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Using SIFT for Your Own Teaching & Content Curation

This semester, I am teaching my first lecture/lab (100 first-year public speaking students). When I was faced with a pivot to remote instruction a few weeks ago, students expressed concern over my choice to conduct our course without a textbook. While, initially, this decision was welcomed by students, once circumstances changed this quickly became a pain point considering the uncertainty of our path ahead. I was met with a sudden demand for comprehensive resources students could reference at home.

I quickly got to work evaluating open-access textbooks and other digital resources to share in our digital course space. To do this, I employed Mike Caulfield's SIFT framework, an approach I learned about from friend and librarian, Michele Santamaria.

This powerful framework is a curator's best ally. Not only is it helpful for faculty who need to curate resources but it's also a wonderful model to teach to students (which Michele did when she conducted an instructional session in my class this semester). Please enjoy Michele's insightful thoughts on SIFT below. (By the way, it was tough to resist the urge to call this post Cut the CRAAP and start to SIFT)


Curate your content better & teach a new way to evaluate

There are two goals for this post and they are mutually reinforcing: asking you to rethink how you evaluate information for the purposes of your own content curation and helping you better teach source evaluation. Both are pivotal in the current information environment and both are about consuming and creating information. The topic has become increasingly relevant to my new everyday reality, as I suspect it probably has for many of you. Currently, I’m navigating being an academic librarian with homeschooling my pre-schooler. When it comes to homeschooling my child, countless people on Facebook have been reaching out as content providers or perhaps even more accurately, content connectors. The step that’s missing here in what I’m seeing is that extra effort to curate. Thus, the situation I’m describing is rife with opportunity for deliberate content curation and also for inadvertent disinformation spreading.

While spreading a lesson plan that may not really be as authoritative as it seems may not seem to rise to the same level of implications as some unsubstantiated political ad, as an information literacy educator, I have to ask of this well-intentioned content: was any of it vetted by the poster before it was so enthusiastically shared? None of the posters have said that they have done source evaluation. Tip #1: as a best practice, I assume source vetting *has not occurred* unless the poster specifically points out that they have taken the time to evaluate. Given the stakes involved in disinformation and misinformation-spreading, it doesn’t matter who it is posting. I always assume that I still need to vet something.

Learning how to change your evaluation mindset

But here’s the good news: the evaluation method which I’m advocating for in this post doesn’t take more time than what you might have been taught in the past. It’s faster. To master this method what is required is a shift in your mindset about how to approach the credibility of a source. Rather than performing some kind of archaeological deep dive into the website itself (is it a .org? does it have grammar mistakes? Does it look amateurish in its design) what you are being asked to consider is the information context in which the source exists. In providing this new approach, I am discussing my take on how to use what Mike Caulfield has coined as the “SIFT” approach, with the S standing for “stop,” the I standing for “investigate the source,” the f standing for “find better coverage” and the t standing for “trace the source back.” Tip #2: To really embrace this method, you may need to let go many ideas you’ve long held as true about website evaluation.

SIFT: Stop, Investigate the Source, Find better coverage, Trace back to the original

Think of all the times you have instinctively liked something online and immediately shared. The “stop” in this evaluation method asks you to put that impulse on hold and sit with it. The stop also calls for regrouping if you find yourself going down some rabbit hole that isn’t leading you back to a greater contextual understanding of your source. With “investigate the source,” you aren’t looking at the typical signposts of credibility, like finding .edu in the URL. Instead, what you are doing is figuring out what you are looking at, and where it is really coming from to determine what makes that source an expert and what informs their point of view.

For “find better coverage,” what you need to do is think about what’s at stake with what’s being claimed on the website you are looking at and if you can find better or even alternative takes on what is being presented. In the case of “trace back to the original source,” you are trying to find your way back to where the information was originally presented, as so much of what we find online is devoid of context, frequently to the point of being a misrepresentation. What’s key to remember through all of this, is that sometimes reliability might be compromised because of a deliberate attempt to misinform, but the same result can happen as a more neutral result of disinformation.

Some final thoughts & best of luck SIFT-ing

The people posting educational resources for my son don’t have a manipulative intent in mind when they recommend things to me; they’re trying to help. But because they’re not consciously acting as information curators, it’s unlikely that they’ve evaluated what they’re providing. This is where SIFT can come in—as a tool for information creation and as a new way to teach about evaluating information. For more on SIFT, please check out Mike Caulfield’s post which also includes a handy infographic to help you and anyone you teach remember those key steps:

About the Author

Michele Santamaria is a Learning Design librarian at Millersville University. She recently published an article in "Library Trends" and is currently not really homeschooling her almost-five-year-old. Connect with her on Twitter.

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