Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 2

Posted on December 15, 2014 at 5:31 pm in

In the first half of “Investigating the Frame,” I addressed the threshold concept theory at the heart of the new Framework for Information Literacy Instruction, currently in its third draft. I closed with the comment that we should shift the focus of our discussions to the details of the six frames, and how they serve us as instructors, rather than continuing the debate over the legitimacy of threshold concept theory.

I also argued that the move from the standards to the frames is not as dramatic a shift as it might appear at first. By tracking our instruction sessions and reference interactions, my colleague Nicole Branch and I have noticed that certain frames align consistently with existing standards. This is not a bad thing — it eases the transition from one guiding document to the next.

Rubric Soul

One concern I had as an outside observer of the new Framework was about methods of assessment (I even asked the committee about that during the open forum at ALA). I’m not alone in this; I’ve seen the same question asked by many others. However, I’m feeling more confident about assessment under this new model thanks to a recent exercise we undertook at my place of work.

My library uses a rubric to evaluate information use in senior capstone papers in order to assess our information literacy instruction. Our rubric is an amalgamation and adaptation of several of the rubrics available through RAILS, and was built in relation to the ACRL Standards. Each area of evaluation relates to one of the ACRL Standards. For example, ACRL Standard One (the information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed) is represented by two criteria: defining the topic, and defining the research question or thesis statement. Each paper is scored on a zero to three scale for each area of evaluation, and we have twelve criteria total.

As we were updating our rubric for the fall semester, we also looked at the six threshold concepts in the new framework. Could each of our areas of evaluation be directly connected to one of the six threshold concepts? Would each threshold concept be represented? As we try to determine if these six frames genuinely represent the discipline of information literacy, retroactively assigning them to our working assessment seemed like a good way to investigate their accuracy and breadth of coverage.

It turned out each of our areas of evaluation did fit into one of the six frames, and five of the six frames were represented.

There was not necessarily a direct one-to-one relationship between the frames and the standards; we had four areas of evaluation connected to ACRL Standard Three, and while we assigned three of them to “Authority is Constructed and Contextual,” one of them was a better fit for “Research as Inquiry.” Our areas of evaluation connected to ACRL Standard Five were similarly divided, in this case between “Scholarship is a Conversation” and “Information Has Value.”

The only frame we could not assign to one of our areas of evaluation was “searching is strategic” (to use the third draft’s verbiage). That wasn’t a surprise. We only evaluate the capstone papers themselves, and we do not witness the student’s information search and retrieval process. We had omitted ACRL Standard Two from this particular assessment tool when we first devised it. Standard Two (the information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently) and the Searching frame are clearly connected.

Do they know Magellan died?

Forgive me for making a pop culture analogy: on a recent episode of the TV show Top Chef, the eight competitors were divided into two teams and each team was tasked with opening a restaurant in 48 hours. One of the two teams couldn’t settle on a unifying theme for their menu, so they decided to go with an “explorer” theme and a globe-trotting menu. In a fit of optimism, they named their pop-up restaurant “Magellan.” Do they know that Magellan died? So did their direction-less restaurant, and their team lost the challenge.

I bring this up because one of the most burning topics between draft two and draft three was the verbiage change from “searching as exploration” to “searching is strategic.” Both Jacob Berg and Donna Witek disliked this change; Jake wanted to shift it back, and Donna suggested “searching is investigative.” I think highly of both Jake and Donna, but in this instance I disagree.

I think “searching is strategic” is the best language for this frame. In fact, I think it’s a significant improvement over the alternatives. Exploration is a romantic ideal, and we all want our students to eagerly cast off from the pier on a voyage to discover new ideas and information. However, it’s far more effective to set sail with a plan. Strategy is a scaleable term; it does not imply expertise. Even the simplest Google search can be far more effective with some simple strategies in place (for example, substitute academic synonyms for your typical keywords, and you’ll get a completely different set of results). That’s a strategy we teach our first-year students (in fact, search strategy is the first lesson in our curriculum map).

