Information Fluency at Macalester

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"Students should develop the ability to use information and communication resources effectively, be adept at critical, analytical and logical thinking, and express themselves well in oral and written forms."

Macalester Statement of Purpose and Belief

In our environment of rapid technological change combined with an ever-increasing volume of available information, there is a need to address how best to prepare our students to become information fluent and to be prepared as life-long learners. We seek to enable our students to effectively navigate in a complex information society where information resources are diverse, overly abundant, and sometimes inaccurate, and to be able to critically evaluate the resources in order to determine the validity of information provided. An information fluent person has been defined as an individual who can identify an information need, locate relevant sources, critically evaluate the resources, and use the pertinent information effectively. It is also an important component that students use information in an ethical manner as well. The purpose behind information fluency efforts also closely matches one of the components of the Macalester Statement of Purpose and Belief.

Definition of Information Fluency at Macalester

At Macalester, "students should develop the ability to use information and communication resources effectively, be adept at critical, analytical and logical thinking, and express themselves well in both oral and written forms." This excerpt from the college's Statement of Purpose and Belief sets the stage for discussions on the definition of Information Fluency at Macalester. In addition, as a liberal arts institution, we see the greater value in asking and determining questions, as opposed to simply supplying answers.

Rigorous exploration of important questions starts with determination of the questions, a basic information need. Exploration requires a strategy for identifying and critically sifting through the wealth of information available, using technology effectively, and understanding the complex ethical and legal issues surrounding the use of information. Results are then developed, shared and evaluated, leading to new information and new knowledge. New questions emerge, and the cycle begins again.

Revealing this iterative process to students within a disciplinary context is critical to ensure their successful participation in scholarly discourse. Understanding the conceptual frameworks of this process provides a foundation for developing abilities to transform information into knowledge. Embedding this process into the curriculum empowers all students to become life long learners.

Rationale for Using "Information Fluency"

We have discussed the rationale for using "information fluency" as opposed to "literacy." Literacy is often associated with a set of basic skills, whereas the term fluency is associated with more advanced processes and a deeper understanding of information and knowledge in a subject area. Fluency implies a more rich and robust continuum of skills, concepts, and knowledge development. At the same time, it is agreed that we (Information Services) don't want to go too far in developing a definition. A draft is composed as a starting point for discussion.

We also have held meetings to discuss what we mean by information fluency. As a starting point we have developed a draft of suggested expectations for students at various levels of development during their time at Macalester. We have been focusing on information technology and research methodologies. This is just another starting point for discussion. That draft is attached.

Information Fluency Efforts at Macalester

Revolutionary changes in information technology have created new challenges for the educational community. One of the challenges has been the change in focus from providing information in sufficient quantity to making sense of the huge quantity of information it is now possible to generate on almost any topic. Defining, selecting and refining appropriate information on a topic should be a characteristic of a liberally educated student. Several interested groups have proposed "competency standards" to describe an information literate student. ACRL (The Association of College and Research Librarians) and AAHE (American Association for Higher Education) both have created lists with performance indicators. While useful as guidelines, we think they are static and do not easily integrate with our curriculum.

Within the context of a liberal arts curriculum, we think students should progress along a continuum of abilities. A broad grounding at an early stage of their academic careers prepares students to acquire more specialized expertise later on.

Our draft analyzes the progression of information competencies at four levels:

  1. The entering student at Macalester should quickly reach a level playing field of basic information fluency. Those basic abilities and understandings that might be called "generic" are found at this level and give assurance that the student can navigate and recognize basic information resources. Success at the beginning level enables faculty members to make assumptions about students' most basic abilities.
  2. By the end of the first year of study, we should expect that students are aware of the most important information resources common to academic libraries and protocols specific to Macalester. They should appreciate the difference between popular and scholarly resources (as well as the occasional ambiguity of the distinction) and the various venues of scholarly discourse. Concomitantly, students should be developing their own ability to express ideas by making valid points backed by evidence derived from the scholarly literature.
  3. At the next level of student experience, the student should develop expertise in a major subject. This should mean ability to use discipline-specific information resources and ability to distinguish among types of information and the tools appropriate to each. The information fluency skills appropriate to this level should support exportable informational skills that work in all cultures and circumstances.
  4. Finally, the graduating student should be able to utilize appropriate informational abilities and tools no matter where or in what venue they find them. With their growing expertise in a specific scholarly area, they should be able to create a body of information to solve problems as they distill the most relevant points. Macalester graduates should also appreciate the legal and ethical issues surrounding information.
  5. ~ Information Fluency Task Force - 4/11/03

Past Information Fluency Projects at Macalester

Currently, the library is involved in a three year project funded by a grant from the ACM (Associated Colleges of the Midwest) to expand information fluency efforts by developing collaborative initiatives amongst faculty, librarians, and information technologists on liberal arts campuses. One of our collaborative projects in the past year involved working with two other ACM institutions - Carleton and St. Olaf on a jointly sponsored symposium held at Macalester on April 5, 2002. Information is available at our website, Academic Integrity Symposium.

A second initiative involved a pilot project to develop an information fluency lab component within a first year seminar to address writing and information literacy issues in Fall 2002. In 2003 we tested this model with two of the First Year Seminars. If you are interested in reading more about this initiative, we have a LESTER course page. To register to log into the course page, please send an email message to Terri Fishel (fishel@macalester.edu)

In the Summer of 2003, we developed a workshop in collaboration with the Center for Scholarship and Teaching and the MAX Center. Entitled "Entering the Community of Inquiry" we developed a program for faculty teaching first year courses. Based on the success of this program, we provided a workshop in the Spring of 2004 for faculty teaching in the Fall of 2004.

More information about Macalester activities related to information fluency will be found in a document produced for a poster session for ACM October 3, 2003.

If interested in reading more, please see a list of related readings at http://www.macalester.edu/library/symposium/readings.html

For an overview see Information Literacy in a Nutshell (ALA website)