Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Literacy & Informacy: Problems with the term "information literacy skills"

Previously, I explained why I applied for RPL in
CULLB602C Use, evaluate and extend
own information literacy skills

YAY I have been granted recognition of prior learning :D

I never did get around to publishing the progress of my thoughts while examining conceptions of “information literacy” - probably because I never really resolved the issues to my own satisfaction.

Perhaps instead I will just post a scattering of thoughts without aiming for a conclusion.

First I needed to understand my base point. So I looked at definitions:

From memory: A skill is an ability; but then so is literacy. So "literacy skills" is tautological (ability to read and write abilities).

I checked a dictionary:

From the Concise Oxford Dictionary (Sykes, 1976):

information n. Informing, telling; thing told, knowledge, (desired items of knowledge, news.

literacy n. Ability to read and write.

skill1 n Expertness, practiced ability, facility in an action or in doing or to do something; dexterity, tact.
However: I have observed over the years that the term ‘literacy’ has been used to express a variety of notions beyond that simplest definition, to include whole spans of thinking and communication skills (Callison & Lamb, 2005-2009). Sometimes to the point where reading and writing may be completely irrelevant: “making meaning in a two way flow of communications” (Boyce, 1999, p. 57). In fact Callison & Lamb (2005-2009), among many, declare that “the definition of literacy has evolved” (¶1).

Oh I'd agree that the term has been malleably defined to suit the goals of its users, but considering the breadth encapsulated in its Latin root, evolution is not what has happened.

I guess I struggle with phrases compounded as "xxxx literacy" because of the way "literacy" itself is loaded.

Comprehension and communication skills seem to me to be independent of the ability to read and write; and need to have been present in order for a person to learn to read and write. Refinement of comprehension (higher order thinking skills) and communication also develop outside a text environment, although most of us don't get to see that as we live and learn within one.

It is easy to see how, in a society in which text is a dominant communication device; people can conflate natural development of human capacity to comprehend and communicate with increasing competence and fluency with text. Could such conflation create an assumption that to learn and function depend particularly on the ability to read and write; then explaining why quite beside the overall education system, literacy programs particularly attract funding? Might this factor into a willingness to wrap up anything at all as literacy?

Back to "xxxx literacy": These days one can find “literacy” being appended to almost any other word to convey something about skills which are required to make sense within context of the first word. Often, these skills do not require literacy at all except when they are to be applied in a text environment. For example:
“Scientific Literacy, Economic Literacy, Technological Literacy, Visual Literacy, Information Literacy, Multicultural Literacy.... communication literacy, productivity literacy, content literacy, critical literacy” (Callison & Lamb, 2005-2009, ¶4,5).
Even the competence to pursue, evaluate and use information does not require literacy (the ability to read and write). Campbell (2008 p. 19, citing Aporta, 2002) describes how the Inuit people in Canada’s High Arctic, when planning a journey across the sea ice which reforms over time with ocean currents and underwater landforms:
  • know they need information on the current “ice marks” by which to navigate,
  • know whom to approach to get information (the experts with the traditional, oral knowledge on the codes that make such marks predictable),
  • evaluate who has the most experience or is the best navigator, and
  • use that information to travel through the sea ice territory safely
Campbell (2008) declares this pattern of information seeking, evaluating and using is consistent with the American Library Association (1989, ¶3) definition of being information literate: to recognise when information is needed, to locate, evaluate and use appropriate information effectively.

Such an example demonstrates that the capacity humans have for acquiring and using information does not require literacy (ability to read and write). So to label such capability as "information literacy" perpetuates confusion where there should be distinction between literacy and thinking or whatever skills are of practical interest.
  • Precise skills which fall under the label ‘information literacy’ are remarkably diverse depending on the educator and his/her program, and can include:
    • Basic computer and internet access skills (Millen & Roberts, 2007) through to information technology fluency (Bundy, 2004 as cited in Andretta 2005, p. 44; Shapiro & Hughes, 1996),
    • Library orientation (Slusarczyk, 1996; Gavin, 2008),
    • Search engine savvy, or searching the web (Boyce, 1999, ¶2; Gavin, 2008) ,
    • Searching OPACs, databases (Gavin, 2008; Andretta, 2005),
    • Selecting a research/essay topic and developing a thesis statement (Gavin, 2008),
    • Writing skills (Andretta, 2005, p. 176),
    • Referencing skills (Andretta, 2005, p. 175; Slusarczyk, 1996 p. 62),
    • Evaluating web sources (Gavin, 2008; Andretta, 2005, p. 174),
    • Standards and formulae for cognitive skills and metacognitive processes including problem solving and critical thinking (Boyce, 1999, ¶2; Eisenberg & Berkowitz, 2009; Shapiro & Hughes, 1996, Bundy (2004) and Hepworth (2000) as cited in Andretta, 2005, p. 44 and p. 16)
    • “Social-structural literacy, or knowing that and how information is socially situated and produced” (Shapiro & Hughes, 1996),
    • The ability to self-publish electronically in text or multimedia (Shapiro & Hughes, 1996),
    • Values and beliefs about wise, ethical and socially responsible use of information (Bundy (2004) as cited in Andretta, 2005)
    • “right through to philosophy of learning how to learn, personal mastery and leadership” (Boyce, 1999, ¶2)
Once again one wonders whether the umbrella use of a term like “information literacy” is motivated by the appeal of the words to garner financial support. Boyce (1999) opines:
“The social and cultural values we associate with each word mediate their connection so that coupled together in a special communications context, at a time of educational and curriculum reform, they are endowed with urgency and extra significance”
I'm tempted, if an umbrella term is needed (for the capabilities to identify a need for, seek, find, evaluate and ethically use information) to use Informacy. Although I imagined the term for myself following the pattern set by literacy and numeracy, I have discovered I am not the first:

Not having access to Emerald's holding of Aslib Proceedings from 1984, I cannot check who (if anyone) R Lester appears to have been citing in that article. Nor could I check whether the term was defined as I would use it. (Update 11 April 2011, I've somehow gained access and it appears Lester was citing a "LIBRARY AND INFORMATION SERVICES COUNCIL. Working Party on Manpower Education and Training. Discussion Paper on User Education. June 1983" and from his quotes (because I can't find the original) believe they did use the term as I would.  Interestingly, Mr Lester argued against public funding of "user education" programs, and felt the appropriate place for informacy education was in primary schools.)

In one case:

Is there any way of easily discovering whether the term was ever proposed outside of the context of modern technology? In some cases Informacy appears to be used as a compound of information handling and technolacy (another term I'm not the first to conceive):

Considering that information is available both outside text and technology, I'd prefer that the term Informacy not automatically incorporate Technolacy:

But that's enough for today.

References (only those which could not be hyperlinked):

Andretta, S. (2005). Information literacy: a practitioner's guide. Oxford, UK: Chandos.
Boyce, S. (1999). Second thoughts about information literacy. Concept, challenge, conundrum: from library skills to information literacy (pp. 57-65). Adelaide, SA: University of South Australia Library.
Gavin, C. (2008). Teaching information literacy: a conceptual approach. Plymouth, UK: The Scarecrow Press.
Millen, D., & Roberts, H. (2007). Healthy mind, healthy body: digital literacy in the NHS. In J. Secker, D. Boden, & G. Price, The information literacy cookbook: ingredients, recipes and tips for success (pp. 27-43). Oxford, England: Chandos.
Slusarczyk, L. (1996). Finding business information in Curtin University Library: information literacy skills for life-long learning. [Bentley], Western Australia: Glenn Pass.
Sykes, J. B. (Ed.). (1976). The concise Oxford dictionary of current English (6th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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