Information: Its Pervasive Societal Role and the College Core Curriculum
Many students, generally so adept with computers, find the digital tools and resources of the modern library perplexing. As a librarian I'm sympathetic to student complaints that many databases, for example the powerful though complex Web of Science (Science Citation Expanded, Social Sciences Citation Index, and Arts & Humanities Citation Index), are intimidating. Perhaps a more significant obstacle to research for many students is the overwhelming amount of information so readily accessible. A criticism commonly voiced by students concerns the challenge of choosing appropriately from the products of the information explosion, an explosion that is far from limited, as it largely was a generation ago, to print. More and more information is now multi-media -- video, aural, graphical as well as textual. A further problem, often pointed out, is that so much of the internet's information is misleading, unreliable, invalid.
Librarians do a good job teaching students with whom they come into contact a host of research skills. They also impart similar content remotely through online tutorials. However, a high proportion of students never meet with a librarian nor consult a library's online help. Moreover, only a minority of instructors ever invite librarians into their class and even when they do, it is typically only for a short period. Certainly the hour or so library session that freshmen often receive is valuable. Still, it's doubtful that even an hour class is efficacious in helping students attain what the 1989 final report of the Presidential Committee of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) defined as "information literacy", namely the competence to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." In a later document, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, ACRL listed the aptitudes of an informationally literate person, a critical one being the ability to "understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally." This involves far broader coverage of information and related areas than is commonly taught to most students.
Today being truly educated requires a sound appreciation of information in its social, political, economic and cultural context and the competence to locate and use it appropriately. In short, students should know how information is produced, organized and disseminated; the different formats of information; who produces it; who pays for its production; the role of publishers; who owns information; who has access to information; what is meant by open access; copyright and intellectual property issues; information, privacy and surveillance; the world of data banks; the role of social media; how data is preserved; and numerous other related topics. However, librarians have few opportunities to teach adequately such topics and the complementary information literacy skills recommended by ACRL. Moreover, it is arguably not the role of librarians to teach about information in its wider societal context and the rapidly evolving nature of the information world. Though librarians certainly have a pivotal role to play in inculcating aspects of information literacy, I'm convinced that such content must be incorporated into institutional wide learning. How would this be best accomplished? An excellent strategy for ensuring that all students attain information literacy and the ability to function satisfactorily in the information society is to make such content an integral part of the institution's core curriculum. The trivium and quadrivium which made up the medieval liberal arts over time evolved into the modern liberal arts that figure strongly in many of today's core curricula. A compelling case can be made that today's liberal arts include the understanding of information's central role in society and the ability to identify, retrieve, evaluate and use it appropriately.
Core curricula generally have broad goals that go beyond attaining content knowledge of different subjects/disciplines, for example the achievement of personal growth; ethical reasoning; awareness of social justice issues; understanding of the moral dimensions and choices underlying human actions; appreciation of cultural diversity; understanding of historical traditions; comprehension of global issues, and so on. Many core curricula also have the goal of developing students' critical thinking skills. While such skills are complementary to information literacy skills, they are not the same. A crucial difference is that the teaching of critical thinking seldom involves a strong emphasis on the nature of information, its diverse forms, its production, its dissemination, its accessibility in the rapidly evolving information society. While such content is sometimes taught as an elective course, including information literacy in its broader contexts as a mandatory component of every college core curriculum would ensure that it is learned by all undergraduates.
How precisely information literacy is made a component of a college core will naturally differ from institution to institution. Some will elect to have a full information literacy course (it may, of course, be given a different and perhaps more catchy title) as part of the core. There's certainly enough important content to justify a specific course. On the other hand, information literacy content might be included as an intrinsic component in a number of, and perhaps all, core courses. Who would teach this content either as a full course or as part of a number of core courses? As the type of content I'm envisioning encompasses far more than the traditional library skills taught by librarians, I believe that in most cases the teacher would be a regular faculty member who could indeed be aided by a librarian. Obviously each institution will determine what precise information literacy content is included, how it is taught and by whom, as well as numerous other particulars. However, the primary step is to recognize the critical necessity that students, in addition to learning more narrowly focused library skills, also be instructed in the pervasive role of information in its many forms throughout society. Today's educated individual requires this knowledge. In conclusion, at a time when Boston College is reviewing the goals and content of its core curriculum I respectfully propose, as a strategy for making such education a reality, that consideration be given to including it as part of the College's new core.