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Information Literacy Competencies and General Education at Union University

Steve Baker, Director of the Library


 The breakdown of the traditional editorial and publishing mechanisms that partially guaranteed a degree of quality in the resources has opened the floodgates of error, opinion, speculation, and misinformation.  This uncontrolled growth of information spurred by the Internet and all of its associated content providers, both reliable and unreliable, has refocused the attention of academia on the processes that ensure quality student research.  In response to the problem, some instructors strictly limit the use of Internet sources in papers.  While this may provide a way to manage the situation it should not be seen as a permanent solution.  In some instances Internet sources may be the best available.  Also, as more and more scholarly communication migrates to the Internet as the medium of delivery faculty will no longer want to restrict their students.  Finally, with a growing student population that has grown up with the Internet there will likely be more and more protests against any unjustified blanket restrictions.


 Given this online environment what can an institution do to ensure the quality of its student research?  Traditionally, the English comp courses have included units of study aimed at instructing students in the finer points of the academic research process.  Often, these include some library instruction provided by librarians to acquaint the student with the availability and use of resources.  Other courses, particularly those requiring a research component, reinforce and extend these basic skills of research.  The focus of this instructional component was on the mechanics of the research process: organization, note taking, documentation, and information retrieval.  Because the preceding pattern was largely developed for an earlier research environment that relied upon traditional editorial and publishing mechanisms now in disarray, there is a need for a new model.  This new model will continue to focus on the mechanics of the research process but give greater attention to the critical thinking skills necessary to identify, select, evaluate, and use information effectively.  The goal of this paper is to briefly review the development of this new model with regard to accreditation, definitions, outcomes, and assessment.



Institutions of higher education have been adopting specific educational standards or outcomes in an effort to address this issue[1].  While these efforts may use terminology that varies according to the institution’s emphasis (i.e. information competency, information literacy, information technology fluency, etc.) the aim is to address the need for developing a more information literate student[2].  Even SACS seems to be recognizing the importance of information skills instruction as evidenced in its newly adopted Core Requirements and Comprehensive Requirements.


The institution ensures that users have access to regular and timely instruction in the use of the library and other learning/information resources.[3]

Each institution must decide for itself what “regular and timely instruction” means exactly but the statement seems to point toward at least three discernable elements.  First, for instruction to be regular implies that it is in some sense formalized.  Second, if timely instruction is anything it is contextual.  Third, it is instruction only if it involves the learning of some identifiable content.  As Union undertakes the restructuring of its undergraduate core curriculum it should study this issue carefully and decide what changes may be needed to ensure compliance with SACS and the quality of its student research.


Information Literacy Defined

As an initial step in the process of structuring information competencies into the undergraduate core there must be a clear definition.  Perhaps the most ambitious definition is that espoused by Shapiro and Hughes who make the case for “information literacy as a new liberal art” and outline the content of a whole curriculum[4].  A more realistic, yet comprehensive definition is the following one developed by the Institute for Information Literacy.


Information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. It is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education. It enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning. An information literate individual is able to

·   Determine the extent of information needed

·   Access the needed information effectively and efficiently

·   Evaluate information and its sources critically

·   Incorporate selected information into one's knowledge base

·   Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

·   Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally


Information literacy includes information technology skills, such as use of computers, software applications, and information retrieval tools, but it is a broader area of competence that encompasses the content, analysis and communication of information[5].


A simpler working definition is "the ability to find, evaluate, use, and communicate information in all of its various formats."[6]  It is readily apparent from these definitions that the focus here is not just on mechanics and process.  Rather, it goes further into the intellectual skills necessary for a higher quality of research: skills of critical thought, perceptive analysis, and reflective application.


Competency Standards and Outcomes


            There are a growing number of colleges and universities who are developing formal competency standards for information literacy.[7]  Many of these institutions are following a model statement developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries that outlines the following five core competencies.


·  The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.

·  The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

·  The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

·  The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.

·  The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.[8]


The work of ACRL is particularly noteworthy for they have on-going initiatives in the development of teacher training, curriculum outcomes, and best practices.  Many academic librarians are getting specialized training in learning theory as a part of their professional education and development.  Numerous programs are emerging that emphasize the development of effective curriculum and assessment models.




            One final important aspect of information literacy is the development of effective tools for the assessment of student learning.  This is the least well-developed area of information literacy but some notable efforts are underway.[9]  Kathleen Dunn of California State Polytechnic University at Pomona has developed a web based assessment tool for freshman and transfers.  The university system of Washington has appointed a task force that is developing rubrics for the assessment of information and technology literacy across the whole state.


[1] The Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools has included specific language on the importance of information literacy in general education programs for more than a decade. In 1998 the Association of College and Research Libraries adopted Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education as a major program emphasis. The American Association for Higher Education has endorsed the ACRL standards and regularly provides programming related to information literacy at its annual conference.

[2] For a better understanding of the nuances of this varied terminology see Christine Bruce. The Seven Faces of Information Literacy. Adelaide: Auslib Press, 1997; Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shelley K. Hughes. “Information Literacy as a Liberal Art: Enlightenment Proposals for a New Curriculum.” Educom Review 31(March/April 1996) www.educause.edu/pub/er/review/reviewarticles/31231.html; Patricia Senn Breivik, Student Learning in the Information Age. Phoenix: American Council on Education, 1998; and Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1999.

[3] Principles of Accreditation. Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Commission on Colleges. December 11, 2002. www.sacscoc.org/accrrevproj.asp

[4] Shapiro and Hughes.

[5]Characteristics of Programs of Information Literacy that Illustrate Best Practices.” ACRL Best Practices Initiative. Institute for Information Literacy. March 2001. www.ala.org/acrl/nili/criteria.html

[6] Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology, California State University. Information Competence in the CSU: A Report. Dec. 1995. www.csupomona.edu/~library/InfoComp/definition.html

[7] For some illustrative examples see CSU Information Competence Project gothic.lib.calpoly.edu/infocomp/; SUNY Information Literacy olis.sysadm.suny.edu/projects/ILI/iliover.htm; and University of Washington Uwired www.washington.edu/uwired/about_site/index.html

[8] Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. ACRL. January 18, 2000. www.ala.org/acrl/ilstandardlo.html

[9] See Information Competence Assessment. California State University. Council on Library Resources and Information Technology. Information Competence Work Group. June 1999. www.csupomona.edu/~library/InfoComp/ and Assessment of Information and Technology Literacy. University of Washington. October 22, 2001. depts.washington.edu/infolitr/index.html

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-Thomas Watson, 17th century English, non-conformist, Puritan preacher