For ICUVAD: Information Fluency

14 Mar 2000
Only a year ago we'd probably have been talking about "information literacy", but it's now common to hear fluency invoked, implying a broader spectrum of competencies than those usually attached to literacy. To be fluent is to be at ease, able to communicate across the full spectrum of discourse, attuned to nuance, an active participant in conversations.

The analogy to linguistic fluency is apt in realms of information and technology, and even more in their intersection --you keep fluency by USING it, fluency degrades with disuse, and there's a slang effect too... a native speaker's colloqualisms age with him, unless he makes a strenuous effort to keep up involvement in the discourse, and even then he is eventually generation-gapped by unforeseen evolution. And so it is with hardware and software: one goes through spurts of learning and patches of "it'll do" passivity, which give way to new involvement when perceived potentials reach critical mass.

Supporting a population of users and learners who are navigating these snakes and ladders is an enormous challenge, exacerbated by the accelerating change that is endemic in Technological and Information realms --but this is exactly what computing services and IT people and librarians face every day. In the classroom setting it's pretty clear what to do: involve students in the evolutionary process, make it an explicit part of what one teaches, make the use of new tools essential and inescapable. Faculty development is harder to manage, in part because of the complexites of incentives and specializations and egos. Professors teach what they know, and not all that many are secure enough to be adventurous outside their areas of expertise. This is part of the territory we want to explore this evening.

Fluency is often cast in terms of skills, and (whatever else is true) "skills" are

In that context, it matters WHO gets to define the skill set(s) that we're going to invest in delivering and/or developing. The VFIC Technology Skills contretemps is a case in point: the original version was indigestible to some people because their candidates for necessary skills were left out, but nobody commands a really full spectrum of skills. What does the "market" for certification really want? And just how sensitive should post-secondary education be to this alleged "market", given what we know about the rapidity of change? The skills of 1998 are now hopelessly obsolete --or anyway they aren't what we know we should be teaching in 2000, and they fit 2002 even less well... So if it's skills we're fixated on, they need to be pretty general.

Clearly, we in Liberal Education are in the business of developing metaskills: helping students learn how to learn. This is especially true in the rapidly changing worlds of information and technology.

It's a long way from literacy to fluency, and it's a journey with a lot of implications for post-secondary education --for students, for professors, for librarians, and for administrators. In fact, the world has changed under us, in ways almost nobody foresaw a decade ago. And there's every reason to think the curve of change will continue to get steeper.

Computers are to blame, of course. They present us with insurmountable opportunities, things we HAVE to do, offers we can't refuse, a series of Devil's Bargains, Hobson's Choices, Procrustean Beds... and other dilemma clichés.

We have several points we want to make about information fluency, and some examples we want to describe:

  1. Pay attention to what librarians are up to: Librarians have traditionally been responsible for "bibliographic instruction". In the old days of print-on-paper inside library walls, "BI" was primarily concerned with navigating knowledge, learning library and disciplinary systems for organizing and retrieving. For more than 5 years we've been adding more and more electronic sources and databases and tools, and taking a much more active role, working at figuring out how to To these essentially bottomless tasks we're adding support the productive use of other digital media --sound, images, data files of many sorts-- that are now part of the world of Information... In many cases librarians have the skills and knowledge and the mandate to explore new forms of Information and new technologies. They enjoy perspectives that faculty in disciplines don't have.

  2. It's important to foster environments for active learning, incorporating the moving frontiers of media and technology. The single most powerful tool in our hands is the Web, which offers the possibility that students (and of course faculty) can work at producing content, not just navigating knowledge. Hypertext is a creative medium, enabling students to develop the vital skills of presentation to audiences.
    portfolios: Christine Metzger's as case in point

  3. You never know what'll happen next... integration of multiple media (ink on paper is only one mode of information)
    blindsided by Napster; GIS

  4. How do you create environments for fructification of faculty fluency? ...faculty skills (support? incentives?)
    GIS bootstrapping? ACS?

A couple of summary statements:

Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (Association of College & Research Libraries)

Being Fluent with Information Technology (National Research Council)