The challenge of information literacy? the faculty

I’ve been at this blogging thing for a few years now, so I’m bound to revisit issues. It just seems lately I’ve been returning to old topics. No different today.

There’s a lot of talk about students and information literacy. It’s all over the web… not surprising, what isn’t? We certainly talk about this issue on our campus, and in our department we try to prepare H.S. English teachers to help their students with information literacy (yes the term is problematic but I’ll use it as a point of reference).

I continue to be concerned that the real stumbling block on the path to this goal does not have to do with students but rather with faculty. However you’re going to characterize information literacy for undergrads and grads, clearly faculty need to be more literate overall than that (again assuming one can talk about "levels" of literacy). Anyway my point is that faculty as a whole are woefully underprepared to teach in this quickly emerging world. They lack basic skills.

So I’m just going to lay out a handful of basic technical and rhetorical skills I think you’d want students to have.

  • Make simple audio and video recordings (we’re not talking Spielberg here; just cruise around on YouTube for a while and you’ll get the idea)
  • Make a basic, static website using a simple application like iWeb.
  • Do basic photo and image editing in PhotoShop or the equivalent.
  • Make a good PowerPoint presentation (I don’t think much of PowerPoint myself, but I’ll throw it in there)
  • Understand and use web 2.0 applications
  • Find useful information on the web
  • Get some understanding of the challenges of participating in an online community (which they should already know from MySpace and Facebook, though they often don’t think through the potential implications of their actions there)

I think it would be generous to say that 10% of any campus faculty have all these skills. I would wonder even what % of faculty can effectively find information on the web using Google or something like that. I mean, what % can find a good sushi restaurant near a motel or research purchasing a new car or find reviews of a new movie or book?  1/3? 1/2? 2/3?

Now I’m not suggesting that you’d need 100% of faculty to have all these skills, but maybe 40%? Think about it the way you think about writing instruction. At Cortland, like many campuses, we have two semesters of composition, followed up by a required two "writing-intensive" courses (which serve a WAC objective). However, writing takes place in many other classes, indeed in most classes, in some form or other. So I think it’s reasonable to say that you’d need 40% of the faculty offering curriculum where students are using these skills in some way, with some of those courses being an intense study of this literacy analogous to what we do now with writing in composition. Indeed, perhaps what I’m talking about is an evolution of composition, but only if the faculty can deliver on it.

The task of building this literacy is nearly overwhelming. Colleges will have to make some harsh decisions. There are some top-down things you could do, but I’m not going to suggest that. You need top-down support and reward, but I’d leave it at that. This support and reward could be both individual and on a department level. For example, my College’s writing committee gives out $5000 grants to departments to improve writing instruction; something similar could be done in this area.

I would place my emphasis on newly tenured faculty (i.e. faculty tenured in the last five years). Why? Well first, I think it is less likely that senior faculty would be looking to make the kind of change to their career and pedagogy that I’m suggesting here. I certainly would welcome any interested faculty, but my experience at Cortland is that, in general, more senior faculty are less interested in meeting this challenge.

On the other end of the spectrum, junior faculty should certainly be encouraged to acquire these skills and develop pedagogies that integrate technologies. However, they shouldn’t be expected to lead this initiative. They need to be able to look to tenured faculty who are doing the same thing, who understand the work involved, and can provide a context for that work when it comes time for tenure review.

Newly-tenured faculty have less pressure on them in personal-professional terms than junior faculty (although sometimes it doesn’t feel that way). They are likely to be younger than other tenured faculty and thus are more likely to have some information literacy and comfort in working with technology (though obviously that isn’t uniformly the case). They are also likely to be looking for ways to define themselves as full members of the campus community and to begin to put their stamp on their program or department in a way they would not have done before they were tenured. That is, obviously, once-tenured, one is in a position to take a leadership role or at least a stand that one couldn’t do before.

Ok, so ideally, I would want to identify a department where I could find at least two newly tenured faculty (it’s better to have support next door). I help them write a campus grant that will support some training for them and then buy them some equipment. I’d start with giving them basic training in these skills (making videos, building websites, using web 2.0 applications, etc.). Then we’d move into more of a support phase where they need to figure out how this new literacy would work in their program, and I function as a sounding board. Then the courses are built, and the faculty receive support for their courses through information resources (e.g. library multimedia specialists, computer help desk, etc.).

Ideally the faculty have a positive experience and serve to encourage others in their department, junior faculty in particular, to join in. Even more ideally, their success is acknowledged and rewarded by the college in some material way. Furthermore, once these faculty have had this experience, you then need to find a way to keep them going, keep them current. Clearly this will have to be founded on their personal motivation, but some mechanism–an online community, faculty development opportunities, grants for new equipment, retreats–will have to be put in place to make it happen.

So my notion is that on our campus you’d need to identify 15-25 faculty every year to work with. We have something like 500 faculty, though most are part-time and there are other workload issues there I’m not addressing in this post. So I’d like to imagine 100 faculty able to do this kind of work five years down the road.

Hopefully by that time we’ll be hiring faculty who have these skills and perspectives coming in the door (graduate schools…this means you!).

