The American Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) has recently produced a Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This document, the ACRL emphasises, ‘is called a framework intentionally because it is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards, learning outcomes, or any prescriptive enumeration of skills. At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole’ (ACRL 2015). The Framework draws upon the educational notion of ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer and Land 2003) and has provoked considerable discussion and debate in the North American community of practice in its endeavour to identify such concepts for Information Literacy.
This presentation will outline the Threshold Concepts analytical framework, which is at the heart of this debate and which can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about a topic. It represents a transformative view of learning, without which the learner cannot progress to a fuller understanding, and involves an ontological shift. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or protracted, with the transition to understanding often involving encounters with ‘troublesome knowledge’. Depending on discipline and context, knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert, conceptually difficult, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains ‘defended’, resisting the inevitable shift in subjectivity that threshold concepts initiate. Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of ‘liminality’, a suspended state or ‘stuck place’ in which understanding approximates to a kind of ‘mimicry’ or lack of authenticity.
Further information on this topic with papers catalogued by discipline can be found at: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html. The ACRL IL Framework is available at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.
You may be wondering what a Trade Unionist can contribute to the debate on Information Literacy (IL). But when I was asked to give this lecture and went away to think about it, I realised that there are strong parallels between your work to promote IL and our work in Trade Union Education and Learning.
Both are about identifying and equipping people with the skills to (as the CILIP definition puts it) “to know when and why you need information, where to find it and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner”.
Within the world of trade unionism that is what Trade Unions do – and have been doing for 150 years. My organisation is called unionlearn. It is the learning and skills arm of the TUC. We receive £14M government funding, plus another £3M from the TUC and other sources precisely to promote IL skills in the workplace, even if we don’t describe it as IL. Last year we provided learning opportunities to 230,000 people. Some were informal courses for people with very low level skills; some high level courses including at Degree and Postgrad level. Running through all our work is the theme that we do not aim to convey knowledge; that is not the trade union approach to learning. Rather, we aim to teach the skills which will allow people to find the knowledge themselves. Easy to say, not so easy to do.
In my talk I will aim to expand and explore what Union learning is all about and the synergies between our work and your work on IL. This is not just about teaching. It includes the much broader work that Trade unions do in providing an alternative way of looking at the world: challenging assumptions, asking whether the knowledge on the bargaining table reflects reality, providing people with the confidence to make their own judgements, encouraging questioning and a certain scepticism – those are all key aspects of IL.
I will also try to place this in the context of working life today: the need to handle vast amounts of digital information, rapid change in the management and organisation of work, the changing skills needed by those involved (both “producers” and “consumers” of information) and the way that traditional boundaries are breaking down, at work and beyond. It should be no surprise that good managers really want their employees to have IL skills. The modern workplace needs questioning, critical, confident workers – though not all employers seem to realise this.
And of course the role of unions goes well beyond the workplace. To be an effective democratic citizen needs IL skills as never before. It is no accident that union activists are 9 times more likely to be active in their community – in housing associations, sports clubs, voluntary and church groups. That is partly because they have gained the IL skills to be active citizens through their Union work.
Doing this IL work is not easy. Trade unions have a major role to play in helping the Library and information workforce to receive better support and recognition. Unions are challenging employers and managers to do far more to help those with the least opportunity to develop IL skills. We need to ensure that IL has a far more prominent role on the skills agenda.
Those are the issues I would like to explore and share at the conference.
Librarians have devoted a great deal of time, passion, and creativity to helping students understand their place in the world of information, as can be seen from the archives of this conference. We believe that information literacy matters, not just to complete a course assignment or to earn a degree, but for personal growth and social engagement. Our libraries are places where we hope to nurture in students a sense of belonging, a tickle of curiosity, and a growing sense of confidence that they have a voice to add to the conversations that give rise to meaning and an active role to play in shaping society.
This kind of learning is complex and involves many moving parts: student motivation, social pressures on universities and the communities they serve, faculty assumptions and expectations, and rapid changes in the information environment itself. We’ll unpack the recent debate in the United States over the new Framework for Information Literacy, we’ll explore the results of a small-scale study of what faculty from multiple disciplines felt were threshold moments their students experience as they learn to navigate knowledge, and we’ll discuss how to make a case for the practical and long-lasting value of critical information literacy not just for our students but for the world that they are entering.