The Hard Job of Making Us Information Literate

Oct 11, 2011

In a time when Google can tell us almost anything we need to know - and lots of things we don't - the ability to analyze, organize and accurately use information has become more crucial than ever. Several schools have begun to embrace this challenge head-on by appointing faculty specifically for that purpose. One such institution is Alabama's University of Montevallo. We spoke with reference librarian and assistant professor Dr. Andrew Battista to get the scoop on information literacy.

by Eric Garneau

Andrew Battista

Before moving to Kentucky, Dr. Andrew Battista attended SUNY Buffalo, where he earned an M.A. in English and an MLS in Library Science. He then studied at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY, earning a Ph.D. in English literature. In July 2011 he was hired by the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, AL, where he'll use his expertise with literature, social media and research skills to help students understand and engage with an increasingly digital world. Can you briefly describe for our readers what information literacy is?

Andrew Battista: The most relevant definitions of information literacy link the concept to a fundamental expectation of an engaged citizen in a democracy: that he or she knows what's happening, knows what's important and understands what issues rightly or wrongly occupy public attention. The core goal of a liberal arts institution is to provide a broad education that requires fervent contemplation of knowledge, which in turn elicits active participation in the communities around us. Information literacy is the skill that drives this process; it's an ability to access and evaluate knowledge.

Although there are many competing understandings of what information literacy is, I suggest that people who are information literate in the digital age exhibit two common qualities. First, they make a habit of investigating the sources of their information, paying attention to how the information is produced, who produces it and why they produce it. Second, those who are information literate adapt highly intentional strategies of seeking out and organizing the information that already exists. They're able to talk about the kinds of things they read, the programs they watch and listen to, and they're able to describe how and why they draw boundaries around the information they take in. Why is information literacy so important for readers and scholars (and anybody, really) nowadays? How could a lack of it negatively impact a person's life?

AB: I can think of more than a few answers to this question! Just about any information-seeking platform we use - especially the Internet - is glutted with information. A Google search can return thousands if not millions of results. On any given day, over 2,000 tweets on many different subjects roll across my screen, and I don't even follow that many feeds. Everyone under the sun has a blog, and it seems that each month a new web publication, podcast or journal enters the mix. It's amazing to think that the Internet is only one source of information for many people. We can't underestimate the role that smart phone applications and traditional forms of communication hold as a source of information. If we don't teach our students to make choices and seek out the most important sources of information efficiently, they're bound to be lost in the proverbial echo chamber of the digital age.

The overload problem is compounded for scholars. Yesterday, I was at a plenary talk and learned that it would take up to five years to read all of the information that's published in the field of neuroscience each day. Quite simply, even though we live amidst an incredible flourishing of information, we risk losing the ability to capture any of it or evaluate the quality of it if we aren't intentional about the way we organize the knowledge that exists.

Another reason why information literacy is important is that our students' careers may depend on their fluency in this area. Right now, I'm reading Cathy N. Davidson's latest book on learning and cognitive science, Now You See It. Davidson points out that almost all of today's fastest growing professions did not exist ten years ago. Many of these newly existing professions are predicated on a fundamental ability to know what's happening, keep track of who's saying what and decide what information matters. Students who aren't able to cultivate these skills in college really don't stand a chance when they leave and pursue a vocation.

A final reason why information literacy is crucial seems obvious but has to be mentioned. So much of the information we take in about things that matter - politics, legislation, social policy, environmental science, economics - is bankrolled by corporations who live and die by the profit motive. It's absolutely paramount that we all learn to identify the position and condition of all knowledge. This doesn't mean that we ignore information we don't agree with, but it does mean that we constantly filter our encounter with knowledge through an understanding of why information is produced. Not many schools have explicit positions in information literacy like yours. Why do you think that is, and do you see it changing in the near future?

AB: This question is complex. On the one hand, it's not quite accurate to say that a position in information literacy like mine is anomalous. There are several institutions across the country that have made strong commitments to information literacy, both at the library and institution-wide level.

However, you're right to point out that information literacy is an underrepresented focus in higher education. Perhaps this is because the term itself is somewhat amorphous, but I think the main reason is that higher education itself is notoriously resistant to change. As it stands today, decades of curricular models that value task-oriented accomplishments have subsequently encouraged teachers in many disciplines to see information seeking as a task-oriented skill. What information do I need to get this project done? Given the proliferation of knowledge and digital learning, the information literacy imperative should change the way we approach education. Now we should ask, 'what habits should students be cultivating and what tools should they use that will put them in a position to find the information they need after they leave college?' We can't predict what knowledge-seeking tools will develop after students leave college, but we can quantify the strategies they'll need to develop information literacy in the future. Fortunately, I think that there's a strong, interdisciplinary turn toward information literacy afoot in the academy, and it will continue to grow as a focus of the college-level education. What efforts does the U of Montevallo put forth to grow students' information literacy level? Can these be replicated in other student populations?

AB: One of the reasons I accepted this position is because I could tell that Montevallo has a strong institutional commitment to information literacy. It's a concept that's infused in all courses taught in all disciplines. Several years ago, Montevallo affirmed information literacy as the chief objective of its Quality Enhancement Plan, which is a response to a national accreditation process. The full description of the Quality Enhancement Plan can be found online, but it sets as a goal that students leave Montevallo with the ability to access, identify and evaluate information important to their disciplines or vocations.

These skills are embedded into curriculum at every phase of the undergraduate journey, and specific classes have been identified in many programs as foundational, advancing and mastery-level experiences. I believe these efforts can be, and indeed already have been, replicated in other institutions. I'd point out the University of Central Florida's Information Fluency Project as an exemplar. But the focus on information literacy should not start at the college level. Middle schools and high schools should continue to meet students where they are and capitalize on their high-level proficiency with an attention to digital learning in the educational process. What are some projects you're currently working on?

AB: One of the great things about my work as a librarian is that I'm allowed to juggle many projects at once. As I mentioned before, I'm working on teaching exercises and an article on the potential for Twitter to be an information-gathering tool in the classroom, and I'm also in the process of starting an Information Literacy podcast, which will be a part of a larger institution-wide, open-access iTunes U account (which will be released shortly). In general, I'm trying to work with library resources and assist faculty as they help their students sift through the waves of information available to them.

How do school administrators manage to stave off information overload?

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