New information and communication technologies (ICTs) pose significant challenges for their users. They require the rapid development and continual updating of diverse skills, competences, and knowledge, from the most familiar to the brand new, and from the most basic to the highly sophisticated. In academic research, these skills and knowledge requirements are increasingly brought together under the rubric of information literacy. By using the term “literacy,” the skills needed to operate ICTs are related to the ability to read and write, although the concept is still being developed. The specific nature of key information literacy skills is still under debate. However, at a minimum these skills include the abilities to access, navigate, critique, and create the content and services available via ICTs. As these abilities become ever more critical to effective participation in employment, education, and society, both governments and researchers are finding that understanding, tracking, and enhancing them are of growing importance.
The study of information literacy has developed separately from the study of media literacy, but the two traditions are beginning to converge. The information literacy tradition emphasizes the access, identification, location, evaluation, and use of information materials while the media literacy tradition generally stresses the understanding, comprehension, critique, and creation of media materials. These are similar but not identical definitions. One reason for the difference in emphasis is that ICT-based information sources have been less accessible, both because they are unequally distributed in society and because these information sources are more complex to find and use than the typical content of television or radio. Another reason is that, since media materials are largely commercially produced, there has been greater emphasis in media literacy on critique than there has been in relation to information literacy. As the natures of information and media materials diversify and converge, it is useful to address both definitions by focusing on four key concepts: access, navigation, critique, and creation.
The first key element of information literacy is access. Access seems simple, but in fact it is a complex concept. First, it includes the physical possession of a piece of hardware, such as a computer or mobile phone, as well as the time to use it. Next, and equally importantly, it includes a range of the skills and competences required by the public to sustain and update their access to fast-changing media and communication technologies, to regulate the information accessible to them, and to manage the information available to others about individuals.
The second key element of information literacy is navigation – the ability to find relevant content. Information literacy researchers are coming to recognize that navigation and understanding are fundamentally linked in the online atmosphere of media plenty. In this, the Internet differs from print and audiovisual texts. These texts were traditionally produced in a context of scarcity, with few people having access to the systems of production and distribution. This maintained a strong distinction between producers and consumers, with key filters operating to select material to be distributed in accordance with criteria of cultural quality, editorial values, professional production conventions, and political or market pressures. While this pre-filtering and organization of written information placed fewer demands on the individual’s critical/information skills in terms of locating an authoritative source, information literacy instead centers on understanding the operation and consequences of these filters.
Critical literacy is the third key element of information literacy. Almost anyone can produce and disseminate Internet content, with fewer and different kinds of filters, so critical literacy, or the ability to evaluate and assess content for oneself, is fundamental to the ability to “read” the Internet. On the Internet, the information-literate person must be able to find the information he or she wants by searching among a wide range of relatively disorganized sources and be able to compare and evaluate them, sorting authoritative from non-authoritative and relevant from irrelevant documents. A less informationliterate person faces difficulties in navigating online, even if he or she has some technical skills, precisely because of a lack of skills for comparing and evaluating information. For example, adults using the web face challenges to the values they have learned to associate with (printed) texts in school. Instead of the authoritative and carefully selected texts that one might find in a library, a huge variety of primary sources confronts the often under-prepared user online. In addition, people’s rather broad searching strategies, which work well in a closely monitored database such as a school library, for example, are unsuitable for large-scale search engines, which return a vast number of irrelevant results.
The fourth element of information literacy is creation. Print literacy has always included both reading and writing skills. However, examination of content creation skills is just beginning to be included in research on information literacy. With the rapid growth of peer-to-peer networking, the creation of information (as “user-generated content” of various kinds) is transforming the range of information available online. This sets new challenges for research and policy, raising questions about the quality or originality of people’s information creation. With a burgeoning of multimedia artwork, music, and moving images, it also raises questions regarding the ethical or, conversely, harmful, nature of some material (as in the growth of racist or hostile material, as well as in the expansion in peer-to-peer advice and support). Information creation also opens up new possibilities for civic or political processes of deliberation, transparency, and organizing.
Main Areas Of Research
The conceptual foundations of information literacy lie in information processing, the study of how symbols become information and how information, in turn, becomes knowledge. Drawing on this approach, which is based in cognitive psychology, a range of experimental studies has been conducted in which tasks are performed and user reactions are tested and tracked. These studies investigate users’ attitudes and beliefs, and researchers have attempted to develop psychological instruments to measure literacy.
Information literacy is linked historically to computer skills (sometimes called computer literacy), and so research also examines people’s (generally, adults’) ability to manipulate hardware and software in order to find information efficiently and effectively. The related field of human–computer interaction, although it may not mention the concept of information literacy explicitly, treats literacy as an interaction between skilled users and well-designed interfaces.
