Open Thinkering


Tag: Information literacy

Lies and misinformation

[L]et us also notice something: the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, New York, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, the Financial Times, and the London Times all have paywalls. Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, InfoWars: free!


Possibly even worse is the fact that so much academic writing is kept behind vastly more costly paywalls. A white supremacist on YouTube will tell you all about race and IQ but if you want to read a careful scholarly refutation, obtaining a legal PDF from the journal publisher would cost you $14.95, a price nobody in their right mind would pay for one article if they can’t get institutional access.

Nathan J. Robinson, The Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free (Current Affairs)

I pay monthly for access to The Guardian on my smartphone. I could access it for free, but the advertising annoys me, and I want to support their journalism.

Now that I’ve deactivated my Twitter account, it’s the main place I get access to political news. I don’t use Facebook or Instagram, and I’m well aware of the radical left-wing stance of most people I follow on Mastodon.

For me, the problem is not lies per se, but misinformation. There’s certainly a subset of the population either gullible enough or brainwashed enough to believe untruths. What’s more pernicious is the misinformation spread via social networks, often around the intent of various political actors. I can do without this.

For the last decade or so, I’ve taken at least a month off every year from blogging and social media. What I tend to find is that I revert to a more centrist position after this period, and that I replace a lot of the time I usually spend on social media reading history and non-fiction instead.

The answer to our epidemic of misinformation is not 20th century-style ‘information literacy’ resources. Instead, what we need to give people is a real grounding in Humanities, a range of subjects that at their core contain a critical stance to information that circulates in society.

While the technologies we use are new, our desire to manipulate and misinform one another to suit particular agendas is as old as the hills. Let’s remind ourselves that every problem isn’t caused by technology, nor can it be solved by more technology.

This post is Day 22 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

Umbrella terms and micro-literacies

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at

Perhaps due to the fragmentation of research outlined earlier, many theorists seek to demarcate new forms of literacy. Once this has been done, they explain it in detail, and then assert its status as an over-arching literacy containing many sub- (or micro-) literacies. There is, they claim ‘one literacy to rule them all’.

Information literacy can been seen as one such ‘umbrella term’:

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed… All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved. (Doyle, 1994, my emphasis)

Other theorists propose various ‘literacies’ as being the true umbrella term, the synthesising concept. Potter (2004:33), for example, states, ‘Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components.’ It is perhaps most transparently and obviously stated in this definition of transliteracy:

Our current thinking (although still not entirely resolved) is that because it offers a wider analysis of reading, writing and interacting across a range of platforms, tools, media and cultures, transliteracy does not replace, but rather contains, “media literacy” and also “digital literacy.” (Thomas, et al. 2007, my emphasis)

In this way theorists not only deal with the third condition outlined in an earlier chapter – that of the status of a particular literacy in relation to other metaphorical concepts – but they can claim the credit of, at least partially solving the ‘literacy problem.’ The umbrella term in the late 1980s until the turn of the century tended to be ‘information literacy,’ now superseded by references to ‘media literacy’:

Reading literacy, visual literacy and computer literacy are not synonyms for media literacy; instead, they are merely components. (Potter, 2004, p.33)

Potter’s use of the word ‘merely’ above (‘visual literacy and computer literacy… are merely components’) betrays here what is only latent in other examples of writers using umbrella terms. That is to say, each comes at the issue from a particular point of view and with a particular bias and background. Each assumes that the particular literacy for their field of interest or specialisation is the ‘umbrella literacy.’ There is also an unfortunate element of theorists inventing terms in the hope that it may gain traction and they become synonymous with it. Perhaps the best example of this is the clumsy concept of ‘Electracy’ we came across in Chapter 2, as defined by Erstad:

‘Electracy’ is a term that combines different forms of literacy related to the use of new technologies; for example ‘media or multimedia literacy’, ‘computer literacy’, ‘information literacy’and ‘visual literacy’. It could be described as literacy for a post-typographic world (Reinking et al., 1998)… Electracy is something young people develop by growing up in a digital culture, and their education is supposed to include their efforts to create knowledge and learning. (Erstad, 2003:11)

Whilst at first glance this sounds insightful and promising it is an empty term, signifying nothing concrete. How are these literacies combined? How do young people ‘develop’ Electracy by ‘growing up a in digital culture? Surely all education is about ‘knowledge and learning’? Whilst Erstad attempts to use Tyner’s (1998) distinction between ‘tool literacies’ and ‘literacies of representations,’ Electracy as a term is not explained adequately enough to belong to either group.

