Saturday, May 14, 2011

Information Literacy - a Zebra with Spots?

It would seem relatively straightforward to come up with a definition of information literacy. Or so you would like to think.

If you started with a simple (or simplistic) combination of the two words

Information = informing, telling; thing told, knowledge, (desired) items of knowledge, news; knowledge on various subjects, however acquired
Literacy = ability to read and write, the state of being literate; possession of education

then you would derive a definition of

information literacy = the ability of an individual to possess knowledge on various subjects.

Somehow that would be classified in the colloquialisms of the modern age as an EPIC FAIL in terms of achieving the desired outcome.

Hmmmmm. So how does one nail down at least a provisional definition of the term "information literacy"? Given that meaning must be derived from context; the context that we live in is shifting and changing at a rapid rate, then any definition will be provisional - can only be a signifier rather than a comfortable delineated signified.

James Herring (2009) A ground analysis of year 8 students' reflections on information literacy skills and techniques, in School Libraries Worldwide 15(1) 1-13. includes in his study a literature review of information literacy. His opening gambit states

"There is now a vast range of literature on information literacy in the school, higher education and workplace sector but there is no agreement as to one definition of information literacy or whether information literacy should be viewed as a concept, an ideal to be reached, a practice, a set of skills, set of competencies, a set of attributes or a combination of these elements." p 2

So it seems that we have entered the realm where you can argue about the number of angels that could dance on a pin-head with more certainty than elicit agreement on a single definition of information literacy. And to come up with a definition feels like design by committee - after consulting widely to get a four-legged animal with black and white stripes it somehow turns out to be a zebra with spots! Not quite what you thought it would look like.

So what does an information literate student look like? According to ASLA they are effective learners "who are able to find and use information as required". Remembering that definitions are based on context and are always provisional - the succinct definition might seem to be, on the surface, the holy grail that we are looking for, however, it does not seem to be broad enough to be applicable in the digital age.

So it is more than being about to read, write, find, locate, assess, utilise and apply information. So what has to be added to make it useful as a definition? Does it also have to include the effective use of multiple and new technologies - web 2.0 tools etc, the impact of globalisation, the explosion of information availability???

It seems that information literacy (whatever that is) is valued - due to the fact that in order to function in the ever increasingly complex information environment - skills and competencies need to be acquired. So what is information literacy?

  • Information literacy means being information smart. It means knowing when a book may be more helpful than a computer. It mans know how to find, evaluate ans use information in all forms.

  • Information literacy is more than print literacy, computer literacy or media literacy. It means knowing when you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate and use it in your everyday life.

  • Information smart communities use the latest and best information to develop sound policies. They know the importance of having citizens who are information literate. And they invest in their school, public and higher education libraries as centres for information, culture and lifelong learning.

  • Information smart people lead satisfying lives. They know how to find quality information that will help through family, medical or job crises. They are information-smart consumers who know how to use information resources wisely for work and pleasure.

  • Information smart people run successful businesses. They know when they need data and what data they need to evaluate success and plan for the future.

  • Information smart people know that what is true today may not be true tomorrow, that information is not the same as knowledge.

ASLA Advocacy Kit 2006 page 8

Yet the above six bullet points don't come even close to encapsulating a definition. So is information literacy a "dangerously ambiguous concept"? I think not.

It seems that the end product is clear - the desired goal or common purpose of teacher-librarians and educators alike is to equip our charges with the necessary skills to allow them to successfully navigate the increasingly complex information landscapes. The aim is to ensure that their individuality is catered for within a differentiated curriculum, that their creativity is allowed to flourish and their voice to be heard. And the desired outcome is to see respectful, responsible digital citizenship of the students who can exploit the new technologies to their advantage rather than to fall into the traps and potential pitfalls that they contain.

Definitions are inherently problematic - they are by their very nature approximations which often cannot convey the true essence of something as ephemeral and elusory as being literate in the modern age. But it would seem that you need to approximate what it is - in order to ensure you can go about achieving it.

The definition needs to encompass the skills - planning, selection and accessing the content, manipulate and communicate in an appropriate manner to the environment the user finds themselves; as well as the high - ordering thinking which can be transfered to multiple environments such as originality, fluency, flexibility and convergence and ultimately has reflection and evulation of the each part of the process at its core.

It is still a work in progress - which I believe it always will be - and I am getting used to the stripey lion and the spotted tiger - they are kinda cute!

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