Making the Case for Information Literacy

By Lorie Roth, California State University, Office of the Chancellor

For two decades, U.S. newspapers and magazines have featured articles about new technologies; the information explosion, information overload, and information illiterates. They frequently report on students’ (and some professors’) egregious lapses of integrity and judgment in dealing with information. By comparison, the higher education establishment has been relatively feeble in its attempt to raise awareness of and adapt to the shifting demands of the information age. Due to the advance of the dot-coms, dot-orgs, dot-govs, and dot-edus, what students learn and how they learn will have to be reconceived.

Lorie Roth

Lorie Roth is Assistant Vice Chancellor for
Academic Programs at California State University.

Despite the wholesale transformation in the way we interact with information, most professors today still think that their job in an academic course is to “cover the material.” This notion of pedagogy, which could be called the “content” or the “coverage” model, has been stretched to the breaking point by the information explosion. To accommodate the almost daily advances of knowledge in their fields, faculty members are forced to proceed relentlessly through ever-expanding textbooks and to resort to lecturing, a supposedly “efficient” method of covering the material, whether the students seated in the classroom number fifteen or five hundred. Yet, as many researchers have shown, other types of pedagogies might be more useful in helping students actively learn rather than passively receive. A content emphasis – that is, knowing information, rather than a skills emphasis – using information – still prevails in most university classrooms.

For students, learning a static subject matter can be considered only a short-term investment. Within a few years of graduation, the explosion of information is likely to change the content of a discipline and students will find that the relevance of the banked knowledge from their college days has eroded over time. The storehouse of knowledge accumulated in a college education will need to be replenished through lifelong learning experiences, both formal and informal. As a result, students earning a college degree today must prepare for a life and a career in which they will continually need to learn new knowledge and skills. The educated person in the 21 st century will be someone who knows how to learn – someone who has the motivation, the intellectual curiosity, and the disposition to ask questions and productively look for answers. This is why information literacy should be a vital component of every student’s college education and why the higher education community should mobilize more aggressively to respond to the new information environment.

In 1995, the challenge to graduate information-literate students was taken up by the California State University. The CSU is a system of 23 campuses stretching from Humboldt State University in the far north of the state to San Diego State University at the Mexican border – with a combined enrollment of more than 400,000 students. The activities undertaken to raise awareness of and commitment to information literacy included three components: (1) two- and four-day workshops for faculty and librarians to learn more about the ramifications of the information age and its impact on students; (2) a grants program to enable faculty and librarians to redesign courses to emphasize information literacy; and (3) a grants program to enable academic departments to restructure their curriculum to incorporate information literacy. These three strategies have helped the CSU make progress.

There is, however, still much work to be done. In addition to making this investment in the teaching and learning infrastructure, the CSU also attempted to find an assessment that would measure students’ information literacy skills. We tried many ways to assess the skills, including multiple-choice tests, self-assessments, rubrics, a written survey, a telephone survey, student responses to an information scenario, and an ethnographic study of students’ information-seeking and -using behaviors. Unfortunately, these attempts at assessment often proved to be too simple, reductionist, complicated, labor-intensive, or time-consuming.

A few representative headlines from American newspapers reflect the press’s concern for accuracy, integrity, accessibility, and reliability of information found on the Internet:

Our most recent attempt to find an effective way to assess information literacy has been a collaboration with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and several other universities, including UCLA, the University of Washington, Purdue University, Portland State University, and the University of Memphis. This assessment, called the “ICT Literacy Assessment” (Information and Communications Technology), is an online, scenario-based simulation that asks students to perform real-life information tasks. Skills assessed include the ability to use basic tools such as word processing and spreadsheets and, most importantly, higher order cognitive skills such as retrieving and evaluating information resources and the ethical use of information. Students spend about 75 minutes completing the assessment and 15 minutes filling out demographic information.

More than 3,300 students across 23 CSU campuses piloted this assessment last year, and the early results look promising. In a post-test survey, 94 percent of the students said that to perform well on the test requires thinking skills as well as technical skills. Ninety percent said that the assessment was appropriately challenging. Three-fourths of the students indicated that the tasks they were asked to perform on the ICT assessment reflected activities they did at school or work.

In the early administration of the ICT Literacy Assessment, we were able to collect group data only, but it is now possible to provide scores for individual students. Each student receives individualized feedback on each of the “subproficiencies,” such as defining an information need or accessing the most appropriate sources. In short, each student who takes the test gets a diagnostic report. Thus, students know where they stand and what they have to do to be proficient in these critically important academic skills.

Innumerable research studies, including those conducted by the California State University, have shown that students’ information skills could be improved. But we in higher education have not acted upon these findings nor have we sufficiently publicized the findings among our colleagues– professors, administrators, and professional staff. In fact, the popular press has done a much better job than we have.

An Associated Press article posted on CNN’s Web site on December 9, 2004, was headlined “Students shun search for information offline.” The subheading succinctly described the way many of today’s students approach information: “Go to Google, search and scroll results, click, and copy.”

Journalistic pieces repeatedly define, dramatize, and publicize the problem. But it is the job of higher education to find a solution to that problem. It is our job to make sure that students who graduate from our colleges and universities have the information-literacy skills to find, evaluate, and use information that is constantly changing – not just while they are in college, but throughout their lifetime.

Lorie Roth is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at California State University.

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