Elsevier’s James Harper has just written a valuable new guidance article for the Engineering Ethics Toolkit on Why information literacy is an ethical issue in engineering. We got together with him to discuss this further.

 

James, where did your passion for this issue originate and how can the resources available for information literacy be put to use both by faculty and students?  

We live in a time marked by an unprecedented deluge of information, where distinguishing reliable and valuable content has become increasingly difficult. My concern was to help engineering educators meet the critical challenge of fostering ethical behaviour in their students in this complex world. Students are in real need of an ethical compass to navigate this information overload, and the digital landscape in particular. They need to acquire what we call ‘information and digital literacy’, specifically, learning how to research, select and critically assess reliable data. This is both a skill and a practice.  

For students, how does this skill relate to the engineering workplace? 

From observing professional engineers, it’s clear they require comprehensive insights and data to resolve problems, complete projects, and foster innovation. This necessitates extensive research, encompassing case studies, standards, best practices, and examples to validate or refute their strategies. Engineering is a profession deeply rooted in the analysis of failures in order to prevent avoidable mistakes. As a result, critical and unbiased thinking is essential and all the more so in the current state of the information landscape. This is something Knovel specifically strives to improve for the communities we serve. 

Knovel – a reference platform I’ve significantly contributed to – was initially built for practising engineers. Our early realisation was that the biggest obstacle for engineers in accessing the best available information wasn’t a lack of resources, but barriers such as insufficient digitalisation, technological hurdles, and ambiguous usage rights. Nowadays, the challenge has evolved: there’s an overload of online information, emerging yet unreliable sources like certain chatbots, and a persistently fragmented information landscape.  

How is Knovel used in engineering education? Can you share some insights on how to make the most of it? 

Knovel is distinguished by its extensive network of over 165 content partners worldwide, offering a breadth of trusted perspectives to meet the needs of a range of engineering information challenges. It’s an invaluable tool for students, especially those in project-based learning programs during their Undergraduate and Master’s studies. These students are on the cusp of facing real-world engineering challenges, and Knovel exposes them to the information practices of professional engineers. 

The platform is adept at introducing students to the research methodologies and information sources that a practising engineer would utilise. It helps them understand how professionals in their field gather insights, evaluate information, and engage in the creative process of problem-solving. While Knovel includes accessible introductory content, it progressively delves into more advanced topics, helping students grasp the complexities of decision-making in engineering. This approach makes Knovel an ideal companion for students transitioning from academic study to professional engineering practice. 

How is the tool used by educators? 

For educators, the tool offers support starting in the foundational years of teaching, covering all aspects of project-based learning and beyond. It is also an efficient way for faculty to remain up-to-date with the latest information and data on key issues. Ultimately, it is educators who have the challenge of guiding students towards reputable, suitable, traceable information. In doing so, educators are helping students to understand that where they gather information, and how they use it, is in itself an ethical issue. 

To learn more about the competence of information literacy check out our guidance article, Why information literacy is an ethical issue in engineering.

Knovel for Higher Education is an Elsevier product. As a publisher-neutral platform, Knovel helps engineering students explore foundational literature with interactive tools and data. 

46% of EPC members already have access to Knovel. To brainstorm how you can make the best use of Knovel in your classroom, please contact: Susan Watson, susan.watson@elsevier.com.  

Faculty and students can check their access to Knovel using their university email address at the following link: Account Verification – Knovel

Get Knovel to accelerate R&D, validate designs and prepare technical professionals. Innovate in record time with multidisciplinary knowledge you can trust: Knovel: Engineering innovation in record time

 

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

Author: James E. Harper, Senior Product Manager (Knovel /Elsevier).

Keywords: Information literacy; digital literacy; misleading information; source and data reliability; ethical behaviour; sustainability. 

Who is this article for?: This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to integrate technical information literacy into the engineering and design curriculum or module design. It will also help to provide students, particularly those embarking on Bachelor’s or Master’s research projects, with the integrated skill sets that employers are looking for, in particular, the ability to critically evaluate information. 

 

Introduction:

In an era dominated by digital information, engineering educators face the critical challenge of preparing students not just in technical skills, but in navigating the complex digital landscape with an ethical compass. This article explores how integrating information and digital literacy into engineering education is not only essential for fostering ethical behaviour but also crucial for ensuring sustainability in engineering practices. 

The intertwined nature of information and digital literacy in engineering is undeniable. Engineering practitioners need to be able to select and critically assess the reliability of the information sources they use to ensure they comply with ethical practice.  The Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering’s Joint Statement of Ethical Principles underscores the need for accuracy and rigour, a core component of these literacies. Faculty members play a pivotal role in cultivating these skills, empowering students and practitioners to responsibly source and utilise information. 

 

The challenge of information overload:

One of the challenges facing trained engineers, engineering faculty and students alike is that of accessing, critically evaluating, and using accurate and reliable information.  

