Information Literacy and Public Policy - Guest blog

03 Oct 2016

What is information literacy (IL)? Definitions abound, but one description is the set of abilities needed to navigate effectively and confidently through the information maze, including online information. Concretely, IL can be seen as the skills, competencies, know-how and confidence for handling the information and data that all of us are confronted with daily and throughout our lives: at work, at home, when we learn and study, and when we entertain ourselves.

The handling of information means searching for it, discovering it, accessing it, retrieving it, sifting through it, interpreting it, understanding where it comes from, analysing it, managing it, creating it, communicating it, preserving it - for many of us, these individual tasks are familiar-sounding, and the list could go on.

I would argue that these capabilities are essential for democratic, inclusive, innovative societies. They are the building blocks that help us to develop an awareness and understanding of our surroundings and of the wider world, and to recognise and confront misinformation and propaganda. And yet - as James points out in Good Things Foundation's last IL blog - IL is often perceived as just a ‘nice to have’ set of skills. To my mind, this is short-sighted. The fundamental tenets of IL – searching for, interpreting and using information in a discerning way – are not part of the school curriculum, and not generally taught to under-18s in England, although Scotland and Wales are ahead of the curve. In spite of its wide applicability, neither the term nor the concept is recognised much beyond the library and information sciences world. Public policy in the UK tends to focus on what James referred to as functional digital skills – that is to say, the mechanistic, entry-level skills needed to acquire basic familiarity with getting online and using the internet. Of course, such skills in themselves are critically important, given that such a large proportion of the UK adult population does not possess them; there is still a long way to go before reaching the goal of digital inclusion, so there remains an imperative to sustain initiatives aimed at fostering digital skills – something that Good Things Foundation is more than aware of.

But Government and public agencies tend not to see beyond these functional skills, and don’t give much thought to the importance of the broader know-how associated with IL. The Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy, set out in 2014, talks of digital skills as primarily “being able to use computers and the internet” – a definition that does not capture the spectrum of capabilities associated with IL, particularly reasoning and interpretative competencies; and indeed, the Strategy is framed essentially around the acquisition of basic skills, for individuals and SMEs in particular. The Government’s Digital Strategy - whose scope will presumably be broader than the Digital Inclusion Strategy - is still awaited, and one can only hope that it places stronger emphasis on IL.

Elsewhere, the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills published in 2015 its report ‘Make or Break: the UK’s Digital Future’. Over a year later, it was the turn of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to publish the report ‘Digital Skills Crisis’. But again, both documents emphasise technical rather than cognitive skills, closer to ICT and computing skills than to IL. The Lords report talks of the “skills needed to interact with digital technologies”; its Commons counterpart rings alarm bells about unpreparedness for digital careers. The two groups of parliamentarians are interested in skills to make use of information-enabling tools, but much less in the know-how necessary to better understand the characteristics, provenance and quality of information itself. In the case of the Commons Committee’s inquiry, very little evidence was gleaned from Ofcom’s submission, which James cited and which eloquently makes the case for critical understanding of information – a key aspect of IL. As an aside, the momentous consequences of the EU referendum campaign illustrate what happens when a hugely significant national debate is characterised by poor information literacy – a salutary reminder that, for a healthy democracy, IL really does matter.

There is therefore a big challenge in putting IL on the public policy map, and bringing it to the attention of policy-makers, parliamentarians and Ministers. Influential players such as Good Things Foundation can help in this task. Through my own involvement with the CILIP Information Literacy Group, I am helping to engage in a dialogue with DCMS to help them understand the relationship between IL and their digital inclusion agenda – though it’s still very early days. In another national context, President Obama’s 2009 declaration on information literacy awareness demonstrates what can be achieved through patient, effective advocacy, even at the highest level of government. And closer to home, the European Commission’s ‘Framework for Developing and Understanding Digital Competence’, aimed at influencing public policy and civic action across Europe, clearly incorporates IL as a major component of digital competence.
It’s about time that IL is recognised as an important contributor to the wellbeing of societies. Let’s not lose any opportunities to promote it.

Stéphane Goldstein is Executive Director of InformAll. He previously led on the Research Information Network’s information literacy activities over five years, during which time he laid the basis for InformAll , initially a collaborative venture and now a social enterprise aimed at promoting the relevance, importance and benefits of IL in the library world and beyond. In that capacity, he has undertaken research and analysis, produced reports and tools and facilitated multi-stakeholder working. He is also the Outreach and Advocacy Officer on CILIP’s Information Literacy Group.