Even though information literacy is an established term, it is so broad and ambiguously applicable that it too can be considered as an umbrella term. Fieldhouse and Nicholas (in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008) use a slightly different strategy in order to promote their tangential concept of being ‘information savvy.’ Instead of the latter being an umbrella term in its own right, they present it as being the other half of the jigsaw puzzle to ‘digital literacy’ in order for individuals to be ‘information literate.’

[I will have a graphic here in my thesis showing digital literacy and being ‘information savvy’ as part of a ‘information literacy’ jigsaw]

Fieldhouse and Nicholas (2008) use a rather jaded yet convenient dichotomy of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ – terms coined by Prensky (2001). The idea is that those who grow up with digital technologies ‘speak the language’ as a native. On the other hand, ‘digital immigrants’ betray their age and lack of experience by ‘speak[ing] a language which reflects their experience of pre-digital life, by describing things as “digital” to differentiate between electronic and traditional versions’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:60). However, whilst the dichotomies the authors use are interesting in helping frame the debate, they neither settle on one definition of digital literacy nor rescue the concept of being ‘information savvy’ from being an interesting colloquialism.

In order to ‘reconcil[e] the claims of myriad concepts of digital literacy, a veritable legion of digital literacies’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008:4) some wishing to employ an umbrella term have instead turned to the notion of ‘competency’ or ‘competencies.’ The Oxford English Dictionary defines being ‘competent’ as:

adjective 1 having the necessary skill or knowledge to do something successfully. 2 satisfactory or adequate, though not outstanding: she spoke quite competent French. 3 having legal authority to deal with a particular matter.

It is the first of these definitions targetted by those who would rather concentrate on ‘competence’ than ‘literacy’. For example, Spitzer (1998) quotes the following 1995 definition of ‘information competence’ from the Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology:

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills. (Spitzer, 1998, p.25)

No explanation, however, is given as to what ‘information competence’ would look like in practice nor is guidance given as to how one would go about achieving it (if it is a ‘state’) or entering into it (if it is a ‘process’). Similarly prone to failure is Savolainen’s (2002, quoted in Virkus, 2003) suggestion of ‘information-related competencies’ as an umbrella term, covering ‘information literacy, media competence and library skills.’ His justification for suggesting such a term is:

[b]ecause new labels describing specific kinds of literacies are continually introduced, reflecting the developments of ICTs, the attempts to develop an exact classification of information-related literacies seem to be futile. (Savolainen, 2002 – quoted in Virkus, 2003).

No explanation is given, however, as to how or why using the term ‘information-related competencies’ is useful in any way, apart from being a shorthand for a number of arbitrary micro literacies deemed important by the author. If an umbrella term is to be employed there must a rationale for doing so.

Instead of attempting to come up with an umbrella (‘macro’) term in which to retro-fit micro literacies, it seems to make more sense for theorists to use ‘new literacies’ as a shorthand – as indeed many already have begun to do (see, for example, Beavis, 1998; Kress, 2003; Lankshear & Knobel, 2006). Separating out the multitude of literacies seems, as Tyner states, somewhat artificial as they overlap to such a great extent. Whilst they can be separated, this should only be done for positive purposes:

The need to set one literacy apart from another can only be explained by a need to use the concepts for other reasons, that is, to strengthen the professional status of its constituencies, or to take issue with the approaches used by proponents. (Tyner, 1998:104)

Our focus instead should perhaps instead be upon a particular literacy as an ‘integrating (but not overarching) concept that focuses upon the digital without limiting itself to computer skills and which comes with little historical baggage’ (Martin, 2006 quoted in Bawden, 2008:26). Here Martin seems to have in mind the concept of ‘digital literacy’ although it is not the name of the term that is the issue. Instead, it is its explanatory power and utility in terms of conceptual understanding and applicability that is key.

