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 of being 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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