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information literacy

Reliability of a source is not binary

A few of us at mpow have been talking about ways to put more “science” into library science, mostly in the context of using more robust research methods to study user behavior and assess library services. With that in mind, Lane Wilkinson’s recent post on using Bayesian inference to understand how users contextualize the credibility of an information source strikes me as a particularly useful thought experiment (if not an actual research agenda… which you should totally do, Lane!). There is one insight in particular that caught my attention:

“Values like credibility, reliability, or trustworthiness are not binary; they exist on a continuum between 0 and 100%. We need to stop asking ‘is this source reliable?’ and start asking ‘how reliable is this source given what it is reporting?'”

If there is one thing I could help our students to understand right now, this would be it. Perhaps simply framing the question of credibility in this way is enough to inspire them to be more critical of what they read via their everyday information consumption. One can hope.

Truth with a capital “t”

So long as we rely on code and algorithms to locate information, there will always be the hurdle of implicit bias. The same can be said of relying on humans.

“As long as Google has a commercial interest in appearing omniscient, it probably won’t work to improve knowledge panel transparency. That burden will fall instead to people like Taraborelli and nonprofits like the Wikimedia Foundation, which is working on an open-license, machine-readable knowledge base that will both source all of its statements and accommodate conflicting sources.”

The burden also falls to librarians and educators to teach the skills necessary for being a critical reader-researcher.

A formal ACRL document

The ACRL Board wants to make it clear that the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education is “a formal ACRL document” and that a decision on what to do with the previous standards will be discussed at the 2016 Annual ALA Conference.

I am admittedly a fan of the new framework: not so much of its content but its form. However, I’m still not sure what we mean when we say that it will be “a living document.” Will the threshold concepts be expanded as libraries research and publish new information about their use? Will we add additional concepts to the original list? I understand the need for standards, especially in our current assessment-driven higher ed environment, but I don’t believe we should let another decade go by before we revisit how we as a profession define info lit.

Still, I am happy to know that many, many people far more experienced and intelligent than me are working on and thinking about these issues.

Standards, anyone?

Is anyone else anxiously awaiting the draft report of the new information literacy standards from ACRL? I’ve probably checked the website 20 times in the past month. Seriously.

The latest issue of Communications in Information Literacy devoted an entire issue to changing standards. Notably, the articles discuss two concepts essential to understanding the new standards (we are told): metaliteracy and threshold concepts.

It’s been over a decade since the standards were first published. A decade from now in all likelihood we will be in the same place, but between now and then is a good time to reenergize the discussion.

Making more makers

What role should 21st century colleges have in helping students to develop hands-on, manual skills? That is the question Scott Carlson asks in this week’s Chronicle Review. At a time when “sustainability” is not just a way of acting ethically but a popularized lifestyle choice, it’s easy to see the appeal of this type of instruction.

One passage in particular caught my attention. Drawn together by a common interest and a human desire to be makers, students at the University of Vermont formed their own artisan guilds:

L. Pearson King, a junior environmental-studies major, taught his peers how to carve spoons in a woodworking guild last year. “It’s kind of trivial, but it’s also cathartic and kind of fun,” he says of the project, and the students in his group were immensely proud of their work. “To be active in the creation of an item forms a completely different relationship with that item.”

Maybe there is something to the guild approach that libraries can build off of. While information literacy is not as necessary to human survival as being able to build shelter or cook food (pending the zombie apocalypse), it is still a vital skill for 21st century life. For universities that do not have information literacy instruction (ILI) built into the curriculum, librarians have constantly struggled to find ways not only to integrate ILI, but to assess it. If your only interaction with a student is the one-off, how do you know if it sticks?

Could the library be a catalyst for “information guilds” or “technology guilds”? : groups of students that come together over a shared interest to get their hands dirty with information and to build [digital] objects. Could the library be an instigator for hacker co-ops, infonistas, techno-mavens, and virtual gurus?

The first objection that comes to my mind is “There’s no need for it.” But isn’t there? How many students come to us frustrated with an inability to even conduct simple research tasks? How many more students never approach us because they don’t know where to begin?

