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A healthy democratic society requires a literate citizenry. But what is an informationally literate citizenry in the information age? The ability to locate, organize, evaluate, and communicate information takes on new urgency in a world driven increasingly by information and the technologies developed to create, distribute, and manage it. Properly understood, information literacy goes beyond access to the technology itself and addresses barriers to full, effective, and knowledgeable participation in an information society.
Traditionally, one of the most fundamental goals of schooling has been to ensure that students are literate - that is, able to read and to write. There was no disagreement among FOCAS ("Forum on Communications and Society") participants that these two abilities, along with the third “R” - Arithmetic - remain the core skills that education must provide to all students. However, the participants agreed that these skills are no longer enough. Beyond the basic ability to read and write, other kinds of “literacies” have been proposed as vital for effective functioning today:
Computer literacy: generally understood as a familiarity with computing concepts and the ability to use common applications such as word processors, databases, and spreadsheets.
Technical literacy: defined as “the ability to apply mathematics and the sciences to the solution of a physical problem or the realization of new products."
Digital literacy. Some observers have begun to argue that the new information environment created by the Internet requires students to master a distinctively new set of skills to function effectively. The Internet represents such a radically different way to present, access, and use information that the ability to make productive use of the resources it offers requires new skills.
If schools are to do a better job of preparing students for a future rich with information and digital technologies, educators, government officials, and community leaders will have to address several fundamental issues that affect the quality of the learning experience. These issues include the teaching of basic skills, the role of technology in learning, teacher preparation and training, the structure and organization of schools, the need for lifelong learning, and the role of families in their children’s education.
After years of effort and billions of dollars spent equipping U.S. schools with computers and connecting them to the Internet, evidence for a payoff from the investment remains scanty. One reason is that there has been relatively little systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of computers and technology in education. The evidence that is available suggests that technology can improve learning but that it is not a “magic bullet.”
Teacher Preparation and Training
A recent report from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future concluded that as many as 75 percent of the country’s teachers are not “fully qualified” for their jobs.
A looming shortage of elementary and secondary school teachers offers an opportunity and a challenge for improving the overall quality of public education. Because of a projected increase of three million students in the overall public school population by 2007 and the retirement of many current teachers, two million new teachers will have to be trained and hired over the next decade. The question is whether this turnover will be seized as an opportunity to upgrade and modernize the skills of the nation’s teachers—or whether school districts will resort to cutting corners and lowering standards to meet their hiring needs. School districts in states such as California have already hired new teachers without the normal teaching credentials in response to an increase in student populations and mandated decreases in maximum classroom size.
Structure and Organization of Schools
Some of the FOCAS participants believed that the educational system requires fundamental restructuring if it is to remain effective. Michael Jordan noted that to remain competitive in a rapidly changing world, businesses have shifted from a traditional top-down, “command and control” structure to a more flexible structure based on autonomous teams. The educational system may need to go through a similar transformation that puts less emphasis on the teacher as the primary source of knowledge for students and more on a model in which teachers and students work together to solve problems and find answers to questions. In this model, the fact that some students may be more adept at using technology than their teachers is less of a threat to the teacher’s authority and more of an opportunity for productive collaboration.
In addition, computer technology has the ability to provide each student with resources and learning experiences that are custom tailored to his or her particular level and learning style. Most schools and classrooms are not currently set up to use educational technologies effectively, however.
Technology can also be used to provide access to opportunities for learning that are completely decoupled from the formal institutions of schools.
No matter how good students’ initial education may be, they will almost certainly continue to need to learn new information and new skills throughout their careers. U.S. corporations already spend more than $55 billion annually on formal training (approximately $420 per worker per year). As the pace of change accelerates, the
ance of ongoing training on and off the job will continue to increase. What the educational system must do is ensure that all students “learn to learn” while they are in school so that they can keep themselves current as new technologies emerge.
Role of Families
Finally, although the quality of the instruction in the schools is extremely important, FOCAS participants recognized that families have a role of equal or greater
ance in determining students’ achievements. As Michael Jordan noted, it is “parents who have the greatest potential impact on children’s ability to learn.” Governor Leavitt agreed, observing that “there does not seem to be a direct connection between money invested in schools and results. What matters most is the extent of family involvement.”
Initiative 1: Promote Greater Awareness of Information Literacy
Initiative 2: Assess and Hold Educators and Political Leaders at All Levels Accountable for Students’ Proficiency in Information Literacy
Initiative 3: Give Teachers the Preparation and Support They Need To Do a Better Job
Initiative 4: Involve Parents More Deeply in Their Children’s Education
Initiative 5: Develop a Dramatically Different Technology-based Educational Alternative
Perhaps the greatest immediate challenge for the diffusion of information literacy skills is to create a level playing field for access to technology. More should be done to ensure that the digital divide between the information haves and have-nots does not widen further. The “E-Rate” program mandated by Congress and implemented by the FCC is currently collecting more than $1 billion annually from telephone companies and allocating the money to schools and libraries to purchase computers and online access. Schools in rural areas and in poorer communities continue to lag behind those in more affluent areas in their ability to provide all students with access to technology, however. Policymakers and business and community leaders must work together to search for ways to improve opportunities and outcomes for learning and enhanced information literacy for all members of society. The FOCAS encourages all stakeholders to join these efforts to identify workable solutions to the challenge of information literacy as we prepare to enter the 21st century.
- "Information Literacy: Advancing Opportunities for Learning in the Digital Age: A Report of The Aspen Institiute Forum on Communications and Society," Richard P. Adler, Rapporteur, The Aspen Institute http://www.aspeninstitute.org, 1999.
File Name: information_literacy_richard_adler1999.pdf
Post Date: March 28, 2005 at 8:55 AM CST; 1455 GMT