Evaluating Infographics

I subscribe to communications from the Online Learning Consortium, and a couple of weeks ago, they sent out an infographic about the state of online education. Since I’m interested in online learning (I did my MLIS online, and I have taken a class on teaching online), I took a look at it, and I was surprised that the infographic indicated that 75 percent of undergraduates are age 25 or older. Right now I work at a community college library in Central California, and we have a ton of nontraditional students, but the number of students age 25 and older is 35.6 percent; statewide, the number of community college students who are age 25 or older is 42.9 percent. The 75 percent figure that all undergraduates in the country are nontraditional as claimed by OLC seemed wrong to me. 75 percent?! [Although, I did discover that, according to Choy (2002), if a more broad definition of nontraditional is used, this figure is estimated at 73 percent.]

I seem to be helping a lot of students with fact-checking specific statistics lately.  Thankfully, I can point students to resources like the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) data, but statistics aren’t easy to look through or interpret, demonstrated by my experience analyzing the infographic.

OLC cited sources at the very bottom of the infographic, but it’s not clear which source goes to which fact. I dug into every single link to try to figure out where this 75 percent thing came from, but I was a little overwhelmed because I am not drawn to charts, lines, and numbers (data scientists and data science/statistics librarians, I bow down). I also recruited the librarians at the other campus to help me, and one of them wrote back to me that they had over-simplified the information as the education statistics are divided by type of college. Here’s what the National Center for Education Statistics’ Characteristics of Postsecondary Students information actually says:

In 2013, a higher percentage of full-time undergraduate students at public and private nonprofit 4-year institutions were young adults (i.e., under the age of 25) than at comparable 2-year institutions. At public and private nonprofit 4-year institutions, most of the full-time undergraduates (88 and 86 percent, respectively) were young adults. At private for-profit 4-year institutions, however, just 30 percent of full-time students were young adults (39 percent were ages 25–34, and 31 percent were age 35 and older).

Not cool OLC.

Evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting information, whether in text, numbers, or images is such an important skill, not just for school purposes; it’s a life skill. One of my good friends who teaches English shared Sheida White’s article “Seven Sets of Evidence-Based Skills for Successful Literacy Performance” (2011) from the now defunct Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal. In the article, which is based on her book Understanding Adult Functional Literacy: Connecting Text Features, Task Demands, and Respondent Skills (2011), she lists seven skills that are needed for “adolescents and adults to meet the literacy demands of education, work, citizenship, and daily life,” which include text search skills, inferential skills, language comprehension skills, basic reading skills, computation identification skills, computation performance skills, and application skills (p. 40). White writes:

…[S]econdary, post-secondary, and adult education programs typically do not provide explicit classroom instruction in the quantitative literacy skills needed to work with numbers embedded in prose and document texts. In fact, mathematical information is often stripped away from any surrounding authentic texts in schools to produce a cleaner measure of students’ skills in mathematics as a separate domain. This approach, does not reflect the way adolescents and adults typically encounter quantitative problems in their daily lives, including workplaces. (p. 47)

This article changed the way my friend taught her courses. Like many English and communication teachers, she has an assignment where she has students evaluate an advertisement for modes of persuasion, but she started adding in-class assignments where students had to breakdown a passage with numbers to build their own chart. She also has them analyze charts and write down what they think the chart is showing. This was a hard task for some of her lower level students. She and I dreamed of creating a learning community between English, math, and the library resources class (I have never taught it, and we were planning to offer it in Spring 2017, but I’m leaving) to work on some of these and other literacies. (See Jacobson and Mackey’s presentation from ACRL 2013 on metaliteracy and the Metaliteracy blog).

I often think about the assignments I might give if I taught information literacy in a credit class environment. I love the idea of evaluating an infographic or looking at and interpreting a chart. So far, Project CORA doesn’t have an assignment on evaluating infographics but rather has an assignment on designing infographics, but I will do a little more digging elsewhere later. Brain Pickings recently had an article about the new book Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, where Jacobs is quoted as saying:

If I were running a school, I’d have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority — it could be by the teacher, or something they see in print, but something that they don’t agree with — and refute it.

I think with some modification a weekly statistics-checking exercise done in PolitiFact (the editor has a Masters in journalism and a Masters in Library and Information Science) fashion might be fun. I know the perfect infographic to start with. 😉

Choy, S. (2002). Nontraditional undergraduates. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf

Jacobson, T.E., & Mackey, T. (2013). What’s in a name? Information literacy, metaliteracy, or transliteracy? [SlideShare slides]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/tmackey/acrl-2013

National Center of Education Statistics. (2015, May). The condition of education: Characteristics of postsecondary students. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_csb.asp

Online Learning Consortium. (2016). 2016 higher education online learning landscape. Retrieved from http://info2.onlinelearningconsortium.org/rs/897-CSM-305/images/OLC2016ONLINELEARNINGIMPERATIVEINFOGRAPHIC.pdf

Popova, M. (2016, May 4). Urbanism patron saint Jane Jacobs on our civic duty in cultivating cities that foster a creative life [Weblog]. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/05/04/jane-jacobs-last-interview/

White, S. (2011). Seven sets of evidence-based skills for successful literacy performance. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal, 5(1), 38-48. Retrieved from http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ918178

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