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Two Very Different Types of Literacy

In the comments to my recent rant about a proposal to add “technology and information literacy” to the No Child Left Behind requirements (and on his Blue Skunk Blog), Doug Johnson made a few good arguments in favor of the idea. And many that I can’t accept.

However, my biggest disagreement comes with his use of the term “info/tech literacy” (and variations) to label a set of skills students should learn, and NCLB should test. Information literacy and technology literacy are two very different concepts and cannot not be smushed together as if they are the same.

Information literacy is certainly a collection of skills we should be teaching every student from the beginning of their education. To me, the term covers the many processes needed to find, sift through, organize, and make good use of the various types of data thrown at people everyday.

Information literacy, however, has nothing to do with technology. Certainly most data is going to flow through a network to some kind of computing device and everyone needs some basic understanding of the technology working in the background. But the two literacies exist independently – and are not nearly of equivalent importance.

But as integral as information literacy is (or should be) to a good education, it still should not be part of NCLB. The standardized testing requirements at the heart of that law emphasize simplistic and basic rote memorization skills. And supporters of this misguided school “reform” program try to glorify passing those tests as proof a student has been “well educated”.

Fundamental literacy, whether information or any other kind, cannot be adequately measured using a paper and pencil multiple guess test. There are far more accurate methods for assessing student understanding. And, yes, they are messy. Welcome to real life.

information literacy, nclb


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  1. I had the opportunity a few months ago to see a demonstration of the ETS ICT Literacy Assessment (http://www.ets.org, click on Tests, scroll down to ICT Literacy Assessment). It’s a scenario-based test – a completely new paradigm for ETS, which the ETS rep said was challenging but also exciting for its psychometricians to try and wrap their heads around. The ETS site lets you see how the test works (http://www.ets.org/Media/Products/ICT_Literacy/demo/menu.html) – I’d encourage you to check it out. It may not be ideal, but I think it’s a lot further from your typical standardized test than one might expect. An interesting attempt to blend both the technology and information literacy skills needed by future generations – at least it offers some food for thought…

  2. I completely agree with you. It is messy to measure true student achievement and all the ETS standardized tests in the world mean little when taken down to their real value, instead of being held up as *the* way to measure how effective schools are. Those tests measure how well students take tests, not how much they actually know. Alternate assessments are needed as much in the classroom as in “school accountability,” or whatever passes for that. When measuring something like student achievement, I wonder if there actually is an objective way of doing it or if it is a subjective thing. Are we once again trying to take a subjective art and turn it into an objective science?

    Since information and technology literacy are different skills, they cannot be blended into one set of standards. Perhaps we can have an agreed upon set of information literacy standards and a set of technology literacy standards, but the two are not the same skill. Information literacy may require technology literacy at times, and vice versa, but they simply are not the same thing.

    I’ve looked at those fax-copy-printer machines in the past and they all do one of the three things adequately, but the other two functions are unacceptable. Maybe we can have a combined set of standards where the information literacy standards are merely OK, but the technology literacy standards would likely suffer.

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