Is information literacy an international standard?

UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy Curriculum for Teachers (2011) is a document meant to introduce methods of teaching information literacy in a global context. Unfortunately, a member of my Information Literacy course who was an international student from China suggested that the very idea of information literacy is something of a Western (and even perhaps North American) construct. From speaking with her colleagues in education in China, she got the impression that information literacy as a term, an idea, and as a practice was not familiar. Indeed, I have also heard other international students speak about the library not as a source of guidance and assistance, but merely as storage place for books and a place to study. Librarians are not guides or instructors, but wardens for books (so to speak).

This view was somewhat strengthened by my experience at this library in India, where the ideal of instruction is tempered by the reality of systemic gaps in education and information access. In our user interviews with students, we ask a lot of questions about how homework is done – what they use, what they find easy or difficult. The Hearing Impaired students in particular have a lot of trouble understanding the information they encounter. They often rely on images to discern the content, so what gets their attention are materials that have the most appealing images (online and in print).

This has a direct effect on how the students complete their assignments. The teachers who are translating for our team reported to us that there is a lot of copying and pasting directly from the text – often without understanding what they are copying. The teachers we’ve met tell us that this often results in them having to look over students’ work and indicate what is correct and incorrect.

Library instructors are likely to say that a better approach would be to tell students what they’ve done wrong, and then to find ways to increase research skills as well as reading comprehension. NISH, however, is educating Hearing Impaired students with varying amounts of exposure to academic texts, the Internet, and, of course, different kinds of schooling. Compounding all of this is that Indian Sign Language is not standardized and disseminated the way, for example, American Sign Language is in the United States. People are likely to grow up learning their own local signs before they encounter formal ISL.

Suffice it to say, teaching research skills and information literacy in the usual “library orientation” class usually given to entering freshmen would be inadequate to this subset of students. Specialized attention, small-group instruction, and lots of visual aids might be recommended for the initial set-up, but beyond that I’m not particularly qualified as a educator, researcher, or expert on disabilities to say much about what might work for these students in the long run. Information literacy instruction even in the United States is hard enough, for many reasons that involve the same varying backgrounds and inequity of access to education and resources.

NISH, however, has its own experts. We have tried to support that expertise by providing links on our website to online white papers, seminars, and tool kits that provide practical advice for teaching information literacy, particularly to Hearing Impaired students. The Clerc Center site, hosted by Gallaudet University, is a particularly comprehensive site that provides tools and resources for educating Deaf students of all ages. We also provide links to guides hosted by the American Library Association that introduce the concept of information literacy as well as literacy standards to be met by secondary and post-secondary students.

For students who may be encountering academic library resources for the first time, we provide instructions on the use of databases, searching for articles, and finding materials through the online catalog. We also provide visual to go with the text, including instructional videos in ISL.

A number of teachers at NISH have told us that learning English is key to the success of their students. It’s not, of course, only the language, but the ability to comprehend it in different formats and settings, and ultimately being able to use it for specific purposes.


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