A professional engineer needs to gather insights and information to solve problems, deliver projects, and drive innovation. This involves undertaking as much research as possible: looking at case-studies, standards, best practices, and examples that will support or disprove what they think is the best approach. In a profession where the analysis of failures is a core competence, critical, dispassionate thinking is vital.  In fact, to be digitally literate, an ethically responsible engineer must know how to access, evaluate, utilise, manage, analyse, create, and interact using digital resources (Martin, 2008). 

Students, while adept at online searching, often struggle with assessing the credibility of sources, particularly information gleaned on social media, especially in their early academic years. This scenario necessitates faculty guidance in discerning reputable and ethical information sources, thereby embedding an ethical approach to information use early in their professional development. 

 

Accuracy and rigour:

Acquisition of ‘information literacy’ contributes to compliance with the Statement of Ethical Principles in several ways. It promotes the ‘accuracy and rigour’ essential to engineering. It guarantees the basis and scope of engineering expertise and reliability so that engineers effectively contribute to the well-being of society and its safety and understand the limits of their expertise. It also contributes to promoting ‘respect for the environment and public good’, not just by ensuring safety in design, drawing up safety standards and complying with them, but also by integrating the concept of social responsibility and sustainability into all projects and work practices. In addition, developing students’ capacity to analyse and assess the accuracy and reliability of environmental data enables them to recognise and avoid ‘green-washing’, a growing concern for many of them. 

 

Employability:

In the workplace, the ability to efficiently seek out relevant information is invaluable. In a project-based, problem-solving learning environment students are often confronted with the dilemma of how to refine their search to look for the right level of information from the very beginning of an experiment or research project. By acquiring this ‘information literacy’ competence early on in their studies they find themselves equipped with skills that are ‘workplace-ready’. For employers this represents a valuable competence and for students it constitutes an asset for their future employability. 

 

Tapping into specialised platforms:

In 2006 the then-CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt famously said “Google is not a truth machine”, and the recent wave of AI-powered chatbots all come with a stark disclaimer that they “may display incorrect or harmful information”, and “can make mistakes. Consider checking important information.”  Confronted with information overload and the difficulty of sifting through non-specialised and potentially unreliable material provided by major search engines, students and educators need to be aware of the wealth of reliable resources available on specialised platforms. For example, Elsevier’s engineering-focused, purpose-built platform, Knovel, offers trustworthy, curated engineering content from a large variety of providers. By giving students access to the same engineering resources and tools as professionals in the field it enables them to incorporate technical information into their work and provides them with early exposure to the industry standard. For educators, it offers support for the foundational years of teaching, covering all aspects of problem-based learning and beyond. It is also an efficient way of remaining up-to-date with the latest information and data on key issues. The extensive range of information and data available equips students and engineers with the ability to form well-rounded, critical perspectives on the various interests and power dynamics that play a role in the technical engineering challenges they endeavour to address. 

 

Conclusion:

By embedding information and digital literacy into the fabric of engineering education (such as by using this case study), we not only promote ethical behaviour but also prepare students for the challenges of modern engineering practice. These skills are fundamental to the ethical and sustainable advancement of the engineering profession. 

 

Knovel for Higher Education is an Elsevier product. As a publisher-neutral platform, Knovel helps engineering students explore foundational literature with interactive tools and data.  

46% of EPC members already have access to Knovel.  If you don’t currently have access but would like to try Knovel in your teaching or to brainstorm how you can make the best use of Knovel in your classroom, please contact: Susan Watson,  susan.watson@elsevier.com. Check out this useful blog post from James Harper on exactly that topic here.

Faculty and students can check their access to Knovel using their university email address at the following link: Account Verification – Knovel

 

References:

 

Additional Resources:

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.


Authors:
Cortney Holles (Colorado School of Mines); Ekaterina Rzyankina (University of Cape Town).

Topic: Critical digital literacy.

Engineering disciplines: Computer Science; Information Systems; Biomedical engineering.

Ethical issues: Cultural context; Social responsibility; Privacy.

Professional situations: Public health and safety; Working in area of competence; Informed consent.

Educational level: Intermediate.

Educational aim: Engaging in ethical judgement: reaching moral decisions and providing the rationale for those decisions.

 

Learning and teaching notes:

The case involves an engineering student whose personal choices may affect her future professional experience. It highlights both micro- and macro-ethical issues, dealing with the ways that individual actions and decisions can scale to create systemic challenges.

An ethical and responsible engineer should know how to work with and use digital information responsibly. Not all materials available online are free to use or disperse. To be digitally literate, a person must know how to access, evaluate, utilise, manage, analyse, create, and interact using digital resources (Martin, 2008). It is important to guide engineering students in understanding the media landscape and the influence of misleading information on our learning, our political choices, and our careers. A large part of critical digital literacy is evaluating information found on the web. For students working on a research project or an experiment, accessing accurate information is imperative. This case study offers several approaches to engaging students in the critique and improvement of their critical digital literacy skills. The foundations of this lesson can be applied in multiple settings and can be expanded to cover several class periods or simplified to be inserted into a single class.

This case study addresses two of AHEP 4’s themes: The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this case study to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37.

