critical digital literacy, critical thinking, digital literacy, information literacy, terminology

The continuing trouble with terminology…

Guest post by Dr Jane Secker

Jane at the JCS conference

I wrote two chapters in Katharine and Jo’s fabulous book, but it’s the one on terminology that I have kept returning to recently. This chapter started life as a paper I delivered as part of a symposium in December 2015 at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) conference. In fact both Katharine and I were part of this symposium and one of the themes of SRHE conference that year was digital literacy. We were invited by Liz Bennett from University of Hull where I delivered a short paper examining different perspectives on digital literacy. In my paper I focused on how the term digital literacy overlapped with information literacy, which was a field in which librarians had been working for over 40 years.

A few weeks ago I attended the first JCS Online conference, entitled ‘From Digital Literacy to Independent Learning’. JCS Online licence digital resources for the school sector (such as JSTOR and the Gale Cengage newspaper collections). I was honoured to be the opening keynote and started my talk focusing on terminology. I wanted to explain how in my mind information and digital literacy were the same thing. I ended my keynote with a digital literacy challenge to win a copy of Digital Literacy Unpacked, which was awarded to the person who tweeted a selfie at me, with the best statement about why digital and information literacies matter. Well done to Wellington Library for quick thinking and a great quote!

Information and digital literacies matter because we need all people of all ages to be able to critically evaluate the vast quantities of information they encounter.

However, what surprised me was how so few of the delegates, who were largely school librarians, had been to a conference where these issues were discussed in detail. Come to LILAC I urged them, this is what we talk about here all the time! As Chair of the CILIP Information Literacy Group I was surprised that more of them were not members. I’ve been wondering for a while if it might be the terminology that had put them off? The idea that simply switching from talking about information to digital literacy might lead people to engage with an event was fascinating – what is it about the word digital that draws people in? In fact at JCS we spent a lot of time talking about how to foster independent learning skills and critical thinking and far less time talking about technology. But again I reflected on terminology. And I know even within higher education we often operate in silos. As I said in my keynote, collaboration is an easy word to say, but it’s really hard to make it happen and I know since moving into educational development, there are still many misunderstandings in my new profession about what they think librarians or learning technologists might do. Perhaps digital literacy does act as a bridge though, because it’s a new term, not clearly owned by one group?

I find myself using a Venn diagram of overlapping literacies that I created in 2011 increasingly frequently and starting talks with the phrase ‘I call this information literacy but you might call it something else’ and then explaining what it is. But increasingly I feel that I have spent too long arguing over terminology, when it’s the substance of what we are talking about that really matters. However as a former librarian (does one ever recover?) I know terminology matters a huge amount! If we call it information literacy and someone else thinks this is media literacy or digital capabilities it makes doing a comprehensive literature search really difficult. And it can mean that your research goes unnoticed if someone doesn’t know the terms that you use. I have been suspecting for a long time this is what is happening to all the work that librarians do in this arena.

I’ve talked myself around in circles over terminology over the years, alternating between not worrying about what we call it and incessantly worrying that calling it information literacy hasn’t helped us get out of the library bubble. In the era of misinformation and fake news we have to ensure that these abilities are at the heart of our education system, because while I know not one thing can save us, technology alone certainly will not! I gave the delegates at JCS a reading list, which includes two books I’ve read this year that I’d recommend to anyone – Safiya Nobel’s Algorithms of Oppression and Jamie Bartlett’s The People vs Tech. Both books highlighted why we need everyone to be taught how to think critically, to know how to assess and evaluate all forms of information they come into contact with. To understand ethical issues of how to use and attribute information appropriately. Everyone attending JCS Online was in no doubt of the need for these abilities to be embedded across our education system but (again as I said in my keynote) there is going to be one simple solution. It’s going to take a lot of effort, a lot of negotiation and a lot of grappling with terminology to make this happen. Perhaps what some are calling ‘critical digital literacy’ might unite and save us? Who knows, but let’s not allow terminology to be another barrier towards working collaboratively to ensure we are developing learners with all the critical abilities they are going to need to thrive in the future.

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