As someone who can’t tell a circular saw from Adam, I can relate to the frustration of not knowing where to start due to a lack of what is actually very basic knowledge. Guilds like the ones formed by the Vermont students inspire just enough confidence and self-awareness to initiate the process of making. As librarians, are we in a position to inspire these types of groups with a focus on information and technology? How do we begin?

Jenkins on transmedia storytelling

Yesterday, Henry Jenkins posted a follow-up to his Comic-Con discussion of transmedia storytelling (video above), which he defines as: “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” He differentiates this from other transmedia activities like transmedia branding or transmedia activism. “Ideally,” he says, “each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

This immediately reminded me of something we do in libraries, museums and archives (LAM) all the time: the exhibit. The LAM exhibit can exist across multiple platforms (display case, print publication, website) and utilizes a variety of formats (books, artifacts, still and moving images, digital interactive maps). Back in 2003, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society created a project entitled “Worklore: Brooklyn Voices Speak,” an exploration of the working class in Brooklyn from the 18th to 20th century. The collaboration included a traveling exhibit, public program and lectures, curriculum guides for elementary students, an online exhibit that included narratives and oral histories, and an online game called “Can You Make Ends Meet in Brooklyn” in the Early 1990s?” that allowed players to choose a type of work and see how those consequences played out in terms of personal finances (unfortunately, the website does not appear to be active any longer).

Creating a LAM exhibit that exists across different media is a similar activity to transmedia storytelling, but it comes at the story from a different angle. Rather than creating or extending a story, LAM exhibits attempt to recreate a narrative of cultural experience told through the perspective of people and objects that made up that narrative. The content of these exhibits serve some of the same functions outlined by Jenkins by offering a backstory, mapping a world, providing other character’s perspectives on the action, and by deepening audience engagement.

For librarians and instructors, the discourse surrounding transmedia could not be more relevant to the work we do. We seek to engage students in thinking about the ways in which the nature of information is changed as it moves from one platform to the next, how the choice to present information in one medium to the exclusion of others affects how we interpret it, and how we can convey meaning through these actions.

It doesn’t appear that we’ve fully agreed upon a definition for transmedia, but that shouldn’t stop us from using the term and discussing it. I recommend following Jenkins’s writings if you are interested in such things. His posts never disappoint.

What are your thoughts on transmedia storytelling? How do we do it? Are we doing it right? I’m especially interested in hearing about ways you’ve integrated it into instruction… but it’s the comments so do what you will 😉

What if you could design your own information literacy course?

This morning, the USC librarians had an all-hands-on-deck meeting to discuss the results of a recent survey and our new strategic plan. Toward the end, one of our Library IT staff (who, let me tell you, is the coolest guy) said he had seen the Libraries mentioned in the platform statements of the Student Government candidates. Moreover, he had noticed that the students wanted more 2-credit courses and he said this would be a great opportunity for the Libraries to create semester-long Information Literacy course.

I couldn’t agree more. And this got me thinking: what would this course look like? Would it be interdisciplinary or a broad overview? How would it differ from a full, 3-credit course? I haven’t completely fleshed out these thoughts but I wanted to get some of them out there and hear what you think.

The course that I have in mind would be called “Information Architecture.” The objective of the course would be to introduce students to the information ecosystem of the 21st century and teach them the skills necessary to succeed (however we choose to define that) in an information-rich environment. Here’s a basic breakdown of the course:

Unit 1: Introduction. Covers: what we define as information, how we encounter it in daily life, how we choose to divide it (work vs. play), and the importance of access.

Unit 2: Information Organization and Structure. Covers: Types of information systems, how to navigate specific systems, how info is organized in these systems and implications of such organization.

Unit 3: Basic research skills. Covers: Types of information sources, database searching, using controlled vocabulary and folksonomies, personal information management.

Unit 4: Production of Information. Covers: history of publishing and dissemination, current formal and informal methods of production.

Unit 5: Medium and Message. Covers: how medium affects message, politics of choosing one over another, implication of transferring between media.

Unit 6: Ethics of Information. Covers: Proprietary information, open access, copyright, intellectual property, and proper vs. improper use of information. (big section!)

