesannwald

MLA Citation Sannwald, Suzanne. "Planets Apart: Recognizing Students' Different Information Communities." School Library Connection, April 2019,

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Entry ID: 2187122

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