Teachers and Librarians--Closing the Digital Divide
Patricia Senn Breivik
Dean, University Library, San Jose University
Chair, National Forum on Information Literacy
The rapid development and expansion of information technology is impacting on the well being of nations and individuals. Huge sums are being expended for network and computer technology in the hope of economic improvement, better education and enhanced quality of life. To date, the results have not paid off for the economically and socially at-risk or for the poorer countries of the world. The very power of the Internet to provide access to a growing tidal wave of information places an immense barrier to people who cannot benefit from its use. Indeed, one of the outcomes of our increasingly high-tech world is a growing digital divide between the information “haves” and “have-nots.”
The challenge of offering the benefits of today’s information society to the “have-nots” is a challenge that rests squarely on teachers and librarians. The challenge is to ensure that all students learn to know when they need information and how to identify, locate, evaluate and effectively use that information to address the issue or problem at hand. Providing people with the latter competencies must be an educational priority for the twenty-first century and such competencies are included in the term “information literacy.”
Interest and a commitment to information literacy have grown largely as a grassroots effort in the United States over the past decade. Yet, the impact on student learning remains uneven across many schools and campuses and nonexistent in others. Increasingly, however, information literacy is attracting the attention of educational leaders. For example, in the spring of 2000, the Executive Board of the American Association for Higher Education endorsed information literacy as a policy issue. (The only other policy issue to have been so endorsed is one on diversity.) Regional accrediting agencies such Middle States Commission and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges have placed emphasis on information literacy as essential for undergraduate learning. At the school level, several states have fostered information literacy statewide (i.e., Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, and Utah). Even management guru Peter Drucker has written frequently on the need for business leaders to acquire such abilities, but he started talking about this more than a decade ago.4
Interest in information literacy is also of growing concern in other countries. As countries recognize their need for a lifelong learning workforce, interest in information literacy comes to the forefront. Now under the auspices of UNESCO, The National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, and the National Forum on Information Literacy, an effort is underway to hold an international leadership conference on information literacy. Planners will meet in Washington, D.C in October. Representing a broad array of professionals, the group will address details for a meeting of experts to be held in spring 2002 and which itself will be charged with detailed planning for undertaking a larger and more ambitious worldwide international conference that will be held late in 2002.
The question is, what does all this mean to teachers and librarians today? First, there is the wonder of it. Information literacy is a grassroots effort that has continued to grow and expand in its influence. This is in contrast to the 1980s education-reform reports issued by experts who failed to recognize the arrival of the Information Age and, therefore, only focused on improving business as usual (e.g., longer school years, higher salaries for teachers, more homework, and so on). Many teachers and librarians in the classrooms of our nation, however, quickly understood that the world has changed, and they realized the inherent strengths of information literacy both at the conceptual and the implementation levels. At the conceptual level, information literacy is the liberal arts concept updated for the Information Age. It is concerned not with teaching something to students but having students acquire lifelong learning abilities. It is concerned that students be able to learn to improve the quality of their lives and to be successful in business long after they finish whatever level of schooling they undertake. This ability is understood as essential in a world characterized by an information explosion, rapidly changing technology, and a work environment where nothing is more constant than change.
On the implementation level, librarians and teachers have also long understood that any one lecture, any one textbook or workbook cannot be a good match for all students in any given class. Students come to classrooms with different learning experiences; they have different preferred learning styles, and they learn at different rates. Acquiring information literacy skills requires resource-based learning, i.e., students are not held to learning from the same information source but are encouraged to use the universe of information available in the real world to find information to address the task at hand. A resource-based learning approach is at the heart of problem-solving and service learning. It is learning by discovery. It is what puts the fun back into learning.
But all is not rosy. There are still many roadblocks between where we are in the United States now and where we need to be, where we can ensure that all students will have the opportunity to develop information literacy abilities. The following list highlights the roadblocks most frequently encountered.
Despite these roadblocks, the wonderful news is that more students in more schools and colleges are having more opportunities to become information literate. The reason for this progress is inherent in what attracts people to work in educational settings. Neither teachers nor librarians enter their fields to become rich nor are they likely to stay within their chosen field with monetary goals in mind. Both groups have entered their professions because they care to make a difference in the lives of people who are entrusted to them. They are motivated to help people make better lives for themselves and for society in general. Therefore, it is not a far-fetched hope that information literacy, as a grassroots effort, will continue to grow and prosper in the months and years ahead.
A learning issue. Information literacy must not be seen as a library issue. It is a learning issue. Students do not become information literate unless class assignments are structured to insure a resource-based learning approach.
Availability of information resources. Resource-based learning cannot occur apart from students’ having access to a wide range of information resources. Students not only need to know when to go to an expert, a local business resource, a video, a book or print journal, and so on, they need to have access to them.
It is not library instruction. Unfortunately, far too many librarians and teachers say “information literacy” but are thinking “library instruction.” Library instruction is teaching things (e.g., search strategies, databases, reference materials) to students; information literacy is what students can do. Library instruction does not require a rethinking of class assignments, but mastering information literacy abilities does.
The need to institutionalize. Many schools and colleges are at the point where they can point with pride to resource-based learning and documented student learning outcomes. Unfortunately, in most cases these successes only reach a limited number of their students. Successfully creating an information-literate society will require across-the-board curriculum planning that ensures that learning experiences are systematically built upon throughout all students’ years of study.
Assessment. This is an area in the United States where increasing attention is being paid. Clearly, to improve and advance efforts, there needs to be an ongoing assessment of existing programs and of students’ improved abilities as savvy information consumers. Emphasis should be on authentic assessment rather than on pre- and post-library skills tests. For example, are students’ research and projects of a higher quality?
- Partnering. Ultimately, nothing is more important to the continued success of information literacy efforts than increased partnering among classroom teachers and librarians.
The important role of national and international efforts in closing the information divide in today’s digital society has been given greater urgency by the recent terrorist attacks in our country, for surely it is impossible to eliminate hatred and terrorism without addressing the extreme inequalities that exist among individuals and nations. Hopefully, this urgency to lessen the information divide will also strengthen the effectiveness of teachers and librarians as they seek the support and resources needed to move ahead and institutionalize information literacy across the curriculums of their institutions. The ultimate benefactors will be the children of today and tomorrow.
1 The opening paragraph of this article is adapted from the initial proposal for the International Leadership Conference on Information Literacy
2 For more information on the National Forum on Information Literacy and to read further about information literacy, see the Forum’s website at www.infolit.org
3 Drucker, Peter, “Be Data Literate—Know What to Know,” The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 1992.
4 Breivik, Patricia Senn, “Information Literacy and the Engaged Campus.” AAHE BULLETIN, November 2000.
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