This semester, I’m teaching I new course I developed for San Jose State’s MLIS program entitled “Embedded Librarians/Embedded Libraries: Embedding the Library into the Fabric of Higher Education.” It’s been a pleasure so far because the students are so ridiculously smart, insightful, and engaged that I can’t help but be excited about the future of our profession. One of my students, who interviewed a disciplinary faculty member and subject librarian for a project, wrote about how students in a certain science discipline had difficulty getting used to research and information literacy since in the first few years their coursework is so “procedural.” That really resonated with me.

I see students all the time asking us to basically make research like procedural coursework and more black-and-white than it is. And sometimes we indulge them. We show them how to click to limit to peer-reviewed journals, doing them no favors, because the world doesn’t have a button you can click to filter out the not-so-good. We sometimes focus too much on finding sources and not enough on what value sources actually provide (or should provide) in research. We provide students with rules for judging sources, when sometimes, the sources that get judged as poor using something like the C.R.A.P. Test are the exact ones they should be using. We (well, maybe instructors more than librarians) focus on scaring the crap out of students about plagiarism and, as a result, students don’t understand why they should provide attribution other than to not get thrown out of school.

I feel like the current Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education were an attempt to simplify and proceduralize something that is so much more complex (and I don’t blame anyone for that — it’s in our nature to try to make things simpler and more concrete). Start at A and get to Z, and you’re good to go, friend! But there’s so much secret sauce of information literacy success that simply isn’t a part of the current Standards. How much of being good at research is about being persistent? Tolerating frustration? Asking for help? Being curious? Looking at things with a critical eye? And then there are the things that are so hard to learn, but once you’ve internalized them, they seem the most obvious things in the world and improve your approach to research immeasurably. The idea that scholarship is a conversation and when you write a research paper, you are engaging in a conversation with those scholars who came before you. That the idea of “good” and “bad” sources is totally contextual, and what is good for answering one research question may not be good for answering another. Or the idea that information can be misrepresented in any format (from the blog post to the peer-reviewed journal article) and we need to be critical consumers of everything we read/see/hear. Or, even more disturbing, that what we know as true is constantly changing as it is held up to scrutiny and experimentation.

But teaching these things? So much more difficult, more time consuming and less satisfying for the student in the short-term. On the other hand, without getting over the hump of a threshold concept, can we say someone is truly information literate? And once they get over the hump, their perspective is irrevocably changed for the better. It’s like when I internalized the notion that assessment was about learning and not accountability. My cynicism around assessment melted away and I was able to design assessment tools that meaningfully informed my teaching. The shift in my thinking and awareness was incredible.

I got very excited reading the partial draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, because it embraced so much of what I and many librarians I know have been thinking about around instruction. They are built for the increasingly complex information environment we live in:

Greater need for sense-making and metacognition in a fragmented, complex information environment requires the ability to understand and navigate this environment holistically, focusing upon intersections. These intersections may be between disciplines, between academic major and employment, between sets of projects, or between academic pursuits and community engagement, to name just a few. All of these intersections are underpinned by the need to engage with information and the communication of information. To do so effectively, students must understand the intricate connections between knowledge, abilities, and critical dispositions that will allow them to thrive.

This makes it so clear that our current standards are woefully inaccurate as a model for informing information literacy instruction and for defining the information literate individual (as if that person could even be defined). Here is the proposed definition for information literacy in the new framework:

Information literacy combines a repertoire of abilities, practices, and dispositions focused on expanding one’s understanding of the information ecosystem, with the proficiencies of finding, using and analyzing information, scholarship, and data to answer questions, develop new ones, and create new knowledge, through ethical participation in communities of learning and scholarship.

While it is a bit less approachable in the way it’s written, I do appreciate the recognition in the proposed new definition that we’re talking about more than just skills. I also really like how it talks about using and analyzing information to answer questions (like “where should I go to college?” or “what cell phone should I buy?” or “who should I vote for?”) and that sometimes this happens through participating in communities (and learning from human sources of information in our social networks). That dovetails nicely with the idea of connectivism, which is a theory I’ve really embraced since I read about it in 2005-2006. The recognition of collaboration, participation, creation, and more than just contributing to research papers is very welcome.

I have the great fortune of working within shouting distance of two people whose work had a huge impact on the new draft. Amy Hofer’s fingerprints (along with Lori Townsend and Kori Brunetti) are all over the standards. Their research on threshold concepts in information literacy has made an indelible mark on the profession and our thinking about teaching information literacy (see “Troublesome concepts and information literacy: investigating threshold concepts for IL instruction” and “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy”). Bob Schroeder has written, with Elyssa Stern Cahoy, on affective learning outcomes in information literacy, getting us all thinking about how information literacy is not just about skills, but about dispositions and feelings (“Valuing Information Literacy: Affective Learning and the ACRL Standards” and “Embedding Affective Learning Outcomes in Library Instruction”). Bob turned me on to the AASL standards, which included a lot of those great dispositions that now are part of the draft framework. Both Amy and Bob have had such an impact on my thinking about instruction and it’s nice to see that their ideas are also impacting thinking about information literacy nationally!

