What is Information Literacy? Why Bother?

Doug Achterman’s article “Surviving Wikipedia: Improving Student Search Habits through Information Literacy and Teacher Collaboration”, highlights some of the key problems in addressing the ease of access to information common in the internet-connected world. Students and teachers can easily obtain information, but is it accurate and reliable information? Students are unlikely to pursue finding out whether the information is accurate and reliable if the work is completed and they are not asked to think carefully about the work that they have produced. I am familiar with the “But I’m done!” refrain. Information literacy is the ability to critically assess and analyze information found in multimodal text. Critical thinking about text needs to happen throughout a project but is particularly crucial when choosing sources.

I know that I have completed assignments in my graduate studies where I have not critically thought about the sources of information that I found. It struck me particularly when I completed my first major paper. Part of the way through the writing process, I learned about ‘refereed’ journals. I realized that some of the articles, I had used I had not investigated very carefully and were unlikely refereed journal articles. One particular article lacked credentials and I did not know who the author was and if he had written anything of importance elsewhere. I did my best to reduce the impact of the author on my paper and edited the sections which referred to his work. I felt foolish and wished I had chosen my references more carefully. I needed to develop more fully my information literacy.

Why bother? We need to engage in the critical thinking that supports students in their handling of information. The ‘wired’ world of work, recreation and full involvement in the decision making which shapes our community and society requires an increasingly sophisticated understanding of information and the ability to find, analyse and use the information. My father approached me the other day with a question about blogs. How do I find blogs on Canadian politics? In his reading and listening to media, he had become aware of the changing nature of the political game. He wanted to know how to use this information and if it was going to be important in his participation in the political process. He expressed some frustration with the time that it takes to become more connected to this world of blogs. His initial reaction is that he can continue to read about it in the traditional format. I don’t know if this choice will be available to our students. How is the publishing industry going to change with the write and read web?

As teachers, we need to bother with the time it takes to get our students connected to the world. We and they need to know how to find out what’s out there that’s worth reading and then how to respond.

The need for information literacy impacts in many different areas of life – politics, entertainment, education, work – our role is to assist students on a life-long learning path, in developing these skills. As the Alvin Toffler quote maintains, “The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Information literacy is a skill in learning, unlearning and relearning where we cannot expect to always know enough but need to be willing to approach the unknown with confidence, caution and creativity.

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