When the Standards for Information Literacy Competency in Higher Education came out in 2000, I thought they were a step forward. We were broadening our concept of information literacy, which was (at last) far more than the nuts and bolts of how to use a library. I thought at the time that it made it very clear that information literacy had to be a campus-wide endeavor, not a library project.
But I had my issues with them. They made it look as if the research process was identical to an undergraduate-paper-writing process that started with “choose a topic" (though it was formulated as "determining an information need”) and ending with “don’t plagiarize” (or, as the Standards actually put it, "use information ethically and legally" - as if those two things always coexist). The focus on “information” as a commodity that can be manipulated and synthesized seemed to omit creativity and the social context in which ideas are shared, debated, forked, and morphed. They seemed at once over-simplified and way too detailed. And too many librarians cited the standards with the kind of familiarity cops have with the criminal code. How do you enforce 2.1.c? How do you know if students comply with 5.2.g?
A completely new document is in the works, and a portion of a draft has been published for comment. It looks as if it will be a huge improvement. Instead of standards to be met, it’s a framework that’s meant to address knowledge, abilities, and dispositions that reflect deep learning in a complex information ecosystem. Information literacy (a phrase nobody seems to love but which has become common coin) is described in this document as
a repertoire of abilities, practices, and dispositions focused on expanding one’s understanding of the information ecosystem, with the proficiencies of finding, using and analyzing information, scholarship, and data to answer questions, develop new ones, and create new knowledge, through ethical participation in communities of learning and scholarship.
I like it! Much better than our previous definition. But then I start to nitpick. Aren’t “information, scholarship, and data” fairly limited categories? Where does a W.H. Auden poem fit, or a late-night conversation with friends, or a classic work of philosophy? And are we only going to think about this happening in the context of school? What about civic participation? Local activism? While I’m at it, how do we define “ethical”? Does it depend on adhering to community norms, or can an individual ethically oppose or challenge community beliefs? And while we talk about community, how do we account for those who are marginalized or excluded?
I’m excited that the frameworkers are trying to identify places where students get stuck, those bottlenecks in understanding that are only overcome through wrestling with fundamental beliefs about how knowledge works and what it means to engage with it. These are a lot more interesting than skills or testable bits of random knowledge, and they matter more. But we need to bear in mind how these thresholds we define are cultural constructs and avoid assuming upper-middle-class white American experiences that might seem hostile or exclusionary to those who don't fit that assumed identity.
As I explained in my responses to the draft (there’s a survey for that – comments are welcome), I think we want to arrive at concepts that are a) common across disciplines and types of institutions - so fairly universal within the current higher education context of the U.S.and b) truly part of undergraduate learning experiences. I would have more faith in them if we could confirm our hunches with direct evidence of student learning and with the insights of faculty in the disciplines. I am a bit worried that we'll create a list of concepts that may not actually hold up in practice because they are filtered through librarians' perceptions, and I am concerned that (as happened with the 2000 standards) librarians will forget that this is not just a job for librarians and will want to "cover" the concepts in ways that will be trivial, because quite honestly crossing those thresholds happens in courses and in sequences of courses and through research apprenticeships, not through library-directed programs. The more we emphasize that we don't own this, the better.
It will be quite a trick to come up with a framework that is inclusive, useful for improving what we do to help students learn how information works, and inspiring. But it's exactly what we need if we are going to take this kind of learning seriously.
Some other people have commented on the draft:
- Jacob Berg at BeerBrarian
- Andy Burkhardt at Information Tyrannosaur
- Donna Witek at Information Constellation
- Troy Swanson at Tame the Web
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