Mandatory Information Literacy

I received an email today from someone in another country asking if we had made information literacy mandatory for first-year students at my institution. Of course, I can only presume that she meant mandatory information literacy *instruction* – I cannot imagine any institution ever mandating achievement of information literacy for first-year students. This has prompted quite a bit of thought for me today. The short answer is that we do not have such a requirement and – for a variety of reasons – that is not likely to happen for some time, perhaps ever, given the very decentralized nature of the undergraduate curriculum (there are 5-7 ways to fulfill the first-year composition requirement, depending how one counts the options) among other factors.

What I am thinking about though is whether that is the goal that I should be trying to achieve. My answer right now is no. I think I would spend a great deal of energy and time and not have much to show for it. Instead, I have focused on looking for the “windows” in the curriculum — either courses, faculty or instructors, or iniatives that present opportunities for integration and weaving information literacy instruction into the fabric of a subject area, curriculum, program, etc. My belief is that if information literacy is integrated in this way it is relatively permanently integrated – whether there is a mandate or not – because it means faculty have made a commitment to the importance of this topic and that is more powerful than an imposed mandate. I prefer this admittedly drawn-out process of integration rather than “bolt on” information literacy instruction. It means however that my goals for the program are expressed in years, not weeks or months.

So, what do others think? Is this institutionally-specific or are there more common principles of program development?

Author: Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa is Head, Undergraduate Library, Coordinator for Information Literacy Services and Instruction, Office of Services, and Associate Professor, Library Administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

5 thoughts on “Mandatory Information Literacy”

  1. I would agree with you. I don’t think we want to “mandate” information literacy instruction. I consider part of the “philosophy” of information literacy being that it is integrated with instruction/learning that already exists. And, I agree, that, whenever we mandate anything, we then end up with instructors and students who feel forced into participating. On the other hand, if a faculty supported this overall direction, a gradual phase-in would be helpful for all. This would give librarians time to plan with faculty members about how to integrate information literacy with their curriculum.

  2. “Mandatory” is, of course, an unfortunate word here. Rather, librarians would like to see institutionally supported and recognized program of information literacy. The problem with the “windows in the curriculum” approach is that it is dependent on individual classroom faculty and thus eliminates groups of students outside that teaching framework. Secondly, those professors when they move to other instututions leave a vacuum in the already established link. The cultivation and building the presence of information literacy in such context is, to say the least, inefficient and erratic. In its philosophy and approach it does not differ much from the previous century’s bibliographic instruction.

  3. Perhaps the middle ground between mandating and capitalizing on “windows” (of opportunity) is to work on having Il acknowledged by the governance structure as a desirable student learning outcome. This can then lead to a collaborative working group of librarians, faculty, and other academic professionals that determine how and where IL best fits into the curriculum. With faculty having a role in making those determinations it can lead to greater feeling of being a part of the process, rather than having it forced on them or their students.

    From my perspective a mandatory program would be something along the lines of a “library 101” course for all freshmen – where they earn a credit. You can make it a requirement for freshmen, but what happens after that? Do faculty assume that all students are now information literate since they took the course? Where’s the follow-up in latter years? Those are perhaps some other reasons why a mandatory freshmen course along may not be the most desirable option.

  4. The other common way of “mandating” IL is to have some chunk of a required composition course include an introduction to the library and the traditional research paper. One problem with both required intro courses and standardized pieces of comp courses is that they are introductory. Students who are doing advanced work in a discipline need something very different than what they need to take first year courses. They need to keep grafting an understanding of how information works to their increasingly sophisticated subject knowledge and their deepening understanding of the way knowledge is made. (First year students also have very little intrinsic motivation to learn how to use libraries or how to write research papers.) That’s why I still support the idea of increasing faculty ownership of and facility with the concepts – because it should be one of those issues that is owned and promoted by all departments, as writing and critical thinking are.

    You can’t mandate that students learn by mandating that teachers teach. But learning how to find and use information is valued right across the curriculum. Where we come in (it seems to me) is helping faculty figure out how to help students learn those skills – particularly in an information environment that is constantly changing.

  5. I agree with Barbara and Steven’s commentary. It is easy to sidetrack whenever the topic of IL is brought up, but I’d like to add that as long as students and classroom faculty perceive the IL as a set of broadly defined, and to some, common sense skills and not a body of traditionally defined academic knowledge, the librarians will struggle to legitimize it. It is the mindset of classroom faculty, students and administrators that needs to be changed first. However, it is gratifying to read many success stories in this respect.

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