Data Shows Information Literacy Has Far To Go

For all the time this profession has put into promoting the information literacy concept, I was surprised that data from the National Center for Educational Statistic’s report Academic Libraries 2006 showed an underwhelming lack of penetration into or acceptance by academic institutions. Table 13 has data for the percentage of academic institutions reporting information literacy activities. There are five indicators of information literacy activity. They are:

1. defined information literacy or information literate student
2. incorporated information literacy into institution’s mission
3. incorporated information literacy into institution’s strategic plan
4. has institution-wide committee to implement strategic plan for information literacy
5. strategic plan formally recognizes the library’s role in information literacy instruction

First, here at the corresponding percentages for each of those five items:

1. 48.4
2. 34.3
3. 30.4
4. 17.6
5. 24.8

After all these years of researching it, writing about it, presenting about it, discussing it and selling the information literacy concept to our institutions do these numbers seem as low to you as they do to me? The fourth one is especially surprising. Do our faculty colleagues and academic administrators find information literacy of so little importance that they are unable to justify allocating one committee in the governance structure to it? Apparently so. You might argue that an institution doesn’t need an official committee to develop an information literacy initiative, but I would counter that it goes a long way toward legitimizing it and paving the way for better collaboration with faculty. Perhaps it is the way the question is worded. It seems to suggest you should only answer “yes” if the committee is implementing a strategic plan goal, and perhaps more institutions have information literacy committees and task forces, but are in no way related to a strategic plan.

I was also surprised to learn that smaller institutions, mostly likely teaching and learning-focused colleges, reported less activity than larger institutions. So whereas only 31 percent of small colleges (less than 1,500 FTE) had incorporated IL into the mission, at insitutions with over 5,000 FTE it was 41 percent. I would have expected that smaller institutions that are more focused on learning would be the ones to move more quickly and fully into integrating information literacy into the curriculum. Masters I and II institutions appear to consistenly have the highest numbers of activity. While the best results come from the activity of defining information literacy or an information literate student, I can’t say I’m exactly sure what that means. Where is it defined? Does anyone else know about it? Maybe this report needs some better questions.

I’d like to think that with all the hard work academic librarians and their organizations have put into information literacy initiatives that we’d be doing better by now. It is possible that in 2008, as opposed to 2006, we are doing much better, and that the numbers for these indicators are higher now as a result. That said, these numbers paint a somewhat bleak picture that should give some cause for concern. Or are these numbers meaningless for your institution because there is already a thriving information literacy initiative in place, regardless of committees or strategic plan mentions. What these numbers might suggest in the long run is that NCES needs to do a better job of asking the right questions so we can get a realistic picture of the penetration rate of informaton literacy initiatives and programming at U.S. colleges and universities.

Since we’re on the topic of information literacy I’m going to leave you with some words of wisdom from a faculty member who gave a talk titled “Scholars Perspective: Impact of Digitized Collections on Learning and Teaching“. It is a paper presented by David Watt, a faculty member in the Temple University History Department, at the June 4, 2008 RLG Programs Symposium. Here’s an excerpt that provides some advice for librarians on communicating with faculty about information literacy. I think you’ll find it worthwhile reading:

It is also clearly the case that many of Temple’s faculty are deeply resistant to making “informational literacy” a major component of their courses. It is not a category that makes much sense to many Temple professors. To many of them, it sounds like the kind of phrase that educational bureaucrats who don’t do much teaching or research love to throw around. For many of them, it raises the specter of universities built around “assessing student learning outcomes.” So, there is the bad news: we are living in a world in which there is good reason to believe that students really do need to work on their informational literacy and in which faculty seem resistant to helping them do so. Here is the good news: our experiences at Temple suggest that this is a challenge that can sometimes be easily negotiated. All one has to do, some of us at Temple are coming to believe, is stop preaching to faculty about the need for them to take an interest in informational literacy and, instead, start asking faculty about their hopes for their students.

As soon as one begins to do that—as soon as one begins asking historians, for example, about their hopes—one begins to get answers such as the following:

“I want them to understand that they should read all primary sources with a certain amount of skepticism and that they should be even more skeptical when they are reading secondary works.”

“I want them to be able to distinguish between relatively reliable primary sources and ones that are less reliable.”

Now, none of the faculty responses to the question about their hopes for their students contains the magic phrase “informational literacy.” But that is not really the point, is it?

9 thoughts on “Data Shows Information Literacy Has Far To Go”

  1. I suggest we also look deeper than just the fact that whether or not it is part of the mission, and examine *how* it is a part of the mission. Many campuses have a stated graduation requirement, such as a required course or a test to pass, but that’s where it ends. On the surface, information literacy is part of the stated mission. Many faculty, however, use that requirement as an excuse *not* to incorporate it in their content courses. If it’s taught in a class they took as freshman, they should know it already, right? The effect is that students are forced to learn canned or pre-packaged information literacy skills in a vacuum, with no context, and no real connection to their future research needs, in spite of the librarians best efforts to make some connection to individual assignments or outcomes. Information literacy skills need to be modeled by faculty and students need to be held accountable for it in more than just one class.