Upper division students might employ more nuanced strategies, such as controlled vocabulary searches in research databases. Another example might be the PICOT methodology I teach to the students in our graduate School of Nursing. The right search strategy depends on the information need, and this is important for students to understand. I don’t think “searching as exploration” accomplishes that.

Processing • Binding

The hardest threshold concept to fit to our rubric’s areas of evaluation (aside from the aforementioned “searching is strategic”) was “information creation as a process.” I think this frame has suffered an identity crisis through the revision process. It was originally titled “format as a process,” and defined as follows:

Format is the way tangible knowledge is disseminated. The essential characteristic of format is the underlying process of information creation, production, and dissemination, rather than how the content is delivered or experienced.

In draft three, both the title and definition had changed:

Information Creation as a Process refers to the understanding that the purpose, message, and delivery of information are intentional acts of creation. Recognizing the nature of information creation, experts look to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product to critically evaluate the usefulness of the information.

This frame — especially in its earlier form — seems focused on the user understanding the intent of the information creator in order to understand how to best use that source. With online research, you can’t easily judge a source’s format by how it is processed and bound. This can be as simple as an undergraduate understanding the appropriate research use of an online reference entry, or can relate to more complex questions such as the reliability of social media reporting in the wake of breaking news.

But the change in title implies the committee would like this frame to be about more than just format. It should be about the complete circle of the information creation process, from beginning to end. If that’s the case, the knowledge practices and dispositions need to reflect the creative act as well as analysis of the final product. In that case, it may need to inherit some of the knowledge practices and dispositions currently assigned to other threshold concepts.

Donna Witek, in her excellent line-by-line analysis of the third draft, noticed that some of the frames (most notably “research as inquiry”) were much longer than the others. “Research as inquiry” includes knowledge practices and dispositions such as “organize information in meaningful ways” and “manage information effectively.” Those could be a better fit with the information creation frame. If not, the committee might be better off returning to the original “format as a process.”

Defining Value

The best change from draft two to draft three was the “information has value” frame. Gone is this original definition:

Information has Value acknowledges that the creation of information and products derived from information requires a commitment of time, original thought, and resources that need to be respected by those seeking to use these products, or create their own based on the work of others. In addition, information may be valued more or less highly based on its creator, its audience/consumer, or its message.

It has been replaced by the following:

The Information Has Value frame refers to the understanding that information possesses several dimensions of value, including as a commodity, as a means of education, as a means to influence, and as a means of negotiating and understanding the world. The flow of information through systems of production and dissemination is impacted by legal, sociopolitical, and economic interests.

I see this change as a very positive move on the part of the committee. The former definition explicitly privileged content creators (and by extension, copyright), reducing information seekers (our library users) to “those seeking to use these products,” and not agents with their own rights and privileges (as governed by fair use, the first sale doctrine, etc.). Content creators should, of course, own the rights to their work, and the ethical use of work belonging to others is important. However, this new definition, while still acknowledging information’s role as a commodity, does a better job of encapsulating the bigger picture.

Blazed Pathways

The open period for comments on the third draft closed on Friday, December 12, so now those of us on the outside must eagerly await the next revision.

In the meantime, my next step will be to study the information literacy threshold concepts from the historical perspective: on January 14th, my Kentucky Library Association talk Blazed Pathways and Skillful Glancing: Using the Lens of Library History to Focus on the New Information Literacy Framework will be reborn as a webinar, sponsored by the ALISE Historical Interest Group. Participation will be free for ALISE members and the first 20 non-member registrants. We will be exploring the writings of pioneering, 19th century instructional librarians to see if there is evidence of encounters with the same threshold concepts we are discussing today.

I will share registration details as soon as it opens up in early January. Please join me if you can!


Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 1

Posted on December 11, 2014 at 6:34 pm in

I came out as a supporter of the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education’s central and somewhat controversial tenet — threshold concepts — earlier this fall. I promised “more on this soon,” but as is often the case, the fall academic semester was too busy a time for me to write down and publish my thoughts. But Friday, December 12 is the deadline for public comments on the third draft, which has prompted me to reflect more deeply on the Framework.

