Information literacy is dehumanising if it is not dialogic. In the same way that a fluency in a language is gauged through dialogue, information literacy has meaning when it is participatory, connected, responsive and dynamic. Fluency with information is demonstrated through participation in civic dialogue where individuals connect and knowledge is shared, refined and remoulded into new meaning for each participant. This is not merely an expansion of the term information literacy by definition but it is an expansion through action.
Knowledge that is gained through research for a school assignment that is expressed solely for the teacher’s approval is an extremely limited demonstration of information literacy. Even if there is dialogue between the teacher and student, the lack of connection beyond this relationship restrains the true potential for learning for the student and the teacher where both are learners.
Information literacy that is dialogic is by it’s very nature, revolutionary. It changes the individual and those he or she is in dialogue with. The information that is shared is then potentially transformative and is thus alive and influential. In 1970, Paulo Freire named education that is not dialogic to be a system of oppression that entrenches societal power imbalances. Such an imbalance of power trains submissive and compliant citizens who will neither question nor challenge established understandings. Freire writes about a dialogical practice that is expansive and essential to learning and knowing. Without dialogue we end up with what he calls the banking model of education (chapter 2) where the primary purpose of education is for the teacher to deliver content to students and all pedagogical practice is bent toward engaging students with this purpose. In this model, the ideal student is one who can accept, integrate and regurgitate this content with compliant competence. Freire strongly challenges the banking model of education by aligning this approach with oppression. A dialogical model is revolutionary in contrast because it invites the learner to participate actively, not as a compliant participant but as a learner who has a collaborative control of both the learning process and the subject of the learning. This is action not for action’s sake but action that engages the students within a community of learners where anarchy and disruption is not the focus but where individual and shared understanding is achieved for meaning through dialogue. A dialogical approach is respectful, generative, creative, inclusive and diverse – in other words, humanising. Freire states that only through beginning with understanding the perceptions and perspectives of our students can we be in a position to move on with education. This tuning in to our students (Kath Murdoch, 2015) can only be achieved through open and non-judgmental dialogue that invites the learner into an open space where their humanity is recognised and valued. Our concept of information literacy must, if for no other reason (of which there are many), be based on an understanding of the dialogical nature of engaging with information for learning.
To bring this big idea of dialogic information literacy into a practical context, we can observe in contrast, the Big 6 framework that reduces a dynamic process down to a linear routine. The Big 6 documentation does highlight that the process is not linear however numbering the stages 1 – 6 does lead students to view these as steps to pass through in sequential order. The pursuit of new knowledge through research does move us through a gradual process of enlightenment on a particular subject however, to consider each step in the Big 6 process as mutually exclusive denies the complex nature of research. The Information Search Process (ISP) by Carol Kuhlthau recognises this process of research as an evolving and often messy progression that leads to new understandings however the dialogic element is still missing. Freire asserts that action cannot be separated from reflection, similarly we cannot separate and isolate different aspects of information literacy and the research process into entirely mutually exclusive elements. Freire emphasises that action without simultaneous reflection on practice is action on autopilot, a mechanistic action of a machine. Human action is always accompanied by a consideration of the impact and effectiveness of that action. In the same way, information literacy that does not involve dialogue is prone to mere regurgitation of facts with little purpose or real learning. I remember a lecturer once quipping that a cynical definition of a lecture was the passing of information from the lecturer’s notes to the student’s notebook without passing through the mind of either. Similarly, engaging with information through a research process that does not involve dialogue often simply becomes a process of replication. This is a disempowering, dehumanising process that disengages the student from the essence of the process.
An example of such a static process in the classroom is setting students an assignment where they research a planet in the solar system to produce a poster that is displayed to the teacher for marking and possibly presented to the class in a summative event. There could be some dialogue in this process but it is not a focus. Instead the teacher emphasises that this is an individual research project because individual summative work makes it easier to grade individual performance (notice that I did not say learning because performance does not equate with learning). In this way, the teacher can assess whether enough sources were consulted, if the information was accurately regurgitated and if there was enough work demonstrated. While there are dialogic elements involved in this process, the emphasis is on individual pursuits for ease of assessment against mechanistic and dehumanising criteria. While this process may enable the student to demonstrate the key elements of the Big 6 process it does not provide sufficient opportunity for dialogue.