Unit 7: Advanced research skills. Covers:  Types of information resources for specific subjects, human and institutional resources, archives.

Unit 8: Final project focus.

The course would offer students (undergraduates) two tracks: (1) general research skills and (2) topic-specific skills. Depending on the student’s major and academic year, she could be assigned (or choose) either Track 1 or Track 2. Track 1 (general research skills) would be geared toward undeclared majors and 1st-2nd years. Track 2 (topic-specific skills) would be geared toward declared majors and 3rd-4th years.

Both tracks would require keeping a weekly log (written, typed, blogged, recorded, etc.) of experiences (problems, feelings, successes) encountered while doing research. The final project would include a reflection paper (or other format) and a brief annotated bibliography consisting of a variety of sources. Those on Track 1 would select a topic of their choice on which to focus their research. Track 2 students would connect their research to their declared major. Both tracks would be encouraged to use coursework in another class as a guide (per instructor’s approval).

I won’t go into more detail than that. I’m still trying to work out what is the essential content of the course (so much to teach and the time so precious!). Of course, I would work in digital technologies, collaborative work, self-assessment and peer-feedback, but the critical thing is that it integrates with other courses. What do you think? Does your university teach a semester-long IL course? Is it successful? Tell me about it in the comments!

More transliteracy talk: metaphors and metonyms

The discussion surrounding the definition of transliteracy has been sending waves throughout the internets this morning. David Rothman took the concept to task in yesterday’s post, “Commensurable Nonesense (Transliteracy),” responding partially to a post by Lane Wilkinson.* David brings up a few good points about transliteracy, most notably:

  1. its lack of a definition
  2. its unoriginality

The first of these has been dealt with extensively, so I won’t do into it here. The lack of a concise definition is certainly problematic and, until one such is developed, it will difficult to bring the concept into the academic arena, much more so to the desks of administrators and policy makers. The second point, I think, deserves more attention. The ideas that make up the amorphous concept of transliteracy may not be anything that hasn’t already been discussed, but they may be beneficial to libraries and their users if the ways in which they are discussed (either conceptually or practically or as a methodology) provide unique perspectives.

So does transliteracy give us a unique perspective? Rotham asks this and essentially concludes that the levels of discourse that transliteracy provides can already be attained through discussion of information literacy. He also compares attempted definitions of transliteracy to more established definitions of other literacies.

We’ve come to a point in the discourse where the term “literacy” is used in far too many ways. One can be information literate, health literate, financially literate, digitally literate, statistically literate, or emotionally literate. How do all of these relate to the broader concept of literacy? As I was reading over these, I started thinking about this and discovered two predominant approaches: metaphorical and metonymical.

Let’s begin with a literal approach to the definition. The OED defines literate as “acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned; a liberally educated or learned person; one who can read and write.” Webster’s Third defines it as “characterized by or possessed of learning; able to read and write; well executed or technically proficient.” Literacy is defined as the characteristic of possessing any of these traits. So a strict definition focuses on either “learning” or “reading” and this is generally how the term is used in everyday conversation. A somewhat broader definition implies understanding and comprehension, not just the ability to read and write but the ability to do it well. From here, the splintering of definitions takes off.

Literacy is then extended metaphorically to mean an understanding or comprehension of other subjects beyond written text (most of which require reading and writing): being health literate  is the ability to understand health issues and read medical documents; being financially literate is the ability to understand markets, economies, and fiscal concerns.  These “other” literacies require many of the same skills (ability to read and write, most notably, but also the ability to seek and retrieve documents) but do so in entirely different contexts. They require a specific domain knowledge which adds value to the understanding gained through simple reading comprehension.

