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CHIPS Articles: Information Literacy: A New Basic Competency

Information Literacy: A New Basic Competency
By Alex Bennet - October-December 2001
Today's workplace demands a new kind of worker. Data is dispatched in picoseconds and gigabits and this deluge of information must be sorted, evaluated and applied. It is estimated that the average person spends 150 hours per year looking for information. Consider the following:

A Naval Postgraduate School student researching Knowledge Management (KM) finds over 2,000,000 links on the Web. Most of these only mention KM in passing. Because he does not know how to use "proximity operators" to narrow the search, the student has to look through large number of links and settle for what substantive information he has time to find.

A young military family is evicted by a landlord who claims he is within his legal rights. Unless that family knows how to seek information to confirm or disprove the landlord's claim, the family will have to accept the landlord's "expert" opinion.

A DON civilian hears from a co-worker that under the Naval Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) she will no longer have the computer capability she current has. This is in conflict with what she has previously heard, but she's uncertain how to find an authoritative source about NMCI to validate this information.

These stories illustrate a basic fact: there is no lack of information in the world, but the skills needed to search, select, evaluate and use information can vary from total lack of information skills to some level of literacy. How we solve this discrepancy will depend on our ability to embrace a new basic competency … Information Literacy (IL).

IL is a set of information and knowledge age skills that enable individuals to recognize when information is and is not needed, and how to locate, evaluate, integrate, use and effectively communicate information. These skills are critical in dealing with the daily barrage of information, and the broad array of tools to search, organize and analyze results, and communicate and integrate them for decision-making.

IL skills help an individual:

•Determine the nature and extent of the information needed.
•Access needed information effectively and efficiently.
•Evaluate information and its sources critically.
•Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
•Understand the economic, legal, social, and ethical issues surrounding the use of information in a virtual world.

IL skills initiate, sustain and extend lifelong learning, and complement the aggressive work underway throughout the Department to become a knowledge-centric organization and achieve Knowledge Superiority. There is a gap between an individual's understanding and his ability to access what he needs from the external environment. Information Literacy, providing what we could refer to as meta information (or information about information), helps close that gap and provides ways of increasing an individual's ability to access what they need from the external information environment.

Let me use an analogy to point out the importance of Information Literacy. In 1855 pulp papermaking was discovered, providing the opportunity to create paper that was both scalable and economical. But only five percent of the U.S. population could read or write. The impact of the invention could not be fully realized until the level of reading proficiency in the U.S. increased. From 1858 through 1899 systemic schooling raised the level of reading proficiency in the U.S. to 85 percent. Continuing the analogy, the late 20th century ushered in technologies such as the Web, and broadband and wireless communications, providing the opportunity to access information from anywhere in the world using mobile devices. But, what percentage of people has the capability to use information fully? What percentage of people is information literate?

As early as 1989, a Presidential Committee on Information Literacy identified IL as a survival skill in the information age. The study found that instead of drowning in the abundance of information that floods their lives, information literate people know how to find, evaluate, and use information effectively to solve a particular problem or make a decision. Since that early identification of the need for information literacy, academic institutions has been the leaders in understanding IL issues and working to facilitate information literacy in the U.S.

The DON has developed the first virtual IL Toolkit for the U.S. government. The toolkit builds on learning from the Consortium of Naval Libraries and the DON Chief Information Officer and draws on subject matter experts from across the department. The toolkit has five core modules: the Self-Assessment Tool; the tutorial, Finding Information Online; Virtual Communications; and Knowing. Each of these modules was developed to allow a learning process to occur, so that the IL skills needed by an individual could be identified and mastered.

The first step is to self-assess and learn what areas should be targeting for further study. Each of us can assess our strengths and correct weaknesses in IL, build on existing strengths, and correct weaknesses on the road to becoming information literate.

For example, assess your knowledge by answering the following questions:
- Do you recognize when you need information? All the time?
- Can you name at least two search engines?
- Can you find basic facts on the Internet?
- Can you analyze the data you get on the Internet for validity and reliability? Are you always sure where your information comes from?
- Do you know how to identify a computer hoax or urban legend?
- Do you know how to request permission to use information under copyright?
- Do you know basic steps to ensure your online privacy?
- Do you know what browser you are using?
- Do you know what the deep Web is and that it has 500 times more information than the surface Web we usually use?

