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Reimagining Information Literacy Competencies
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Posted On July 29, 2014
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ACRL completed the final document of a new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which its task force will submit to ACRL’s board of directors at its October meeting. Much has changed since ACRL formally adopted the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education in 2000, including the nature of higher education and the responsibility of academic institutions; approaches to learning, pedagogy, and scholarly communication; advances in IT and its ubiquitous use, as well as the globalized information environment; and recognition of the student as a knowledge creator (in addition to a user) and the diversity of formats in which these students create new knowledge (e.g., print and multimedia).

As applied by institutions, the standards from 2000 often remained a stand-alone process taught by librarians, with students left to their own devices as to how to apply what they’d learned to the subjects they were studying. The “checklist approach” to information literacy teaching has been replaced by a new framework designed to integrate information literacy training into the fabric of educating students to be critical thinkers, which is embedded in the learning process of every field. The framework views information literacy as a shared responsibility requiring collaboration with faculty across disciplines in order to integrate information literacy teaching throughout the curriculum. Embedding cognitive, affective, and behavioral learning domains within information literacy teaching is essential.

The new framework seeks to address the interconnected nature of a student’s abilities, moving away from the hierarchical and formulaic approach of the current standards. It views information literacy as “a repertoire of understandings, practices, and dispositions focused on flexible engagement with the information ecosystem, underpinned by critical self-reflection.” Rather than presenting information literacy as a linear process, the new framework views it as an iterative process, with students employing multiple sources in several formats/media and requiring a degree of flexibility to explore, pursue access, and overcome obstacles placed in their paths. No longer a prescriptive standard, the framework is a set of “interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation.” Its emphasis on collaboration with faculty across disciplines and teaching toward multiple learning domains results in information literacy becoming more integrated into the fabric of academic communities.

The most important changes between the 2000 and 2014 documents are the shift from standards to a framework, the exploration of threshold concepts within instruction, and the development of relevant learning outcomes. As one task force member expressed it, the “whys” of information literacy give meaning to the “whats.”

To create the framework, the task force relied on an unpublished Delphi Study on threshold concepts and information literacy by Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, and Amy R. Hofer: Threshold concepts are “the core ideas and processes in any discipline that define the discipline, but … often go unspoken or unrecognized by [a] practitioner. They are the central concepts that we want our students to understand and put into practice.” (Major reservations concerning threshold concepts—i.e., that they are transformative, integrative, irreversible, bounded, and troublesome—are expertly articulated by Lane Wilkinson in the blog Sense and Reference.)

The Task Force

While widely adopted by the library community, as well as by accrediting agencies and academics, the focus of the 2000 information literacy competency standardson determining the extent of information needed and then finding, evaluating, using, and citing that information—has been deemed insufficient to deal with today’s approach to knowledge and learning, scholarly communications, and technology. For students to understand today’s complex and fragmented information ecosystem and be prepared for future evolution, a more holistic approach to information fluency is necessary. This is precisely what ACRL undertook in 2011 as it considered whether the existing standards should be reviewed and revised (or, if no longer useful, rescinded).

The ACRL task force made a determination that revision was warranted, given advances in technology, emerging models, new literacies, and changes in education itself. At the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2012 annual conference, the board approved the project and established a task force charged with the update. The composition of the task force reached beyond librarians to include nonlibrarians from university departments, organizations of higher learning, and an accrediting body (the Middle States Commission on Higher Education). In 2013, the group recognized that it would benefit from the input of liberal arts and community colleges, adding two more to the list of task force members.

The task force was charged with updating the information literacy competency standards for higher education “so that they reflect the current thinking on such things as the creation and dissemination of knowledge, the changing global higher education and learning environment, the shift from information literacy to information fluency, and the expanding definition of information literacy to include multiple literacies, e.g., transliteracy, media literacy, digital literacy, etc.”

The goals of the task force and its resulting document included the following:

  1. Simplify the standards so that they are comprehensible to everyone.
  2. Remove library jargon from the standards.
  3. Include affective, emotional learning outcomes along with the exclusive cognitive focus of the current standards.
  4. Acknowledge complementary literacies.
  5. Move beyond an implicit focus on format.
  6. Address the role of the student as a content creator.
  7. Provide continuity with the American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, with its focus on grades K–12.

A Transparent Process and Responsive Task Force

The work of the task force began in earnest in March 2013. In all, it’s been an incredibly open process, with sessions at the 2013 and 2014 ALA annual conferences and open online forums held throughout fall 2013 and spring 2014.

Members of the task force have spent a great deal of time working on the framework since the initial draft was released. The revised draft reflects feedback received during the spring and will be distributed for another round of comments before the task force finalizes the draft and submits it for approval to the board in October. (Recordings of online meetings, presentation slides from the facilitators on the task force, and transcripts of the Q&A for these sessions can be found on the ACRL website.)


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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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