Interestingly, Martin (2008:156-7) lists the following as ‘literacies of the digital,’ hinting that his earlier (2006) thinking has evolved towards considering literacies as an overlapping matrix:

  • Computer, IT or ICT Literacy
  • Technological Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • Visual Literacy
  • Communication Literacy
  • Digital Literacy

Although he does not use the term ‘matrix,’ it seems clear that Martin has something like this in mind. If so, then the above list contains are only a few of a potential Pandora’s box of ‘literacies.’ With no-one as the gatekeeper as to what constitutes a ‘literacy of the digital’ a recursive problem occurs: there is nothing to stop a macro literacy, integrative literacy or a matrix of literacies from themselves being seen as part of a bigger picture. New literacies, as Reilly (1996:218) states, seem to be created as soon as a ‘new texts’ are invented or conceived. Martin needs to be explicit as to whether new forms of ‘text’ necessarily mean new forms of literacy.

It is also unclear as to whether Martin sees these as being ‘wholly’ digital literacies or whether they have digital elements. If it is the former, then he would have to explain how, for example, ‘communication literacy’ differs in the digital and analogue domains. If it is the latter, Matin should explain which elements of these literacies do indeed count as ‘digital’.

JISC, the UK body funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is beginning a programme of work in the area of Digital Literacies after preliminary work in 2009 on ‘Learning Literacies in a Digital Age’. This is important because of the influence JISC has on the Higher Education sector (in particular) in the UK. JISC work talks in terms of a matrix of literacies, predicated upon an understanding of ‘learning literacies’:

Our understanding of learning literacies encompasses the range of practice that underpin effective learning in a digital age. The phrase learning literacies expresses the tension between literacy as a generic capacity for thinking, communicating ideas and intellectual work – that universities have traditionally supported – and the digital technologies and networks which are transforming what it means to work, think, communicate and learn. (JISC, 2009a, p.2)

The work of JISC is heavily bound-up with institutional change and wider notions of graduate employability and the take up of e-learning technologies and ecosystems by the Higher Education sector. The definition of ‘digital literacy’ used by JISC is, therefore, perhaps purposely vague: “the range of practices that underpin effective learning in a digital age” or, elsewhere, using the EC’s definition: “the confident and critical use of ICT for work, leisure, learning and communication.” The first of these definitions incorporates academic practices, information literacy, media literacy and ICT skills, amongst others (JISC, 2009b, p.1). The second definition is represented in the following diagram that sits half-way between a matrix of literacies and an ‘umbrella term’:

ICT Skills

(click to enlarge)

Whilst Martin’s matrix considers literacies to be ‘overlapping’ this diagram shows ‘digital competence’ (or ‘ICT skills’) to be foundational for further work in academic practice and media literacy (for example).

A further diagram demonstrates how these ‘spokes’ are themselves foundational to wider contexts. In this way, digital literacies are comprised of the literacy practices predicated upon ICT skills:

Digital Literacies

(click to enlarge)

One of the issues here is that micro-literacies, as defined above, are seen as flowing out of ICT skills, rather than out of the contexts. Although too much should not perhaps be read into diagrams, the one-way relationship from skills to practice belies the complexity and interaction between contexts and the abilities/competencies to interact effectively with others within those contexts.

It is difficult to argue, however, with the pyramid created in the JISC Digital literacies development framework (JISC, 2009d). This places ‘Attributes/identities’ at the top of a pyramid charting stages of development, followed by ‘Practices’, ‘Skills’ and, at the bottom of the pyramid, ‘Functional access’. Access to digital devices is necessary to develop digital literacies, with skills coming from use. Practices, habits and mental models result from increasing use and immersion. Finally, a critical appreciation, resilience and adaptability and reflexive understanding of ‘digital identity’ constitutes the top of the pyramid. That is not to say, of course, that there is an inevitable trajectory from the bottom of the pyramid to the top merely through the use of digital technologies. Not only does the ‘ladder’ have many rungs, but those rungs (to extend the metaphor) change as technologies and accepted social practices move on.