Researchers in the fields of education and library studies have been instrumental in distinguishing technical skills (for example, the ability to open a web browser on a computer) from information skills (for example, the ability to assess whether the information on a web page is reliable). These researchers have focused on motivation and the appropriateness of content as key barriers to use, rather than attributing poor usage to deficient technical skills. Other researchers in this tradition focus on problems of comprehension, understanding, and the evaluation of information.
These areas of information literacy studies overlap in practice. Many of the studies that have been conducted are couched in a context of work and competitiveness, either personal or national. The implication is that the information-literate person is able to participate fully in the world of work, for example, by being an “information worker” or a “knowledge worker.” Conversely, the person who lacks information literacy risks being undervalued by or excluded from an increasingly competitive, information-oriented labor market.
Measuring Information Literacy
Literacy has never been easy to measure. However, practitioners in information science have worked to develop literacy standards to help assess the levels of competence, typically of adult learners. For example, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) in the USA has developed a series of standards, performance indicators, and outcomes for information literacy in higher education. Each level is associated with performance indicators and outcomes, and specifies that the information-literate student should be able to determine the nature and extent of the information needed (level 1); access required information effectively and efficiently (level 2); evaluate information and its sources critically and incorporate selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system (level 3); use information effectively, individually or as a member of a group, to accomplish a specific purpose (level 4); and understand many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and use the information appropriately (level 5).
In the UK, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) has formulated an alternative model based on seven pillars of information literacy. In this model, information literacy consists of the following skills, on each of which performance can be graded at levels from novice to advanced beginner, competent, proficient or expert: (1) recognize information needs, (2) distinguish ways of addressing gaps, (3) construct strategies for locating information, (4) locate and access information, (5) compare and evaluate information, (6) organize, apply, and communicate information; and (7) synthesize and create information. This model differs from the ACRL model by including basic library and ICT skills as foundational elements, and also by stressing strategies for the location of information and for enhancing the creative dimension of information literacy.
This specification of standards is clearly crucial if education, skills, and training programs are to be developed and evaluated (NIACE 2004). While several standardized measures of computer literacy have been proposed, basic library skills – the other set of foundational skills in the SCONUL model – have not been adequately assessed in the adult population.
Policy Development And Information Literacy
A UNESCO-funded multinational gathering of experts organized by the US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science and the National Forum on Information Literacy (Information Literacy Meeting of Experts 2003) describes information literacy as “a prerequisite for participating effectively in the Information Society” and “part of the basic human right of life long learning.” This strong language is echoed in policy papers in several countries. For example, in the UK, the White Paper, 21st century skills: Realising our potential (Department for Education and Skills 2003), makes a similar commitment to help adults gain ICT skills as a third skill for life alongside literacy and numeracy, in order to “learn effectively online, become active citizens in the information age and . . . contribute productively to the economy” (Office of the e-Envoy 2003, 11).
Information literacy is primarily promoted and supported for its benefits in the training of a highly skilled workforce, thereby advancing employment and economic competitiveness. While funding is plentiful for this work, how people critically understand texts, crucial to the ideal of the “informed citizen” (prominent in media literacy research), receives a low priority in relation to information literacy initiatives.
- Bawden, D. (2001). Information and digital literacies: A review of concepts. Journal of Documentation, 57(2), 218–259.
- Church, G. M. (1999). The human–computer interface and information literacy: Some basics and beyond. Information Technology and Libraries, 18(1), 3 –21.
- Department for Education and Skills (2003). 21st century skills: Realising our potential. Cm. 5810. Norwich: HMSO. At www.dfes.gov.uk/skillsstrategy/uploads/documents/21st%20Century%20Skills.pdf, accessed February 17, 2007.
- Educational Testing Service (ETS) (2002). Digital transformation: A framework for ICT literacy. At www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/ICTREPORT.pdf, accessed February 17, 2007.
- Fallows, D. (2005). Search engine users. At www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/146/report_display.asp, accessed February 17, 2007.
- Information Literacy Meeting of Experts (2003). The Prague declaration: Towards an information literate society. At www.nclis.gov/libinter/infolitconf&meet/post-infolitconf&meet/PragueDeclaration.pdf, accessed February 17, 2007.
- Lenhart, A., Horrigan, J. B., & Fallows, D. (2004). Content creation online. At www.pewinternet.org/ PPF/r/113/report_display.asp, accessed February 17, 2007.
- Livingstone, S. (2004). Media literacy and the challenge of new information and communication technologies. Communication Review, 7, 3–14.
- Livingstone, S., Van Couvering, E., & Thumim, N. (2008). Converging traditions of research on media and information literacies: Disciplinary, critical and methodological issues. In D. J. Leu, J. Coiro, M. Knobel, & C. Lankshear (eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Marcum, J. W. (2002). Rethinking information literacy. Library Quarterly, 72(1), 1–26.
- NIACE (2004). ICT skill for life report. London: National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education/DfES.
- Office of the e-Envoy (2003). UK online annual report 2003. London: Office of the e-Envoy.
- Warnick, B. (2002). Critical literacy in a digital era: Technology, rhetoric and the public interest. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.