The IL Standards and IL Framework Cannot Co-Exist by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson 3

The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force has completed a final draft of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This draft is working its way through the infrastructure of ACRL.

(I have previously posted about the Framework on this blog: The New Information Literacy Framework and James Madison, Information as a Human Right: A Missing Threshold Concept?, and Using the New IL Framework to Set a Research Agenda. I should note that I am a member of the Task Force but that I do not officially speak officially for the Task Force in this post.)

As this process has moved forward, I have been excited to see the conversations and debates unfold about how we think about Information Literacy, can better infuse information literacy within curriculum development, think about our role in teaching it, and can stake a claim to this arena of scholarship. Since the initial draft of the Framework was released, one of the oft debated questions has been, “What is the future of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education ?” I wanted to address this, because, to me, the answer is clear. The Framework and the Standards cannot co-exist. The existence of Standards undermines the purpose of the Framework. (By the way, the Task Force has recommended the sunsetting of the Standards since the June draft of the Framework.)

The Mythology of the Standards
Anyone who has spent time in the classroom knows the problem with the Standards in terms of assessment and in terms of curriculum development. Either the assessment feels inauthentic producing data that is marginally useful in making changes, or the instruction must be adapted in inauthentic ways to meet the demands of the Standards.

In my career, especially as a new librarian, I have found the Standards quite useful as a place to go to generate ideas. They have been useful when a faculty member and I needed definitions and mental models for learning. When I have worked with faculty at a department level, it has always been a strain to shoehorn the Standards into the needs of the curriculum. They felt too broad for a course but overly defined for programmatic assessment. They never quite fit.

The times I found the Standards most useful were when I used them as a framework. I used them to outline skills, expectations, and outcomes. Most of the time when I used the Standards, the first step was to revise, simplify and focus the Standards. The top level definition of each standard was the most useful. The performance indicators could be useful with some revision. The outcomes never quite worked. In other words, the Standards always made a nice framework.

Authenticity and Curriculum Development
For me, the Framework has the potential to be a more authentic and useful statement on information literacy and learning. The Framework by design recognizes the diversity within American higher education by not trying to write monolithic outcomes for all institutions. Additionally, the Framework has the potential to better connect to real student learning outcomes in the classroom. The Framework presents definitions, knowledge practices and dispositions that can spur conversations at various levels of the curriculum. The Framework can be the overarching definition (a role played by the Standards) that guides the development of undergraduate general education outcomes, programmatic outcomes, course outcomes, unit outcomes, and lesson outcomes. The Framework engages institutions at a national level in discussions and evaluations of information literacy, but it does not pretend that these institutions will share outcomes in a broad standard. Additionally, it doesn’t pretend that a single outcome can be written to meet the diverse needs of our curriculum. The Framework can enable us to get to real student learning because it can be adapted to align with your goals as a teacher.

The Problems with Standards-Based Education
Critics of the Framework say that our country is moving towards standards-based education and that the Framework moves information literacy outside of that trend. This criticism misses the mark in several ways. First, we shouldn’t pretend that there’s consensus around standards-based education. The growing backlash against Common Core is evidence enough this debate is hardly settled. This is especially true when standards-based education equates to curricula built around standardized assessments. Second, if we believe that information literacy matters in the lives of our students and see information literacy as a form of empowerment for our students, the idea that we should write standards because that’s what everyone else is doing feels hollow. We should create the tool that helps us best accomplish our job. And finally, our profession has the opportunity to take the lead in moving away from the mechanistic bureaucracy of standards-based education. I do not know many faculty members who honestly think that more standards and more standardization will improve teaching and learning.

Let’s Get to Work
To me, the whole point of the Framework is that ACRL cannot write outcomes for my campus. They never could. We may have pretended, but it never happened. The Standards and the Framework cannot co-exist. The point of the Framework is that librarians should write outcomes for their own campuses (as they have always done), in partnership with faculty, administrators, and (maybe even) students. To create the Framework and then retain (or even edit) the Standards is like telling a child learning to ride a bike that we are going to remove one training wheel and keep one training wheel on. One training  wheel doesn’t cut it. At some point, the training wheels have to come off. Now is the time.

P.S. This post is not an effort to denigrate the value that the Standards have had to the development of our profession. I greatly admire the leadership of the people who wrote the Standards in the late 1990s. I admired their work as a library school student, and I admire them today. As our thinking evolves in teaching and learning, so should the direction of our professional organization.

Troy SwansonTroy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the upcoming book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at@t_swanson.

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