  2. Prof. Watt presents a very hopeful view. There clearly is some truth in it, but I suspect it is not the full picture.

    Suppose you had a dialog with an instructor with the following questions as guide. (For each of these, assume that after the question was answered there would be a follow up question about why the instructor follows that approach.)

    1. Do you teach with a textbook?
    a) Yes, as the exclusive source of content to read outside of class.
    b) Yes, yes as the primary source of content but with other supplemental readings.
    c) Yes, but mainly as a reference with many other required readings.
    d) No, not at all.

    2. Do you use eReserves in your class?
    a) Yes as the primary out of class reading activity.
    b) Yes as a complement to the textbook.
    d) No, not at all.

    3. Do you have students read other things that are neither in a textbook nor eReserve?
    a) Yes, I assign certain Web sites for students to read.
    b) Yes, I have students do peer review of each other’s writing.
    c) No, I don’t have students read other things.

    4. Do you have course projects or a term paper?
    a) Yes.
    b) No.

    5. If you answered yes to question 4, Do you assign the topic or do you let the students choose?
    a) Students choose.
    b) Assign the topic.

    6. If you answered yes to question 4, do you give some assistance to the students in identifying suitable references?
    a) Yes
    b) No


    There are courses where the instructor goes the textbook route because it is convenient and if a project or term paper is assigned that is done only because it is required by the institution. This is the grim reality in some instances.

    There are other courses where the instructor goal is to introduce the student to the discipline, so all the readings are prescribed as is the topic of the term paper. Thinking according to a professional in the discipline may not be entirely orthogonal to information literacy but they may not be mutually reinforcing. So this is the more optimistic but perhaps still not ripe for information literacy.

    Then there are courses where Prof. Watt’s story holds true. That is the hopeful case.

    I don’t know the relative proportions of these, but I didn’t find the results you reported surprising. Also, especially on large campuses, even if they are doing all of 1 – 5 in your list, that doesn’t mean there is an effective mechanism to change the instructor behavior at the individual course level.

  3. Dr. Watt’s comments are a perfect explanation for the low numbers in the NCES data. I agree with Amy that claiming something is your mission is far from actually doing it. And not claiming it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

    Asking someone at a liberal arts college if information literacy is important is a little like saying “is breathing important?” Of course! But very few people would list it as an essential part of their life – unless they had an illness that made breathing difficult.

    I appreciate Dr. Watt’s advice that we focus on hopes, not on perceived deficiencies. It’s a much more persuasive and compelling way to approach it.

  4. I wasn’t surprised by the results, given the indicators they were looking for. I can think of a number of campuses with successful information literacy programs that do not plan to accomplish 2-5. How often are other specific sets of competencies/learning goals included in top-level campus planning documents, and are there other campus committees organized around specific sets of competencies/learning goals? Even if the answer was yes, that might not be the best approach for an information literacy program on the same campus.

  5. Might I humbly suggest that a great deal of the problem lies in the term “information literacy” itself? As with “visual literacy” it makes figurative use of the term literate, quite possibly in realms where it does not properly belong. Worse yet, it carries the unfortunate subliminal message that the students or the faculty you wish to teach are “illiterate.” What worse, unequal footing could you establish if your aim is to engage the willing participation of others? I am sure it is not intentional, but it is akin to saying, “Hi, all you illiterates – I’m up here on the pulpit and I am here to lift you from the depths of your ignorance and illiteracy.” Perhaps a new coinage, with positive connotations, such as “information expertise” would invite more people to embrace the valuable applications that are entailed in what we currently call by the woefully pejorative name of information literacy. I would also like to add that the desiderata of information literacy as outlined by ALA and others are long-winded and off-putting. Librarians might fare better if they sounded more like people who genuinely wanted to share than like frustrated school-marms armed with the rebarbative jargon of rubrics and objectives.

  6. Everyone raises excellent points here. I have had many of the same concerns, observations and frustrations in my very brief experience as a librarian. I am a very new librarian. I just hit my first year mark April ’08. I have been attending library conferences for 3 years and have read about information literacy in journals and in blogs, but frankly these statistics don’t surprise me. In my brief experience in the field I already get the impression that most of the talk about Information Literacy is really just talk. I know the importance of IL and school and conferences have stressed its importance, but now that I’m on the job, I don’t see it. My institution even has a stated “Initiative” for it, but as far as I can see, it’s nowhere to be found. Thank you for all of these ideas about how I can think about IL and how I can talk to faculty about it. I do agree with Bodemer that the terminology has got to go. I admit that I cringe a little every time I hear this fanciful term of teaching the remedial folk about i-n-f-o-r-m-a-s-h-o-n and how to use it.

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