I think Threshold Concepts will force conversations with disciplinary faculty because no threshold concept can be taught in a one-shot. It requires re-emphasis, practice, and reflection. This has to happen in a partnership, much more so than when the focus is on teaching something that feels like our sole domain. (As an aside, I think the boundedness of threshold concepts as they were originally conceived of doesn’t really work in information literacy as it is inherently interdisciplinary.) Of course the problem is that those faculty who are still asking us to “teach JSTOR” or “teach APA” or “teach Boolean operators” will probably not be open to a switch to focusing on “research as inquiry” and “format as process.” However, there are plenty of faculty — those with whom have strong relationships, who trust us and see us as partners — who will be willing to go down the rabbit hole of threshold concepts with us. However, I do question this statement:

A vital benefit in using threshold concepts as one of the underpinnings for the new Framework is the potential for collaboration among disciplinary faculty, librarians, teaching and learning center staff, and others. Creating a community of conversations about this enlarged understanding should create conditions for more collaboration, more innovative course designs, more action research focused on information literacy, and a more inclusive consideration of learning within and beyond the classroom.

Do I think the new framework will have an impact on disciplinary faculty? No. Just as the current Standards didn’t at most institutions. The librarians who read and believed in the Standards did that, but it wasn’t the Standards. I don’t think the new framework will create more collaboration unless librarians work towards greater collaboration and disciplinary faculty are game for it. I feel like we’re as likely to have good collaboration with disciplinary faculty with the new framework and standards as with the old, unless they inspire us (librarians) to pursue deeper partnerships. The framework simply frames and guides the conversation on our side of things.

But I do really love that this framework emphasizes the fact that information literacy instruction is not (and cannot be) the sole domain of librarians. I have always resisted the notion that we are the only people who can and do teach this, and I think in embracing this idea and focusing more of our energies in supporting disciplinary faculty teaching these skills, dispositions, etc. is vital in the current environment.

When I think about assessing these things, yikes! It’s easy to see whether or not a student correctly provided attribution or used quality sources. How do you measure metacognition? How do you know when a student has made it over the hill of a threshold concept? Even looking at authentic student work — their research papers and other products of research — may not tell you this. A student can do a beautiful job on a paper by mimicking good papers s/he has seen before without ever actually internalizing any of the larger lessons. I do like that this draft framework provides ideas for self-assessment and assignments, but I feel like those are actually activities for teaching /learning the threshold concepts. If a student can successfully “conduct an investigation of a particular topic from its treatment in the popular media, and then trace its origin in conversations among scholars and researchers” does that really mean that they understand that scholarship is a conversation? They might, and they might not. But it’s a great tool to try and teach that particular threshold concept.

A small gripe I have with the Framework: I have never been a big fan of transliteracy or metaliteracy because I believe that all of the things covered under those tents fits into information literacy already. I’ve never understood why information literacy itself doesn’t include “new roles and responsibilities brought about by emerging technologies and collaborative communities” or how information literacy doesn’t empower “learners to participate in interactive information environments, equipped with the ability to continuously reflect, change, and contribute as critical thinkers.” In fact, I think the latter statement is exactly the goal of information literacy; to empower people to create, make decisions, etc. If information literacy isn’t about helping people to see themselves as producers of knowledge, then I don’t know why we do what we do. A lot of the stuff listed under metaliteracy learning objectives in the draft, such as “demonstrate the ability to think critically in context” and “compare the unique attributes of different information formats… and have the ability to use effectively and to cite information for the development of original content” seem like they were already part of information literacy in the first place. I agree with Donna Witek that “metaliteracy should [not] be elevated by name to the extent that it is in the new draft ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” Threshold concepts — totally new and different way of looking at infolit. Dispositions — totally new to ACRL at least. Metaliteracy — kinda what we’ve already been doing.

I think the framework on the whole is a major change, and while a welcome change, it may be a lot for people to swallow. Plenty of librarians have never even heard of threshold concepts. But I love that we, as a profession, are learning and growing and improving our own teaching skills and approaches and ways of thinking. Looking at the line from the sort of “BI model” to what we see here — from a focus on tools to skills to dispositions and sense-making — it’s a beautiful thing. And, like Troy Swanson, I hope it’s never seen as completed, but is constantly improved (annually? don’t hate me people on the committee!) based on feedback and new research. Our information environment is changing rapidly. Our understanding of our user’s needs is changing. Our thinking about learning is changing. Maybe incremental changes would make more sense than such jarring alterations every 14 years.

Image credit: 北京颐和园的高梁桥。 Gaoliang Bridge of The Summer Palace. by Hennessy