December 13, 2004

Information Fluency and Beyond: The Role of Technology in the Liberal Arts (#60)

Curriculum Review Proposal #56 begins – appropriately – with the following quote (emphasis added):
Information and computer literacy, in the conventional sense, are functionally valuable technical skills. But information literacy should in fact be conceived more broadly as a new liberal art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact – as essential to the mental framework of the educated information-age citizen as the trivium of basic liberal arts (grammar, logic and rhetoric) was to the educated person in medieval society.
The proposal goes on to assert, “Information skills are not the same as technological skills, although there is considerable overlap.”

I would make the latter statement even stronger. Information fluency as defined in the previous proposal is without doubt a critical concept to be incorporated into our curriculum. I would argue, however, that it actually represents a subset of an even larger collection of outcomes that Furman should strive for all students to achieve. A rich collection that I will claim embodies the very essence – critical thinking, reflection, problem-solving – of the liberal arts. I don’t have a catchy name for the collective set of outcomes that I will discuss below. (“Technology fluency” doesn’t seem to capture it.) For the purposes of this essay, I will merely say that my intention is to expand upon the definition of the term information fluency. As such, I would like it to be considered as a postscript to proposal #56. Perhaps even a friendly amendment…

A key point to emphasize is that we must be careful not to be dismissive of technological skills (or “fluency”) in this discussion. An uncritical reading of the first quote (particularly the highlighted phrase) could lead the unwary reader to the conclusion that “knowing how to use computers” is perhaps somewhat passé and not worthy of serious academic study in the liberal arts. On the contrary, however, the quote goes on to list the technical infrastructure of information as an important objective.

The fact is that rigorous study of information technology itself not only deepens and enriches the information gathering and analysis benefits described in proposal #56, but carries with it benefits that transcend information skills altogether. There was a time when the written word was considered something of a technology, and was regarded by many with suspicion and condescension as being “just a tool”, used only by the weak-minded to write down ideas that they couldn’t otherwise remember. In modern times we think of writing quite differently, of course. Far more than just a tool, it is a means of expression, of organizing thoughts and ideas. The very same idea can be conveyed well or poorly using the written word, and in the difference between the two lie lessons about critical thinking, reflection, efficiency, hierarchical structure, and even aesthetics. We regard the ability to write well as an educational benchmark, and rightly so. We also would consider it unthinkable not to emphasize writing in our curriculum.

I believe that all of these observations can be accurately made about information technology.

Make no mistake – basic skills that may be categorized as “knowing how to use computers” are critical for educated students in the 21st century. (Just as we would argue that basic grammatical skills are critical.) A sampling of these skills would include:

  • Finding information
    • Very well enumerated in proposal #56
  • Processing and manipulating information
    • Also well enumerated in proposal #56
    • Assessing validity of retrieved information
    • Basic capabilities of productivity tools (including word processing, database management systems, spreadsheets)
    • Manipulating digital media
    • Basics of information storage
  • Creating information
    • Organizing information for display with presentation software
    • Organizing information for publication on the web
    • Converting information from one form to another
    • E.g., graphing data, visualizing data, conversion to HTML, etc.
    • Finding and expressing patterns, trends, meaning in data and avoiding pitfalls and trivial conclusions

But what is even more important for our students to learn is the fundamental methodology that is the foundation for all of these skills and is the true focal point of the study of technology – an unquestionably fundamental liberal arts discipline. This methodology, based in critical thinking and problem-solving, is far more complex and far-reaching in its impact than the mundane mouse-clicks and button-pushing that the phrase “knowing how to use computers” typically equates to. It goes to the heart of how we think about problems of all kinds, even those unrelated to technology. It gives us insight into how we as human beings think about subjects of all kinds.

The following list highlights some of the significant outcomes of the study of technology – that I maintain all of our liberally-educated students should understand:

  • Taming/managing complexity
  • Breaking problems down into component parts
  • Analysis/design before implementation
  • Testing following implementation
  • Hierarchical view of problems
  • Incremental refinement of solutions
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel
  • Effective and efficient teamwork
  • Distribution of tasks
  • Project management skills
  • Interface versus implementation
  • Thinking from the specific to the general

These are all fundamental precepts of the study of technology – yet select anything from the list and you will find an item of knowledge absolutely critical to success in any endeavor in any discipline. For example, consider the task of writing an essay. The best and most effective way to proceed is to begin with a high-level outline, which is successively refined with more and more detail until the actual task of writing the paper has been reduced to translating the outline into prose. In this one example we have design before implementation (the writing itself), hierarchical thinking and incremental refinement. Methodologies that have nothing intrinsically to do with technology, but that are the inevitable outcomes of studying technology.

This is the basis of my claim that information fluency (or information technology or technology fluency or whatever name we choose) is not only not lurking on the fringes of the liberal arts, as often perceived, but is absolutely central.

The social relevance and impact of information technology is another reason why the idea that I am describing transcends the technology itself, goes beyond the previous definition of information fluency, and should be a central part of Furman’s curriculum.

Again, a mere sampling of significant topics that all liberally educated people in 2004 should be conversant about:

  • Pervasiveness of information technology
    • Integration of information technology into all disciplines
  • Significance as an agent for social change
    • Communication
    • Telecommuting
    • e-commerce
    • Voting
    • Grass-roots politics
    • Globalization
    • Impact on identity and reputation
    • Implications of artificial intelligence
    • Environmental implications
  • Ethical and moral issues
    • Privacy
    • Intellectual property rights
    • Computer crime and hacking
    • Professional ethics
    • Censorship

In conclusion, I believe that the principles of information fluency that we must convey to our students includes not only the ability to gather, filter and assimilate information as described in earlier proposals, but also skills involving the creation of new information, an understanding and appreciation of the social impact of information technology and – most significantly – a firm grounding in the methodology of technology, which encompasses a wide spectrum of critical concepts and skills.

I believe that the Furman curriculum should prominently feature an emphasis on these principles – just as it necessarily features an emphasis on both writing skills and the critical thinking that the study of writing includes. Furthermore, it must be emphasized that these principles constitute a legitimate academic discipline in the liberal arts. We simply cannot accomplish the stated objectives through workshops and web tutorials – any more than we can teach students to write with such brief encounters. Such endeavors are excellent supplements to a prolonged, serious study, but are not a suitable replacement. We are not talking just about mundane skill training here – finding things on the web, making pretty pictures with a computer, etc. – but something much broader and deeper.

As the saying goes, give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats forever. Re-stated, it might go like this: Teach a student which buttons to click they can successfully complete a specific short-term project. Teach them the underlying methodology and they can solve any problem they face. It’s the difference between knowing how to use, and simply knowing how.

For the reasons given above, I believe that information technology should be a prominent component of Furman’s new curriculum. My thanks to the CRC for its consideration of these remarks.

Posted by mfairbairn at December 13, 2004 04:46 PM
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