Using information to learn
Harlan, Bruce and Lupton approach information literacy by defining it as the experience of using information for learning. They consider the experiences of teenagers use of information as they learn how to participate and create content within the context of social media. Of note is the reality that most of this learning occurs independent of the students’ school experience. Through tuning into the activities of our students online we can discover their information literacy experience in context. This is information literacy that is not merely a set of skills or steps in a research process but as a wide range of different ways that these students engage with information to learn. At the core of this understanding is the students’ ability to connect, interact and participate in a community where the act of learning is natural, entirely student driven and engaging. It is in these contexts that student action develops deep and personal meaning. This context also brings a deep authenticity to their experience of information literacy as they learn how to interact, they discover the expectations of the community and learn the tools they can use to create. Rather than a recipe of research, information literacy in learning is complex, iterative and messy. Serendipity arising from encountering ideas and inspiration is often a critical component of this process. Direct focused and purposeful searching similar to ISP or the Big 6 is therefore not the entirety of the research process but a component of a diverse array of experiences and practices. The Big 6 model fits well with a school assignment conception of information literacy however in the school setting there is little room for the information literacy required for participation in online forums. In the online context contributors require information about how to interact, about expectations and learning about the tools for creation (Harlan et al. 2008). It is in this authentic context that connection and participation enable dialogue and an extensive use of information literacy skill for learning. Information literacy taught through reductive concepts of research such as the Big 6 approach can offer new insight however a concept of information literacy defined by such frameworks is phenomenally restricted, limiting and at worst dehumanising if dialogue is not central.
A dialogic information literacy brings the researcher into contact with other thinkers who challenge the initiating question, who provide a reflective ear to newly discovered facts and pushes the researcher to critically analyse their new findings. Dialogue enables the researcher to express a new understanding helping them to more clearly define their current understanding thus enabling them to reflect on a more clearly defined idea. Dialogue also positions the researcher in a context where their thinking can become visible so others can learn, analyse and build on those ideas leading to a collective shared knowledge. This transforms a static linear process into a complex system of interactions leading to collective and individual learning.
To bring the solar system assignment mentioned above into a dialogical context opens up the opportunity for deeper learning. This would require that the mechanistic elements of the assessment criteria are humanised by giving the student credit for sharing their ideas in a forum, which could be within the classroom or online for feedback or for gaining more data. The emphasis on this criteria is not the accuracy of the information but the depth of the interactions. A complex to and fro in dialogue can demonstrate the level of engagement and refinement of knowledge we are looking for in learning. The dialogue can also reveal and document the process of the student gaining new understandings and, most crucially, constructing new meanings. Regurgitating currently accepted facts about a planet readily gained through a quick online search and a Wikipedia page demonstrates none of this thinking or development in understanding. In contrast, we can all remember moments when a student or we ourselves made a new discovery that astounded us bringing a new understanding about our universe and our place in it. This new understanding brings a new perspective and new meaning for us that is a fundamentally individual experience but one that can be shared corporately. This new sense of meaning based on their research is the gem that is an authentic indication of engagement and learning. A key means for opening up this level of learning is through opening up dialogue both within and beyond the classroom. In discussion students can find aspects of studying the solar system that have individual meaning for them. Listing the order of the planets correctly is of far less significance (in part because it is a fact that is easily searchable) than an understanding of why we would bother to know about our solar system in the first place. Consider the historical significance of understanding that the world is not flat and that the earth orbits the sun. What impact did this have on society at the time when these new understandings were being formed? The significance was profound and the implications for the very fabric of society at that time were immense. The revolution incited by these new understandings did not result from a final summative presentation on a poster but through a tumultuous dialogue. It is important to consider here too is that at this time, all the new facts about our solar system were not complete or entirely accurate (probably scoring quite poorly on the assessment rubric) but the revolution occurred in the dialogue and subsequent action.
To conclude, dialogue is a broad term that encompasses many forms of connection and interaction between individuals and groups. Verbal discussion is only one of many forms of synchronous dialogue but dialogue does not need to occur in the same temporal space. Dialogue can be between an ancient philosopher and our students. The difference between this asynchronous dialogue and a simplistic regurgitation of facts is the connection the student makes with the historic figures demonstrated through student empathy for the intent and motivations of the communicator. A truly human connection with a source can be demonstrated by a student who understands something of the motivations of a planetary scientist thus providing a deeper connection for the student with the meaning behind accepted facts and data. This is dialogic. So too is a Twitter post that is reTweeted or replied to. So too is an edit to a Wikipedia page on the topic of interest. The key element of dialogue is the opportunity for feedback or feed forward. By feed forward I mean taking the idea of an ancient planetary scientist and presenting it in dialogue where the student can engage in discussion and receive feedback.
The hallmark of a dialogic learning environment is the emphasis on the connections within the complex system that is the classroom and beyond the classroom. With an emphasis on these connections a truly dialogic information literacy context is created enabling student led inquiry, action and reflection (simultaneously). This is an humanising information literacy that opens, enables, empowers, engages and most crucially leads to learning, new understandings and the formation of meaning for individuals and groups. A dialogic approach builds a truly powerful and dynamic information literacy.
Harlan, M. A., Bruce, C., & Lupton, M. (2012). Teen content creators: Experiences of using information to learn. Library Trends, 60(3), 569-587. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1009906531?accountid=168337
Also availabile here http://eprints.qut.edu.au/57125/1/Mary_Harlan_Thesis.pdf
Bruce, C. (2008). Informed Learning. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.
More about the Big 6 (™ !!??) can be found here.