Post and Beam Barn

Threshold Concept Theory

I acknowledge that many of my peers, whose opinions I respect, are concerned about the foundation of threshold concept theory. Threshold concepts are “those ideas in any discipline that are passageways or portals to enlarged understanding or ways of thinking and practicing within that discipline” (ACRL, 2014). According to educational theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land, threshold concepts exhibit four characteristics within their disciplines: they are transformative, changing the perspective of the learner; integrative, connecting different aspects of the discipline to each other; irreversible, once learned, never unlearned (much like riding a bike); and troublesome, sometimes difficult to grasp for discipline outsiders or the cause of reflection (Meyer, Land, & Baillie, 2008).

I have seen concerns about university faculty responses to the theory of threshold concepts, and the difficulty librarians may have in explaining it. In response I have a suggestion. When presenting these ideas to faculty, use the threshold concepts that have been identified for their own disciplines as examples and analogies for the information literacy threshold concepts identified by ACRL. These examples will resonate much more strongly with their own experience as teachers and learners. There has been substantial research into threshold concepts for a wide range of academic disciplines, both by Meyer and Land themselves, and by other educational theorists exploring the idea. Merinda Kaye Hensley referred me to a useful bibliography that will guide you to many of them.

For example, when I explained threshold concepts to our chair of Math and Sciences, a biology professor, I used Meyer and Land’s example of a threshold concept for biology: the testable hypothesis. Once a student understands the idea of the testable hypothesis, and how the entire practice of biological sciences are built on this core concept, the discipline itself is clearer and easier to understand. This seemingly simple concept underpins the entire world of science, and if a student grasps the range of implications of the testable hypothesis, it is not something they can simply unlearn. It’s not a miscellaneous fact, easily misplaced by memory; it’s a method of practice. It sticks. It alters how they perceive science and how they learn it.

Connecting the Dots

Part of my growing enthusiasm for the new framework derives from connecting the dots between the identified threshold concepts and the work we already do at my institution. Over the past couple of years my colleague Nicole Branch and I developed a curriculum map for our undergraduate information literacy instruction based on the ACRL Standards. We provide a series of scaffolded one-shot workshops integrated into our university curriculum at different levels in the hopes that students will have the information skills they need at each point in their education.

After each workshop, we track our work using an instructor’s survey. This creates an institutional record of our work. Starting this year, we added the threshold concepts to these surveys; for each workshop we lead, we identify on a scale which threshold concepts were addressed and to what degree. We also rank the addressed ACRL Standards in the same way. We have a similar (but less nuanced) scale for our reference interactions.

We are trying to capture how well our existing instruction and reference services already address the elements in the new framework. So far, we’ve found so much of what we already do is reflected in the threshold concepts. We have also found significant, consistent connectivity between certain Standards and Threshold Concepts. In other words, the new framework is not as abrupt a departure from the previous Standards as it appears on first glance, but rather it’s an evolution.

Shifting the Conversation

However, even if you are a threshold concept skeptic, I suggest the debate about their scientific validity is a distraction from what we should really be focusing on: the content of the frames themselves. How well do they represent the academic discipline of information literacy? If these six frames can successfully inform our practice as educators, whether or not they genuinely represent this wider notion of “threshold concepts” (and whether the theory of threshold concepts itself is valid) is not entirely relevant. We’ve been making do with the existing information literacy standards published in 2000, and I certainly don’t believe that those static, binary descriptors (“the information literate student is…”) are reflective of the students we work with or their learning needs. The Framework is a far more flexible document that comes much closer to capturing the complex and evolving world of information and scholarly communications, whatever you think of threshold concepts as an educational theory.

Again, I believe the questions we should be asking — the ones that will actually affect our practice — are about the content of the specific frames, not the overarching threshold concept theory. So in Part 2 of this post, I will delve into the Framework more deeply, compare some of the changes between the 2nd and 3rd drafts, and share the comments on the third draft I intend to submit.

Correction: The original version of this post inaccurately described Kevin Michael Klipfel’s post on faculty response to threshold concepts. I apologize for the error and recommend reading his perspective on the subject:

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