Information Literacy in the University Curriculum*

Benjamin Rifkin

Didn’t Martin van Buren work for a year selling pet monkeys door to door? I’m sure I saw that on the internet.

Through the mid-20th century, knowing information was critical. If you didn’t know the information, you wouldn’t have it because there was no way to access it without a library. This meant that the educational system largely focused on memorization because people couldn’t be expected to lug a multi-volume encyclopedia around with them everywhere they went (with the possible exception of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen).

In the age of Google and Wikipedia, however, the emphasis on knowing information has faded from importance. Memorization remains important for the foundations of every discipline (e.g., knowing how to use high-frequency vocabulary words in a foreign language, the multiplication and division tables in mathematics, the periodic table of elements in chemistry, etc.), but that is a matter more of efficiency in the use of basic information that is best processed automatically, even subconsciously, as prerequisite to more complex thought processes of synthesis, analysis, and the creation of new knowledge.

With the fading of the importance of knowing, our society has an increased need for finding (accessing) and evaluating the reliability of information.

Through the mid-20th century, it was more complex to disseminate information to large populations for at least two reasons. First, global literacy rates were lower than they are now. Second, in many societies the cost of newspapers, magazines, and books exceeded many people’s ability to pay.

Now information can be disseminated rapidly. How many people will read this blogpost? How many of them will live in the small town where I live? How many of them will share it with others? The internet, of course, fundamentally changes the dynamic of the dissemination of information. Consider that 100 years ago people in Omsk would probably not have known anything about the candidate running against Woodrow Wilson for his re-election. (Granted, Russian newspapers at the time may have been distracted by other newsworthy topics, such as Russia’s participation in World War I and growing domestic labor unrest and food shortages.)  By contrast, this year many people in Omsk knew a lot about both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

It has become much more important for our educational systems—elementary, secondary, and post-secondary—to educate learners toward higher levels of information literacy. The Association of American Colleges and University’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise program has a series of rubrics to assess learning in the post-secondary context; one of these rubrics, developed in concert with the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, focuses on information literacy. According to this rubric, the goals of instruction in information literacy are to help learners develop the skills to:

  1. Determine the extent of information needed for any given decision or project
  2. Access the needed information
  3. Evaluation both the information and its sources critically
  4. Use the information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose
  5. Access and use information ethically and legally

As a professor, I have incorporated these goals in my courses, but I have never worked in a college or university that required me to do so or that asked me to report learning outcomes on these goals.

Just this year the Association of College and Research Libraries has adopted a new approach to information literacy: it recognizes different frameworks for understanding and evaluating information critically. According to this framework, learners should, among other things:

  1. Define different types of authority (such as subject experience), social position (e.g., public office), or special experience (e.g., witness at an event)
  2. Use research tools and indicators of authority to determine source credibility
  3. Understand the increasingly social nature of the information ecosystem in which authorities connect with one another and sources develop over time
  4. Develop and maintain an open mind when encountering conflicting perspectives
  5. Motivate themselves to find authoritative sources
  6. Develop awareness of importance of assessing content with a skeptical view
  7. Recognize that the format in which information is conveyed may have an impact on how it is received
  8. Give credit to the original ideas of others

These are just some of the learning goals in the new framework, which you can read in full here.

It seems to me that these learning goals, these skills, are critically important for people in the 21st century as information available on the internet expands geometrically faster than we can type a URL into a search engine. If we don’t, we’re reduced, as a species, to monkey see, monkey do. And that just won’t do.

I will be re-evaluating my own syllabi with a focus on the ACLR’s new framework and I encourage other educators to do so as well. College and university curriculum committees should consider embracing information literacy as a college-wide learning goal to be embedded developmentally beginning with freshman seminars and continuing with classes in each major – from astronomy to marketing, nursing to religious studies, and sociology to accounting – so that learners grow their skills in information literacy, along with their skills in the discipline of their major(s), over the course of their entire college education. Our future depends on information literacy because monkey see, monkey do just won’t do.

*With thanks to Dr. Taras Pavlovsky, Dean of the Library at The College of New Jersey

Postscript on Dec. 1, 2016:  Thanks to Lauren Rosen of the UW-System for pointing out the work that has been done in this area in the K-12 sector, especially by the P21 coalition.  It is inspiring for us in higher education to consider the P21 framework.

Postscript on Jan. 6, 2017:  InsideHigherEd reports on a survey of librarians that shows that only about one quarter of libraries support instruction in information literacy. See the article here.