New Literacies, New Perspectives

“We think that what is central to new literacies is not the fact that we can now “look up information online” or write essays using a word processor rather than a pen or typewriter, or even that we can mix music with sophisticated software that works on run-of-the-mill computers but, rather, that they mobilize very different kinds of values and priorities and sensibilities than the literacies we are familiar with.”  -except from “The New Literacies Sampler” by Knobel and Lankshear

Has information literacy instruction become a square peg in a round hole?

I ask that question because information literacy is often viewed in the way that Knobel and Lankshear describe as using new technologies to merely reproduce “longstanding literacy practices.” In my experience (15 years and counting), librarians have made great effort to emphasize that information is information…no matter the format. The Internet is just seen as a new way to access that information.

I used to agree with that. Not any more. My perspective has changed, largely because I now view information and related literacies through a sociocultural lens. I believe the tools (e.g. Internet) that people use to find information transform how it is valued and perceived within a particular culture. As a result, information seeking practices in popular culture are entirely different than the information seeking practices of other cultures (e.g. academic). Information is no longer just information…the way we value, use and perceive it is dependent on the tools and practices we use to retrieve it.

Okay, you say, but what does that mean for information literacy instruction? Well, first of all, we can no longer look at information seeking in terms of a set of behaviors, and then try to change those behaviors, thinking we are going to be successful.

Ask yourself, how many of your students have successfully converted to only using library databases for research? How many no longer turn to Google to try to find most of their information? Probably not a whole lot. And the reason for that has less to do with bad habits than with popular culture. Google is a household name, and even a verb. Google has become a social practice for finding information in popular culture. Students are participants in that popular culture, and are practicing information seeking in a way that is normal for that culture.

Colleges are a culture unto themselves, and the information seeking practices and tools of college culture are different from popular culture. We value and interact differently with information in college culture than in popular culture. In other words, students have to learn a whole different set of information seeking practices. It’s like learning a foreign language.

What I believe is happening in information literacy instruction is that these differences in information seeking social practices are not being recognized. It’s the square peg in a round hole analogy. We are throwing students into a new cultural arena of information seeking without helping them to understand that new culture. It’s kind of like going to a foreign a country to learn a new language without first learning about that country’s social and cultural practices, or even learning a few key phrases to get by. Talk about culture shock!

So, instead of trying to put a square peg in a round hole, it’s time to re-think information literacy pedagogy and instructional practice. One way to do this is through situated learning and cognitive apprenticeships. My previous post on help seeking as the key to information literacy touches on this. I liken a cognitive apprenticeship to the idea behind personal librarian programs. Personal librarian programs provide students with an expert mentor (the librarian) to help them learn the practices (academic literacies) that they need to succeed in the cultural environment that is college. Granted, most personal librarian programs have failed to yield high participation levels, but this is due to the fact that they are voluntary programs. Cognitive apprenticeships would be as much of a requirement as ENG 101.

Cognitive apprenticeships don’t necessarily have to be librarian-student mentorships either. Peer mentoring programs can be quite effective. These types of programs would match a qualified older student (a previous apprentice who has had additional training) with an “information literacy apprentice.” At a 4 year university, this might be an upperclassman or grad student. At a community college, this might include honors students. Library school interns could also fill this role – that would certainly be a great way to build a library internship program.

The new literacies are an indicator of a paradigm shift that is heading our way. One that definitely requires a change in perspective.

The new media literacies are also a part of that paradigm shift. Check out the video below:


4 thoughts on “New Literacies, New Perspectives

  1. Reblogged this on Bill Shea Memorial Library and commented:
    This is a really fascinating post found on Amanda Hovious’ Designer Library Blog. Moving from google searching to looking for information in an academic setting: “We are throwing students into a new cultural arena of information seeking without helping them to understand that new culture.” A must read for all.

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