Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education: Some Initial Thoughts

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) released a Draft Framework for Information Literacy* for Higher Education (henceforth Framework), superseding the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education adopted in 2000 (henceforth Standards). Having read through the new document and attended an ACRL webinar, I have some initial thoughts on the draft, which you can view in full here.
Information Literacy Umbrella via Dana Longley on Flickr.
Welcome trends:

I. A focus on creation and collaboration that may move us away from the dominance of research papers towards something that resembles the type of work projects students may encounter in the wild. The best curricula will mix these assignments where and when appropriate, and the nod to digital humanities in the bottom two paragraphs of the first page is most welcome.

The downside of this is a focus on job training, employment, and the like. The skills outlined by this document equally apply to "knowledge for knowledge's sake," but the words "liberal arts" appear nowhere in the Framework.

II. Historicizing past information literacy efforts
The Standards... focus attention on the objects of scholarship as mostly textual ones, reflecting the time in which they were written. Although the Standards pay some regard to other modes of scholarship and learning (visual, data, multimedia), the explosion of these modes and the increasingly hybridized, multi-modal nature of learning and scholarship require an expanded conception of information literacy learning and pedagogy beyond the mostly text-based focus of the Standards. In the proposed Framework, we hope to provide spaces for creative, integrative, flexible thinking about the dynamic information ecosystem in which all students live, study, and work.
The Standards also valorize the “information literate student” as a construct of imagined accomplishment, at the endpoint of a set of learning experiences, without the involvement of peers, tutors, coaches, faculty advisors, or other collaborators. (Framework, 3)
Whatever form information takes, the experienced researcher looks to the underlying processes of creation in order to ask critical questions about how and why it was produced. (14)
It is impossible to write the excerpted sections above without some knowledge of critical theory. Someone has been doing their homework. Bravo to whomever wrote those sentences.

III. The new definition of information literacy from the Framework is:
Information literacy combines 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. (bold is theirs, 4)
That "ethical participation" was included here is a huge step forward. It creates a discursive space in which it is possible to turn the library into a site of resistance, a bulwark against government and corporate surveillance, as well as an entree into a discussion of the costs of knowledge that are a part of scholarly communication. I hope this section of the definition is our point of departure to tackle these and related issues.

(Then again, I'm also unclear as to how the above definition differs from that of "critical thinking.")

IV. The emphasis on student-centered outcomes is also welcome, and empowering to those we teach. Knowledge creation, the ability to generate new questions and research agendas,... these are good things.

V. Collaboration

The section titled "Stakeholders" that begins on page 8 provides librarians with a convincing argument to work with faculty and other academic units.

On the other hand, how many times must we prove ourselves? How many times must librarians attempt to partner with other academic units on campus, only to be rebuffed or ignored?

Hang on while I roll this boulder up this hill...

Is the Draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education the appropriate place to fight for greater recognition and collaboration between and among librarians and faculty? Is it the best available place? The only place? The give and take that this document will provoke may lead to...

VI. Information literacy as existential crisis

Who has responsibility for teaching information literacy? Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, is information literacy too important to leave to librarians?
Information literacy has been a tremendous “win” for academic librarians. But it risks becoming, looking back, also a symbol of a great loss. If we do not refocus our efforts on the educational, cultural, and technological shifts in which “information literacy" per se becomes a somewhat arbitrary label for the very stuff of learning and information discovery in today's academic (and larger) world, we will have won the battle but lost the campaign. In other words, our potential loss may come from the need to cling to the programmatic success of information literacy as a program run from within libraries by librarians (Cowan, 28).
There is much space to negotiate here, and it's incumbent on librarians and library staff to prove themselves up to the challenge. Do we love information literacy enough to set it free? Are we confident enough in the rest of our abilities?

Unwelcome trends:

I. Jargon

"Greater need for sense-making and metacognition in a fragmented, complex information environment requires the ability to understand and navigate this environment holistically, focusing upon intersections." (Framework, 2)

That's not part of an effective elevator speech.

II. "Metaliteracy."

It's unclear to me whether metaliteracy means "information literacy," or "critical thinking," or "transliteracy," or none, or some, of the above. I'd prefer that we librarians use "critical thinking," if this is the case. Regardless, I don't like the word and I'm not alone in that. Tellingly, at least one vocal proponent of the concept doesn't think the word is appropriate to use in the Framework.

More confusing is whether the concept of metaliteracy is one of the anchors of the new framework, or if it is a desired outcome. As presently envisioned, metaliteracy is both an independent and dependent variable, which runs the risk of making the framework a tautology. I would like to see this logic cleared up, and a robust definition of metaliteracy that treats the concept as discrete, if possible.

III. Assessment ├╝ber alles?

The move from a "granular, outcomes-based approach" to an "integrative, collaborative, and metacognitive model based upon threshold concepts," (8) means more assessment. How we are able to integrate that into our daily workflows goes unsaid. Maybe--wishful thinking alert!--we'll need more staff in order to implement the Framework. Might the title of "Assessment Librarian," or "Assessment Coordinator," become popular? The more likely scenario, however, is that though the assessment regime becomes more interesting, we librarians will be "doing more with less," which is a phrase that makes me

Via Reaction Gifs. Guess the movie, win a prize.

If you have thoughts on the Framework, you are more than welcome to share them here, but a better place to do so would be via the Framework survey. Note that my comments will appear in some form using that survey.

UPDATE: My survey feedback is posted.

*The term "information literacy" itself is problematic, but is also a widely-used term, so it has some intersubjective value.

Cowan, Susanna M. (2014). Information literacy: The battle we won that we lost. portal 14.1 (January). 23-32. DOI. 10.1353/pla2013.0049.

Elsewhere on this site, related to information literacy:
From Here To Discovery
Orientation: Outreach Starts Here
Vine and Web-Based Library Instruction
Copyright for Educators
Chuck Brown and Information Literacy
On Digital and More Traditional Literacy
Transliteracy and Staying Positive in the Library


  1. I would note that ethical is a word found once in the document, so I was unsure what the authors meant. While I like your interpretation, I saw it as a possible way of shaming "paywall paper samizdat", #icanhazpdf, and other subversive means scholars are using to access the information they need. This is an ethical dilemma I struggle with. I end up telling students the right way to get papers (interlibrary loan) which reinforces the inequality they face by being at a modestly funded state school. Would it be better, and more just, to tell students about how to get the paper by any means necessary? How do we square a desire for social justice with a role as de facto license cop when we get the "too much activity" notices from our vendors?
    So I'm a bit concerned the "ethical participation" could further strengthen obedience to rule of (unjust, unfair) law rather than the center of resistance you hope possible. That said, I was also happy to see this in the new framework as my dark scenario is a lot more possible without the discussion occurring.

    1. Right. Depending on who is defining it and why, "ethical participation" in information literacy could vary anywhere from dealing with information inequality and structural bias to all sorts of bland platitudes that actually don't require students to actually critically consider ethics, like the standard "don't plagiarize because we said so, also we'll fail you" lesson.

  2. If "ethical participation" is a contested term, let's offer up our definition before it's used to shame #icanhazpdf and propagate unhelpful platitudes. To the streets!