An important piece of work around the (in)ability of students to apply their learning and practices from one area of their life to another is exemplified in JISC’s work on ‘Responding to Learners’ (JISC 2009c) This study demonstrated that students often demonstrated a mental disconnect between the social software they used personally and that which they used – or were allowed to use – in an academic context. In addition, some JISC work on the ‘Google Generation’ (JISC, 2008) demonstrated that, far from this being merely the fault of reactionary institutions, students were not the ‘Digital Natives’ that they were assumed to be by many educators.

Before being abolished in 2010 Becta, a UK government organisation to promote educational technology in schools, commissioned some work on Digital Literacy. Created by by Tabetha Newman, the framework is intended to move ‘from terminology to action’ (Newman, 2009) after a comprehensive literature review. The five-step process model is: Define, Access, Understand & Evaluate, Create, Communicate. This has strong echoes of moving up Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy (Krathwol & Anderson, 2001) and complements JISC’s pyramid model. Defining digital literacies is, in Newman’s model, merely the first step in the important job of operationalising a definition so that work around it makes a different in practice.

The method, up to this point, for those wishing to begin a programme of work around ‘New’ or ‘Digital’ Literacies seems to be to concentrate on one particular definition as an umbrella term. This serves as a focus, with other literacies, skills and competencies retro-fitted into this overarching term. The same is evident with concepts such as ‘21st century skills’. What may be more useful, however, is to consider digital literacies an semi-fluid matrix of overlapping literacies that change due to time and context. Whilst this does not allow for effective soundbites and fails the test of fitting nicely upon one PowerPoint slide it is, nevertheless, an ultimately more accurate and responsive approach.

  • Anderson, L.W., et al. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
  • Bawden, D. (2008) ‘Origins and Concepts of Digital Literacy’ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M.Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • Beavis, C. (1998) ‘Computer games, culture and curriculum’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen, 1998)
  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age
  • Erstad, O. (2003) ‘Electracy as empowerment: Student activities in learning environments using technology’ (Young, 11:11, 2003)
  • Fieldhouse, M. & Nicholas, D. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy as Information Savvy: the road to information literacy’ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • JISC (2008) ‘Google Generation’ is a myth, says new research
  • JISC (2009a) Learning Literacies in a Digital Age
  • JISC (2009b) Digital literacies Pilot materials
  • JISC (2009c) Responding to Learners Pack
  • Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age
  • Krathwohl, D.R. & Anderson, L.W. (2001) A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives
  • Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006) – New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning
  • Martin, A. (2008) ‘Digital Literacy and the “Digital Society”‘ (in Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M., Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices)
  • Newman, T. (2009) Consequences of a digital literacy review: from terminology to action
  • Potter, W.J. (2004) Theory of Media Literacy
  • Reilly, B. (1996) ‘New Technologies, New Literacies, New Patterns’ (in C. Fisher, D.C. Dwyer & K. Yocam (eds.), Education and Technology: reflections on computing in classrooms)
  • Spitzer, K.L., et al. (1998) Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age
  • Thomas, et al. (2007) ‘Transliteracy: Crossing divides’ (First Monday, 12:12. December 2007)
  • Tyner, K.R. (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information
  • Virkus, S. (2003) ‘Information literacy in Europe: a literature review’ (Information Research, Vol. 8 No. 4, July 2003)

‘Information literacy’: its history and problems.