These are only a few questions addressed in the IL toolkit, but they begin to give you the flavor of what it means to become information literate.

Following the self-assessment is the actual tutorial. There are six subsections: Internet Primer; Selecting Resources; Search Resources; Evaluating Information; Using Information; and Information Ethics. The Internet Primer provides basic information about the Internet and explores the different types of search tools available and methods for searching.

Selecting Resources covers the use, working and a comparison of search engines. Search Techniques for beginning and advanced users are in the next section, and lots of related resources are provided.

Evaluating Information includes critical thinking, computer hoaxes and urban legends, and how to evaluate Web sites. Using Information provides some general user guidelines and netiquette, and information on security, viruses, and how to cite electronic resources.

Information Ethics includes information on copyright, plagiarism, filtering information and privacy. Each section of the tutorial also includes related resources for further reading and information, and Internet URLs.

The third module, Finding Information Online, is focused on finding information on the Web that specifically relates to the potential information needs of DON users. It includes information on search engines; provides information on reference and research; lists and provides links to government-related, military and Naval sites; provides links to sites for locating people; and provides information on electronic mail lists and newsgroups. This section is a good reference source to file away for when it is needed.

The fourth module, Virtual Communications, addresses communications issues and opportunities arising in the virtual world of work. The introduction provides an overview of what those differences are and begins to address the hard questions in virtual communications:

- Why use virtual communications? What is the purpose or task that must be accomplished? What are the desired outcomes?
- Who is the audience? What are their needs? What is the group dynamics that will influence communications? What is the level of experience?
- Where are the participants located? What are the dimensions that will influence communications? What will make it difficult?
- What tools are available? What tools will best facilitate communication? What are the usability issues related to the tools? What technologies are available and which are best for what?
- What is the best way to communicate? On what are the best practices and principles for virtual communications based?

The fifth module, Knowing, is built on findings from a DON Expert Forum held in 1999 and from work on situational awareness by the U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences. Knowing is seeing beyond images, hearing beyond words, and sensing beyond appearances.

Knowing involves using both tacit and explicit knowledge to interpret a situation and act upon it. The concept of knowing focuses on: (1) the cognitive capabilities of observing and perceiving a situation; (2) the cognitive processing that must occur to understand the external world and make maximum use of our internal thinking capabilities; and (3) the mechanism for creating deep knowledge and acting on that knowledge or self as an agent of change.

These three components of knowing can be visualized by cogs, as shown in Figure 1. The first cog represents the cognitive capabilities for observing, collecting and interpreting data and information, and building knowledge relative to the situation. This cog is divided into five areas: Noticing, Scanning, Patterning, Sensing and Integrating. These areas represent means by which we perceive the external world and make sense of it.

The second cog suggests the internal cognitive processes that support cognitive capabilities. These processes greatly improve our power to understand the external world and to make maximum uses of our internal thinking capabilities, transforming our observations into understanding. They are: Visualizing, Intuiting, Valuing and Judging. The third cog represents self and our ability to change ourselves through understanding our mental models, understanding the importance and use of emotion, and the art of influencing others through role modeling, knowledge sharing and storytelling.

The three components of knowing can create deep knowledge, understanding and effective actions. Each of these components is related to the others; hence, it is the integrated capability built over time through learning, awareness and constant self-change that provides continuous growth and benefit.

Three additional modules in the IL toolkit provide support to the core five: frequently asked questions (FAQs), a glossary, and additional resources. The FAQs get down to the nitty-gritty of what people ask about the Internet and IL. It makes for good reading whether you are a novice or a “pro” on the IL journey. The glossary supports information and computer literacy, with terminology from the information management, IT and KM worlds.

The IL toolkit is being shared with our industry and academia partners and across federal government. The General Services Administration is making the toolkit available on the Web site and the Library of Congress Federal Library and Information Center Committee (FLICC) is planning to tailor the toolkit for use throughout government.

Go to the DON CIO Web site for information about computer security:

Alex Bennet is the deputy CIO for enterprise information.

Figure 1. "Knowing" improves your ability to develop real discernment, greater associations, wise insight and btter decision making.
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