The dilemma in this case is presented in two parts. If desired, a teacher can use the Summary and Part one in isolation, but Part two develops and complicates the concepts presented in the Summary and Part one to provide for additional learning. The case allows teachers the option to stop at multiple points for questions and / or activities as desired.

Learners have the opportunity to:

Teachers have the opportunity to:

 

Learning and teaching resources:

News articles:

Educational institutions:

Legal regulations:

Non-profit organisations:

Business:

 

Summary:

Katherine is a biomedical engineering student in her 3rd year in 2022, and will have a placement in a community hospital during her last term at university. She plans to pursue a career in public health after seeing what her country went through during the Covid-19 pandemic. She wants to contribute to the systems that can prevent and track public health risks from growing too large to manage, as happened with Covid-19. She is motivated by improving systems of research and treatment for emerging diseases and knows that communication between a variety of stakeholders is of the utmost importance.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: What can you determine about Katherine’s values and motivation for her studies and her choice of career?

2. Discussion: How do you connect with her mission to improve diagnostic and treatment systems for public health threats?

3. Discussion: Who should be responsible for the messaging and processes for public health decisions? How are engineers connected to this system?

4. Activity: Research the Covid-19 vaccine rollout in the United Kingdom versus other countries – how did power, privilege, and politics influence the response?

5. Activity: Research current public health concerns and how they are being communicated to the public. In what ways might engineers affect how and what is communicated?

 

Dilemma – Part one:

As Katherine approaches the winter holiday season, she makes plans to visit her grandmother across the country. She hasn’t seen her since before the Covid-19 pandemic and is excited to be around her extended family for the holidays once again. However, she receives an email from her cousin informing everyone that he and his family are not vaccinated against Covid-19 because the whole vaccination operation was forced upon citizens and they refused to participate. Katherine is immediately worried for her grandmother – at 85 years old, she is at a higher risk than most – and for her brother, who suffers from Addison’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. Additionally, if Katherine comes into contact with Covid-19 while celebrating the holidays with her family, she could suffer repercussions at both her university and the hospital where she will work for her placement.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: How can Katherine communicate with her cousin about her concerns for her brother and grandmother? How might she use her expertise as a biomedical engineer in this conversation?

2. Discussion: What kind of information will be most convincing to support her decision? What sources would provide the evidence she is looking for, and which ones would provide counter arguments?

3. Discussion: What impacts might the decision have on Katherine’s position as a student or in the hospital?

4. Discussion: Do engineers, scientists, and medical professionals have more of an obligation to promote and adhere to public health guidance? Why or why not?

5. Activity: Talk to people in your life about their experience of navigating the Covid-19 vaccine. Did they choose to get it as soon as it was available? Did they avoid getting the vaccine for particular reasons? Were there impacts on their personal relationships or work because of their choices about the vaccine?

6. Activity: Research some of the impacts on individuals with health concerns and comorbidities in regard to Covid-19 and other viruses or public health concerns. How do these experiences match with or differ from your own?

7. Activity: Investigate the different ways that engineers were involved in vaccination development and response.    

 

Dilemma – Part two:

Katherine went back to university after a lengthy break for the holidays and immediately registered for an account on Facebook as a brand-new user. She was in such a hurry to have her profile up that she did not take the time to configure any privacy settings. She stayed up late reading an article about Covid-19  that had been posted on the website of one of the online newspapers. Before she posted this report on her own Facebook page, she did not verify the accuracy of the information or the source of the information.

 

Optional STOP for questions and activities:

1. Discussion: What kind of impact might this social media activity have on Katherine’s position as a student or in the company/organisation/hospital she is working for as an intern? What should Katherine be worried or concerned about after posting information?

2. Discussion: Do social media companies collect or ask for any other non-essential information from you? Why does the website claim that they are collecting or asking for your information? Does the website share/sell/trade the information that they collect from you? With whom does the website share your collected information? How long does the website keep your collected information? Does the website delete your information, or simply de-personalise it?

3. Discussion: Regarding question 2, how are engineers involved with products, processes, or services that enable those choices and actions?

4. Discussion: What is real and fake news? How do you know? What do you look for to know if it is real or fake news (share guidelines)? Do you expect it to be easy to spot fake news? Why should we care if people distribute and believe fake news?

Students are particularly susceptible to being duped by propaganda, misleading information, and fake news due to the significant role that information and communication technology which is problematic to verify plays in their everyday life. Students devote a significant portion of their time to participating in various forms of online activity, including watching television, playing online games, chatting, blogging, listening to music, posting photos of themselves on social networking sites, and searching for other individuals with whom they can engage in online conversation. Students owe a significant portion of what they know about the world and how they perceive reality to the content that they read online. While many people share reliable and positive information online, others may engage in negative impact information sharing:

5. Discussion: What are some other examples of how engineering might fall prey to negative impact information sharing?

6. Discussion: How might engineers help address the problem of fake news and negative impact information sharing?

 

References:

Martin, A. (2008). ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”’, in Lankshear C. and Knobel M. (eds.), Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies, and Practices. New York: Peter Lang,  (pp. 151-176).

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters.

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