Digital Writing and Information Literacy Initiative

By Lauren Wallis and Trevor Hoag

Dwili reimagines the classroom in response to the proliferation of open, collaborative digital media platforms and information spaces. This revision is needed because participatory online environments are redefining both what it means to engage in “writing” and strive towards “literacy.”

In our current information environment, learners engage in multi-modal inscription using words, images, video, sound, and more.  Learners are constantly evaluating, using, and creating digital information in their daily lives, and still need to engage with traditional scholarly forms of information in the classroom.  There is often a radical division between their experiences with information in digital and traditional forms.

By integrating digital writing and information literacy, dwili positions students as collaborative inventors capable of contributing to ongoing conversations in traditional and digital scholarly contexts.  Dwili encourages students to take a critical stance toward information in all its forms by questioning the social and political implications of information creation, accessibility, and use.  As students create texts in open, online formats, they are guided to question closed systems for producing and organizing information, such as scholarly publishing and the library itself.  Dwili depends on the combined perspectives of students, librarians, and teachers, represented in the graphic below.

(Digital Writing)

Writing is pre-eminently the technology of cyborgsthe struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly …

— Donna Haraway

Digital writing issues a series of challenges to (current-) traditional notions/practices of “composition” in that:

(1)  It reveals writing is never finished or complete, that there is always “something more” that remains unwritten; even a “published” digital artifact/text is open to revision and all information is potentially subject to critique.

(2)  It shatters predictable, linear, five-paragraph, (single) thesis-driven, “modes of composition,” inviting experiments with structure, style, length, and more; it exposes how there is no “correct” way to write and no format for information that possesses inherently privileged status.

(3)  It is multi-modal in that it weaves alphabetic text with images, video, sound, and various elements of design; it is therefore heavily interdisciplinary and requires drawing on information “outside” one’s home discipline.

(4)  It entails “turning out” assignments alongside “turning them in” given that the Internet opens onto worlds “outside” the classroom; students can therefore view themselves as legitimate producers/critics of information capable of socio-political in(ter)vention.

(5)  It implies that all knowledge is collaborative, problematizing humanistic theories of an “individual” self who “creates” in isolation and owns his/her ideas; it suggests all information is already citation and hence troubles obsessions with plagiarism.

As one can imagine following the provocations listed above, the student and teacher of writing alike are both radically reconceived in light of the digital. No longer does a student simply “complete” an assignment and move to the next, but rather, they continue to research and revise throughout the course and hopefully beyond it. And as they encounter new information in order to (re-)revise, students do not merely assimilate such information so as to write “about” it; they are already re-writing it from the outset. The teacher of digital writing can therefore encourage an on-going and critical relation with the information that students confront.

The teacher of digital writing can likewise prompt students to explicitly re-think what writing “is” or even if it “is” anything static at all. In other words, one should exercise caution in saying that one knows how to write or that one knows how to teach writing, for if writing is no longer confined to traditional “compositional” modes then it becomes an experiment that one can neither foresee the results of nor easily pass judgment upon. This does not mean, however, that today’s students of writing can simply turn in anything and expect gratification. To the contrary, digital writing demands more of students because they not only have to think, to invent what writing might mean, they have to deploy information and technology that is often beyond what is safe and familiar.

Finally, along similar lines, digital writing demands more of students because it invites engaging with the “outside” world rather than merely writing a paper only one or two others will read. Today’s writing teachers can require students to write so as to make an intervention in community or the world-at-large. And such in(ter)vention and collaborative interaction likewise works to prevent student ideas from remaining (safely) unchallenged or bound to the illusion that information is privately “created” in isolation.

Digital writing means writing-with-others, though it is yet un-thought what that might mean.

(Information Literacy)

Is the library a passive information bank where students and faculty make knowledge deposits and withdrawals, or is it a place where students actively engage existing knowledge and shape it to their own current and future uses? And what is the librarian’s role as an educator in this process?

-James Elmborg

At its core, information literacy (IL) is about learning how to learn.  Librarians use the concept of IL to discuss the abilities and mindsets students need as they interact with information.  We even assign it lofty goals, like helping students develop as democratically engaged citizens and lifelong learners.

Despite our good intentions, IL can be problematic and alienating–for students and teachers alike–because we have forced it to be orderly, when the reality of our information environment is quite messy.  Traditionally, IL conceptualizes information as static, sterile, and finite.  “The information literate student” is referenced over and over again, positioning students as products, and a state ofbeing information literate as an exact endpoint.  Not surprisingly, this language produces a classroom in which IL skills are taught in a linear series of steps: first finding the correct information, then evaluating its authority, and finally using it to accomplish a specific purpose such as writing a research paper.  This model only serves to reinforce students’ marginalization from academic discourse. As a result, librarians hear a familiar chorus from students:

I just need any three scholarly sources.

I already wrote my paper, so I just need three peer-reviewed articles to plug in.

I did one database search and I couldn’t find any journal articles, so I’m just going to pick an easier topic.  

How can we expect students to critically engage with academic information sources when we present scholarly work as distant and absolute?  How can we expect them to learn how to learn when we put them in a situation where they simply have to learn how to survive?

Dwili blurs the division between traditional systems of academic knowledge production and students’ everyday digital information practices.  It takes part in an ongoing project of debating and revising what information literacy means for today’s learners.

On a national scale, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) is leading the IL revision by reshaping how we understand the process of IL learning.  Instead of a forced linearity, IL learning is reorganized in terms of threshold concepts.  As the name suggests, threshold concepts are about liminal spaces for learning.  They are fundamental concepts in a discipline that are difficult to grasp, but once understood, are irreversible.  In other words, once a student “gets it,” there is no forgetting.  Threshold concepts are also necessarily integrative–although there are six different concepts for IL, they overlap and influence each other.  Threshold concepts support the design of IL lesson plans that place students in uncertain, liminal spaces.  In dwili, librarians and writing teachers offer students support and guidance as they grapple with information in both traditional and digital forms.

The current revision of information literacy also responds to the evolving information environment by repositioning information literacy as metaliteracy.  Metaliteracy encompasses many related literacies, such as digital literacy and transliteracy, and anticipates that educators will need to adapt their pedagogy for a continuously evolving information environment.  It recognizes the postmodern nature of digital information, with its multiplicity of voices and formats, and foregrounds students’ affective and metacognitive experiences as they navigate and create in complex, collaborative online spaces.

This emphasis on collaboration–in digital spaces and in physical classroom spaces–is at the core of dwili. Writing teachers and librarians collaborate to create innovative learning activities that position information, in all its forms, as a subject of study and an object of critique.  Students create information in collaborative online spaces, engaging in conversations with each other and extending their ideas to an audience beyond the classroom.  

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