Literacy can also be extended metonymically to mean any of the skills related to or comprising the ability to understand information. This use of the word tends to play on the various meaning of “reading” and “writing” to included activities such as choosing the right font for a business letter, evaluating a website or editorial for bias, or deconstructing body language. One is digitally literate if they have the skills necessary to navigate online or use electronic databases. One is orally literate if they have the ability to interpret the subtleties of human communication or understand the complexities of storytelling. While domain knowledge still plays a significant part, the focus here is on the ability to “read” signs (e.g. verbal, written, performed) and “write” effectively (e.g. compose, format, design)

Transliteracy seems to straddle the fence between these two uses (hence, its prefix kinda works in this regard). It attempts to encompass both the skills necessary for understanding “texts” in a [mostly digital] environment (metonymical) and the understanding of how different contexts require different domains of knowledge (metaphorical). Herein lies the problem: Which connotation of literacy are we using when we say someone is “transliterate?” Is it problematic to imply both?  And most importantly: if we imply both, how is that different from the all-inclusive term “literacy” defined in a less-than-strict way, i.e. the ability to understand and comprehend “texts” and to do it well?

Perhaps the answers to these questions could be the foundation for further development of a definition of transliteracy. Or they could be its negation. Whatever the outcome, the discussion will continue into the near future and it will be defined by its ability to add value to our understanding of how individuals interact with the world around them, one which is increasingly becoming more digital.

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*As a side note, I didn’t find Lane’s post to be either inaccessible or “needlessly” linguistically elite, as David suggested. It is academically sterile, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone should be faulted for trying to use language specifically and intentionally, in a way that suggests the style of scholarly communication. It deserves its place just as much as the more casual or snarky language that comprises most of internet. But then, I’m biased given that I spend most of my day in an academic library.

What is information?

If you are a MLIS student, at some point during the process of your degree you will be asked: what is information? You will be referred to Shannon & Weaver (1973), expected to elaborate on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom quadrivium, and inevitably questioned whether it is possible for anything to NOT be information. It’s a philosophical and often semantically-rich game we all play at some point and, for some, the conversation stops there: a topic left in the classroom and hastily replaced by the daily service needs of patrons.

But for those who specialize in the science of information, the question is a research cornerstone. That an answer exists (whatever it may be) is the raison d’etre for the field. Personally, the distinction between the LS field and the IS field is one that I never gave much thought to until I began reading for my Human Information Interactions course. For me and with my hopes of eventually working in public services, the question of what is information has always been a theoretical question, interesting in its own light, but not much use on the floor or at the reference desk. Nonetheless, the question is an essential one and thinking about it can be useful for serving the daily information literacy needs of our patrons.

Defining Information

How one defines information depends heavily on how one defines data and, moreover, whether data is defined as being known subjectively or objectively. Definitions of data range from the entirely concrete (e.g. data is binary code) to the entirely abstract (e.g. data is “raw” fact). For more information on how current scholars of information science define data, information, and knowledge, see Zins (2005). As to my definition…

Data. I define data as “a symbolic representation of an object or event.” The choice of  representation is often conventional and usually quantifiable. The object or event itself has no inherent meaning and it cannot be effectively communicated without giving it context.

Information. I define information as an imposition of meaning onto data for the purpose of communication or creating context, i.e. to make it possible to be perceived, usually in a particular way. Data, in a sense, is anything capable of carrying meaning and information is both the act of carrying meaning (information-as-process) and the meaning implied by that act (information-as-thing) (see Buckland, 1991). Information requires an intelligent agent and cannot exist outside the scope of perception. Recorded information, which does not have an agent acting upon it, is a fossil of data-once-perceived.

Relevance for Information Literacy

What then is the relationship of this type of theoretical discussion to information literacy? From day to day, librarians and information professionals work with students to help them make the move from the museum of data to the playground of information. We give them the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the vocabulary of data, its symbols and common representations, and how it is created, organized, and retrieved. We encourage them to explore and even question how data is used in the creation of information (i.e. of meaning) and what this says both about the data itself and the people (or machines) who create it.

If we are successful in that endeavor, we may see the ultimate fruits of our labor: the creation of knowledge. Students who gain the necessary information literacy skills move on to create knowledge, explore its depths, and broaden the horizons of human experience. It’s a self-enriching feedback loop that continues to till the intellectual soil of both the individual and her community. How lucky are librarians and educators to be prime movers in that cycle!

References

Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(2), 351-360.

Schramm, W. (1973). Channels and audiences. In Pool, I., Schramm, W., Maccoby, N., & Parker, E. (eds.), Handbook of Communication. Chicago: Rand McNally, 116-140.