6 thoughts on “The challenge of information literacy? the faculty

Add yours

  1. Thanks Laurie, I’m going to go comment on that blog as I think it misrepresents me. Anyway, to answer your question, I work quite closely with the librarians and other information resources staff at Cortland. We have a strong, positive working relationship. And I think they do a good job.
    That said, the librarians are just as challenged by this shift as the faculty (in fact, I would consider librarians as part of the faculty, for what it’s worth).
    Yes, there are a couple librarians who could provide support for other faculty if they wanted to incorporate video production (for example) into their courses, but not nearly enough to meet the kind of demand I’m talking about in this post.
    I’m afraid the answer can’t be that you hire X number of librarians to support this kind of literacy anymore than that answer works in terms of print literacy. Yes you need librarians and they are an important part of the campus, but if the faculty in the classrooms weren’t print literate you’d still be in a hopeless situation.
    You still need literate faculty.


  2. Alex, some interesting ideas and comments. I wish that it were so simple as to just hire new people with the skills. I’m an administrator in a small rural k – 12 school. We just recently had some interns in our school, direct from the university and most had little to no knowledge of how to use the tools you mention. They know what they are and, like some of my students, are pretty good at using them but, when it comes to using them in the learning realm, it is much different. As I’ve mentioned on Will Richardson’s blog, there is more to this than just giving people the training or having them have the skills. It’s having those people who have that knack to combine the tools with the learning. Like someone who teaches art. To really touch the students, you have to do more than just have the tools, you have to be able to use them and see ways of doing things at the spurr of the moment. Similar to the difference between a regular weekend athelete and a pro. Both have the same skill set but the pro is able to do so much more and in such a better way. I’ve been at this technicology thing for years. I’ve strayed away due to various life events but when I get back to it, it doesn’t take long to get back up to speed, whatever the speed happens to be. Not so for most of the public. And, the general public sticks to things with which they are comfortable unlike, I’d gues, you and I and others like us who see something and want to know how to make it work in the world of my classroom or the world of the classroom. Trying to get all staff to that point is, I believe, a colossal waste of time. Let those who can teach art, teach art and those who can work with certain tools, use them. Best case, mix the two in an integrated curriculum so that they students can experience both.


  3. It’s a good point K. It may be a quixotic pursuit to train all or the majority of the faculty. And you’re right there’s a big difference between understanding the technology yourself and figuring out how to teach with it. And one of the biggest obstacles there is that we really don’t do anything to train new teachers to teach with technology and even if we do there’s a whole lot of resistance there.
    I guess part of the point here is how we envision the future. Right now we’d say we imagine that every teacher is print literate, though certainly there are degrees of literacy. This print literacy is what we hope students will acquire, and it’s what we believe they will need in the workplace.
    The question is… do we foresee a future in which the ability to compose video, audio, and image will be as necessary as the ability to compose text? Do we foresee a future (perhaps closer) when the ability to negotiate networks we be as necessary as the ability to read a book?
    There’s a lot in such questions. For instance, how important is it really that the average American be able to write? And what do we mean by writing? Fill out a form?
    On the other hand, perhaps information literacy will be more essential than print literacy ever was. After all, there are plenty of information illiterate people in the world: do you want to be competing in that job market trying to earn US dollars?
    Getting back to your comment. I agree: there don’t appear to be many people who can do the kinds of things we’re talking about. But how many print literate folks were there in the US in 1830? Perhaps someday the kind of literacy I’m talking about here will be as common as print literacy. But we won’t get there by magic.


  4. Alex,
    Your right about the illiterate masses. That is why the power during the middle ages was with those who had the ability to read and write. Having said that, the advent of moveable type did not have the same impact as the changes we are now seeing with technology because so many people can communicate with alternate methods and the technology is just another mode of communication, although preferred by certain segments of the popular culture. The ability to access this technology does not eliminate you from gaining knowledge, communicating with others or obtaining a very high level of education. In fact, one still must be able to read in order to obtain education, regardless of what method one is using. Power is still with those who can read as is evident in the various studies done that demonstrate the significance that reading has on poverty level and achievement.
    I agree that many people are information illiterate. However, I notice that many of the technologically literate are not always inforamtion literate which creates somewhat of a problem, especially at the school level. Example, our IT person can fix just about anything but doesn’t have much of a clue when it comes to using or applying programs in the school environment. In fact, I’m constantly having to argue for the use of x or y program, especially if it is webbased. Will that change or will that continue? Not sure. Another thing I see, especially in students, is that if it isn’t x program or y program like they have used, then they have a hard time adapting to the new program. We tried one of the alternate word processing programs last year but went back to the standard because we had so many kids who complained and couldn’t make the adjustment. Maybe we should have toughed it out but it sure didn’t seem worth it. As you state, I think that some of the skills we have today, like writing, may disappear as technology improves and we don’t need written signatures or even writing. Saying that, I think that some of our current literacy skills will become even more important, like skimming for meaning, paraphrasing, summarizing and such. And I agree, the next few decades will see a switch regarding which literacies are needed but we may require a greater number of skills than at present. I’m still concerned that, at the end of the day, economics will continue to a divide the people and the divide will get bigger. I sure hope it doesn’t and I’m wrong but I’m seeing third generations of families on social assistance – it has become a way of life and I can’t see it stopping unless we switch society around a little. You may be right, though, a lot can change in 5 years now.


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