This is part of my Ed.D. literature review, part of my ongoing thesis which can be found at You can view everything I’ve written on this blog for and about my thesis here)

perlin flow particle ribbon 1079

CC BY-NC anthony mattox

Information literacy is a term that was coined in the 1970s but which has undergone a number of transformations to keep it current and relevant. Unlike ‘technological literacy,’ ‘computer literacy,’ and ‘ICT literacy’ is it is not technology-related (and therefore likely to become outdated), nor is it a corrective to an existing ‘literacy’ (as with ‘visual literacy’). Because it is not dependent upon any one technology or set of technologies, ‘information literacy’ has been eagerly taken onboard by librarians (Martin 2008:160) and governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) alike. Indeed more recently it has been defined as a ‘habit of mind’ rather than a set of skills:

[I]nformation literacy is a way of thinking rather than a set of skills… It is a matrix of critical and reflective capacities, as well as disciplined creative thought, that impels the student to range widely through the information environment… When sustained through a supportive learning environment at course, program or institutional level, information literacy can become a dispositional habit… a “habit of mind” that seeks ongoing improvement and self-discipline in inquiry, research and integration of knowledge from varied sources. (Center for Intellectual Property in the Digital Environment, 2005:viii-ix)

Although evident in the literature since the 1970s, the concept of ‘information literacy’ gained real traction in the 1990s with the advent of mass usage of the internet. Suddenly information was a few effortless keystrokes and mouse clicks away rather than residing in great tomes in a physical place. Accessing this information and using it correctly constituted, for proponents of the concept, a new ‘literacy’. This was a time when politicians used the term ‘Information Superhighway’ to loosely describe the opportunities afforded by the internet.

‘Information literacy’ as a term was boosted greatly by a definition and six-stage model for developing the concept agreed upon by the American Libraries Association in 1989. The committee tasked with investigating information literacy proposed that an ‘information literate person’ would ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information’ (quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52). Achieving the state of being ‘information literate’ involves passing through six stages, outlined in Bawden (2008:21-22):

  1. Recognizing a need for information
  2. Identifying what information is needed
  3. Finding the information
  4. Evaluating the information
  5. Organizing the information
  6. Using the information

Boekhorst (quoted in Virkus, 2003) believes that, indeed, all definitions of information literacy presented over the years can be summarized in three concepts. First there is the ICT concept: using ICT to ‘retrieve and disseminate information.’ Second is the information resources concept: the ability to find resources independently ‘without the aid of intermediaries.’ Finally comes the information process concept: ‘recognizing information need, retrieving, evaluating, using and disseminating of information to acquire or extend knowledge.’ As such information literacy has at times been seen as including computer-related literacies, sometimes as part of such literacies, and sometimes as being tangential to them.

From these statements in the late 1980s/early 1990s information literacy developed to include an ethical dimension (‘knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner’ – SCONUL (1999) quoted in Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:52) and an economic dimenstion (‘Information literacy will be essential for all future employees’ – Langlois (1997) quoted in Martin, 2003:7). Information literacy has been seen as a ‘liberal art’ with an element of critical reflection (Shapiro & Hughes (1996) in Spitzer, et al., 1998:24), critical evaluation (Open University Library website, in Virkus, 2003), and as involving problem-solving and decision-making dimensions (Bruce, 1997).

The problem with such a definitions and models is that they continue to view literacy as a state which can be achieved rather than an ongoing process and group of practices. However much ‘information literacy’ may be praised for being an inclusive term (Doyle, 1994), be evident in the policy documents produced by western governments (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:50) and seen as ‘essential’ to the success of learners, it has ‘no agreed definition’ (Muir & Oppenheim in Virkus, 2003). It is, in the words of Stephen Foster ‘a phrase in a quest for meaning’ (Snavely & Cooper, 1997:10). How, he wonders, would we recognize, and seek to remedy, ‘information illiteracy‘?

However many theorists propose it as an ‘overaching literacy of life in the 21st century’ (Bruce, 2002) and bodies such as the US Association of Colleges and Research Libraries come up with ‘performance indicators’ for the concept (Martin, 2008:159), ‘information literacy’ suffers from a lack of descriptive power. It is too ambitious in scope, too wide-ranging in application and not precise enough in detail to be useful in an actionable way. Even a move from talking about being ‘information literate’ to ‘information savvy’ (Fieldhouse & Nicholas, 2008:47) runs into difficulties for the same reasons. Definitions of the concept are too ‘objective’ and independent of the learner – even when described as ‘seven key characteristics’ (Bruce, cited in Bawden, 2008:22-23).

(References can be found at my wiki. Want more? You may have missed my post The history of ‘new literacies’)