Zins, C. (2007). Conceptual approaches for defining data, information, and knowledge. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(4), 479-493. doi:10.1002/asi.20508

10 years of information literacy standards

It’s been over 10 years since the ACRL adopted the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. If at some point during the last decade you have been enrolled in an MLIS program, it is likely that you’ve spent at least one class period discussing the merits of The Standards and debating whether or not they are necessary, complete, relevant, etc. This week, I had that class period. As expected, most students were in favor of The Standards, some with reservations.

The Standards were approved by the ACRL Board of Directors in January 2000 at the ALA Midwinter conference. They were developed to help individuals deal with the increasingly data-rich information environment of the 21st century and to provide guidelines for developing the skills necessary for lifelong learning. One might even suggest that they were developed in reaction to the digital age. The document itself contains a definition of Information Literacy (IL), a description of its contexts (technological, institutional, pedagogical), a standard of use, assessment methods, performance indicators, and expected learning outcomes. It is a thorough examination of the skills necessary for IL and the ways in which those skills may be assessed.

So what are the benefits of having The Standards and how do they continue to be relevant a decade after their introduction?

They provide a common language. What do we mean when we say students should be able to “effectively use” information? How does one have an understanding of the “economic, legal, and social issues” surrounding information? Having The Standards puts librarians and instructors on the same page so that when we discuss the IL needs of our users, we understand each others’ prior knowledge and expectations.

They provide a framework for assessment. The Standards provide a series of performance indicators for each standard that are broad enough to apply to any academic setting. For example, in order to evaluate a student’s ability to determine the nature of her information need (Standard 1), we can develop measures to assess her ability to identify types and formats of potential information sources (1.2). This could be as simple as asking first-years to decide between journal articles or newspapers as an information source or as complex as asking graduate students to compare the different ways in which research is disseminated in different disciplines (e.g. sciences vs. humanities).

They provide an artifact of our understanding. If we recognize the need to develop information literacy skills in our users, we also recognize the need to work with university faculty and administrators in order to develop IL-rich curricula. Having The Standards provides us with documentation for our methods. Additionally, if it is adapted for local use, it provides an important artifact for accreditation purposes.

They provide a source for individual reflection. Personally, The Standards have helped me to assess my own skills and shortcomings. They provide a rubric that can be used by instructors and students alike in order to reflect on personal and professional information needs or the research process.

They provide ready-made expected learning outcomes (ELO). For each standard and performance indicator, The Standards provide a list of ELOs. For example, in order to determine if a student possesses the ability to synthesize main ideas and construct new concepts (3.3), the instructor would develop activities that could show the student’s ability to “recognize interrelationships among concepts” and “extend an initial synthesis into a higher level of abstraction” (3.3a-b).

They provide a sounding-board for other organizations interested in IL. Academic librarians are not the only people interested in developing information literate citizens. School librarians, teachers, even the U.S. Government are concerned with people’s ability to locate, evaluate and use information. The Standards provides a useful set of benchmarks for developing additional standards for specific groups or contexts.

There are some shortcomings.

They lack affective learning outcomes. As Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) point out, IL instructors should consider a student’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values in relationship to the information search process. They argue for adding affective learning outcomes that would “humanize the ACRL standards, reminding academic librarians and educators of the positive feelings that they must continually strive to develop in their students.”

They are platform agnostic. While The Standards require that students be able to move information between formats (4.1.d) and be able to use various technologies in order to create or use information (4.3.b), they do not require that students understand the technology behind platforms  through which they access or use information. However, this may simply be a matter of degree: we teach the basic concepts without getting bogged down in the technical details. We could teach the technical details if we had the time.

The Standards are a vital source of inspiration for librarians and they provide a glimpse into our professional values. They continue to be useful for developing IL policies and integrating IL into the curriculum. Perhaps at some point in the next decade, they will require revision. But for the time being, they continue to be useful blueprints for instructors.

References

ALA. ACRL. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved August 4, 2010, from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.cfm

Schroeder, R., & Cahoy, E. S. (2010). Valuing information literacy: affective learning and the ACRL standards. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(2), 127-146.