Information Literacy

In recent weeks I’ve encountered several conversations about what it means to be “literate” in a digital age. While notions of literacy have existed for as long as schools, our understandings of what this means are changing.

At the recent SLANZA conference in Auckland, Karen Sewell, the CEO of ERO , spoke of the importance of a school-wide development of information literacy, and the need for all schools to have an information literacy plan in place.

The American Library Association has recently published its Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education which provides some useful pointers as to what an information literate person may look like.

The ALA provides the following definition: “Information literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”, and suggests that an information literate individual is able to:

  • Determine the extent of information needed
  • Access the needed information effectively and efficiently
  • Evaluate information and its sources critically
  • Incorporate selected information into one??s knowledge base
  • Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  • Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

Although written with a higher ed (tertiary) audience in mind, this is certainly worth a read for those in the school sector. The challenge will be to consider what sort of modelling and scaffolding is appropriate in a school-based information literacy plan to ensure that these are the sorts of attributes that our learners will possess once they leave school.

While I am encouraged to read of this approach to information literacy, and find plenty of useful stuff here, I also have a caution about how some schools or teachers may approach the development of a IL plan.

In her book, Catching the Knowledge Wave , Jane Gilbert discusses the need for the development of ‘multi-literacies’ – ie creating a wider focus than simply the read/write literacies that underpin so much of our present education system. Jane is also critical of an approach to teaching information literacy skills that is divorced from the context of information sharing and knowledge creation that these skills are necessary for. The following quote from her book illustrates this:

    “Recent published work on the future of schooling has a lot to say about the role of ICT’s in schools. For many authors, the knowledge age of ICT’s are virtually synonymous. ICT’s are seen as a magic bullet the will revolutionise teaching and learning. However, if we look closely at how these authors think this will happen , we can see that these claims are not very convincing. The first thing to notice is that the ICT’s they talk about are not the kind that involve text messaging, MSN, chat rooms, online gaming or downloading music videos. Rather, the focus, in general, is on using ICT’s to do more or less what schools have always done, but doing it better, faster, and in ways that are more appealing to students. The thinking is that, thorough ICT’s learners can be connected to vast amounts of information, and be part of a worldwide network of learners. Furthermore, ICT’s in schools are an important way of bridging the “digital divide”. Using ICT, these resources can be offered to a wide range of people who would not otherwise have access to them, and these people can acquire the computer-related skills that, we are told, are now essential in the employment market place.
    Schools have responded to these discussions by developing “information literacy” programmes, teaching students about the Internet, and designing talks that students can tackle using information available on websites(with the help of online resources provided by their teachers). This is digital “busy work”. However, it is valued because students are using technologies that have a high status in the works outside school, and this, it seems, must be a good thing.
    These approaches, when looked at in terms of how they are educating students for life in the knowledge age, have important flaws. First, and most obviously, the information learners have access to isn’t knowledge in either the old sense of the term, or as in the new sense. Second, having access to large amounts of information doesn’t necessarily lead to large amounts of learning. Without a clear context for accessing this information, the students quickly experience information overload. Third, while there is a lot of talk about learning, there is very little discussion of what – if anything – students need to learn and/or why they might need to learn it. As far as I can tell, it seems to be assumed that students will learn more or less the same kinds of things they have always learned or that it doesn’t really matter what they are learning as long as they are learning something.
    Worse however, this approach misses the point entirely in terms of what is significant about the new age. All the talk about information – the information revolution and so on – deflects attention from what really matters in the new age, which isn’t information at all. What is significant is the relationships between people and between people and organisations, that are made possible by the new modes of communication. It also takes attention away from knowledge, in particular the new meaning of knowledge that is the defining feature of the knowledge age. This new meaning is entirely missed from the current focus in ICT’s in schools, and we are consequently losing the opportunity to develop the incredible educational potential of these technologies.
    Current approaches will do little to revolutionise teaching and learning.”

( from “Catching the Knowledge Wave, page 119”

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